One of the most important silent film releases of 2023 is Flicker Alley and Blackhawk Films’ double Blu-ray set Laurel & Hardy: Year One, which collects freshly, dazzlingly restored films of 1927. That’s the year when producer Hal Roach began issuing silent two-reelers featuring both Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The duo are recognizable in their traits, such as Stan’s tendency to bust out crying and Ollie’s habit of glancing at the audience, but they weren’t yet the bickering team of buddies using their real names as their characters. Instead, they play miscellaneous characters, often at odds and sometimes barely sharing the screen.
Most of these films weren’t sold as Laurel & Hardy items, but as general Roach comedies starring other people, so we’re witnessing the evolution of a great team film by film. Fortunately, even nascent Laurel & Hardy films have funny and inventive qualities, and they get better as they go along.
Actually, the first film in which Laurel and Hardy both appear isn’t a Roach production. Cowboy star and producer G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson filmed The Lucky Dog in 1921 to showcase Laurel in a halfway dapper, halfway Chaplin-esque role. By a happy accident, Hardy plays a heavy who tries to kill our hero with a gun and dynamite! Playing the butler is Laurel’s younger brother, Ted Jefferson, who resembles Stanley. The Lucky Dog is in the roughest shape of all films in the set and the least charming comedically, yet it has its moments.
Fast forward to 1926. Roach asks Fred Guiol to direct the first of his nine films in which Laurel and Hardy appear, all of which came out in 1927. 45 Minutes from Hollywood still isn’t a Laurel & Hardy comedy but rather a vehicle for Glenn Tryon as a country bumpkin who gets mixed up with a cross-dressing bank robber and ends up switching outfits with him. Hardy, the hapless hotel detective, is introduced sitting in a bathtub. Appearing in one scene as a man in bed, Laurel is made up to resemble comic actor James Finlayson, who stars in many of these titles.
Comedy historian Randy Skretvedt offers commentary on every film, and although he knows virtually every minor player, he laments his inability to identify the drag performer. Oddly, the actor resembles Laurel’s drag roles, but this restored print is so crystalline that we can see he’s not Laurel. These films remain full of mysteries.
The set-up of Duck Soup derives from a stage sketch written by Laurel’s father, Arthur Jefferson. Laurel & Hardy play bums who exploit the chance to move into a mansion. When a couple shows up to lease it, Hardy pretends to be the owner while Laurel dresses as the maid. In the sauciest scene, the lady prepares for a bath. She keeps calling for the maid while a panicked Stan peeks through the keyhole and exclaims, “My Gawd – she’s raw!” The assonance is brilliant. He hides by sticking his head in the tub.
Bathtubs must have been a Roach trope because the set has more bathtub gags than you can shake a scrub brush at. Ollie’s in a tub, Stanley’s in a tub, Finlayson’s in a tub, a “midget” gets dunked in a tub, and, most daringly, popular Jewish comedian Max Davidson gets a surprising tub gag in Call of the Cuckoo, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Laurel and Hardy’s characters collaborate in Duck Soup, but they’re at odds in the next several films. Slipping Wives is a vehicle for faded star Priscilla Dean. Hardy plays her butler while Laurel plays a sap masquerading as a writer, and somehow, the duo end up in bed together for the first of many occasions on screen.
Love ’em and Weep, a vehicle for Finlayson and vamping Mae Busch, ends with an absolutely hilarious sight gag in which Laurel walks his unconscious “wife” Busch out of the house with Finlayson’s help. The supporting cast is beautiful, though Hardy barely appears. Laurel, Hardy, Finlayson, and Busch remade it as Chickens Come Home in 1931.
Why Girls Love Sailors finds Laurel in drag again, looking vaguely like Orphan Annie and flirting with Hardy’s tough seaman. With Love and Hisses closes Disc One with an army tale in which Private Laurel is the bane of Sergeant Hardy and Captain Finlayson. It ends with skinny dippers having many absurd misfortunes. This time it’s Hardy who declares, “We’re raw!” Lots of raw humor, which is related to all the bathtubs.
The films on Disc Two show the partnership solidifying to increasingly funny effect as new director Clyde Bruckman and production supervisor Leo McCarey come into the mix. First, let’s discuss Guiol’s last three offerings.
Do Detectives Think? is the breakthrough in which, despite being cast as Ferdinand Finkleberry and Sherlock Pinkham, Laurel and Hardy are fully recognizable as the nitwitted team the world would love. They’ve got it down as they try to avoid getting murdered by a butler with a scimitar.
The highlight of Sugar Daddies is when the unresolved mayhem relocates to a real-life amusement park, and we witness many surreal attractions.
The Second 100 Years marks the first film where Laurel and Hardy were advertised as a team and the raison d’etre of the picture. Apparently, this suggestion came from McCarey, who took over as Roach’s supervisor. The boys play convicts, and one highlight is when Stan spends minutes chasing a cherry with a fork. That’s an early example of their specialty of absurdly protracting a situation where nothing’s happening.
Roach himself directed Sailors, Beware! without credit. Stan plays a cabbie who finds himself aboard a luxury liner with a lovely card sharp (Anita Garvin, who frequently appears in these films) and her “baby”, actually a so-called “midget” (Gustav Schaffrath).
The amazing moment when Stan shoves the baby carriage down the stairs seems to spoof a famous scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which had just premiered in the US a few months before the short’s production. Skretvedt explains that this moment, like many other shots scattered throughout the set, appears to have been taken with a small handheld camera.
Roach and Frank Butler directed Flying Elephants, a Stone Age conceit roughly anticipating the Flintstones. The boys aren’t truly a team in it, and they only have cameos in Bruckman’s Call of the Cuckoo, in which Max Davidson moves into a wacky house.
Skretvedt’s commentary says that when Roach switched his distribution to MGM, their honchos Louis B. Mayer and Nicholas Schenk asked him to drop the popular Davidson series because, as highly successful Jewish immigrants, they felt embarrassed by Davidson’s Old World, bearded, fresh-off-the-boat persona. This feeling seems less an example of political correctness than personal distaste, and they didn’t seem to have a problem with gags like Stan accidentally painting a black man’s face white in The First 100 Years. Fortunately, Laurel and Hardy almost completely avoided racial and ethnic humor, and that’s their only such gag in the set.
The year 1927 closed on two masterpieces, instantly recognized as such and heavily promoted, in which the boys are a fully developed team. These are the McCarey-Bruckman items Putting Pants on Philip and The Battle of the Century, which showcase the strategy of infinitely stretching a gag and escalating it into chaos.
Putting Pants on Philip mines gold in, of all things, molestation and unwanted attention. Stan plays a visiting Scotsman who wears boxers under a kilt; we don’t know if that’s authentic. He attracts dozens of bystanders who swarm to gawp. At the same time, whenever he catches a glimpse of pretty Dorothy Coburn (another frequent player), he skips in the air and begins pursuing her, attracting even more of a crowd. One routine foreshadows Marilyn Monroe’s iconic skirt-blowing scene and shocks onlookers when Philip’s drawers drop.
The highlight is the astonishing setpiece when his American uncle (Hardy) drags him to a tailor. Philip will be forced into normative Western-gendered costuming for his own good. Now skittish as a virgin and infused with masculine panic, Stan creates a ruckus every time the tailor wants to measure his inseam, and the resulting three-way donnybrook is hysterical. In the aftermath, Philip’s expression demonstrates McCarey’s gift for mixing sadness and other emotional tones within humorous situations.
The Battle of the Century, a long-lost film, is included in Kit Parker Films’ 2020 set, Laurel and Hardy: The Definitive Restorations, which concentrates on early talkies. Also essential is a Flicker Alley set from 2021, Laurel or Hardy, containing films of either comic without the other. Laurel & Hardy: Year One is the equally essential link between the two sets, and we have reason to pray that further silent sets follow. We’ve entered a golden age of appreciating these master comedians and exhuming films effectively hidden for decades.
With the exception of W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy were the only silent clowns who benefited from the addition of sound in the talkies. We don’t hear their distinctive rhythms and tones in their silents, yet it often feels like we do. Even their mediocre silents have moments of sheer pleasure, and the best examples are still brilliantly funny.
Since the original negatives don’t exist, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris has meticulously reconstructed the films by compiling multiple stray prints, sometimes adding the necessary tints. Despite moments from rough sources, most of these films boast a dazzling clarity that hasn’t been known in nearly a century.
Alas, one important title remains lost. Made just before Putting Pants on Philip, Hal Yates’ Hats Off! appears to be the first film where the boys play “themselves”. As salesmen who lug a washing machine up endless steps, it foreshadows their famous The Music Box (1932). A bonus segment does what it can with stills to describe the antics, and the result only makes us hunger for Hats Off! to be rediscovered in somebody’s attic.