Hand color tinted photo of Laurel & Hardy
Laurel and Hardy were a popular comedy team composed of thin, English-born Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and heavy, American-born Oliver Hardy (1892–1957). They became famous during the early half of the 20th century for their work in motion pictures and also appeared on stage throughout America and Europe.
The two comedians first worked together on The Lucky Dog. After a period appearing separately in several short films for the Hal Roach studio during the 1920s, they began appearing in movie shorts together in 1926. Laurel and Hardy officially became a team the following year, and soon became Hal Roach’s most famous and lucrative stars. Among their most popular and successful films were the features Sons of the Desert (1933), Way Out West (1937), and Block-Heads (1938) and the shorts Big Business (1929), Liberty (1929), and their Academy Award-winning short, The Music Box (1932).
The pair left the Roach studio in 1940, then appeared in eight “B” comedies for 20th Century Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1941 to 1944. From 1945 to 1950 they did not appear on film and concentrated on their stage show. They made their last film, Atoll K, in France in 1950 and 1951 before retiring from the screen. In total they appeared together in 106 films. They starred in 40 short sound films, 32 short silent films and 23 full length feature films, and in the remaining 11 films made guest or cameo appearances.
Before the pairing
Stan Laurel (June 16, 1890 – February 23, 1965) was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire (now Ulverston, Cumbria), England. His father, Arthur J. “A.J.” Jefferson, was a showman who served as actor, director, playwright, and theatrical entrepreneur in many northern English cities.
Laurel began his career in Glasgow Britannia Theatre of Varieties and Panopticon music hall at the age of 16, where he crafted a comedy act largely derivative of famous music hall comedians of the day, including George Robey and Dan Leno. He gradually worked his way up the ladder of supporting roles until he became the featured comedian, as well as an understudy to Charlie Chaplin in Fred Karno’s comedy company. He emigrated to America in 1912 where he decided to change his name; he worried that “Stanley Jefferson” was too long to fit onto posters. He shortened it to “Stan” and added “Laurel” at the suggestion of his vaudeville partner, Mae Dahlberg.
Making his first film appearance in Nuts in May (1917), Laurel continued to make more than 50 other silent films for various producers. At first he experienced only modest success as a solo comedian. Producer Hal Roach later attributed this to the difficulty in photographing Laurel’s pale blue eyes on early pre-panchromatic film stock, perhaps giving the appearance of blindness (which, in his earliest films, Laurel tried to remedy by adding heavy defining makeup around his eyes). Moreover, Laurel did not have an identifiable or easily marketable screen character, like that of Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton.
It was only when Laurel began appearing in satires of popular screen dramas that audiences really took notice of him. Between 1922 and 1925 he starred in a number of films including Mud and Sand (1922) (a burlesque of Blood and Sand featuring Stan as “Rhubarb Vaselino”) and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925) (with Stan playing both the gentle doctor and the manic monster). Many of these comedies had crazy visual gags along with Laurel’s eccentric pantomime, establishing the star as an inspired “nut comic.”
Oliver Hardy (January 18 1892 – August 7, 1957) was born Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia, in the United States. Upon turning 18, he changed his first name to that of his father who had died years earlier, henceforth calling himself “Oliver Norvell Hardy.” His offscreen nickname was “Babe.”
Hardy’s nickname “Babe” is thought to have originated during his pre-Laurel early silent film career. Hardy was a frequent visitor to an Italian barbershop near to the Lubin Studios where he worked and, after cutting his hair and giving him a shave, the barber would then pat his face with talcum powder whilst saying “Nice-a baby, nice-a baby!!”. “Baby” became “Babe” and that nickname stuck with Hardy for the rest of his life.
By his late teens Hardy was a popular stage singer, and he operated his own moviehouse (the Palace Theater in Milledgeville, Georgia). He thought he could do better than some of the movie comedians he was presenting, so in 1913 he became a movie actor. Babe Hardy was quite versatile, playing heroes, villains, and even female characters. He starred or co-starred in more than 250 silent short films, about 150 of which have been lost.
He was much in demand as a supporting actor, comic villain, or second banana. For 10 years he memorably assisted star comics Billy West (a Charlie Chaplin imitator), Jimmy Aubrey, Larry Semon, and Charley Chase. Hardy was a member of Hal Roach’s stock company when he began working regularly with Stan Laurel.
“Stan” and “Ollie”: Hal Roach years
The first film encounter of the two comedians (as separate performers) took place in The Lucky Dog, produced in 1919 by Sun-Lite Pictures and released in 1921. Several years later, both comedians appeared in the Hal Roach production 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926). Their first “official” film together was Putting Pants on Philip, although their first pairing as the now familiar “Stan and Ollie” characters was The Second Hundred Years (June 1927), directed by Fred Guiol and supervised by Leo McCarey, who suggested that the performers be teamed permanently.
Hal Roach kept them a team for the next decade, making silent shorts, talking shorts, and feature films. While most silent-film actors saw their careers decline with the advent of sound, Laurel and Hardy made a successful transition in 1929 with the short Unaccustomed As We Are. Laurel’s English accent and Hardy’s Southern American accent and singing brought new dimensions to their characters. The team also proved skillful in their melding of visual and verbal humor, adding dialogue that served to enhance rather than replace their popular sight gags.
Laurel and Hardy’s shorts, produced by Hal Roach and initially released through Pathé and then in 1929 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were among the most successful in the business. Most of the shorts ran two reels (10 minutes per reel), although several ran three reels long, and one, Beau Hunks, was four reels long. In 1929, they appeared for the first time in a feature as one of the acts in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and the following year they appeared as the comic relief in a lavish all-Technicolor musical feature entitled: The Rogue Song. This film marked their first appearance in color. Considered a “lost film”, only a few fragments of this production have survived, along with the complete soundtrack. In 1931, Laurel and Hardy’s first starring feature was released, Pardon Us. Following its success, the duo made fewer shorts in order to concentrate on feature films, which included Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), Fra Diavolo (or The Devil’s Brother, 1933), Sons of the Desert (1933), and Babes in Toyland (1934). Their classic short The Music Box, released in 1932, won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, (Comedy).
Because the popularity of the double feature diminished the demand for short subjects, Hal Roach cancelled all of his shorts series, save for Our Gang. The final short in the Laurel and Hardy series was 1935’s Thicker than Water. The duo’s subsequent feature films included Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Bohemian Girl (1936), Our Relations (1936), Way Out West (1937) (which includes the famous song “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”), Swiss Miss (1938), and Block-Heads (1938).
Style of comedy and notable routines
The humor of Laurel and Hardy was generally visual with slapstick used for emphasis. They often had physical arguments with each other, which were quite complex and involved cartoon violence. Their characters preclude them from making any real progress in even the simplest endeavors. For example, in Night Owls (1930) the boys want to enter a house without disturbing the occupants. Hardy pushes Laurel through an open window, but they get into an argument and Laurel closes the window on Hardy. Hardy signals for him to open the front door. Laurel opens the door but steps out to greet Hardy, and lets the door close behind him. There are several variations of Hardy and Laurel entering and leaving various doors and windows, until Laurel finally rings the doorbell, alerting the butler who falls down the stairs, scaring Hardy out the door. Once again the team is back where it started.
Much of their comedy involves milking a joke, where a simple idea provides a basis from which to build several gags. Many of their films have extended sequences constructed around a single problem the pair is facing, without following a defined narrative.
In some cases, their comedy bordered on the surreal, a style Stan Laurel called “white magic”. For example, in Way Out West (1937), Laurel clenches his fist and pours tobacco into it, as if it were a pipe. Then, he flicks his thumb upward as if he held a lighter. His thumb ignites, and he matter-of-factly lights his “pipe.” The amazed Hardy, seeing this, would unsuccessfully attempt to duplicate it throughout the rest of the film. Much later in the film, Hardy finally succeeds – only to be terrified when his thumb catches fire.
A common routine the team often performed was a “tit-for-tat” fight with an adversary. Typically, Laurel and Hardy accidentally damaged someone else’s property. The injured party would retaliate by ruining something belonging to Laurel or Hardy, who would calmly survey the damage and find something else to vandalize. The conflict would escalate until both sides were simultaneously destroying property in front of each other. An early example of the routine occurs in their classic short, Big Business (1929), which was added to the Library of Congress as a national treasure in 1992, and one of their short films, which revolves entirely around such an altercation, was titled Tit for Tat (1935).
Many gags involved the Ford Model T car which was their favored form of transport. Several such automobiles were wrecked in the films; for example, in the short Busy Bodies (1933), Laurel and Hardy’s Model T is sawn in half by a huge bandsaw (the bandsaw cutting right between them while they were sitting in it).
Rather than showing Hardy suffering the pain of misfortunes such as falling down stairs or being beaten by a thug, banging and crashing sound effects were often used so the audience could visualize the scene for themselves. Routines frequently performed by Laurel were a high pitched whooping when in peril and crying like an infant when being berated by Hardy. Hardy often looked directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall, to express his frustration with Laurel to the film audience.
Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas are of two dim but eternally optimistic men, secure in their perpetual and impregnable innocence. Their humor is physical, but their accident-prone buffoonery is distinguished by their affable personalities and mutual devotion; essentially “children” in an adult world.
Laurel and Hardy had an inherent physical contrariety which was enhanced with small touches. Laurel kept his hair short on the sides and back, but let it grow long on top to create a natural “fright wig” through his inveterate gesture of scratching his head at moments of shock or wonderment and simultaneously pulling up his hair. In contrast Hardy’s thinning hair was pasted on his forehead in spit curls and he wore a toothbrush moustache. To achieve a flat-footed walk, Laurel removed the heels from his shoes (usually Army shoes). Stan Laurel was of average height and weight, but appeared small and slight next to Oliver Hardy, who was 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) tall. and weighed about 280 lb (127kg) in his prime. Both wore Bowler hats, with Laurel’s being narrower than Hardy’s, and with a flattened brim. The characters’ normal attire also called for wing collar shirts, with Hardy wearing a standard neck tie which he would twiddle and Laurel a bow tie. Hardy’s sports jacket was too small for him and done up with one straining button, whereas Laurel’s double breasted jacket was loose fitting.
Part of Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen images called for their faces to be filmed flat, without any shadows or dramatic lighting. To invoke a traditional clown-like appearance, both comedians wore a light pancake makeup on their faces, and Roach’s cameramen, such as Art Lloyd and Francis Corby, were instructed to light and film a scene so that facial lines and wrinkles would be “washed out.” Art Lloyd was once quoted as saying, “Well, I’ll never win an Oscar, but I’ll sure please Stan Laurel.”
Offscreen, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were quite the opposite of their movie characters: Laurel was the industrious “idea man”, while Hardy was more easygoing. Although Hal Roach employed writers and directors such as H.M. Walker, Leo McCarey, James Parrott, James W. Horne, and others on Laurel and Hardy films, Laurel would rewrite entire sequences or scripts, have the cast and crew improvise on the soundstage, and meticulously review the footage for editing, often moonlighting to achieve all of these tasks. While Hardy did contribute to the routines, he was generally content to follow Laurel’s lead and spent most of his free time on hobbies such as golf.
Observers have found the archetypal Laurel and Hardy scenario (two tramp-like men bewildered by the simplest elements of life) to have much in common with the Theatre of the Absurd. This is most manifested in the work of Samuel Beckett, himself a fan, and who was unquestionably influenced by the characters in works such as Waiting for Godot.
Later feature films
By 1936, although the relationship between Laurel and Hardy remained strong, Laurel’s dealings with producer Roach became strained amid a tangle of artistic differences. Roach insisted that his feature-length comedies should also contain musical numbers and/or subplots. (Roach always contended that if you watched any comedian for an hour at a time, “you’d be bored to hell with him.”) Laurel maintained that such padding distracted from the team’s comedy. Because of this friction, extended stand-off periods became common during the late 1930s, with Roach occasionally threatening to pair Hardy with someone else.
Roach kept Laurel and Hardy under separate contracts, so they would have less bargaining power as individuals. Stan Laurel’s contract ended in August 1938; Oliver Hardy’s had one more year to run, and Roach issued press releases that Harry Langdon (who had co-written Laurel and Hardy’s recent feature Block-Heads) would be Hardy’s new screen partner. Hardy’s solo film, Zenobia (1939), featured Langdon in the supporting cast but, despite the publicity, the two comics were never really a team.
Laurel countered Roach’s announcement with one revealing his own plans. In October 1938, Roach’s old rival Mack Sennett announced that he had signed Laurel to star in comedy features for his new Sennett Pictures Corporation Studio. Those films were not made, since by April 1939 the dispute between Laurel and Roach was settled and the comedy team was again intact for further work with Roach. They made two more films for Roach, A Chump at Oxford (filmed in 1939, released 1940) and Saps at Sea (1940). Both of these films were released through United Artists, as Roach’s distribution arrangement with MGM had ended in 1938.
Hoping for greater artistic freedom, Laurel and Hardy split with Roach and signed with major studios 20th Century-Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. However, the working conditions were now completely different, as they were hired only as actors, relegated to the B-film divisions, and initially not allowed to improvise or contribute to the scripts. When the films proved popular, the studios gave the team more input, and Laurel and Hardy made eight features through 1944. These films, while not considered the team’s best, were extremely successful; budgeted at $250,000 to $300,000 each, the films earned millions at the box office. The films were so profitable that Fox kept making Laurel and Hardy comedies after discontinuing its other “B” series. Jitterbugs (1943), released by Fox, has often been picked by critics as the best of these films; many fans prefer the team’s last Fox film, The Bullfighters (1945), which includes sequences written and directed by Stan Laurel.
In 1941, Laurel and Hardy filmed a silent sequence as a public service for the Department of Agriculture; this footage was incorporated into the U. S. Government short The Tree in a Test Tube (1943). Narrated by MGM’s Pete Smith, the Kodachrome short marked the duo’s second appearance in color.
After spending the rest of the 1940s performing on stage in Europe, Laurel and Hardy made one final film together in 1950. Atoll K, later reissued in abridged form as Utopia, was a French-Italian co-production directed by Leo Joannon, which was plagued by language barriers, production problems, and Laurel’s grave health during shooting. Although the film contained some clever visual humor, critics were disappointed with its storyline, English dubbing, and Laurel’s sickly physical appearance with his weight down to 115 lb. The film was not a success, and brought an end to Laurel and Hardy’s film careers.
After Atoll K, Laurel and Hardy took several months off, so that Laurel could recuperate. Upon their return to the European stage, they undertook a successful series of public appearances in short sketches Laurel had written: “A Spot of Trouble” (in 1952) and “Birds of a Feather” (in 1953).
Laurel and Hardy returned to the United States in 1954. On December 1, 1954, the team made their only American television appearance, surprised by Ralph Edwards on his live NBC-TV program, This Is Your Life.
Lured to the Knickerbocker Hotel as a subterfuge for a business meeting with producer Bernard Delfont, the doors opened to their suite #205, flooding the room with light and the voice of Ralph Edwards. At first the boys reacted incredulously, like deer caught in headlights. From the moment the boys realized they’re on camera, Stan smiles graciously, and did so all night. Ollie comically drinks the rest of his “beverage” before hurriedly being ushered to an awaiting car on Ivar Ave, to the Hollywood Blvd.’s El Capitan theatre down the street, for their night of tribute. The telecast was preserved on a kinescope and later released on home video. By the mid-1950s, partly due to the positive response from the television broadcast, the pair was renegotiating with Hal Roach for a series of color NBC television specials to be called Laurel & Hardy’s Fabulous Fables. However, plans for the specials were shelved, as the aging comedians suffered from declining health.
In 1955, Laurel and Hardy made their final public appearance together, taking part in a BBC television program about the Grand Order of Water Rats, the British variety organization, titled This is Music Hall. Laurel and Hardy provide a filmed insert during which they reminisce about their friends in British variety.
Under doctor’s orders to improve a heart condition, Hardy lost over 100 pounds in 1956. Several strokes (that some doctors partly attribute to the rapid weight loss) resulted in loss of mobility and speech. He died of a major stroke on August 7, 1957. Longtime friend Bob Chatterton said Hardy weighed just 138 pounds at the time of his death. A depressed Laurel did not attend his partner’s funeral, due to his own ill health, explaining his absence with the line “Babe would understand.” Just after Hardy’s death, Laurel and Hardy returned to movie theaters, as clips of their work were featured in Robert Youngson’s silent-film compilation The Golden Age of Comedy.
For the remaining eight years of his life, Stan Laurel refused to perform, even turning down Stanley Kramer’s offer to make a cameo in his landmark 1963 movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1960, Laurel was given a special Academy Award for his contributions to film comedy. Despite not appearing onscreen after Hardy’s death, Laurel did contribute gags to several comedy filmmakers. Most of his writing was in the form of correspondence; he insisted on answering every fan letter personally. Late in life, he hosted many visitors of the new generation of comedians and celebrities, including Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, Marcel Marceau and Dick Van Dyke. Laurel lived until 1965, surviving to see the duo’s work rediscovered through television and classic film revivals. He died in Santa Monica, and is buried at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, California.