|Posted on September 29, 2010 at 1:29 AM|
I suppose I was pretty young when my mother first sat me down in front of a television and had me watch some old Laurel and Hardy films. It’s all hazy and kind of a blur, so it was in that period of growth when you remember certain sensations; the touch of the green shag carpet in our little duplex, the fuzzy, static sound of the small color, rabbit-ear wired TV with the knob turned to god-only-knows what UHF station and I was probably eating a bowl of cereal or a cheese sandwich with my action figures crammed into the cushions of the couch.
I remember, ever so slightly, a scene of one Mr. Stan Laurel and one Mr. Oliver Hardy, though I certainly had no idea who they were at the time, running around trying to fix some sort of house or apartment building. Usually one hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing and hilarity ensued, more often at the cost of Oliver getting hit on the head with something. It was goofy, slap-stick fun that was well enough to replace the cartoons that weren't on at the time.
I liked that as a kid. Physical comedy was what was stimulating to me and why I actually enjoyed watching those old flicks when growing up. As an adult, though, my appreciation has escalated well beyond that for Laurel and Hardy, now having seen a good portion, though certainly far from all, of their seminal works. The comedic duo, one of the very first in film history dating to the silent era, of Laurel and Hardy is probably my favorite comedic duo of all time and their shorts and features personal favorites that I still find myself watching from time to time (and I do get quite giddy when TCM has a marathon of them on occasion). Their material has aged gracefully, but I feel often not given nearly enough credit by today's audiences.
Tell Me That Again...
Unlike a lot of silent-era actors, their material amazingly improved as a result of the use of sound rather than diminish because of it. The physical comedy is still there, but as they say, the secret to great come...
Yes...that's it. And Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy knew each other so well they could and would hit every single pause, beat, gag and punchline with perfection. Unlike their on-screen counterparts who rarely knew what the other was doing, as comedians they always knew and their relationship was that much stronger on screen and their comedic material and abilities that much perfect as a result.
I don’t know if the relationship between Laurel and Hardy would have ended up as great as it did if it didn’t have their dialogue and their perfectly timed beats of speech. If you’ve seen their early silent era material, it's all pretty standard fare and really isn’t much different than every single other comedic actor of that era. When they started to speak, though, Oliver Hardy especially, it reached a whole new level. Their exchange of bits and phrases and looks, their fourth-wall-breaking glances to the audience, the whiny sound of Stan upset or when Oliver (ever so poignantly) explaining in detail what needs to be done and the two promptly failing at doing it with some pretty damn impressive stunts, pratfalls and the occasional destruction of property on the way.
They were idiots, but they weren't dumb as their conversations showed. They were kind-hearted innocent guys who think stuff out and then become idiots. They were dependent on each other, they had big dreams and big plans, yet their downfall to achieving it all, ironically, was that that they were so dependent on each other. Like I said, this is the roots of the “odd couple” comedy where both characters are better with each other, but also don’t get anywhere with each other either. It was usually structured with an “escalation” in mind. For example, this short (note the classic Laurel and Hardy theme song that plays in front of all their pictures):
That pretty much sets up all I’ve mentioned in the first few minutes. You have their style of dialogue, their characters are established through basic expressions and look, they’re out there with this cool idea...but they want to go bigger and they have a seemingly remedial task that needs to be achieved...then they see where the house is and thus the escalation begins (literally, and I might add that location still exists). That’s pretty much every single Laurel and Hardy short and film. It starts small, but grows and grows and, usually, has the two ending up exactly where they started.
And it never gets old...We admire them, love their characters and their mutual relationship on and off screen. It never gets old, even when the gags, plots and stories repeat, because we like the two so much and love seeing them together.
It was never really series of scenes to get laughs when it came to the shorts like that rather famous one, The Music Box, I put above. It was usually one singular thing milked for the duration of the runtime. All that short has in terms of story is the duo delivering a piano, but the escalating factor allows it to go on for twenty minutes or so as things just get worse and worse for the two. Classics like The Midnight Patrol, The Fixer Uppers and Them Thar Hills are all basic ideas just constantly growing until it boils over.
Another favorite of mine from their shorts, and that’s saying a lot considering there’s 106 to choose from and so many of their Hal Roach material brilliant, is 1932’s Scram! Why? Because drunks are funny and absolutely timeless. That’s why I love the Thin Man movies so much I suppose as well. Here we have our two heroes just coming across a drunk guy...and that’s natural comedy at its finest.
Again, how does it start? The two, once more, down on their luck, get involved in something that just grows and grows until they have this brilliant idea that if they help this old rich drunk, they might get rich in the process. What could go wrong? Seriously, if you aren’t laughing as they attempt to get through the window (twice), you just aren’t a very funny person.
I especially love this one because the dialogue from Stan and Oliver is just spot-on perfect in the opening courthouse scene and shows how they brilliantly transitioned to “talkies” where others failed to.
Another Fine Mess
When it comes to their features, the two really had to change a few things up. There’s one, overarching story and problem that will eventually have to be resolved, but getting from Point A to Point B we see a a series of those escalating scenarios and tit-for-tat scenes along the way. They don’t feel disjointed, however, because the scenes flowed seamlessly into each other and never took the Marx Brothers route of having a musical number or a Three Stooges bit of being nonsensical for nonsensical’s sake. They knew their style and approach and stuck to their guns, especially Stan Laurel who grew to dislike producer Hal Roach a great deal (which was a big thing considering Laurel was the main developer of their comedy, gags and scenes). Still though, strong films like Bonnie Scotland, The Flying Deuces (an RKO film, not a Roach one) and Sons of the Desert emerged.
By the early 40s, it all started to dwindle. They managed a few more features that were enjoyable, but they weren’t as free to create what they want and the films weren’t quite as sharp and fresh as their 1930s material. Still, though, it’s the relationship that continued to make them successful. People loved that chemistry on screen...
...I actually love the chemistry off screen too. Yes, we can see how their relationship allowed their seemingly odd on-screen one work because they knew each other so well, but Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were very, very close friends for decades until their deaths. Even here late in their lives, this surprise “This is your Life” for the two, you can see how great of friends they were, through tough times and bad, failed marriages and deteriorating health. There’s no story of the two ever being angry or vindictive towards each other or have any type of falling out.
It all kind boils down to one tale of unabashed friendship for me where in 1957 Oliver Hardy passed from a sudden stroke. Stan Laurel, so broken up over the passing, couldn’t bring himself to even attend the funeral. “Babe would understand,” is all he had to say about it. And you know what? He’s right. That bond was probably so tightly-knit and personal that the only person who could understand is the one that was no longer there. For the remaining years of his life, Laurel refused to act because that other half of him is no longer a part of his life.
Many troupes, groups and duos have come and gone over the years. All with different styles and takes and all I probably enjoy as wel;, yet here it's more the off-screen persons I have such admiration for. Laurel was the brains, and Hardy did whatever Laurel wanted because he trusted him so deeply. I can't think of many comedy duos, or even actors for that matter as a whole, witch such fondness, trust and respect for each other. A bygone era of acting and the world of Hollywood as a whole, that's for certain, and one we'll probably never see again - mainly because we haven't really seen it since.