Despite a prolific and iconic career, comedy duo Laurel and Hardy are unjustly ignored by modern audiences, argues George Morahan
Time has not been kind to Laurel and Hardy. Despite being in an age where the public’s comedy tastes can wildly vary (from the stoic minimalism of Stewart Lee’s standup to the gross-out bromances of Judd Apatow’s Hollywood movies), there seems to be little room for the comedy stylings that made Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy two of the most recognisable faces on Earth. In fact, their style is rather derided by contemporary audiences.
The partnership of a short, thin Englishman and his rotund American sidekick was one of the most fruitful in the early years of the Hollywood studio system and kept audiences laughing in the late 1920s and throughout the thirties.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson first emigrated from Britain at the age of 22. Having toured up and down the UK as a support act for most of his childhood and young adult life, Jefferson decided to seek fame and fortune in the US.
Upon reaching America, it was decided that shorter name would be more beneficial to his career, and so Stan Laurel was born. Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy had been a popular stage singer is his native state of Georgia, before finding a stable career as supporting actor in a number of silent films when he moved to New York.
After moving to California, Hardy starred in a film entitled The Lucky Dog along with one Stan Laurel. This would be the first film they would appear in together, though they were both starring as solo acts, not as the double act that would bring them celebrity.
It took many years for the pair to find popularity; they would not star together again until 1926. It was only upon being paired up by studio boss Hal Roach that everything started clicking into place and in 1927’s The Second Hundred Year, “Stan and Ollie” were born.
Stan and Ollie were truly prolific under the guidance of Roach and over the course of their partnership, it is thought that they made 32 short silent films, 40 short films with sound and 23 full-length feature films, as well as eleven cameo appearances in other films. Overall, Stan and Ollie made 106 films together – a testament to the longevity and to how beloved they were to audiences worldwide.
“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into…” goes the phrase which distils the comic personas of Stan and Ollie. Stan would be constantly annoyed with his buffoon of a partner, even though he had contributed as much to their misfortune as Ollie had and both had been undermined by their inherent dimness and perpetual optimism.
Both characters also had a penchant for farcical slapstick and general idiocy, but they were bound by friendship in a way that made it obligatory for them to stick together. The universe wanted them together and they would eternally remain as a cosmic punching bag, much to the delight of thousands of cinema lovers.
A large part of their act would be grounded in slapstick; as the constant subjects of fate’s mocking gaze, the pair found themselves on the receiving end of many beatings and calamitous injuries.
Scenes were naturally played for laughs with onomatopoeic sound effects fed in to quell worries of any actual bodily harm caused to the pair, an example of their egoless performances; willing to throw out any dignity they had to get a laugh. They were born showmen and performers. Many of their films revolved around a tit-for-tat competition rival, allowing for silliness and calamity to spiral out of control.
Although laughs did come from their onscreen personas, the pair’s physical disparity and appearance were vital to the performance. They were and are instantly recognisable; the towering Ollie is his scruffy, ill-fitting suit, complete with tatty necktie along with his large bowler hat and fixed toothbrush moustache and the short, trim Stan wearing his oversized suit and bow tie completed with his narrow bowler hat and walk comparable to that of a duck’s waddle.
Their consistency was a source of familiarity and comfort for their contemporary audience, as they followed a tried-and-tested formula. The comedy, the situations and the results were easy to replicate from film to film and audiences would lap it up.
Of course, it’s easy to see why an act that brokered success with their repetition and consistency would be deemed unfashionable by sophisticated modern audiences who are in demand for originality and constant evolution of the comedian, but Laurel and Hardy were allowed to refine and continue to find variance and nuance in an act they had been perfecting over the course of their entwining careers.
However, after leaving Roach in the 1940s, the popularity of Laurel and Hardy began to wane, but they had left an unavoidable mark on comedy that would remain through the century. The archetype of the well-meaning but forever flawed duo would survive in many incarnations with great success, from The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, to more contemporary couples such as French and Saunders, Mitchell and Webb and even Kenan and Kel.