My Mrs. and I enjoy movies. Though we occasionally go to a theater for a first-run film, most of our movies are seen at home. There are streaming services, there is Redbox, and we still get DVDs in the mail through our Netflix subscription.
One recently showed up in our mailbox that opened a wellspring of emotions – the 2018 film called Stan & Ollie. The movie itself was excellent and I would urge each of you to seek it out. Although I am no movie reviewer, I do know a little something about Laurel & Hardy.
The film is biographical and focuses on a time in the early 1950’s when the aging comedy legends were struggling for relevance and trying to get one more movie made.
The actors did a fabulous job of portraying their characters. I have seen a good number of biopics but never have I seen one where an actor (let alone two of them) portray a character so thoroughly that it is like watching the actual person. The two actors (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly) simply nail their performances, right down to recreations of some of the pair’s most famous comedy bits. And the plot of this film aside, it reminded me of the genius that Laurel & Hardy put on film.
Everything goes in cycles, even among old things. Take classic jazz – thirty years ago players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were in. Now they seem to be ignored while John Coltrane and his ilk get most of the love.
It is the same with old movies. Today it seems to be Buster Keaton and maybe Charlie Chaplin who command the most attention among the early film comics. But in the 1960’s it was Laurel & Hardy.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were one of the great comedy teams of all time. They managed a feat that few in their business could do – they expertly navigated the transition from silent film to the talkies. They did this by maintaining their physical comedic style but by slowly adding to their repertoire by inserting dialog here and there in a way that resembled adding some extra spice to an already delicious stew.
The two men each played but a single character from the time they were first paired. Laurel was the thin, good-natured dimwit who played against the much larger Hardy and his bossy character who was no brighter than his friend (though he was convinced otherwise).
Their movies were available for little money when the local television stations of my childhood were in need of cheap material to fill hours Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings. I found them funny but sort of took them for granted. Later acts like The Three Stooges seemed to eclipse them on television by the 70’s and Laurel & Hardy seemed to recede into the mists.
One of the things I did when my kids were young was to expose them to a variety of movies and music. Yes, movies like Jumanji and Jurassic Park were great fun to watch with kids in the 90’s, but I wanted them to understand that it is a big wide world out there and that there have been great movies made from nearly the beginning.
One day at the video store (remember those?) I came across a VHS tape that contained three Laurel & Hardy shorts. I snatched it from the shelf and started talking it up as soon as I got home.
I will admit to some selfishness here, as I was looking forward to watching it all on my own if it came to that. But I wanted to let my kids see this pair in their prime.
While the pair churned out a ton of movies over multiple decades, I never felt that their feature films matched the quality and charm of their short subjects from the early days of sound in movies. These roughly twenty-minute two-reel shorts was the duo’s best format. They provided enough time to set up a premise and milk the gags but not so long as to allow things to get slow as the plots sometimes did in the feature-lenth pieces.
The first bit on the tape was Towed In A Hole from 1931. In it the pair was doing OK selling fish but decided that they could improve their lot by buying a boat and catching their own. What could go wrong?
Things started out a little slow and I was afraid I was going to lose my young companions. What’s more boring than a couple of people talking in an old grainy black and white film? But then the protagonists found their boat. In a junkyard. All it needed was a little work. And we were off. Within moments those little kids were howling with laughter
Watching as an adult I could see the genius of these short movies. The pace was relaxed and even a 5 year old could see every gag coming from a mile away, and long before the dimwitted characters on screen who were always taken by complete surprise.
A garden hose. A bucket of paint. A saw. What could possibly happen? Everything. In multiple ways. And it was fabulous.
By the time we hit the second selection my kids were primed and ready for more. And we were rewarded with one of the best the boys ever did – The Music Box from 1932. This was the famous one where the pair was tasked with delivering a crate containing an expensive new player piano to the buyer’s home. The only problem was that they needed to get that piano up the most ridiculous set of steps you have ever seen. One gag followed another as the bumbling piano movers gave it everything they had.
I am no great connoisseur of Laurel & Hardy films. I need to go on the hunt for more of them because I have never watched one of those early shorts that fails to make me laugh out loud at some stupid gag that our modern society tells us is so last-century.
After giving it some thought I have concluded that Laurel & Hardy’s comedy stands up better than some newer comedy because it is so much more basic and elemental. All these decades later we still struggle to make our lives better in ways big and small and understand the urge that those characters had to do the same thing all those decades ago.
But back to the recent movie. This is a sympathetic look at two famous but aging comics who were trying to pay their bills. They had a dignity about them – their material was old fashioned by then but had a durability to it that still made it work. Watching those two old-timers gamely work their craft in the twilight of their careers brought out a sweetness about them.
In real life the 1952 English tour depicted in the movie was the last time they worked together as Hardy’s health began a serious decline that would continue until his 1957 death. Missing his old partner, Laurel never worked again, even though he was offered many opportunities (including a bit in It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World).
For most of my life comedy has been about pushing boundaries. From Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Richard Pryor the subject matter got bluer and bluer. I would think that this particular vein is pretty much exhausted by now, but most young comics continue to dig there (and only there, it seems).
It is heartening to go back and watch Laurel & Hardy’s best stuff, if only to appreciate a kind of comedy that appeals to nearly every age and sensibility. Their stuff is all over YouTube.
Most of you reading this are well familiar with them but have probably not watched them in years. For the rest, you simply must jump in for a sample. I predict that once you have watched one of those early shorts you too will become a life-long fan.
Opening Photo – 2018 Promotional Photo from Sony Pictures as reprinted by The Boston Globe
1939 Publicity Shot from The Flying Deuces – In the public domain as found on Wikimedia Commons
Imdb photo from the film Towed In A Hole (1931)
Scene from The Music Box (1932) as found on Lauralandhardycentral.com