Celebrating Laurel & Hardy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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These actual steps still exist on Vendome Street in Los Angeles.

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.

 

Photo Sources:

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

 

 

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25 thoughts on “Celebrating Laurel & Hardy

  1. I’m just enough younger than you that, by the time I was old enough, the Three Stooges had supplanted L&H as cheap kid TV. I’ve never seen an L&H short or movie all the way through. Someday I’ll catch up on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my, the situation is worse than I thought if a well-seasoned adult such as you has never seen them.

      You simply must find some YouTube time.

      Like

  2. Har, I recognized the paint scene immediately, although I probably haven’t watched a L&H movie in 40 years. I should do that with the kids sometime when they’re both home.

    I’ve never seen a Three Stooges film, they were over the line to my mother so that was not allowed.

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  3. How great that your kids loved Laurel & Hardy! I haven’t watched any of their work for 40 years — but I still remember that bit with the piano like it was yesterday. Thanks to you, I’m going to revisit their old classics (and also the new biopic).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m only a few years older but have probably only seen a few minutes of Laurel and Hardy in my life. Just a snippet or two compared to the Marx Bros, Chaplin, Keaton … or Danny Kaye. All of whom we exposed our kids (born in the early ‘90’s) to. I also somehow missed the Stooges as well; honestly, if I hear that name I think of Iggy Pop before I think of Larry, Moe and Curly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is occurring to me that these Laurel & Hardy films were maybe 35 years old or so when I was seeing them on TV. Much Saturday Night Live stuff is now older than that. It is interesting how quickly comic performers can go from superstardom to being virtually forgotten. I would bet that if we took a poll of people under 30 many may not have even heard of them.

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  5. I’m going to guess that geography plays a part as well as age. I don’t think I saw any 3 stooges or Marx Brothers until the late ’80s. While I remember some Laurel & Hardy when I was a kid in the ’70s, one of my local stations played quite a bit of Harold Lloyd. I still recall his film with Babe Ruth, where Lloyd keeps track of the baseball score with bakery products.

    Not sure I’ve ever seen any of Buster Keaton’s early stuff, which I probably need to correct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harold Lloyd is the hole in my silent movie experience. I recall the Marx Brothers having a late run of popularity in the 70s but have not watched any of their stuff in a long time.

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  6. You’ve made me abashed to acknowledge that I’ve never seen L and H, but I enjoyed the image you drew of your young kids being “woke” to the pleasures by their daddy.

    I am a fan of Steve Coogan’s, though, and especially enjoy his “road” style travel films with Rob Brydon. I find them both hilarious.

    Another nice nostalgia piece, J.P.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You are convincing. After a recent purchase of a Roku device, we’ve been watching all manner of free Three Stooges shorts. I’ve subscribed us to the free L&H channel but have yet to watch the first minute.

    Perhaps I know what I’ll do later this evening…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope someone who hasn’t seen them and gives em a try will let me know their impressions. I have been wondering if I laugh because I always have and wonder how they hit someone who’s first experience is as an adult.

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      • We watched “Towed In A Hole” and it’s perhaps the first time a colorized anything helped with the story. Maybe it was the green paint.

        Anyway, your statement about the gags being obvious is quite true but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. While I didn’t laugh out loud I did smile a lot. My teenage daughter was the one laughing out loud.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I vaguely remember L&H from the 60’s, mostly as filler for the TV stations as you remarked, maybe being on in the background but not really paying attention, but I had read about and am interested in seeing the movie about their life. Too Irish? Is it like a Bing Crosby movie?!

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  9. I love Laurel and Hardy; other than the normal contemporary (Cartoon Network) and classic (Warner Bros.) cartoons we often watched as kids, Dad gave us a BIG education into their world. The Music Box, Beaux Hunks/The Flying Deuces, and my favorite (though by far the worst production), Utopia/Atoll K. Love that stuff. We later discovered the Three Stooges on our own. Larry Fine and Shemp are my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had never know about that last movie they did (Utopia/Atoll K). From what I have read you may be the only person who has ever liked it. Maybe I will have to give it a try.
      In the last few days I went the other direction when I found one of their late silent shorts online – Big Business from around 1929.
      It was interesting to see how well developed their characters were even then, and also to see how so many of their mannerisms came directly from the silents.
      I am reminded that in our youth your father and I were called Laurel and Hardy more than once due to our contrasting physiques. 😀

      Like

      • I found a version of Utopia on YouTube the other day and watched it. It cut probably twenty minutes of fairly significant scenes near the back half. There is a lot of vocal dubbing and poor cuts but for a seven year old it was hilarious. Tonight as I’ve been working on an illustration commission I’ve been watching some 1930-31 shorts. I agree that many of their tropes are intact fairly early on.

        Also hilarious that you guys were called that! I can see it. Before John and I knew their names, we asked dad to put on a tape of the “thin man and the fat man”. Around that time he described the brothers who owned the land next to the property, the Hasseltines, in a similar manner. Both are long-dead but when I think of them, I think of Laurel and Hardy.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Here’s a question: One of the most charming things about the L&H movies was the background music composed by Leroy Shield. The original soundtracks are lost, but the “Beau Hunks” have re-created the music and you can listen to it on YouTube. However, their “reproduction” does not sound quite like the “original”, despite the fact that they’re playing the same music, with the same instruments, and trying to be as authentic as possible. Why is this? It’s like the fact that today’s vocalists are physically incapable of singing as sweetly and with the same “lilt” as singers of the ’30s. You can always tell a present-day person is singing.

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    • Agreed. I love old jazz but modern players can almost never recreate the sound of the players of the 20s, 30s or 40s. Someone playing in 1929 never heard a record from 1957 or 1989 but modern players have and they have absorbed musical ideas that they cannot realistically ignore.

      Singers have the same issue, of course. Modern period movies are the worst with singers trying to appeal to modern audiences while pretending to front a 1930s group.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

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