Bright Lights Film Journal

Nuts and Nice Messes: On Laurel and Hardy

“Life isn’t short enough . . .” — Laurel in Sons of the Desert (1934)

There are some performers who were meant to be together on screen. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers balance each other so perfectly that watching one of their dances is akin to a religious experience; everything works, everything shouts “Kismet!” William Powell and Myrna Loy already had long careers behind them playing mostly villains before she literally fell into his lap in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), whereupon they started up a dry repartee that lasted through many years and movies; again, it was “Kismet!” But the biggest “Kismet!” of them all took place in the mid-twenties at the Hal Roach Studio, when two jobbing comedians, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, gradually came together to create their own world on screen, aided at the beginning by the story-writing talents of Leo McCarey and the camerawork of George Stevens. Thus, two of our best directors learned their trade under the unbeatable auspices of Laurel and Hardy, known the world over as an image of unbreakable friendship pledged to love through all disaster. After borrowing John McCabe’s useful Laurel and Hardy biography from the library, I placed it on a counter to be checked before I left; the very young checkout girl glanced at a photograph of the boys on the cover and instantly started laughing, warmly, affectionately. I asked her if she’d seen their films. “No,” she said. “They just look funny together.”

It took many years of struggle and experimentation before Stan and Ollie joined forces definitively. Laurel’s father was a well-known English actor-manager, and Laurel himself got his start in Fred Karno’s comedy troupe with another young English comic, Charlie Chaplin (Laurel and Chaplin actually roomed together briefly, a fact that conjures up a few unbeatable real-life comedy shorts in my mind). Hardy hailed from the deep South, and he was very much himself from the beginning; a surviving baby photo looks amusingly like the mature Hardy, so much so that he was nicknamed “Babe” throughout his life. As a young man, he ran a movie theater as a projectionist, and later started to make comedy shorts in Florida; he played a lot of villains in his early shorts, rough, unshaven galoots, but his basic sweetness always managed to shine through. Laurel’s character in his own early shorts is frustratingly indeterminate; he usually played a sharpie with slicked-back hair in his films and sometimes did full-on imitations of Chaplin on stage. In Lucky Dog (1917), the first, accidental meeting between the boys, Hardy is an inept thief who tries to stick Laurel up, but Stan exercises mastery over Ollie from the first, easily vanquishing him and then kicking him in the ass, Chaplin-style.

It would be ten more years before they became a proper team. In Forty-Five Seconds from Hollywood (1926), a mélange of Hal Roach regulars, they worked separately and both wore the large mustaches of their future movie nemesis, James Finlayson. Then lightning struck with Duck Soup (1927), their first pairing as a team; thought lost for many years, this silent two-reeler presents them almost fully in character (it would later be re-made as a sound three-reeler, Another Fine Mess [1930]). Sitting forlornly on a park bench, the boys are down and out, as they usually are. Hardy doesn’t have his mustache yet, but he’s unshaven and wears a monocle, which signals that he’s already asserting his dignity and his sense of superiority over Stan. Laurel’s hair is still slicked down, and he almost does his famous, “But I couldn’t help it!” crying act, but it’s not quite ready yet (later on, he could turn his “cry” shtick on and off like a faucet). Stan dresses as a woman, loses his skirt, then “camps” for a moment, with limp wrist, and the boys wind up aloft on a phallic fire hose gone berserk.

All and all, Duck Soup was a highly suggestive start to their partnership, but the five shorts that followed split them up. Why Girls Love Sailors (1927) has Stan simpering outrageously with his girlfriend, then puts him in drag again, so that he can flirt with old sea salt Ollie, who playfully smacks Laurel on the ass and gets a smack in the face in return. In the first reel of With Love and Hisses (1927), an army comedy, Ollie is sometimes in league against Stan with James Finlayson, which is mildly upsetting for any true fan, and the boys later go skinny-dipping together, an unusual sight that might also be mildly upsetting to some L & H devotees. In Sailors Beware (1927), Ollie is a woman-crazed purser and Stan is an ill-tempered cabbie, and both are quite bewilderingly out of character; in these early silents, Hardy seems ready for their mature style, but Stan is still working out the kinks. In repose, Laurel would always fall into a harsh, disagreeable look, but he learned to hide this in the later films until it was needed for one of his character’s rare retaliatory bursts of vengeance against Ollie (this habitual crabby expression can be seen unadorned in the painful early fifties This is Your Life episode with the boys, where host Ralph Edwards earns himself a special place in hell by directing constant, lame fat jokes at Hardy).

Do Detectives Think? (1927) is a return to the “we’re in this together” teamwork of Duck Soup; it’s a weak short, too dependent on “scared” business, but it does finally give them their classic bowler hats. Three shorts later, they found their real footing with Leo McCarey on The Second Hundred Years (1927), which has them as jailbirds trying to escape and making a mess out of a reception with the warden. It was in this short that they laid the groundwork for their style; they would set up a joke, sometimes for quite some time, execute it, which happened fairly quickly, and then “milk the gag” to the nth degree, so that the set-up and the milking afterwards were always more important than the gag itself (this technique would later turn up in many of the later features of McCarey and Stevens). Putting Pants on Philip (1927) would be the last movie where the boys strayed rather far from their comic characters: Hardy plays the dignified uncle of kilt-wearing, girl-crazy Laurel. It’s well made (Stevens does some elaborate tracking shots), but wholly uncharacteristic, more Buster Keaton than Laurel and Hardy. The Battle of the Century (1927) has Stan as an unlikely boxer and Ollie as his promoter, and it climaxes in the pie fight to end all pie fights, the first of their renowned “tit for tat” routines, which would come to a head in the classic Big Business (1929), an orgy of thoughtless destruction.

Leave ‘Em Laughing (1928), one of their best silent shorts, opens with Laurel and Hardy in bed together, a soon to be familiar sight and one that first raises that vexed question: just what kind of relationship do these “boys” have? There aren’t any easy answers to this. In their later films, Laurel and Hardy are often in flight from women, and with reason. Many of their wives are unreasonable gorgons (often played by the ever-popular Mae Busch), who take out a shotgun at alarming speed in order to settle a dispute. The available single women in their world are pretty and sexy but almost always mean, mercenary, and ready to laugh at any unfortunate pratfall. The boys are purely avuncular with the few sweet single girls that come their way.

Off-screen, Laurel and Hardy had extremely messy personal lives and numerous wives, most of whom took them to court demanding alimony, sometimes many years after the marriage had ended. Ollie was vulnerable and self-conscious about his weight, and he put up with his second wife’s chronic alcoholism for a long time before finally finding some happiness with a third wife. The brash and argumentative Stan also found some peace with his last spouse, but not before his wandering eye landed him a crazy-quilt marital career that came to a head with his third (or fourth?) wife, a gold-digging, unbalanced Russian lush who drove him out of his house one night to dig a hole in his backyard. When the wife asked what he was doing, Laurel cried, “I’m going to bury you alive!” That could easily be a scene from one of their darker movies, but they never would have had screen time for the suits, countersuits, and awkward reconciliations with the Real Life Wives that marked their most successful period, the 1930s.

In Sailors Beware, Laurel frankly looks over a hot young thing and she rejects him, so he nastily knocks her into a pool; this behavior would have been unthinkable to the later Laurel character, who exists in a world of childlike gullibility. In one of their last features, The Bullfighters (1945), a Latin bombshell kisses Laurel; he’s completely oblivious, then “responds” slightly. She leaves, he falls flat onto the floor, and Ollie helps him up; out of it, but still vaguely turned on, he then kisses Ollie, who shoos him away (when the bombshell kisses Stan a second time, he falls backward, then ditzily kisses a guy that they’re with, which makes Ollie furious). In the army for Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), the boys sleep in an unconscious and very sweet embrace; toward the end of that feature, a girl kisses Laurel, he has a delayed reaction, and Hardy literally pulls him away from her. In Way Out West (1937), they both try to put their arm around a woman but wind up touching only each other.

When Hardy croons a romantic ballad at length in the first scene of Beau Hunks (1931), Stan breaks the mood by saying, “What are you getting so mushy about?” In a moment like that, we get a glimpse of the real Laurel, and these glimpses are rare but telling. Sitting on a couch, in full female drag, with the hot blond Thelma Todd in Another Fine Mess, Stan absently drops his simpleton character mask and relates to her like the randy adult he was off-screen. Hardy usually minces like an embarrassed little kid with his women, but when he’s confronted with the young, black-underwear-clad Jean Harlow in Double Whoopee (1929), he looks genuinely lustful. Harlow and Todd provided their series with glimpses of real sex (in Chickens Come Home [1930], Hardy is even married to Todd), but the boys’ sexual confusion with each other on screen remains tantalizingly undefined (in Myra Breckinridge [1970], one of their scenes from Great Guns [1941] is intercut during a male rape and naughtily cast as a double entendre).

Laurel is often seen as the interloper on Hardy’s domestic realm, the male friend who can’t be got rid of. Sometimes Hardy wants to be alone with one of his more amenable wives, but more often then not he wants to escape into fancy-free living with his pal. “It’s men like you that cause all the trouble between man and wife!” snarls Busch to Laurel in Unaccustomed As We Are (1929). Wifeless, they were sailors, convicts, handymen, movers, and sometimes just plain homeless and desperate, even hungry, as in One Good Turn (1931). With a wife, Hardy would like to climb the social ladder, but Laurel always manages to yank him back down to nothing. Yet Ollie can’t give Stan up. They’re soulmates, tied together in Beckett-like fashion to the end, the yin and the yang, the fat and the thin; epicurean Hardy loves to order lots of the most succulent-sounding food, but Laurel is ever satisfied with “hard-boiled eggs and some nuts.”

“Too bad you wasn’t a woman,” says Ollie to Stan, pointedly, in A Chump at Oxford (1940), when a married pair of servants is needed; no problem, Laurel just gets into drag again. In one of their few really poor shorts, Twice Two (1933), the boys actually play each other’s wives, as if they long for female versions of themselves, but this interesting idea is spoiled by the awkward dubbing of female voices for them to lip-synch to. In Angora Love (1929), they seem to merge into one person; Ollie massages Stan’s foot, thinking it’s his own, and his face beams with relaxation (he does the same thing in Beau Hunks). They often got stuck with a baby of some kind, whether it was an actual child, as in the very revealing Their First Mistake (1932), or a dog, a goat, a chimp, or just a malevolent piano, as in their greatest short, The Music Box (1932). Their characters were eminently suggestible, especially Laurel, whose “stupidity” was childlike most of the time but often wandered into the dicier areas of the adult subconscious. They’re two halves of the same person, which means that their love for each other is ideal, in the strict Platonic sense, and if the boys ever have sex of some kind, it would have to be unconsciously, part of their instinctive dumbness (and not to be spoken about afterward!). Were there mutual, half-asleep hand-jobs in the cold of that rooming house they so often shared? Did Ollie sometimes cry, “Ouch!” when he realized that this was one more thing Stan couldn’t do right? As Ruth Gordon would say, let’s draw the veil.

McCarey himself directed three of their best silent shorts, We Faw Down (1928), which sets up their Sons of the Desert template, Liberty (1929), which has some crack Harold Lloyd stunts on top of a skeletal skyscraper, and Wrong Again (1929), which features the surreal sight of a horse on a piano and a nude female statue with ass and tits facing front. This image bedevils Stan, who at this stage is extremely precise with his befuddled expressions, all specific, failed attempts at thought (he later got sloppy with this, especially in their bad ’40s movies at Fox, where the seams of his technique start to show). Stan’s all-purpose shrug is more energetic and virile in the silents; later on, the Laurel shrug would get ZaSu Pitts-limp-wristed. Hardy’s tie-twiddle is expert from first to last, or soup to nuts, and he used it as a punctuation, a polite endearment, or a sign of stymied sexual excitement and embarrassment. His famous look into the camera can mean so many things: incredulity, exasperation, sarcasm, resignation.

Though they made a smooth transition to talking pictures, it took a while for them to really get comfortable with sound. Berth Marks (1929), Men O’War (1929), A Perfect Day (1929), Hoosegow (1929), and Night Owls (1929) are all static and unimaginative (though the “cuckoo” musical theme that heralded each new work was an inspired addition, the constant use of the same musical underscoring in most of the sound shorts starts to be maddening when you watch several in a row). Their emphasis on character soon paid off: Hardy generally has an idea of fun that he tries to put into action, and Laurel always punctures this idea by naively getting to the reality of a situation. This concept was furthered with Blotto (1930), where they embroidered on their natural suggestibility; the boys sneak into a nightclub and get roaring drunk, only to find that they haven’t actually been drinking liquor.

Before he left them, McCarey gave them three more of their best shorts. Brats (1930) has them creepily playing their own children, and the marvelous Below Zero (1930) has them playing music in Arctic temperatures, only to find that they’ve been laboring in front of the “Deaf and Dumb Institute” (they were never afraid of tasteless gags like this). There’s no underscoring here, which gives this short a nice, grim, W. C. Fields feeling; it’s a cold world they live in, both literally and figuratively, and Below Zero ends with Laurel’s stomach disgustingly distended after he gulps a whole barrel of ice water (Stan favored such cartoonish, morbid gags, sometimes to the despair of Roach). Hog Wild (1930) is one of their greatest comedies of disaster, and it includes an unusually understanding, three-dimensional Hardy wife (Fay Holderness).

Laurel had total control of their material; he created the gags while McCarey provided most of the basic stories and overall supervision. “Hardy was really incapable of creating anything at all,” said McCarey. “It was astonishing that he could find his way to the studio.” Yet there was no ill feeling between the boys; unlike Fred and Ginger, Laurel and Hardy managed to be good friends off-screen. Visually, their work suffers after their split from McCarey; the editing starts to get choppy and awkward, the framing uncertain or downright obstructive, the ratty Roach sets dimly lit or worse. Working within these limitations, they continued to refine their comic characters from 1931 to 1933, branching out into three-reelers and then a first feature, Pardon Us (1931), where they land in jail for selling beer, another “nice mess” Laurel has gotten Ollie into (it was always a “nice mess,” not a “fine mess,” as the title of one of their sound three-reelers confusingly has it). When Laurel has to have a loose tooth taken out at the dentist’s, Hardy comes along so he won’t be so scared; pleased, Stan links his arm under Ollie’s, as if he knows he’s safe. Twice, they are placed in solitary confinement, which feels especially cruel because they so clearly need to be together.

Laurel could sometimes erupt in anger at his always-condescending pal; in One Good Turn, a Depression-maddened Stan goes after Ollie with an axe, even calling him a “big bozo!” into the bargain. When Hardy takes a pratfall in Our Wife (1931), the furniture in his living room literally jumps on him, as if the universe had some sort of poltergeist grudge against him, and Stan helplessly crosses his eyes after seeing cross-eyed Ben Turpin, another example of his nightmarish malleability. In Helpmates (1931), Hardy’s wife is frowning in their wedding photo, and Laurel says he’ll never get married, the boast of a kid (in Flying Elephants [1927], Stan says he can’t get married because “my mother hasn’t told me everything yet.”) Then, cleaning the kitchen, Laurel cries, “If I had any sense, I’d walk out on you,” followed by a long take that shows Stan’s befuddlement about what he’s just said, or admitted.

They made some outright stinkers: The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930) and The Private Life of Oliver the Eighth (1934) are three-reel time-wasters with almost nothing going on in them, but their three-reeler The Music Box rightly won an Oscar, and it remains the most perfect, most contained Laurel and Hardy short. Sisyphus-like, the boys are hauling a piano up in an enormous flight of stone stairs; the static shots of these stairs have a lonely grandeur. En route, they deal with a nasty maid, an officious cop, and Billy Gilbert’s hilariously self-important professor; the piano keeps sliding back down the stairs, over and over again. When they finally get to the top, a workman tells them that they could have driven up to the door, so they go back down (they’re d-u-m-m, dumb), and then poor Ollie steps on a board with nails and falls into a fountain as the piano falls on top of him. Once they get inside, there’s a rare moment of peace, and they blissfully do a small minuet to the player piano’s “Medley of Patriotic Songs,” but they’re disrupted again by Gilbert, who angrily tells them he doesn’t want the piano and takes an axe to it.

Laurel flirts with a lovelorn gorilla in the bizarre and underrated The Chimp, but has to deal with the much fiercer Mae Busch in the eye-opening Their First Mistake. “She thinks I think more of you than I do of her,” Ollie says, to which Stan replies, “Well, you do, don’t you?” It’s hard not to notice that they’re lying on a bed during this exchange; there’s a pause, and then Hardy sheepishly says, “Well, we won’t go into that.” Busch sues Laurel for alienation of affection (!), whereupon Hardy falls into the persona of jealous unwed mother and Laurel confusedly plays the cad, saying he has to “think of his career.” They get a baby, and when it cries, Ollie puts his arm around Stan and feeds him the bottle, a collapse into full-on infantilism that represents the furthest they ever ventured in trying to define their own polymorphously perverse on-screen relationship. In The Midnight Patrol (1933), where they play cops, a limp-wristed queer guy tries to steal their rear tire, and this short marks the only time that Laurel and Hardy are both killed in one of their movies, shot off-screen on the orders of the head of the force (in the pre-team Flying Elephants, Stan offs Ollie by kicking him off a cliff).

Their comic invention crested with two shorts, Busy Bodies and Dirty Work (both 1933) and their best feature, Sons of the Desert. In Busy Bodies, they run afoul of a lumberyard, while in Dirty Work, they’re accident-prone chimney sweeps, and in both of these two-reelers they reached the height of their post-McCarey precision with disaster gags. Sons begins at an ominously lit lodge meeting. “The weak must be helped by the strong,” says their leader; cut to Ollie looking at Stan and giving him a priceless little dutiful nod. They live next door to each other here, and Laurel has a duck-hunting, gun-happy wife, while Hardy lives with Busch, a woman who goes into many a tirade at feather duster-headed Stan. Their first features seem undirected, but Sons benefits from William A. Seiter’s expert staging and strategic use of close-ups and long shots to punctuate gags. There’s no tit for tat or surreal gags, or any special insight into the boys’ relationship, but Sons still stands as their most balanced, most representative work.

Their remaining shorts were mechanical affairs, though Going Bye Bye (1934) does have Hardy plummily explaining, “Excuse me, please, my ear is full of milk,” a howler that is only funny if you’ve followed the film’s elaborate lead-up to this non-sequitur. In their last short, Thicker Than Water (1935), they literally switch personalities and physiques due to blood transfusions; this feels almost romantic. The boys started to appear in operettas like Fra Diavolo (1933) and The Bohemian Girl (1936), but they rallied for two more first-rate features: Way Out West (1937), a parody western where they do a wonderful, vaudeville-style soft shoe routine; and Block-Heads (1938), where Laurel remarks on Hardy’s “pretty underwear” and is told by Ollie to not “get personal.” In one operetta, Swiss Miss (1938), they contrived an extremely funny, weird routine involving a piano, a rickety bridge, and an unexpected appearance by a hostile gorilla, proof that they were best when they were wildest and least realistic.

They did two more, rather tired features for Roach, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea (both 1940), but then broke away from their alma mater, which resulted in a disastrous series of 1940s films at Fox and MGM over which they had no control. “You know I wouldn’t say that,” Hardy would sigh to his wife, as he read over his Fox lines in the morning, and indeed, these unfortunate films betray their characters, especially Air Raid Wardens (1943), where they are asked to descend to pathos; mortifyingly Laurel is made to bemoan the fact that he and his buddy “aren’t smart like other people,” but by golly, they can foil the Nazis if they’re given a chance! If only Orson Welles could have used them in the forties for a major film about friendship.

Their late material was lousy, but it was also hard to laugh at the boys when they stopped being middle-aged and started to look elderly. A young Chaplin tramp might make it out of poverty, but old tramps like 1940s-era Laurel and Hardy have been marked by fate. Their last movie was an anomalous, shoddily dubbed international production called Atoll K, or Utopia (1952), in which Laurel looks like hell and Hardy is much bigger and looks sickly, too. “Haven’t I always taken care of you?” asks Ollie. “You’re the first one I think of.” It’s a sentimental moment, but they’ve earned it, and the film itself is perversely likable in spite of its technical limitations. They followed this last movie with a successful tour of England, until Hardy became too ill to continue. Laurel stayed with his friend while he was on his deathbed. When Ollie died in 1957, Stan told the press, “I am completely lost without Hardy. He was like a brother to me.” Laurel lived for a few years more, until 1965, long enough to see their films appreciated by a new generation.

It’s hard to see their movies on DVD; there are too many scattered collections here and there, and it’s about time some reputable company restored and released their silent and talkie shorts in chronological order, in affordable boxed sets. There’s something so comforting about their comic universe and how infinitely renewable it is; we never really learn how they met, or where they’ll wind up, but their stormy connection is as firm as Gibraltar. Their style of humor is old-fashioned, an acquired taste for comedy connoisseurs. Modern humor is quick, reference-laden, ironic, and loathe to admit to emotion, whereas Laurel and Hardy were and are so successful because you can always feel the slow-dawning, archetypal truth of their antagonistic but rewarding marriage to each other, expressed in a handful of dreamy, cherishable shorts and features.