Laurel and Hardy – 10 of the Best
With the release of the much anticipated biopic Stan and Ollie, Shaun Ponsonby revisits ten of Laurel and Hardy’s classic films.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made over 100 films as a duo – and now Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the team in the highly anticipated biopic, Stan and Ollie.
Although it is all in black and white and features some effects that look undoubtedly flimsy, the vast majority of the material has aged remarkably well. You have two idiots, and a bunch of dignified people walking around with pies on their faces. That translates everywhere, and in any age. For this writer, Laurel and Hardy are Hollywood’s original comedy geniuses.
One of the things that make Laurel and Hardy so consistently funny was that neither of them were dedicated straight men. There was no equivalent to Ernie Wise to suffer Eric Morecambe. If anything, the straight men were the supporting players, most notably James Finlayson (arguably their finest antagonist, and the person whom Homer Simpson’s cry of “D’oh!” is based on).
Ollie (known as “Babe” to his friends) thinks he’s the straight man, but he is just as stupid as Stan (a native of Ulverston in the Lake District), which in some ways makes him dumber due to his partner’s complete innocence. It’s dumb and dumber.
The Cuckoo Song, the duo’s theme, sums their characterisations up perfectly. The cuckoo sound that plays throughout represents Stan; not bright, naïve, not all there. The big, dominating, pompous Hardy is represented by the domineering melody that backs it.
Their glory period was long – over a decade of successful films at the Hal Roach studios. But their decline was slow and miserable, reaching its nadir with Atoll K – a miserable film with a terribly sick looking Laurel and Hardy. The gaunt Laurel’s weight had dropped to 114lbs after his pre-existing diabetes was aggravated by developing colitis, dysentery and a prostate ulcer. Hardy, meanwhile, saw his already hefty frame expand to 330lbs, and he required medical care for cardiac fibrillation and the flu. Filming should have taken 12 weeks. It took a whole year, and bombed upon release, ending their film career.
But at their best, they were untouchable. Though in the films, Hardy was the dominant character, behind the scenes it was Laurel who pulled the strings, often serving as an uncredited writer and director. Indeed, directors would often loathe working with Laurel as he would essentially take over and control each aspect of production, such was his understanding and dedication to the team.
In anticipation of Stan and Ollie, we take a look at ten essential Laurel and Hardy films.
10. Block-Heads (1938)
Initially announced as Laurel and Hardy’s final film (that didn’t last long), Block-Heads is a curiosity that brings together elements such as the silent We Faw Down, and pretty poignantly referencing their very first talkie Unaccustomed As We Are – both from around ten years previously.
The feature begins with the two men fighting in World War I. Ollie goes over the top, but Stan is ordered to guard the trenches. Fast forward 20 years and nobody has informed Stan that the war is over – he is still guarding the trench.
When he finally returns home, he is taken to Ollie’s home and the usual chaos ensues, culminating in it seeming as if Hardy is having an affair with a neighbours’ wife. The original ending in the script had the neighbor seated comfortably in his study, with Stan and Ollie‘s heads mounted on his trophy wall, as Ollie glances at Stan and says, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!“. Studio head Hal Roach vetoed the idea as “too gruesome” – especially seeing as it was hyped as the duo’s final film. But the gag was later used it at the end of The Three Stooges’ 1941 short, I’ll Never Heil Again.
9. Laughing Gravy (1930)
Stan and Ollie’s landlord has a “no pets” policy, which means they have to hide their dog, Laughing Gravy (a sly reference to prohibition). Of course, the landlord finds out.
Interestingly, this has two endings. The more somber of the two ends with the landlord’s suicide – a standard comedy trope at the time that was regularly used in cartoons.
In 1985, a longer version of the film was discovered which had a preferable ending; Stan being offered to give up his inherited fortune on the condition that he leave Ollie behind. He refuses, on the basis that he couldn’t bear to leave Laughing Gravy.
Incidentally, the beginning of the film sees Laurel and Hardy in bed together, a regular scene in their films and an influence on Morecombe and Wise’s famous in bed sketches decades later.
Another Fine Mess (1930)
Another Fine Mess is the source of the often misquoted Hardy catchphrase (for the record, Hardy actually says “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”), but if there are four words that should make you shriek in anticipation its “Stan Laurel in drag”.
A series of misfortunes lead the boys to pose as the wealthy Colonel Buckshot and his maid and butler. Hardy of course plays impersonates the Colonel in all of his pomp, whereas Laurel is forced to play both the butler Hives and the maid Agnes.
Interestingly, the storyline is based on a play written by Laurel’s father in 1908, which the team had already purged for the 1927 silent film Duck Soup.
7. Blotto (1930)
Many of Laurel and Hardy’s movies were made in the prohibition era, and they used this to great effect in their films, and the best of these were of course made in the pre-Hays Code era.
The pre-Code era was the brief time in Hollywood between the advent of the talkies and the enforcement of the Hays Code censorship guidelines in mid-1934. As a result, some films in the late 1920s and early 1930s depicted or implied sexual innuendo, miscegenation, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality.
During the prohibition era, alcohol consumption would have counted as illegal drug use, and this film shows Stan’s wife hiding liquor away after the law was passed. He and Ollie take it, however Mrs. Laurel gets wind of it and replaces the liquor with shoe polish. Unfortunately, the original version of the film is not available for viewing and survives only in a censored 1937 re-release print which had a reel worth of content removed.
Them Thar Hills (1934)
One of the hallmarks of the boys’ films was the tit for tat sequence – a series of one-upmanships that usually ends in disaster. This began in their 1927 silent short Big Business, but was probably best utilised in two films from the 30s.Them Thar Hills and its sequel, Tit For Tat, making this the only Laurel and Hardy direct sequel.
Them Thar Hills is another film that plays on the prohibition era of the US. Ollie is instructed to travel to the mountains in order to recover from gout (perhaps a reference to the previous year’s feature, Sons of the Desert). Apparently all that mountain water is good for him because it contains extra “i-ron”. But as Laurel and Hardy approach, moonshiners dump some homemade hooch into the well, leading the boys to get themselves and a passing motorist unwittingly drunk (“POM! POM!”) – much to the chagrin of the motorist’s husband.
5. Oliver The Eighth (1934)
Ollie answers an ad in the newspaper from a wealthy widow seeking a new husband. When she accepts, the duo travel to her home. Except it turns out that the widow is a serial killer who has murdered each of her seven previous fiancés, each named Oliver.
Stan’s attempts to protect Oliver are the real highlight, which leads to Ollie being knocked unconscious and being shot in the foot. In some ways it bears striking resemblance to the earlier The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case – complete with the slight cop out “it was all a dream ending”. But we know we’re not here for brilliant plot points.
4. One Good Turn (1931)
During the Great Depression, the boys are forced to knock at random houses to beg for food, when an old lady provides them with some sandwiches. Enjoying their meal they hear that the old lady will be thrown out of her house because she is robbed and cannot pay her mortgage. Of course, what they don’t know is that the old lady is rehearsing a play.
I won’t ruin the shenanigans that ensues, but it does lead to Laurel angrily object to being called a “You you”.
What makes this one stand out so much is the ending. The story goes that Stan’s daughter, Lois, had become scared of Hardy due to his on screen relationship with her father. Whilst Laurel’s on screen character was naïve and mild mannered, Hardy’s was more brutish and would regularly often hit Stan out of frustration. To counteract Lois’ fear of “Uncle Babe”, Laurel re-wrote the ending of this film so that the roles would be reversed so that Hardy would get his comeuppance at the hands of Laurel himself.
3. Way Out West (1937)
Stan and Ollie are to deliver the deed to a valuable gold mine to the daughter of a dead prospector, but the girl’s guardians – their old enemy James Finlayson – try to steal the deed for themselves.
The idea for this film was given to Laurel by his then-wife and features some of the duo’s most iconic moments; the performance of Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the Laurel tickling scene, the (entirely improvised) dance number with Avalon Boys, the surreal imagery of Stan lighting his thumb as a match, and even one of their most quoted lines (“A lot of weather we’ve been having lately”). This has naturally made Way Out West one of their most beloved movies.
There’s rarely a happy ending in their films – comedy comes from pathos and there is usually an unfortunate end to the boys’ adventures. So, although Way Out West does have a happy ending where the duo complete their task completely successfully and overcome Finlayson and his unjust plot, there is still a call back to a running gag of Ollie falling into a sinkhole whilst crossing the stream.
2. The Music Box (1932)
This short won Laurel and Hardy their only Academy Award – the first awarded to short subjects. It’s the one where they’re trying to move a piano up a seemingly insurmountable flight of stairs, and a partial remake of their earlier silent film Hats Off.
In a sense, the remakes of the silent films summarise how L&H were able to transition so seamlessly to the talkies. Where most silent stars maybe tried a little too hard to adapt to sound pictures, Laurel and Hardy instead kept the physical element as the core of their act, with the dialogue being used to add to their characterisations such as with Stan’s messed up dialogue – in The Music Box this is most notable when he accuses a police officer of “bounding over your step?”
But the visual gags are still at the heart of it all. After numerous failed attempts, the boys finally do manage to get the piano to the top of the stairs, only to be informed of the ramp they could have used by the postman. Stan and Ollie’s response? They carry the piano back down the stairs and take it back up via the ramp.
1. Sons of the Desert (1933)
Sons… is one of the more perfectly plotted films within the L&H canon. It showcases the talents of not only our protagonists, but also their writers and co-stars. The farcical element of their style of comedy is probably at its best here.
The set-up is almost deceptively simple; Stan and Ollie want to go to their fraternity’s convention. Ollie’s wife reminds him they are taking a vacation to the mountains that weekend. Zany scheme ensues. Zany scheme is found out. Stan has hilarious breakdown. Ollie’s wife throws crockery at him. Fin.
Like most Laurel and Hardy films, it’s the performances that truly bring the film to life. For obvious reasons, the silent and short films they made tended to rely on slapstick, and that was always a large part of their work. However, like most slapstick – from Laurel and Hardy to Looney Tunes – it’s not the violence itself that truly brings the laughs so much as the anticipation of violence, and the features gave more room for this, allowing the duo to really show off their talents, even if most of them didn’t quite hit the mark.
The final scene here, in which Ollie awaits his wife’s wrath, might the funniest silence in cinema history, played perfectly by Hardy. His character throughout the films often fidgeted with his tie during times when he was nervous. Here, it goes on for an interminable length of time. He fidgets, he taps the table, he smiles, he frowns, he twiddles his hat, he plays with a glass on the table, going as far to pick it up and use it to make a foghorn sound. His actions become more and more overwrought as he, and the audience, anxiously awaits the moment of impact. Throughout, Mrs Hardy stares, not moving a muscle. Until he can take no more, looks her directly in the eye and feebly attempts to appease her, “How about you and me going to the mountains?”
Similarly, when the boys are confronted by the wives for a confession and they refuse, we know full well that Stan is going to break, and in the most wonderfully maladjusted fashion. But as brilliant as Laurel’s breakdown is when it finally arrives, it’s his wife’s actual confrontation that is the most purely funny moment in the scene. Waiting, with us, for Stan to have his moment.
Stan and Ollie is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday (11th Jan)