Laurel and Hardy remain one of the standard bearers of timeless comedy. Arts editor Andrew Clarke looks at what makes them so great.
The release of Stan and Ollie, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, provides a perfect opportunity to celebrate the lives and career of Laurel and Hardy, two of the funniest and most inventive comedians that Hollywood has ever produced.
For most of their career they worked for independent producer Hal Roach who first put the two together in the 1921 comedy Lucky Dog but they weren’t a team. This didn’t happen until 1927 when Roach officially teamed them together in a silent short called Putting Pants on Philip.
As the bio-pic Stan and Ollie makes clear, Stan was the ideas man. He wrote the scripts, worked out most of the routines (with some help from Babe – Hardy’s nickname – in rehearsal) and by and large directed their 107 films.
Although their films had named directors, it was clear that on set Stan was in charge. He was the one who knew what was going on. Born in Ulverston, Lancashire, Stan came to America with Fred Karno’s Circus as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy. Like Chaplin he stayed.
Also, like his comedic contemporary, he yearned for creative control and continually fought Hal Roach for creative and financial independence. He won his creative freedom as many of their best feature films like Way Out West and Sons of the Desert were Stan Laurel Productions but Roach kept a tight grip on the purse strings. Laurel and Hardy were his cash cow and he wasn’t ready to share the profits.
From 1927 to 1951 they made 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length feature films.
Laurel and Hardy really blossomed with the coming of sound. Unlike people like Buster Keaton who faded with the arrival of The Talkies, Stan and Ollie really came into their own because they embraced sound.
They quickly realised that sound could be funny – that dialogue, previously transmitted by title cards, could actually raise a laugh, they were the first people to develop catchphrases: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,’ and ‘Why don’t you do something to help me?’ and sound effects could be exaggerated for comic effect.
One of the greatest gags which was reused frequently but never got tired was to have the usually dim Stan come up with a lucid plan or scheme while an incredulous Oliver Hardy looks on. He says: ‘Tell me that again,’ Laurel then repeats the idea in a garbled fashion but Hardy understands every word.
The coming of sound allowed Laurel and Hardy to develop sympathetic characters that bonded with their audience. Hardy was the first person to acknowledge the audience and break the fourth wall with his mute appeals for sympathy as Laurel unwittingly showered some disaster or indignity down upon him.
Laurel and Hardy were great comedians not only because they were consistently funny but because they were inventive, imaginative and made it all look easy. Their films may look like period pieces today but they remain brilliantly funny and to all intents and purposes exist out of time.