The Legacy of Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy
by Richard W. Bann


Throughout the 20th century there have been many great comedians. But which ones will the world continue to celebrate in the new millenium?

Any honor roll of comedy favorites would have to include Woody Allen, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Bill Cosby, Fernandel, W.C. Fields, Louis de Funès, Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Toto, Mae West and others. Cults have arisen around these supremely funny artists, who have all left lasting marks on 20th-century popular culture.

Yet no one has brought the world more laughter than the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Nor is anyone more beloved than these two funny, gentle men - the thin one and the fat one. The wry-faced, dim-witted Stan Laurel, with the natural fright-wig hair, and the courtly, portly Oliver Hardy, with his bangs and expansive gestures.

"Stan and Ollie" or "The Boys" complemented each other perfectly. They were geniuses without showing it, without knowing it. They made their artistry seem effortless and completely natural. Their comedy style is unique and timeless, their appeal basic and universal. They were first and foremost visual comedians, who let us see ourselves - and laugh.

Hal Roach paired Laurel with Hardy, pretty much by accident, at the Hal Roach Studios in 1926, as silent films were nearing their end. Fans agree that the duo's silent films were their best efforts. Fans and critics are intimately familiar with slapstick classics like TWO TARS, LIBERTY, BIG BUSINESS and THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. Three of these films employ a comedy device variously known in the comedy vocabulary around Hal Roach Studios as civilized violence, mutual abuse, or reciprocal destruction. Nothing ever put on film is funnier than these sequences.
Laurel & Hardy adapted with ease to talking in movies, practically paying no attention to it. Their voices matched their screen personalities. Sound effects aided their talking films. So did the wonderful, peppy period background music. The Boys were then able to punctuate their physical and visual comedy with catch phrases long familiar to fans who smile when they hear variants of this dialogue:

I'm Mr. Hardy, and this is my friend, Mr. Laurel.
Why don't you do something to help me?
We certainly do!
Tell me that plan again.
Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!


Laurel & Hardy also utilized a whole inventory of pantomimic mannerisms, devices and props which distinguished their work: the derbies, the cry, the hairstyles, the long- suffering camera looks, the eye-blink, the back-breaking pratfalls, the white magic, the tie-twiddle . . . Yet all these things are mechanical. At the heart of their appeal, underlying all their behavior, is one simple concept. Love. These films were made with love, and they reflected love. Stan and Ollie are nice people. Lovable people.

They comport themselves with dignity. Their innocence is fundamental to their appeal. We see them as overgrown children, ignorant of evil. They blithely offer goodwill in a harsh world that would instantly crush them if ever they were even noticed!

Stan Laurel disliked analyzing comedy or explaining why audiences laughed. It's like taking a watch apart, or grabbing at smoke. Oliver Hardy, however, did say, "Those two fellows we created, they were nice, very nice people. They never get anywhere because they are both so dumb, but they don't know they're dumb. One of the reasons people like us, I guess, is because they feel superior to us." This notion is echoed by the opening title card for their 1929 short subject entitled THE HOOSE-GOW: "Neither Mr. Laurel nor Mr. Hardy had any thoughts of doing wrong. As a matter of fact, they had no thoughts of any kind."

At the outset of BIG BUSINESS, also of 1929, the introductory title sets the eternally optimistic tone for all Laurel & Hardy comedies: "The story of a man who turned the other cheek - and got punched in the nose."

After movies found a voice, The Boys continued to get punched in the nose, and they continued to make masterpieces of short comedies. Certainly not all were, but scholars and fans alike point to BRATS, HOG WILD, HELPMATES, TOWED IN A HOLE and THE MUSIC BOX (Oscar winner) as short subjects audiences never, ever tire of seeing. A common denominator in these films is how they allowed for the meticulous exploitation of usually just one situation, propelled by a progressively funnier and faster string of slapstick gags. The idea was to execute a gag which arose naturally out of the situation at hand, then top the gag, then top the topper.

Hal Roach always maintained that "except for Chaplin, there was no better gagman in the business than Stan Laurel. He could always get the most out of every single gag." As the economics of motion picture exhibition changed in the 1930s, Hal Roach needed to produce feature-length vehicles for Laurel & Hardy. Filmgoers then and now treasure WAY OUT WEST, BLOCK-HEADS and SONS OF THE DESERT among their best full-length feature films.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Youngson, himself responsible for a Laurel & Hardy renaissance in the 1950s and 1960s, used to say that no one loved them but the public. Yet belated critical acclaim has now been showered upon Laurel & Hardy. More books have been written on this comic duo than anyone else named above with the single exception of Chaplin. Now there are Laurel & Hardy biographies, critical studies, chronologies, picture books, quiz books, and even a Laurel & Hardy encyclopedia. As Wilfred Lucas said playing the prison warden in PARDON US: "And still they come."

The Boys, Stan and Ollie, Laurel & Hardy - they enjoyed perfect harmony, on and off-screen.

Their active partnership lasted a quarter century; their legacy will last forever.

Richard W. Bann is a film historian and co-author of "The Little Rascals: The Life And Times Of Our Gang" (New York, 1992).