Introduction to Laurel and Hardy Comedy Shorts
They are also among cinema's most paradoxical success stories: They found triumph as a team only after struggling as solo artists. They excelled at comedy shorts at the very time that the industry was switching over to feature films. They weathered the transition to sound without missing a step, even as talkies destroyed the careers of their peers. Their films are remembered as models of sweetness and gentleness, despite uncommonly violent content (during World War II, Laurel and Hardy issued a press release explaining to their fans that they were scaling back the destructive aspect of their films, so as not to seem unpatriotic in a time of wartime frugality). Not least of all, they defied common sense about what comedy even is.
Most paradoxical of all is that they ever got together.
When Arthur Stanley Jefferson emigrated to the United States and started performing under the stage name Stan Laurel, American comedy came in two flavors: Charlie Chaplin, and Charlie Chaplin imitators. Stan pined for a movie contract, and given the demand for Chaplin mimics he should have had an easy go of it. You see, Stan had been Chaplin's roommate and understudy in Fred Karno's traveling theater troupe, and was now earning critical raves on the vaudeville stage as an ersatz Chaplin. But when Stan finally got a break in the movie business, he set the fake moustache and cane aside to start making frenetic comedies of an idiosyncratic stripe.
For years Stan was a peripatetic force, shuttled from this movie company to that, making a scattershot array of comedies of no unified personality. There were fitful flashes of brilliance, but on the whole it was a dog's breakfast. By the 1920s, Stan Laurel was working at the Hal Roach Studio as a writer and director, and had all but given up performing on camera.
Meanwhile, Oliver Norvell Hardy had established himself as one of silent comedy's most versatile and in-demand supporting players. He could be anything you wanted him to be: old or young, rich or poor, cultured or boorish, officious or downtrodden. On the Hal Roach lot he was as valuable an actor as any of the (second-string) toplining "stars."
Stan was writing for Ollie, and directing him, but ironically the next step towards bringing them together was something that temporarily pushed them farther apart. Oliver Hardy burned himself in a freak accident (which coincidentally took place in, wait for it, Laurel Canyon) and had to drop out of a scheduled role in the short Love 'Em and Weep (1927). Stan replaced Ollie in his next scheduled appearance, too, and so insinuated his way back into an onscreen career at Roach. Now it was only a matter of time until Fate, and the laws of probability, brought Stan and Ollie together in the same movie.
It is unclear what constitutes the first Laurel and Hardy movie. There is no "a-ha" moment, no singular moment of genesis. They came into being gradually, evolving slowly out of the muck and mire of the silent comedy scene. Simply appearing together onscreen did not spark that "Laurel and Hardy" magic. Not while Stan kept jumping around and mugging like a jackrabbit on speed.
The prevailing mode of comedy at that time was a kinetic all-out chaos. Fast, brash, and rude was the style. Amidst this mayhem stood a lone dissenter--Harry Langdon. He had perfected a minimalist approach, in which small and slow was preferred. Where Langdon's competitors needed ever-grander displays of havoc to make their jokes, he could milk laughs out of the most ordinary and mundane of details. Stan and Harry were friends--and while the exact mechanism of how Stan decided to change his approach is unknown to us, the result is plain enough. Laurel began to act more like Langdon (and started to copy Harry's movies, and later hired Harry as a writer).
It was only the beginning. Stan Laurel did more than just adopt Langdonesque characteristics. Harry Langdon was like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and the other prominent comedians of the age in that he was a solitary comic figure thrust into one comic misadventure after another. Harry Langdon versus the world. But Stan Laurel had Oliver Hardy, and this made all the difference. Instead of exploring how Stan related to the outside world, his comedies would be about how Stan related to Ollie, and vice versa. It focused the comedy on a resonant emotional core that mitigated the extraordinary violence of the action, and would win them generations of impassioned fans. Much of the power of Laurel and Hardy comedies comes from that small but essential word and.
The new Stan Laurel is a slow-moving, slow-thinking creature. He is a wreck of physical disco-ordination--unsure of where his body ends, prone to confuse his own limbs with inanimate objects or even other people. Once his movies start including a soundtrack, we hear his voice--soft and gentle, with an English inflection. It sounds perhaps more cultured than it should. But tone of voice is one thing, words another. When he speaks, it is a tangle of non-sequiturs and half-baked thoughts. "You can lead a horse to water," he explains in Thicker Than Water (1935), "but a pencil must be lead."
The strangest thing is that Oliver Hardy listens to such nonsense. He even trusts this pixie-like being. If Oliver needs something done, he turns to Stan. Does he need a wedding organized? Ask Stan (Me and My Pal, 1933). Does he need help installing a radio antenna on the roof of his house? Ask Stan (Hog Wild, 1930). Does he face a politically calamitous scandal that needs careful handling? Ask Stan (Chickens Come Home, 1931). Not once do these plans turn out any other way than utter ruin, but Oliver never learns. Stan is his friend, and if ruin is their destiny, they will meet it together. Always.
Why they were together in the first place was never objectively clear. Stan's idiocy was perpetually dragging Ollie into one calamitous situation after another; Ollie was perpetually abusive and exploitative of his skinny friend. "If I had any sense, I'd walk out on you!" threatens Stan in Helpmates (1932). "It's a good thing you haven't any sense!" replies Ollie. "It certainly is!" agrees Stan.
Because this relationship was built on exploitation and hostility, it followed naturally that any encounter with other people was destined to sour quickly into vengeful spirals. If you step on my toe, I'm entitled to poke you in the eye. Of course, once I poke you in the eye, that gives you license to break my window, for which I am obliged to burn your house to the ground... and so it goes. The cycles of reciprocal violence, though, are subject to laws as intractable and inviolate as the law of gravity. The rules of tit-for-tat are universally understood and strictly enforced. Each act of revenge must get its rightful place. If it is, say, Charlie Hall's turn to smash something, Laurel and Hardy must wait patiently until he finishes before they can retaliate. And then once their turn does come, Charlie or whomever must wait patiently until the damage is done, and the wheel comes back around.
Ritualizing the joke and slowing it down to a crawl seemed a perverse idea in the age of slapstick pandemonium, but Stan had made a vital discovery. Many years later, an aged and long-retired Stan Laurel sat down with the writers of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and explained his comic philosophy. In Stan's eyes, the key was to tell the audience what he was going to do, then do that thing, then tell them what he had done. In other words, a single joke became three. To see the idea in action, consider this moment from the 1933 short Twice Two: Oliver Hardy is seated at his desk, pretentiously tapping out a letter on his typewriter. He pauses to take a drink of water, and carefully places the glass next to the typewriter. The action is so mannered and precise, and given such pride of place in the scene, our attention is focused on that glass and its precarious position at the edge of the desk. Sure enough, just as predicted, the instant he hits the return lever, the carriage shunts rapidly across and hits the glass, upending it into Ollie's hat. Full of disappointment and shame, Ollie lifts up his water-filled hat, exchanging a tired, knowing glance at his friend Stan. Where is the laugh in this scene? The anticipation of the inevitable disaster? The actual moment of disaster? The reaction? It is all three, one at a time, multiplied on top of each other.
The brilliance of Stan's idea was that it no longer mattered how often the same gags were reused. In fact, the boys took to remaking entire movies. Their schtick did not require originality. Quite the contrary, it depended on the audience knowing what was coming, and savoring it in anticipation. Sometimes the anticipation was even better than the payoff.
In 1932's Towed in a Hole, Stan has gotten his head stuck behind the mast of a boat (don't bother asking how). To free himself, he grabs a saw and starts to hack through the mast. Cutting down the boat's mast is a terrible idea in any circumstance, but Ollie happens to be on the very top of the mast at that precise moment. Worse still, Stan is sawing directly towards his own throat. Throughout it all, Oliver Hardy keeps glancing directly into the camera, puzzled by the distinct but inexplicable sawing sound. Ollie's wide, querulous eyes directly address the audience: "What is that sound?" he seems to be asking us. He will find out, in due course, and plummet to the ground below as a result, but the best laughs come before the fall.
The approach meant that Laurel and Hardy had a high demand for supporting players capable of interesting reaction shots. More so than ever before, here was a comedy franchise that needed actors who could stand around and wait patiently for something to happen, and then drag out their response to that something after it happened. If someone proved to be especially expressive, they had a job with Laurel and Hardy. Watch Mae Busch's eyes glimmer with unspoken joy as she tastes the curiously alcoholic "well water" in Them Thar Hills (1934). Actors like Edgar Kennedy (renowned for his "slow-burn" reactions) and James Finlayson (whose exasperated "d'oh!" would be bequeathed to Homer Simpson many years later) found steady work watching Laurel and Hardy methodically set-up one catastrophe after another.
As critical as these supporting cast members were, Laurel and Hardy found they could make comedies just as effectively all by themselves. In today's parlance, we might call some of these movies "bottle episodes." That is, installments made with just the two lead performers, causing havoc all alone. Helpmates and Towed in a Hole rank among their finest works, yet each is an exercise in simplicity. Two men, one set, and a rudimentary premise (say, "clean Ollie's house") and from that could come peerless slapstick. Sometimes the boys would expand their world but still do little to share the stage with anyone else: in Twice Two they play "themselves" and also their own wives. In Brats (1930) they play their own children, cavorting on an oversize set. Laurel seemed to enjoy this kind of visual absurdity. Hal Roach did not, but Stan kept spending Roach's money on elaborate special effects nonetheless. He tacked on a bizarre conclusion to Thicker Than Water that, out of nowhere, involved Stan and Ollie swapping personas, such that each actor got to try on a variant of his co-star's mannerisms. In the later feature film Our Relations (1936) they each played dual roles as their own twins.
Hal Roach thought he could replicate the formula and manufacture other comedy teams in the Laurel and Hardy mode. The Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts comedies (and for that matter the Thema Todd-Patsy Kelly ones made after Pitts quit) have their own winning charm but little of Laurel and Hardy's ineffable magic. The Three Stooges took to copying Laurel and Hardy's material, and remaking their films almost as aggressively as Stan Laurel himself was, but did not quite strike the same deep, resonant chord. Laurel and Hardy were not just funny. They were beloved. They were us.
They made a living telling inside jokes, for which every single person in the world was in on the joke--that was the secret to their success. Never had absolute mayhem seemed so inviting.
Where predecessors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd--even Harry Langdon--made comedies about tramps and drifters, misfits and loners, lost souls and outcasts, Laurel and Hardy positioned themselves as suburban husbands (most of the time, at least). They made their slapstick mirror the lifestyles of their audience. Laurel and Hardy shorts found a natural fit on television--their two-reel length happened to match the running time of the average sitcom, and the domestic scale of their comedy anticipated sitcom styles as well. The passing of time couldn't dilute the force of a comedy that was already so thoroughly modern to begin with.
by David Kalat
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