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Another Nice Mess: Reflecting on Laurel and Hardy

Writer Jonathan Bridge reflects on his personal history with the original cinematic comedic duo Laurel and Hardy ahead of the UK release of Stan and Ollie.

It was perhaps one afternoon, around 45 years ago, as a mere lad of about six years of age, watching a black and white television, catching the most bizarre, fuzzy, yet fascinating vision I had yet seen in my very short life. A sequence of a fully-grown man being propelled through what appeared to be glass tubing at high speed, when in fact it turned out to be a sawdust flue. He was met at the other end by his work colleague and friend who climbed up a very long ladder to try and extricate him from the end of the flue, as he became trapped due to his rather portly figure. From such beginnings I was hooked on a comic partnership created entirely by the movies, the British Stan Laurel, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, in Ulverston, Lancashire (now Cumbria), and the American Oliver Norvell  “Babe” Hardy, born in Harlem, Georgia.

They had worked as either solo or supporting comedians for over a decade, being in the same film by sheer chance at an independent comedy studio (The Lucky Dog, 1921), but avoiding each other until 1926, when they were now employed at Hollywood’s most important comedy film studio, alongside Mack Sennett’s Keystone, named after its founder, Hal Roach. By this time, Laurel was becoming disillusioned appearing in front of the camera as his career as a lead solo comedian lagged well behind that of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Harry Langdon, and wanted to work more behind the camera as a writer, gagman and director. Hardy was not a lead but was having a habit of stealing scenes from star comedians of the time such as Jimmy Aubrey and Larry Semon, who are all but forgotten today. Yet late in 1926, they appeared together on film again in Duck Soup, based on a sketch written by Stan’s father, and the embryo of their cinematic partnership began almost immediately, virtually in the format of their mature and established teamwork, yet with still a few rough edges, mostly on Hardy’s unshaven chin. Several more films followed with them sharing scenes rather than working as a double act, but Do Detectives Think? (1927), saw them together as was with Duck Soup, and for the first time in their familiar garb of rumpled suits and bowler hats (the established costuming of private detectives in that era), perfect for their naïve, innocent characters. Leo McCarey, who became a celebrated classical Hollywood director of the 30’s and 40’s, was working at Roach at the time, and suggested they work as a comedy team. Stan Laurel was briefly reluctant as he wanted to work more behind rather than in front of the camera, but Babe Hardy was very keen as the two got on very well with a noticeable chemistry that worked gloriously onscreen. Hal Roach concurred, and the rest was history.

Laurel and Hardy were the best pure comedians of them all; Chaplin was a better overall filmmaker, and Keaton possessed a more nonchalant visual wit, but their humour is still universal and timeless, surviving the transformation from silent to sound movies faultlessly with voices that were perfect for their characters, calling themselves “Stan and Ollie”, with such trademarks as the Laurel cry, the Hardy camera-look, and Ollie’s frustrated reprimand to Stan of “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” (and not “another fine mess”, as is incorrectly often stated) now fully and gloriously established.

They were the undoubted masters of the short film format, far superior to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd or perhaps anyone else in film history, but they did often fall short in features, as the necessity of plot and narrative got in the way of their routines, which often included dull romantic sub-plots and storytelling that involved other characters. That is not to say they could not make genuinely classic feature films, albeit around the hour mark or slightly longer; Sons of the Desert (1934) has the best story that is built around them and their characters, as is Way Out West (1937) with a few musical and dance routines as a delightful bonus, with Block-Heads (1938) and Our Relations (1936) not too far behind in quality.

Working at a specialist comedy studio like Hal Roach was ideal for them, especially Stan Laurel who was given artistic control and freedom to create memorable gags and routines, though his relationship with Hal Roach became more strained as he moved them into features, a format Stan was not entirely comfortable with as he preferred short films, with Roach exerting more control as more money had to be spent on the features.

Their move to the big studios like 20th Century Fox and MGM in the war years was unsuccessful as Laurel and Hardy were given no artistic freedom at all and were forced into performing unsuitable material from scripts that were out of character with little or no chance given for on set revisions or improvisation, as was the case at the Roach studios. With the benefit of hindsight, their later films are not quite as bad as their reputation suggests, with good scenes and gags abound, but it was a very unhappy experience for them both, and after a sole venture in France (Atoll K) where Stan Laurel fell gravely ill and nearly died during production, the remainder of their career was mostly on stage in the UK, not at their peak but still much loved by audiences.

Maybe their best ever comic moment is after exhaustively taking the wooden-encased piano up those stairs several times on a delivery after it trundled back from mid way or the top to bottom and having to start all over again, postman Charlie Hall informs them there was a road where they could have taken to get there in the first place. “Now why didn’t we think of that before?”, says Ollie, as they take the piano down the stairs to put on their horse-drawn wagon to bring it to the top again. Completely foolish but logical at the same time, but just typical of their dumb but innocent and wholly likeable comic partnership, still the greatest in cinema history.

The film with that wooden-encased piano is of course The Music Box (1932). And the film that got me hooked on them all that time ago? Busy Bodies (1933), and still my own personal favourite.

Words by Jonathan Bridge, Member of the Sons of the Desert, 1978-present.

Stan and Ollie screens here at HOME from Fri 11 January 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.