“Well, Here’s Another Nice Mess You've Gotten Me Into”: A Laurel and Hardy Primer
You may not have ever seen one of the more than 100 films that they made together, but you almost certainly know their names and can picture them – one is thin and one is fat, wearing identical bowler hats. The influence of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy has been diminished by decades of their jokes being recycled and adapted – and especially by the fact that their best work remains their silent films – but the duo represent some of the great comedies in the history of film.
They played more or less the same two characters in almost every film – often named Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy – two friends who are forced to respond to absurd and over the top situations. They’re not trying to kill each like the Stooges, off in their own little world which just occasionally intersects with ours like the Marx Brothers, or at odds like Martin and Lewis were. Most comedy teams at the time consisted of a straight man and a funny man, but Laurel and Hardy had set personalities, but whether they were setting up the joke or the punchline varied depending on the situation.
One of the ways they were deeply influential in comedy was in pacing. Old silent films could be frantic, with visual gags piled up one after the other with little room to breathe or allow the audience to pause. Just as their films were realistic and were played straight, which made them funnier, the pacing added to the humor. After a fall, the characters would take their time getting up, other characters had a chance to react, and letting the situation play out in a realistic way makes the scene funnier than if Hardy simply fell into the cake and then everyone quickly moved onto the next gag. Letting the joke play out wasn’t just a way to improve the joke, it allowed the actors to build characters. In a film like Another Fine Mess, Laurel shells and eats a hardboiled egg, right before everything goes wrong and the way the pace goes from so laidback to so madcap is part of makes it so funny.
Stan and Ollie began working together in 1926 when both were in their thirties and they continued to work in film, television and on stage into the 1950’s. They began their careers separately on stage before they began working in silent films. Leo McCarey, who would go on to direct films like Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, An Affair to Remember, and many others, was responsible for teaming them up and oversaw much of their silent film career.
They were a rarity among silent film stars, making the transition to the sound era, some of which was due to their uniqueness. They were physical comedians who weren’t necessarily slapstick comedians. They went from making shorts just a few minutes long to full length films. They were often confronted with absurd and comedic situations, but most of their films were completely realistic. Laurel and Hardy were actors who were willing to seem silly and stupid and be the butt of the joke. They never needed to look heroic or make sure that the audience felt sympathy first and foremost for them.
Since their deaths, their films have been shown on television for decades, the Beatles included them on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there are three different Laurel and Hardy museums in three different countries. There’s even an international Laurel and Hardy Society, Sons of the Desert, which is active today in more than a dozen countries. They went on to influence not just comedians, but were one of the inspirations for the characters in Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot.
The film Stan & Ollie explores the actors and their dynamic over the years, and it seemed a good opportunity for a primer of some of their greatest films.
The Battle of the Century (1927)
Laurel plays a boxer nicknamed “The Human Mop” and Hardy is his manager. Laurel dances around the ring with joy like, well, like he’s not a boxer in the middle of a match, and seems confused when he actually knocks his opponent to the mat. Then Laurel starts fighting with the ref. After the fight, there’s a banana peel gag, which leads into possibly the largest pie fight in the history of film. The pie fight works because it’s one pie hitting a character and then another character gets hit and tries to take their revenge but hits someone else and it escalates, taking its time to build up to a wild madcap melee. The two are still working out their characters, but there’s a sense of play and that escalating tension and the way that the comedy and the stakes are built in each scene.
From Soup to Nuts (1928)
From breaking the doorbell to spilling the soup to serving the salad “undressed,” the two waiters do a lot of damage to a fancy dinner party. They’re not the only crazy people or the only ones with comedic moments in the film, though. They have to contend with people at least as crazy as they are, including an angry chef fighting with Laurel, a host who nearly decks Hardy, a hostess whose tiara doesn’t fit and struggles with which utensil to use as she tries to eat a grape.
Wrong Again (1929)
While at the horse track, Laurel and Hardy read in the paper that The Blue Boy was stolen and a large reward is being offered. Seeing a horse with the same name – not knowing the article refers to the Thomas Gainsborough painting – they take the horse and deliver it to the mansion and then things start to go haywire quickly as the horse takes over the living room and the police show up with the painting.
Big Business (1929)
The duo play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen. In California. In the summer. One man is so offended by their sales pitch and refusal to go away, he starts to destroy the tree. The duo retaliate, and the battle continues to spiral out of control until the house is destroyed. Well, it doesn’t quite end there, but I won’t spoil the very end. The film is 19 minutes long and it’s wild and over the top and shows how the duo go from an ordinary situation to a crazy one to something completely insane, the comedy and the attacks on each other escalating until they’re stopped. They’re helped by playing against James Finlayson, a great comedic character actor. Fun fact: producer Hal Roach bought the house where it’s filmed so that they could destroy it on film.
Beau Hunks (1931)
Ollie is distraught after being dumped by his girlfriend (played by Jean Harlow, seen only in a photograph), and so he and Stan join the French Foreign Legion. The film was remade by the duo as a full-length film in 1939 as Flying Deuces, but the short has a much funnier ending. Producer Hal Roach once said it was his favorite of all his movies.
The Music Box (1932)
The Laurel and Hardy Transport Company is hired to deliver a player piano in this Academy Award winning short. When they ask a mailman about the address, he tells them it’s at the top of a tall staircase carved into the hill. A woman with a baby carriage and then an older man demand the movers step aside so they can pass, a policeman interrupts their work, and once they finally push the piano to the top of the staircase, they have to find a way to get it into the house. The plot sounds familiar, but it’s been imitated because the two make a film that’s all physical comedy, but it’s not slapstick. They’re playing it straight, they have a job to do and need to get the piano up the stairs and into the house. Also in one inspired scene, after delivering the piano, they turn it on to have some music while they clean up all the devastation they’ve caused. Every time they cross a piece of wood, they dance in tune with the music before continuing to clean, each in their own style. It’s completely unnecessary, but inspired silliness.
Sons of the Desert (1933)
Laurel and Hardy are married friends who are members of Sons of the Desert, a fraternal organization like the Shriners. They agree to go to the club’s annual convention, but their wives won’t agree to it. So Hardy fakes being sick, gets a doctor to prescribe a cruise to Hawaii, except the cruise ship sinks while they’re in Chicago and they have to return and find a way to explain being alive to their wives, who go from distraught to homicidal.
The plot sounds familiar because, well, it’s been borrowed more times than anyone can count. The opening scenes with Stan and Ollie and their wives is essentially The Honeymooners. Down to the fact that Jackie Gleason and Art Carney were in a fraternal organization and tried to pull the wool over the wives eyes more than once. And if it inspired The Honeymooners, that means it inspired The Flintstones, and that means it inspired The King of Queens. And how many dozens of other shows?
Babes in Toyland (1934)
Perhaps their best known film, it’s also the pair’s most atypical. It’s a film explicitly for children with the pair in a fantasy world where they’re toymakers who live in a shoe with Mother Peep and Bo Peep. The plot of the musical involves Old King Cole and Mother Goose and Santa Claus. While the plot and setting of the film are fantastic, the dynamic between the pair to how they get in trouble, the escalating craziness and many of the gags make it feel like a Laurel and Hardy film. Explicitly a children’s movie, it may have helped ensure their continued longevity by introducing a new generation to the duo, whose films were shown on TV for generations.