Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy: The first movie comedy team
Stan Laurel (Left) and Oliver Hardy
The story of Stan and Ollie
There were several popular comedy teams in the early Golden Age of Hollywood. The first of the legendary comic movie teams was the pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. From the silent era until the 1950s, the beloved comedy duo made a series of short films (One or two-reels in length) and full-length motion pictures. They became lifelong friends, as close off-screen as they were on.
Stan Laurel: He was born as Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Lancashire England. His father A.J. Jefferson was a theatrical playwright and director, so young Arthur Stanley followed in his footsteps. The young Stanley learned a lot from his father.
He officially began his theater career at age 16 in the Alhambra Theater in Glasgow, Scotland, where he developed a traditional ‘music hall’ style of performance. After paying his dues for several years as a struggling comic actor, he would later end up in the popular Fred Karno comedy troupe. The featured player in Karno’s ensemble was a soon-to-be-legend named Charlie Chaplin. During his time with Karno, Stan worked his way up to second banana and understudy for Chaplin. Around this time, he dropped the ‘Arthur’ from his name and just went by Stan Jefferson.
In 1912, the Karno troupe toured in America, where Chaplin was discovered by silent film producer Mack Sennett (creator of the Keystone Cops comedies) which led to Chaplin becoming the biggest movie star of the silent era. Stan briefly returned to England and was offered the chance to take Chaplin’s place as the star of Karno’s troupe. However, Stan chose to immigrate to America, hoping to duplicate Chaplin’s success story and break into movies.
Arriving in the US, he learned that were was already an actor named Stan Jefferson so he adopted his mother’s maiden name and became Stan Laurel. His reputation from Karno’s comedy troupe helped him get stage work until he finally got a break in films. His first movie appearance was in Nuts in May (1917), which led to a series of supporting roles in silent shorts and finally, star billing in a dozen one-reel shorts. He made more than 50 shorts over the next two years (In one of these, The Lucky Dog, he first worked with Oliver Hardy) but these were only moderately popular. Stan Laurel was never able to establish a definable screen persona, such as Chaplin had with his Little Tramp character. Stan never developed any buzz as a solo comedy act. He tried his hand at serious films for a short time but eventually decided that he was better off behind the scenes. He began working for Hal Roach Studios and like his father; Stan became a writer and director, remaining mostly behind the camera, only appearing sporadically on screen. This changed when he started working with Oliver Hardy.
Oliver Hardy: Born 1892 as Norvell Hardy in Georgia in the USA, on the family’s struggling cotton farm, which was run by his father Oliver (A Confederate veteran of the American Civil War) and mother Emily who’d been born to a once-influential family that had fallen on hard times. He was the youngest of 5 kids. His father died when Norvell was only a year old and the family moved to a house owned by his mother Emily’s family in Covington. Emily’s family did what they could to help the financially imperiled brood. When Norvell was 13, was sent to attend a military academy. After that he attended High school but he had no interest in education and quit school. His mother realized he had a talent for singing and sent him to Atlanta to study singing with a respected vocal coach. At his point, he adopted his father’s name of “Oliver”, dropping Norvell.
Oliver got a job in a movie theater and soon found himself the only employee, due to budgetary belt tightening. He was the manager, ticket-taker and projectionist. Oliver was popular in his neighborhood where everyone knew him as “Babe” (A nickname given to him by a local Italian barber who joked about Oliver having a ‘Big baby face’.) Oliver used to amuse people by providing funny dialogue for the silent films. He was so naturally entertaining that everyone told him he should be a professional comedian instead of a singer. After watching many comedy films in his theater, Oliver was convinced he could do better and decided to pursue a career in show business.
He moved to New York where he worked evenings as a cabaret singer. By day, he worked in the Props department of Thomas Edison’s movie studio. It was in 1915 that he made a significant insider contact at the studio, which helped him get an acting job at a new movie company which was opening in JacksonvilleFlorida. This started his career as a film comedian. After the little company closed its doors, Oliver worked for King Bee Studios where he appeared regularly in many films. After appearing in 50 one-reelers, under the name “Babe” Hardy, Oliver moved to Hollywood and got a job acting for Vitagraph Studios in 1918. “Babe” hardy became a popular player for Vitagraph. He usually played the role of a bully or bad guy because of his size (He was 6-foot 2 and weighed almost 280 pound.) and made a good living as a supporting character actor between 1918 and 1925. (He first appeared with Stan Laurel in The Lucky Dog in 1921.) A little known bit of trivia is that Oliver Hardy was the first actor to play the Tin Man in the silent version of The Wizard of Oz (1925). In 1925, he switched over to Hal Roach Studios, where Stan Laurel was working.
Early collaborations between Stan and Ollie:
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had both been working in the silent film industry for several years, but had only crossed paths once, in a brief scene in 1921’s The Lucky Dog, where Oliver played a mugger who robs Stanley. Now they were both working for Hal Roach. Stan was working mostly behind the scenes, while “Babe” was keeping busy as a supporting player, working with the likes of Charley Chase and even the Our Gang kids.
In 1925, Oliver appeared in a film called Yes, Yes Nanette, which was directed by Stan Laurel. The two of them hit it off immediately. Stan would direct several more films in which Oliver appeared. They became friends. When Oliver was injured making Keep ‘em Young, Stan stepped in and took over the role, splitting the money with the injured Oliver. They first appeared in the same film 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926) but had no scenes together.
They first co-starred together in 1927 in Duck Soup (Not to be confused with the Marx Brother’s film Duck Soup.) They played two homeless vagrants who take up residence in a mansion while the real owner is away. When they are discovered, they have to pass themselves off as the actual owners. The film was well received. The pair clicked instantly on-screen. It was a natural pairing. The characters they played here would be the prototypes of their later screen personas.
They appeared together in seven more films over the next six months, and their act started to develop. Stanley portrayed the dim-witted klutz who cried in an exaggerated manner when things went wrong. Oliver played the short-temper and only slightly smarter fellow who usually ended up taking the lumps when things went askew. Despite his size, Oliver had a gift for taking pratfalls. They both played their characters with an innocent, child-like quality.
Hal Roach had his greatest ‘Light Bulb’ moment when he decided to team Stan and Ollie up on a permanent basis. There had never been a movie comedy team before although it was a tradition of the stage. Roach thought a partnership between the two would be successful. Since they were good friends, Stan and Ollie both quickly agreed to the idea. The team of Laurel and Hardy was born.
Their first official film as the team Laurel and Hardy was The Second Hundred Years (1927) where they played wrongfully convicted inmates trying to escape prison. The duo made 22 silent films or “two reelers” over the next two years. As Roach had predicted, the pair were becoming extremely popular screen stars.
They made their first sound short film, Unaccustomed as We Are in 1929. Whereas many silent film stars like Chaplin, Chase and Buster Keaton started to fade when the sound era came along, it was a boon for Stan and Ollie. Their verbal repartee; Stan’s whiny cry; and Ollie’s catchphrase “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” made the team even more popular. Laurel and Hardy made history by being the first and only stars whose short films were actually billed over the full length feature.
Their popularity continued to increase and they made their first “4 reeler” (An unusual length for a film, running between 40 minutes to an hour.) Pardon Us in 1931. Their first full length film (5 films reels or more, lasting at least an hour) was Pack up Your Troubles in 1932. That same year, Laurel and Hardy made their comic masterpiece, a two-reel short called The Music Box which remains one of the great comedy classics. Laurel and Hardy vied with the Marx Brothers as the top comedy team of the 1930s.
The team would make 17 more shorts, the last of which was Thicker Than Water in 1934. After that, they would exclusively do 4 and 5 reelers. The duo would make 22 of these longer films, the most popular of which were Sons of the Desert (1934), Babes in Toyland (AKA March of the Wooden Solders), (1934), Bonnie Scotland (1935), Way Out West (1937), Flying Deuces (1939), A Chump at Oxford (1940) and Saps at Sea (1940).
Laurel and Hardy’s off-screen life went though many ups and downs. They both had several marriages and divorces. Stan Laurel was frequently at war with Hal Roach over creative control of their films, which led to the comic duo leaving Roach Studio in 1940. Stan was involved in a small scandal when he was arrested for drunk driving. But through it all, they supported each other and remained close friends.
They spent much of World War Two doing USO performances and war bond rallies, although they did make six films for 20th Century Fox during this period. The pair soon realized that they had made a mistake switching to Fox Studios because they had even less creative control there than they’d had with Hal Roach. The quality of the movies diminished and Stan was extremely unhappy working for Fox.
By the time the war ended, Laurel and Hardy’s career was on the downslide. They had been eclipsed by the phenomenal success of Abbott and Costello, who were the dominant comedy team of the 1940s. L & H’s recent films were no longer packing in the crowds the way they once had. Their first post-war film The Bullfighters (1945) was a box office disappointment. After being released from Fox in 1946, the duo had several projects planed with didn’t pan out. They decided to take some time away from Hollywood to reevaluate their careers. They spent much of 1947-48 on a successful tour of Europe. In 1949, Oliver made his first solo appearance in years when he co-starred with John Wayne in The Kentuckian. Stan spent the year working on script ideas that never materialized.
The team made their final film in 1950. It was a French/Italian produced, low budget comedy called Atoll K (Released in the US as Utopia.) The film was plagued by production problems and the script was rather poor. Also, health issues affected the star duo’s performances. Oliver Hardy was having heart problems. Stan Laurel had developed diabetes and a bad prostate infection. He had lost a lot of weight. Always a small man, he shrunk down to 117 pounds.
The film Atoll K was a disaster; financially, critically and quality wise. It was an embarrassment for the team. Stan took some time off to recover his health and to think of ways that the team’s crumbling careers could be salvaged. Oliver did some public appearances over the next years but then his fading health caused him to stop doing even those. A proposed Laurel and Hardy TV series based on fairy tales called Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables was conceived but poor health from the two stars ended any hope of the project.
The Final Years:
Their last official appearance together was when in 1954 when they were the focus a tribute on Ralph Edwards This Is Your Life TV show. The very last time they appeared together was in a three-minute documentary, filmed in Stan’s home, called One Minute Please.
Oliver’s heart problems got worse and he suffered a series of strokes that left him bed-ridden in 1956. He died in August of 1957 at age 65.
Stan Laurel, disconsolate after his friend’s passing, retired from acting. He wouldn’t perform without Hardy. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1961. He spent his last few years living in an apartment in Santa Monica. He spent much of his time answering fan mail. His phone number was listed in the Yellow Pages and fans were surprised when they called his number and he actually answered the phone and spoke with them. He remained good to his fans until the end. He suffered a major heart attack and died in February 1965 at the age of 75.
Unlike Abbott and Costello who were always feuding and rarely associated off-screen, Laurel and Hardy had a life-long bond that crossed over into their work. They set the standard for screen comedy teams and left a comedy legacy that cannot be overstated.