Perhaps the secret of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the most durable and beloved comic duo in film history, is that neither of them played the straight man to the other’s clown. Each man was buffoonish in deliciously complementary ways, and not just their relative sizes.
Mousy and English-accented Stan, generally played as the dumber of the two, could have sense and honesty amid his muddled thoughts. Even though Ollie continually looked at the camera in exasperation or collusion as though he imagined himself the straight man forced to put up with Stan’s craziness, he was every bit as befuddled and clumsy in his schemes.
Ollie would flow from sweetly naïve to quick-tempered in a second, and he was equally capable of delusion and exaggeration. The butt of most of the painful physical humor, he would howl in comic anguish almost as often as Stan would burst into tearful squeaks of gibberish. Hardy was the most uncommonly graceful of the two and became famous for twiddling his tie or hat, weaving his fingers together or spinning them about in expressive gestures. Stan perennially scratched his brushy head.
They come across as hapless man-children, creatures of the id who imagine they’re more sly and competent than they are. In other words, they’re the opposite of the idealized embodiments of masculinity seen in male cinema heroes. If classic movie dramas sell us the idea of the men we want to be, or that we want our men to be, the irony of comedies is that their distorting mirror shows a truer picture. Maybe that’s why we laugh. The duo’s childish nature links them closer to Harry Langdon than their other contemporaries and looks forward to Lou Costello (who can be glimpsed as an extra in one film) and Jerry Lewis.
These thought are inspired by Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations, a set of four Blu-rays of 2K and 4K digital restorations, mostly from 35mm sources and sometimes pieced from multiple sources. The UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Library of Congress, the Film Foundation and Jeff Joseph/SabuCat are all credited on the packaging of this Kit Parker Films release, so it’s quite a conspiracy.
Although far from a complete collection of existing material, the set offers two features, one silent short, 16 talkie shorts, and two special ancillary shorts. Almost everything dates from the era when Hal Roach produced their films for MGM. The two features are among the duo’s most famous, Sons of the Desert (1933, directed by William A. Seiter) and Way Out West (1937, James W. Horne).
Sons of the Desert begins at a meeting of a male lodge or fraternity, like the Elks or Lions or Knights of Columbus, a phenomenon of middle-class America popular during the first half of the 20th century. These exclusive and “secret” clubs were mainly for business networking, yet they developed a reputation for letting their hair down away from the wives, or “ball and chains”, to engage in drinking, smoking, swearing, and extra-marital flirtation at parties and conventions.
A notorious popular comedy of this same year, Archie Mayo’s Convention City, played up the conventions of conventions, as it were; that film was finally suppressed and destroyed and now is lost. So Laurel & Hardy’s film existed against that cultural background in the audience’s mind.
The movie’s imaginary lodge, the Sons of the Desert, features men wearing fezzes while the leaders are dressed head to toe in Arab dress. The sheer absurdity of this is presented with deadpan seriousness, which is the first sign of parody, and the second sign is when Stan and Ollie, basically playing “themselves”, arrive late and disrupt the roomful of members while they take their seats.
This type of physical comedy, in which they interact with unnecessary complication and protraction and slapstick business while performing something that should take a few moments and has little or nothing to do with any plot point, is one the duo’s specialties. They can spend minutes on the most inconsequential business, such as opening a door or window. They convey human absurdity and puncture the dignity of all around them just by their bumbling presence.
Many examples of this elaboration of pointless activity can be found in this set. Their second talkie short, Berth Marks (1929, Lewis R. Foster), begins with the pair missing each other at a train station for as long as they can milk it. Then they make a shambles of getting on the train with much fussing and falling and dropping of impedimenta, whereupon most of the short consists of their attempts to climb into an upper berth together and, once crammed into it, to disrobe for sleep while knocking into each other, bumping their heads, and accidentally slipping their limbs into each other’s garments. That’s the whole movie!
This upper berth routine is classic and, as Randy Skretvedt’s commentary observes, was repeated by many comics in many movies. It’s a variant of Buster Keaton’s attempt to change clothes inside a small bathing booth with a larger gentleman in The Cameraman (1928). The theme is male intimacy pushed to uncomfortable extremes, and it’s echoed in peek-a-boo moments with two female travelers and an escalating chain reaction of passengers tearing each other’s clothes off until the situation becomes a free-for-all of semi-nudity that even engulfs the conductor.
In theory, this sounds sexual. In practice, it’s too funny to be sexy in its dance of hostility and indignity. It’s a vision of humans crowded into uncomfortable proximity in public transport and all reserve breaking loose.
Escalation is another organizing principle of Laurel & Hardy’s comic world. Possibly their masterpiece of escalation is Big Business (1929, James W. Horne), in which the pair are Christmas-tree salesman whose destructive tit-for-tat battle with a customer embodies anything but peace on earth and good will towards men. That silent film isn’t in this set, and it can be a shock to realize that Laurel & Hardy were already major stars in silent shorts. We forget this because their voices and dialogue patterns are so distinctive and perfect for talkies.
The set’s single silent film is the long-lost The Battle of the Century (1927), rediscovered and restored in 2015, still with some footage missing. Directed by Clyde Bruckman, supervised by Leo McCarey and shot by George Stevens, this is another film structured on escalation. It begins as a parody of the same year’s legendary Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey bout (The Long Count Fight) until the second reel turns into what Roach intended as cinema’s ultimate street-wide pie fight.
Richard W. Bann offers commentary on the film’s checkered history with attention to comedian Anita Garvin’s famous scene of slipping and sitting on a pie, which is still shockingly funny. Watching this film, we can’t help wondering if it’s a comment on the chaos of urban life or a prescription for catharsis. Maybe we should have a national pie-fight day to reduce us all to common effigies of blueberry or meringue, a day in which we get a free throw at everyone of dignity, power, and pretense. There’s the slapstick version of the Purge franchise, and certainly a healthier one.
More good examples of escalation occur in Helpmates (1932, James Parrott) and Me and My Pal (1933, Charles Rogers). Helpmates begins with disaster and ends in catastrophe as the boys try to clean up evidence of a wild party before Mrs. Hardy (Blanche Payson) comes home. Me and My Pal finds Oliver’s wedding day to a millionaire’s daughter delayed by the diabolical device of a jigsaw puzzle that distracts everyone who sees it. As with many of these outings, it ends in riot and destruction.
Another comic structure can be found in the pair’s Oscar-winning The Music Box (1932, Parrott), drafted into the National Film Registry. This short, which partly remakes their lost Hats Off (1927, Hal Yates), is perhaps less about escalation than repetition modeled after the myth of Sisyphus. Instead of rolling a boulder up a hill, they’re eternally trying to deliver a piano up a long flight of stairs. No other plot is needed, although they finally make it into the house in the third and last reel, where they confront an angry professor (Billy Gilbert).
The duo often don’t work up complicated plots so much as wring every drop of chaos out of basic situations. Thus they express the idea that everyday modern life is impossible. While their comedic rivals often end by saving the day against the odds, Laurel & Hardy often end by dropping freshly into the middle of chaos, even embracing it as a natural state.
It’s a close call, but the most sadistic film upon Ollie is probably County Hospital (1932, Parrott), which opens with his having broken a leg. The first reel contains a gag of such ingenious cruelty, we can easily imagine a theatre audience screaming as loudly as Ollie. Considering all the punishment he suffers in the other films, this at least offers miraculous confirmation that it’s possible for bones to be broken.
We’ve digressed and spun in circles, just like Laurel & Hardy. Getting back to Sons of the Desert, the basic situation is that they want to attend the lodge’s annual convention in Chicago and they fear their wives won’t let them go. Subterfuge follows. A bunch of stuff happens in just over an hour, including gratuitous cheesecake on the “Honolulu Baby” number that marks this as a pre-Code film. Charley Chase, another classic comedian, shows up as “himself”, a fellow lodge member playing obnoxious jokes at the convention. The show is almost stolen, or at least evenly matched, by Mae Busch as Mrs. Hardy and Dorothy Christy as Mrs. Laurel.
In film after film, the boys are either bachelors joined at the hip or unhappily married husbands still joined at the hip, and this item is one of their takedowns of marital bliss. Not that the wives are harridans, for they show many facets and emotions and obviously care for their scheming and tiresome husbands, but they’re definitely strong women instead of the traditional meek violets shown in idealized dramas. Mrs. Laurel is a crack shot. This is comedy, and therefore, in theory, a little closer to mundane reality for what laughs that may bring.
The most surreal short is Brats (1930, Parrott), in which the duo play themselves and their own sons, dressed in knee pants. Since the adult pair is naturally childish, no exaggeration is needed for the little sprats. The sons play amid enlarged props to strange effect, and there are a couple of impressive split-screen shots with all four characters. The pair plays dual roles again in Twice Two (1933, Parrott), this time as their own sisters who are also each other’s wives! It’s their most brilliant marital comedy.
Although the chums sometimes have spouses, and in one case even children, they were rarely depicted in any situations of romance or sex, never mind that they often share the same bed. A strange exception is Their First Mistake (1932, George Marshall), in which Stan is named a correspondent in Mrs. Hardy’s divorce for alienating her husband’s affections.
The first gag is that Stan is essentially “the other man”, and this is followed by the boys playing a parodic scene from melodrama in which Ollie is “the wronged woman” saddled with a baby while Stan is the cad who got her into trouble. The next scene finds Stan as “the mother” who prepares to nurse the baby, to the astonishment of Ollie and the viewer. This gag probably wouldn’t have gotten past censors in the 1934 Production Code crackdown.
We must note another possible exception in Ethel, the flirtatious gorilla in The Chimp (1932, Parrott), who winks at Stan and kisses Ollie in bed. Ethel is played with expressive dash by Charles Gemora, who made a long living in ape suits. Ethel gracefully dances with them while the landlord (Gilbert) thinks it’s his wife and bursts in to confront her. This aroma of simian love only reinforces the boys’ essentially childlike asexuality in these shorts. By the way, it’s a moment of privileged grace whenever they dance, whether with the gorilla or in The Music Box or in a wonderful number in Way Out West.
In Way Out West, they also grace us with a rendition of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in the middle of an almost non-existent plot about the deed to a gold mine. Here the boys do indulge an ill-fated flirtation with a married woman but remain chaste as usual in everything but violence upon each other’s person.
James Finlayson of the heavy mustache, who appears in several shorts, plays the villain. Stanley Fields, who also appears in shorts, plays the sheriff. Sharon Lynn plays the femme fatale while Rosina Lawrence is the good girl who inherits the gold. Wouldn’t it be a trip if the true legatee in one of these western deed plots really was the bad guy? While this is a rare film where the boys save the day (more common in features than shorts), it must still close on a final indignity for Ollie.
Other players regularly seen in comic support are little Charlie Hall and hulking Tiny Sandford. Notable appearances are Arthur Housman as the drunken millionaire in Scram! (1932, Ray McCarey) with Richard Cramer and Vivien Oakland as the judge and his wife; Gertrude Astor as Mrs. Hardy in Come Clean (1931, Horne) with Busch as the suicidal pest; and Mary Carr as the old lady in One Good Turn (1931, Horne).
Although a few African-Americans are seen here and there, these films don’t indulge the racial humor that can be seen in many of the era’s comedies. The opening scene of Scram! is even notable for a black man and two Asians who aren’t even dressed like stereotypes. There are plenty of fed-up hostile wives in the marital comedies, but one can understand their hostility; the only thing hard to grasp is how they ever got married. Perhaps the most lasting cultural stereotype is that police are always someone to avoid and given to asserting themselves violently. One short even has the boys apparently murdered by a cop!
Seeing such sparkling prints as close as possible to their original versions reinforces what was essentially Laurel’s genius with gags. His understanding goes beyond ideas, physical business and timing into the nature of film editing and offscreen space. Although we witness most of the gags in our face (or in Ollie’s face, or on his pate), we often see them indirectly and elliptically (which can save staging and budget), and we anticipate them through careful visual cues. We can appreciate how The Music Box, for example, when shorn of the intrusive music track that got layered on in later years, plays vividly with sound effects.
The commentaries find plenty to say about every film, giving production and preservation history, identifying the actors and outlining their careers, and making connections between films inside and outside the duo’s oeuvre. In a few cases, the commentary is longer than the film. There are archival video and audio interviews with players and crew, miscellaneous footage and seemingly endless stills and promo material. The only thing that would make the set perfect would be if it included all the extant films. Maybe more volumes will follow.