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Ken's Comedy Corner

By Ken Lashway

Featuring:
LAUREL & HARDY

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Arthur Stanley Jefferson, born June 16, 1890 in Ulvertson, England

Norvell Hardy, born January 18, 1892 in Harlem, Georgia

1939 Mars Confections Laurel and Hardy Trading CardThey were as close in real life as they appeared on screen, and perhaps it was this genuine symbiotic relationship which came through so well on film to make Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy the most beloved comedy team of the early twentieth century. Their screen characters were bumbling and innocent, and there always seemed to be ‘another fine mess’ waiting just around the corner to entangle them, but whether they managed to elude these troubles or not, they always found a way to make them funny. And because they were so naïve and vulnerable, we took them to our hearts like beloved relatives - who could fail to smile at Ollie’s sheepish tie-waggle, or Stanley’s cherubic, half-moon grin?

Despite their eventual closeness both on and off camera, these two great comics might never have been paired but for the keen eye of Leo McCarey, a director working at Hal Roach studios in the 1920’s. McCarey noticed that among the stable of stars at Roach Studios, the laugh rate always seemed to pick up a bit when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in the same scene together, and he persuaded Roach to formally team them in 1927.

Stan had come to Hal Roach Studios following a moderately successful stint in vaudeville from the late teens through the early twenties, where he had honed his skills as a performer and writer of comedy. He had also already appeared in over sixty films, in roles ranging from bit parts to lead characters. Oliver Hardy had no stage experience at all, but before coming to Roach, he had appeared in over one hundred films, most of which had been produced by two film companies in Jacksonville, Florida in the days before Hollywood’s movie-making monopoly.

Hardy was very receptive to the teaming, because he had played character actors more times than he could even remember, and was eager to finally accept a starring role. Stan Laurel was not quite so eager - up to that point, he had achieved only occasional success on film, and had almost come to consider acting a dead end. His real preference was to work behind the camera as director, writer, editor, music director, sound technician, and practically everything else involved with production. Hardy had no such aspirations, and was quite content to limit his role to acting in films. The two actually appeared in eleven silent shorts together, including ’Slipping Wives’ and ’Why Girls Love Sailors’, before being officially teamed, and their chemistry was apparent from the beginning. The big question was - would their brand of humor come across equally well in the talkies? That question was answered with the 1929 film ’Unaccustomed as We Are’, their first all-talking movie. Like all talkies of those first few years, it suffered from the technical difficulties of a medium in transition, but the talents of its two stars and their on-screen magic shone through like a beacon.

Soon after and throughout the 1930‘s, the twosome entered into their own golden era, as they made some of their best shorts and features, and their popularity soared worldwide. While his name seldom appears in the credits as anything more than a star of these films, Stan Laurel was in fact the director and main writer for virtually every one of these Laurel and Hardy films. He often worked 16-20 hour days on the production of their films, while ‘Babe’ Hardy as he was known, preferred to spend his off-camera time on the golf course. From this it should not be inferred that Hardy was in any way unprofessional or lacked dedication - quite to the contrary, he always showed up on time and well prepared for the days’ shooting. He was merely content to leave technical matters to his partner, and to refer all queries about Laurel and Hardy’s teamwork to Laurel as well, invariably responding politely ‘Ask Stan’ when such questions were put to him.

During the 1930’s, these two great comics produced classic after classic, among them ’Sons of the Desert’, ’Our Relations’, ’Way Out West’, ’Block-Heads’, and ’The Flying Deuces’. Stan’s character, the dim-witted sidekick, was one he had honed to perfection by now, often finding humor in being overwhelmed by simple life situations which spiraled out of his control. A frequent outcome of these scenarios was Stanley’s lovable trademark - the squeaky, teary outburst, accompanied by the bewildered fluffing of his unruly hair. Whenever this scene showed up in one of their movies, it was a good bet that both of the boys were in a pickle. Oliver’s character was always closer to his real life self, although extended and exaggerated, and he played this role much more subtly than did his partner. It has often been said of their movie roles that it was the more immediately funny Stanley that first got your attention, but the subtle humor of Babe Hardy that kept you coming back for more.

Oliver Hardy Spanish Children's Mask from the 1930'sChanges in the movie industry of the late 1930’s demanded that studios exert more control over the films being made, and this was something that Stan Laurel could not abide - following careful deliberation with his partner, the duo left Roach Studios and signed a contract with MGM in 1940. But both got a rude awakening with their new employer - no longer having creative control, they were at the mercy of script-writers who reduced Laurel & Hardy to little more than idiots. The eight films they made between 1940 and 1945 were not well-received, either by the public or by the two stars themselves, and they decided to just walk away from their film partnership altogether, rather than continue making the kind of movies they could not be proud of.

But that was not quite the end of Laurel and Hardy. Stanley began writing sketches for the twosome to perform on live stages, and these became enormously popular, both in the U.S. and in Great Britain. For seven years, from 1947 through 1954, they toured and entertained appreciative sellout crowds of old and new admirers, and this hugely successful touring stint opened the door to other possibilities. A series of major television comedy specials featuring them was in the planning stages when untimely health problems struck both men - Babe Hardy suffered a mild heart attack in the spring of 1954, and by the time he was recovered, Stanley had suffered a paralyzing stroke. Stan eventually recovered almost completely from this, but then Hardy was again stricken by heart attack, this time a massive one which permanently ended their partnership.

Stan Laurel was devastated by the loss of his partner and best friend - he never again performed for an audience, not wanting to capitalize on the team‘s enduring success. He and Oliver Hardy had grown so close in their performing years together, that they also became virtually inseparable in real life, and this extended to their two families as well. Arguably the greatest comedy team ever, the enormous popularity achieved by Laurel and Hardy continues to this day, largely due to the fact that in real life they were just as great a team as when they were entertaining throngs of fans on film or stage.
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Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York. This is one of a handful of profiles Ken has written about the legends of comedy for The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Laurel & Hardy Pages:

Tales of the Broke and Famous by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on things-and-other-stuff.com