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The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy

January 13, 2012 7:48 PM
5 Comments
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The most popular and successful comedy team in entertainment history was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the timid thin one and the bossy fat one, who made an unbroken string of shorts (20 minutes each, as many as 13 a year) from 1927 to 1935, and features (averaging two annually) from 1930 to 1945.  Since they began so near the 1929 arrival of full sound, and moved into talkies more smoothly than practically any other stars, comic or otherwise, it is often forgotten that they began in silents.  Indeed, purists have always maintained that the best of Laurel and Hardy were their silent two-reelers—-all made in the first two years of the team’s existence—-and that the level of hilarity they achieved without dialog was never matched in the talking era, even though their voices perfectly suited the pantomimed personas they had so brilliantly established.  These rare silent comedy classics have been collected in ten DVD compilations under the umbrella title, The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy (confusingly made available originally by Image Entertainment under volume numbers 1-10; check through Amazon.com).

English-born Stan Laurel (1890-1965) had already been featured or starred in a good number of short comedies and had worked as a gagman in pictures for over a decade before the brilliant writer-director Leo McCarey had the idea to team him up with Georgia-born bit-player Oliver (“Babe”) Hardy (1892-1957).  This was the first stroke of genius for McCarey, who directed, wrote or supervised all the Laurel and Hardy silents, and would go on to have a most fruitful, memorable feature career, making such enduring favorites as the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Charles Laughton’s Ruggles of Red Gap, Cary Grant’s first success, The Awful Truth—-McCarey won the best director Oscar for that one—-and the first Love Affair (with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne), the remake, An Affair to Remember (with Grant) and Bing Crosby’s Academy Award-winning Going My Way (another directing Oscar plus best picture for producer McCarey).

Less than a year before he died in 1969, I interviewed Leo McCarey, and asked him how much he had to do with shaping the characters that Laurel and Hardy came to be.  “I feel I had a lot to do with it,” he answered, “but modesty prevents me from saying that I gave them their breath and blood.”  Explaining how the team’s gags and mannerisms were worked out, McCarey said, “Stan and I shaped all those things.  Hardy was no good on stories.  Right in front of him Laurel would say, ‘I’m doing twice as much as he is, and whatever he gets, I want to get twice as much money.’  So we always gave Laurel twice as much as Hardy... Laurel was one of those rare comics intelligent enough to invent his own gags.  He was remarkably talented.  Hardy wasn’t.  That was the key to the Laurel-Hardy association.” 

Their shorts also were paced slower than the usual frenetic comedies of the period.  “At that time, comics had a tendency to do too much,” McCarey told me.  “With Laurel and Hardy we introduced nearly the opposite... I came in one morning and I said, ‘We’re all working too fast.  We ought to get away from these jerky movements and work at normal speed.’  I said, ‘I’ll give you an example of what I mean.  There’s a royal dinner.  All the royalty are seated around the table and somebody lets out a fart.  Now everybody exchanges a glance, that’s all.’”

Each of these ten volumes is a mixed bag, always featuring one or two really good titles, but including solo Laurel or solo Hardy appearances that tend to be mainly of historical interest. The first volume kicks off with one of their most hilarious, Big Business—-the boys selling Christmas trees in California, wrecking a guy’s house while he destroys their wares and car—-and Vol. 3 contains the painfully, uproariously funny Liberty, in which the boys find themselves precariously stumbling around on the scaffolding of a tall building with a live crab in first one’s, and then the other’s, pants.  Their outrageous interactions with women—-suspicious wives or flirtatious girlfriends—-are always especially comic, We Faw Down on Vol. 3 being a top example. Other masterpieces to look out for include the wholesale, outrageous destruction of an entire traffic jam in Two Tars, or the hilariously absurd substitution of a racehorse for a classic painting in Wrong Again (aka Blue Boy).

For sheer belly laughs, you can’t get better.

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5 Comments

  • Amber | May 24, 2012 11:33 PMReply

    Is anyone familiar with silent film Love em and Weep?

  • Christopher | January 19, 2012 3:18 AMReply

    I had accumulated quite a few of the silent L&H's on the british dvd series and long before that was familiar with the 20s films thru the Robert Youngson film compilations and from collecting super 8 film two-reelers.My faves are probably Liberty and Should Married Men Go Home?..Almost anything that involved the "wives!"and another woman!(Stan and Ollie were always good and faithful to the wives,they just had trouble being completely alone on a night out by themselves.)and plenty of sunny Culver City and Santa Monica locations.
    Whatever formula for comedy they mapped out in those late silent days truely payed off into the talkie era ,especially when you compare their 30s films with the more than not awkward and tiresome results of other Silent comedy greats trying to make a go of it in talkie two-reelers and features.

  • MAK | January 16, 2012 12:54 PMReply

    Maybe the motto should go: Life is Fast; Comedy is Slow - has anyone over the age of seven ever laughed at under-cranked (speeded up) action scenes? It's fascinating to hear Leo McCarey talk about this in terms that are remarkably similar to what Frank Capra said about his discoveries on his work with the great (and exceedingly odd) Harry Langdon. Talk about slow takes!
    (George Stevens shot those shorts for McCarey and eventually started directing them. It's fun to see just how many L&H-like sequences these two very different directors managed to shoe-horn into their later work. And not only in their comedies.)
    www.maksquibs.blogspot.com

  • Jesse L | January 15, 2012 12:18 PMReply

    I have been a L&H fan since I was a child. I am now enjoying their new dvd box set. It was gratifying to me when I was visiting my brother and sister-in-law and their two boys (my wonderful nephews), to see them laughing at L&H when one of their short films was on TCM.

  • Allen Hefner | January 15, 2012 10:43 AMReply

    Thank you for our post on L&H's silent films. After the release of most of the boys' sound films in Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection, we are all hoping for a collection of their silents to be completely restored with as much original content as possible, and re-released. Some material is still being found all over the world, and people like writer/film historian Richard Bann and the UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration project are doing some great work.

    One of the best of their silents was Battle of the Century (1927) with a classic moment as Anita Garvin slips on a banana peel, falls on a pie (bottom first), then gets up to walk away from the camera shaking her leg! Perfect!

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