We take a look at the finest messes from iconic duo, Laurel and Hardy
The surprise isn't that they've made a biopic of Laurel & Hardy—the surprise is that they've taken so long about it. After all, Stan and Ollie are the most beloved double act that ever there's been (sorry Mr. Morecambe and Mr. Wise but it's TRUE) and still a huge influence on comedy today—Ricky Gervais and The IT Crowd to name but two.
They began as a marriage of convenience—producer Hal Roach thought that skinny British comic Stanley Jefferson (who'd come to America on the same tour as Charlie Chaplin) would make a good match for porky Oliver Hardy. And how right he was.
The new film (imaginatively entitled Stan & Ollie) concerns the twilight of their partnership, their final tour after near enough 30 years together. To get you in the proper mood, here we present a short guide to at least a few of their greatest hits—or, if you prefer, some of their very finest fine messes...
Putting Pants on Philip (1927)
Stan Laurel had worked with Oliver Hardy on previous films but this is the first time they were billed as “Laurel & Hardy,” even if it's not quite the finished product: they still haven't found their iconic costumes and their “Stan” and “Ollie” personas aren't fully formed.
Laurel here is Philip, a young Scotsman; he's visiting his American Uncle (Hardy), who takes a dim view of the kilt. It's a silent film, of course—the ideal format for their brand of physical comedy—and you can probably imagine the potential for mishaps, especially when the be-kilted Philip anticipates Marilyn Monroe and steps over a ventilation grill...
The Music Box (1932)
While comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were keen to extend the length of their films, L & H never forgot the value of keeping things brief.
"They didn't start to think they had anything important to say: they just wanted to make people laugh"
A case in point is what might be their most famous film, The Music Box. That's the one where they make heavy weather of lugging a piano up some stairs. It's a half-hour long and utterly perfect: films which interrogate the human condition are all very well but sometimes, all you want are two idiots making a hash of things.
Sons of the Desert (1933)
The “two idiots making a hash of things” template served Laurel & Hardy very well over the years, even when they made the inevitable leap to features. Unlike Stan Laurel's former colleague Charlie Chaplin, they didn't start to think they had anything important to say: they just wanted to make people laugh (which, to be honest, is actually much, MUCH more important than saying “important” things).
“The Sons of the Desert' is a not-quite secret society to which our heroes belong, whose annual convention clashes with a family holiday. Again, it's brief—only 64 minutes—and again, it's brilliant. The Laurel and Hardy fan club takes its name from the film and they're not the only ones who've helped themselves...
Babes in Toyland (1934)
Something of a departure for the boys; an out-and-out fantasy adapted from an operetta, one written by Victor Herbert in 1903 which mashed together all sorts of nursery rhymes. Here “Stannie Dum” and “Ollie Dee” must do their darnedest to help Old Mother Peep (and her daughter Little Bo) and defeat the wicket Barnaby—Booooooo! Hisssssss!
"Hardy turned up to the studio and headed off to the golf course when he'd done his bit"
Quite apart from L & H, it's a glorious slice of Hollywood fantasy, with costumes and masks straight out of the dressing up box and even a bit of stop motion animation too!
Just make sure you watch the original black and white (or sepia) versions. Some prints have been—ugh—colorized. Booooooo! Hisssssss!
Way Out West (1937)
Although they shared billing, the division of labour in the partnership was unequal—Stan Laurel wrote (and patiently refined) gags, worked on pre-production and sweated over the editing, tearing his hair out in search of laughs. Oliver Hardy turned up to the studio and headed off to the golf course when he'd done his bit.
But their double-act survived (prospered, even) because Stan knew his gags would never fly nearly so high if he'd given them to anyone else. Plus, no matter how they might have appeared on screen, they were genuine friends, giving them the sort of chemistry you just can't fake.
There are those who'll say that Way Out West is their best feature. That, as so often, is a matter of personal taste but it does include one of their defining moments, pretty much the perfect example of how well they worked together...
With the world barely a year away from another war, Laurel and Hardy turned their attentions to the previous conflict: Stan is a soldier who's spent the last 20 years on the Western Front because no-one bothered to tell him that the war was over. Ollie is the old army buddy who puts him up.
This isn't a serious meditation on war—again, a comparison to Charlie Chaplin might be instructive here: he was soon to make The Great Dictator, a film which its creator intended as “a prayer for peace.” Laurel and Hardy had no such lofty ambitions. They soon forgot the military stuff and got on instead with the serious business of mucking about.
The Flying Deuces (1939)
...in which our intrepid duo join the Foreign Legion. That on its own should be ample reason to watch the film—can you imagine the childlike Stan and the great windbag Ollie in the company of those desperate men?—but there's so much more besides, as comprehensive a mockery of things like Beau Geste as you could possible ask for.
And it was certainly a film that Hardy was pleased to make—he met his future wife Virginia Jones on the set when she was doing the continuity. Ironic for a film which begins with him suffering a broken heart.
A Chump At Oxford (1940)
Very far from being the final film that L & H would make together—they'd soldier on through the war and make one more feature (Atoll K) in 1951. But this is often thought of as their last classic.
The title—adapted from a then-popular film called A Yank at Oxford—pretty much tells you what to expect, with a peculiar chain of events leading the boys to study amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford.
It's great, of course, but after this they would only make one more film for their patron Hal Roach. Laurel had been wanting to leave Roach since Babes in Toyland—he didn't like the way Roach fiddled with the work—and eventually Ollie agreed. It turned out that they needed Roach more than they thought they did. Their popularity waned, leading to the events depicted in Stan & Ollie.
But hey! Let's not wallow in gloom. Let's remember them in their prime, and all the joy they so brought.