Laurel and Hardy Short Comedies (1927-1933)  (92 min.)

Before school starts, bring the kids (of all ages!) to see some of Stan & Ollie’s most hilarious short films.  We will screen the silent comedy (with music) “The Battle of the Century,” newly restored, with the biggest pie fight of all time, the surreal “The Busy Bodies” in which they take on ill-advised jobs in a sawmill, “Their First Mistake” in which they adopt a baby in a mock soap opera, and their Oscar-winning “The Music Box” in which they carry a piano up a daunting flight of stairs. “Stan and Ollie can convert a group of normal people into a mass of pie-slingers, shin-kickers and pants-pullers. They bring out the worst in everybody” (Gerald Mast in The Comic Mind)

The Battle of the Century (1927) Directed by Clyde Bruckman (19 min)
The Busy Bodies (1933) Directed by Lloyd French (19 min)
Their First Mistake (1932) Directed by George Marshall (21 min)
The Music Box (1932) Directed by James Parrott (29 min)

Laurel and Hardy appeared as a team in 32 silent shorts, 40 talkie shorts, 24 feature films and separately (in the early silent era) in 340 films, many now lost (Louvish 195). One was not the comedian, and the other a straight man. They were comic equals to one another, if not particularly adept in dealing with the world at large. Although sometimes considered lesser than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy were hugely successful comedy stars in both silents and talkies, and remain uproarious crowd pleasers to this day. Oliver Hardy, from small town Georgia and British Stan Laurel (the comedy brains of the team) somehow meshed perfectly as hapless pals.

 

Stan Laurel, born Stanley Jefferson, came from a theatrical family. His father managed a small chain of theaters, but it was the legitimate theater, and the family was aghast when young Stan took a step down into the music hall. He joined Fred Karno’s company of “speechless comedians” where he ended up understudying their biggest star, Charlie Chaplin, and toured the US with the company twice. Karno specialized in pantomime, in part because censorship of the British stage was strict, and every play had to be submitted for examination—unless it didn’t have any words. Some of the comedy skits were quite influential in both Chaplin’s and Laurel’s careers as screen comedians, mined repeatedly for situations and gags.

Oliver Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia, and was overweight all his life. He felt like an outsider as he was teased mercilessly, suffering particularly when his widowed mother, who ran boarding houses, sent him to military school. He became interested in the movies by watching them; he was projectionist and all round dogsbody at a movie house after he graduated from high school, where he admired the antics of another large fellow, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Hardy left for one of the blossoming studios in Jacksonville FL and by 1914 was playing bit parts in the one and two reel films ground out one after the other.

Laurel started in silent films three years later, in 1917, and after being hired and fired at a number of studios, eventually became a starring solo comedian for Hal Roach. He parodied hit films, as in "Mud and Sand", the spoof of Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand, in which he played Rhubarb Vaselino. But his usual brash character was not particularly sympathetic, and nobody appeared to clamor for his films. He worked regularly but never really achieved stardom. Hardy, in his solo films, usually played the heavy and became a regular foil of a now forgotten, but at the time headlining comic, Larry Semon. Semon used him regularly in his popular films, but kept him at a distance, so he wouldn’t become an on-screen rival. Laurel and Hardy were teamed almost accidentally in 1921 in “The Lucky Dog” and met again when they both worked for Hal Roach in the mid-20s. Their partnership finally began to gel in 1926.

The Our Gang comedies were the Roach studio’s biggest moneymakers, with Charley Chase’s comedies a close second. Chase was a “one man gag factory” (Louvish 178) who, under his real name, Charles Parrott, directed and acted for Roach into the talkie era. His brother, James Parrott, was also a talented director, but both of the Parrott brothers had drinking problems that would eventually end their careers. Laurel also directed and helped script films at Roach, and Hardy appeared in 8 of them. Along with Chase and another great comedy director, Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth) they began to refine Roach’s more knockabout visual comedy more to reflect “pity, not cruelty” (Louvish 180). Chaplin was among the earliest in Hollywood to understand the importance of an easily identifiable character recurring in film after film, rather than start all over with each movie. Eventually Laurel and Hardy created characters who would remain unchanged in their classic series of films. Neither age nor changing times altered their essential comedy dynamic.

Although many were happy to claim over years of oral history documentation that they, alone, were the ones who teamed Laurel and Hardy (Roach, who lived to be over 100 was the last living of these claimants) it was probably Leo McCarey who was the culprit. McCarey supervised (produced) or directed many of Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent titles, including the first “real” L&H, “Putting Pants on Philip.” Another Roach director was Clyde Bruckman, from Buster Keaton’s comedy greenhouse; he co-directed The General, among others. Laurel and Hardy’s epic silent films like “The Battle of the Century” “Big Business” and “Two Tars” continue to make people laugh as long as they can be seen on a screen.

"The Busy Bodies"

 

“The comedy techniques of Laurel and Hardy have been analyzed forwards and backwards, examined under microscopes and magnifying glasses. Without doubt, the real miracle of the Great Leap into Immortality lies in the boys’ achievement in bridging the painful transition from silent films to the talkies that left so many actors, comic and dramatic, beached like dying whales on the shore. Stan and Ollie’s apparent bad luck in emerging as silent movie stars at the exact moment the silent cinema was doomed, was turned into the greatest stroke of good fortune.” (Louvin 222). Luckily, their voices, a languid one from Georgia and another from Lancashire, England, matched their characters perfectly. Their pace was already slow in their silent movies, as Walter Kerr has pointed out (335) so the talkies didn’t slow them down further. Their rituals were enshrined, and every little glance and gesture would bring gales of laughter. And, they did not make their films too obsessed with dialogue, creating almost silent films that used scant words and clever sound effects to enhance the comedy. Their late silent shorts and their early sound shorts are quite similar. They move, with stately splendor, toward inevitable disaster. This universally identifiable formula continued to increase their fame around the globe.

They were quite productive in the early sound era. They made 7 shorts in each of the years 1929, 30 and 31, and 8 in 1932, and reshot many of them for foreign markets in French, German, Spanish and Italian, learning their lines phonetically. Their theme, "The Cuckoo Song" was written by 25 year old T. Marvin Hatley, who later became the Roach Studio music director. A few notes of it instantly identified the happy fact that the next image upon the screen would be the antics of Laurel and Hardy.

They rehearsed in the morning. If Stan didn’t like something, it was changed. Charley Rogers, one of their directors said, “Stan was the spirit behind the director. He never intruded himself, and there probably wouldn’t have been any reason for him to intrude, because all of us worked in real harmony. We were all friends, thank God, and that helped a lot. But whenever Stan suggested something in conference or during shooting, it was almost always the right thing. He, perhaps more than anybody else, knew by instinct the kind of gags needed. He watched closely over the pictures, but it was like kind of a beneficent father, not a bossy one who always wanted his own way at any cost. You see, by nature he is a polite man and a gentle fellow, and those two qualities always came over, in front of the camera, and behind it. He was the director’s conscience. Every one of us who worked on those pictures had a real feeling for those two loveable, silly characters before the camera, and we tried to remain as faithful as we could to the boys’ conception of them” (McCabe 111).

All the films were previewed, and then recut. If one laugh went too long and covered up dialogue, or conversely, something was supposed to be funny and fell flat, the sequence was retimed so there was no dead air. This was standard in the classic Hollywood era. There is nothing more deadly in a modern film that the silence where a laugh was expected, but none materializes.

Hardy was responsible for all his own comedy business, and Stan never directed him. Unlike other comedy teams, they never fought, and never tried to upstage one another. If their relationship on screen was insanely codependent, that was not true in real life. They were not close off the set, and rarely socialized.  You get a little hint of that in the pretty good and reasonably accurate Stan and Ollie, with excellent performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.

“The Battle of the Century” –the biggest pie fight on film--lived on in memory of comedy aficionados, but the film itself was considered lost.  Robert Youngson made hokey compilations of silent film excerpts in the 1950s and 60s.  He had footage transferred from what was thought the only remaining copy of “Battle of the Century” from dangerous nitrate stock to safety film, but then only used the clips he wanted for The Golden Age of Comedy, junking the rest, both the nitrate and the transfer.  In 1979 the first reel showed up, minus the pie fight, and in 2015, film collector Jon Marsalis realized that another collector’s stash which he had recently purchased contained the entire missing reel 2.  I’m so pleased to be able to present—and to see!—this 2018 restoration.

"The Battle of the Century"

 

This was one of their earliest films together.  The original inspiration was a parody of the recently fought heavyweight championship between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, which was billed “The Fight of the Century.”  Pie throwing in films was passé, and even though the team of new Laurel and Hardy had been together only a few months, Stan convinced Hal Roach to buy the entire day’s output from the Los Angeles Pie Company, 3,000 pies, for their scene.  They do get a shout out on the back of a truck. Laurel explained to a film critic in 1929, “It wasn’t just that we threw hundreds of pies.  That wouldn’t have been very funny; it really had passed out with Keystone.  We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically.  We made every one of those pies count” (Skretvedt 108).  Pies have individual repercussions.  Take note of the gag involving comedienne Anita Garvin, and her black circle skirt.  The scene got such a big laugh that it was moved from the beginning of the fight to the end.  Of course, one of the reasons the mayhem is so funny is that everyone is so dressed up!  This would not be nearly as comic if everyone was in t shirts and cargo shorts.  And of course Laurel and Hardy’s quaint formality is always part of the joke.

I didn't do these screencaps, but thank you, whoever you are!

 

“The Busy Bodies” is Laurel and Hardy at what they do best, improvise, on their own, with props and situations, without much of a plot or supporting characters.  There isn’t a story, just a beginning and an end.  It’s unhurried, dependent on our fondness for their characters, and surreal imaginations.  It’s almost a silent comedy, simply with clever sound effects.

Stan probably wrote "Their First Mistake," which was their first film after returning from a trip to the UK where they were amazed to be mobbed by their fans. They were overwhelmed by the love that was shown for their films. John McCabe’s story of one stop on their voyage, Cork, Ireland, is retold by Raymond Durgnat, “There were hundreds of boats blowing whistles and mobs and mobs of people screaming on the docks. We just couldn’t understand what it was all about. And then something happened that I can never forget. All the church bells in Cork started to ring out our theme song, and Babe looked at me and we cried” (95).  Although this film has been submitted to unrelenting analysis, I’ll not do so, except to mention that the script was no doubt influenced a bit by their strained marriages, and Hardy’s childlessness, and the recent death of Stan’s infant son. Here Stan and Ollie have to be everything to each other.

"Their First Mistake"

 

“The Music Box” won an Academy Award for the Best Short Subject of 1932, the first film to win this award.  Billy Gilbert, who plays Professor von Schwartzenhoffen told an interviewer in 1969 that he and Stan Laurel got the idea for the film driving around Silver Lake and spotted the staircase (that had been used once before by another comic) and that the team would have to deliver “something huge and cumbersome but also delicate” (Skretvedt 231).  It is essentially just one joke, shot in sequence over a few days, as Stan and Ollie attempt to move a piano up a daunting flight of stairs in the now trendy Silver Lake neighborhood of LA, near the Laurel and Hardy Park. “The steps are a public staircase that connects Vendome Street (at the base of the hill) with Descanso Drive (at the top of the hill), and are located at 923-925 North Vendome Street near the intersection of Del Monte Drive (one block from Sunset Blvd).   A plaque commemorating the film was set into one of the lower steps in the 1990s” (Wikipedia).  This staircase was used in other comedy films, but not in the Three Stooges comedy, “An Ache in Every Stake;“ that staircase in on the opposite side of the hill.  I can attest there are many steep staircases in this LA neighborhood.  Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury adored Laurel and Hardy, and this comedy in particular, which inspired two short stories,  in "Another Fine Mess," the author had the boys' ghosts traversing the steps after dark, and in "The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair," a couple of lovers arrange regular picnics at the foot of the staircase” (tcm.com).   If you want to see a goofy cell phone video of climbing the 131 stairs today, I give you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZitGsc67TE  Stan Laurel himself considered it their finest film.

"The Music Box" --at the bottom of the stairs.

 

Sources include: Stan and Ollie by Simon Louvish, The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood comedy and the American Image by Raymond Durgnat, The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy by John McCabe, Films of Laurel and Hardy by William K. Everson, The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr, https://slate.com/culture/2015/06/laurel-and-hardys-battle-of-the-century-pie-fight-reel-is-found.html, Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Box, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/92513%7C0/The-Music-Box.html

c.moviedivaAugust2019