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A Friend Is Someone Who Knows All About You And Still Loves You: The On-Screen, Off-Screen Friendship Of Laurel And Hardy

Would you let yourself be photographed doing this with anyone but your best friend? (Photo by John Springer/CORBIS.)

Would you let yourself be photographed doing this with anyone but your best friend? (Photo by John Springer/CORBIS.)

Where do I even start with these two, seriously?

I spent about two weeks thinking about what I could say about Laurel and Hardy this time (including finding the quote from Elbert Hubbard in the title), because to be fair they’ve had quite a bit said about them over the years. For me, they’re extremely significant because I enjoy studying the double act concept and these two took it to new heights and set the gold standard for what a double act should be. For millions of other people worldwide, they’re a cherished childhood memory that are passed down from generation to generation.

To themselves, however, they were just two comedians going to work every day, and that down-to-earth attitude of theirs makes them even more endearing than they already are – which is pretty darn endearing if you ask me.

I suppose the best way to start this off is by writing an extremely abridged version of how the comedians who portrayed the greatest friendship in film history got together. To make a long story short, both of them had been acting in films (Ollie went immediately to film; Stan started in music hall and transitioned once stateside) and had a brief blind date with a film called The Lucky Dog (which scholars debate the date of – it’s usually credited to 1917 or 1921). They went their separate ways for a few years, then both ended up at Hal Roach Studios. At this point, Stan was doing more writing and directing than acting, but when Ollie burnt himself on a leg of lamb when cooking one night, the studio had his part in a film split into a part for two characters so he didn’t overdo it whilst recovering. Stan filled in the other role (albeit reluctantly since he was still struggling to find an on-screen persona), director Leo McCarey noticed that the boys had extremely good chemistry, and the rest is history.

Liberty, 1929.

Liberty, 1929.

It took about a year or so for the boys to really become the characters we all know and love today, but once they did, things took off from there just fine. They easily transitioned to sound, a medium that undid a large number of screen stars, and more or less dominated comedy in the 1930s. They didn’t know how popular they were, however, because as mentioned above they just thought of themselves as two people going to work every day. Work was just pretty darn fun. It took a tour or two for their fame to really hit home, and their well-recorded grateful reactions always make me smile because it’s so wonderful to see two people so touched when they found out that their work meant so much to so many people. I imagine they’d be thrilled to know that it still does.

The best part about those tours, though, is that by traveling together they became much closer than they ever had time to when filming and over the course of their lives they actually did become extremely close friends. The bond that you’re seeing on the screen when you watch them is real, and you can feel how strong it is. A lot of double acts didn’t get along off-stage or off-screen (Abbott and Costello quarreled somewhat frequently, for one, and Gallagher and Shean hated one another), and when you watch them you don’t get the feeling of warmth that you do when you watch Stan and Ollie (or, for that matter, somewhat direct descendants Morecambe and Wise). The fact that they got along and genuinely adored working with each other shows, and that makes the friendship portrayed in the films even more believable.

It’s that friendship, really, that makes them so special to me. As an undergraduate student, I had a very close friendship with my roommate, but she was struggling with depression and my attempts to help led to me having a mental breakdown in 2009. The friendship had become unintentionally emotionally abusive towards me and as soon as I graduated in 2011 I put space between us knowing it would help us both recover from everything. Unfortunately, it left me with a fear of opening up and letting people get that close to me in real life – internet friends were safe (and I had – and still have – many of those), but letting a person in real life in was terrifying. My friends from high school that I still have are wonderful, but for a long time after I got back from school I was reluctant to open up because I’d lost my faith in having a best friend. The therapist that helps me with my Asperger’s and I started to work together on this issue which had only served to strengthen my social anxiety, and over time I’ve become less afraid to say things to people in real life and make connections. Until recently, I was still very unsure of myself and my ability to build strong bonds with people.

You can tell there's a real-life friendship in there, too.

You can tell there’s a real-life friendship in there, too.

And then I renewed my comedy studies in order to properly start writing Comedian Heaven, and something about Stan and Ollie just clicked for me.

It’s been a little more than seven months since I devoted myself to the CH project fully, and I’ve changed so much as a person over that time – I’m less concerned with what people think of me at first glance and more concerned with just worrying about treating everyone with the respect they deserve, like I normally do. I’m much more comfortable with trusting people than I was six months ago. Not everyone is out to hurt me – in fact, the great majority of people in the world aren’t, and it’s okay to be myself around people.

Basically, my faith in friendship was renewed by two comedians, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

The more I learned about them, the more in love I fell with them (especially those little details like Stan’s determination to answer every fan letter he got personally). They had a genuine fondness for their fanbase and did their level best to make sure they knew, and the way they became so close in real life over time despite having extraordinarily different hobbies (Ollie’s golfing and Stan’s fishing are both fairly well-known) just reminds me that you can be best friends with someone even though you enjoy different things and are somewhat different people. The relationship between the characters on the screen makes me so unbelievably happy, as well. As Lawrence J. Epstein put it in Mixed Nuts, his book on comedy teams:

One of Laurel and Hardy’s various claims to being the best comedy team ever is that they created the model of two friends struggling against the world, always willing to help each other despite the frequency with which their efforts are met by failure, resulting in many a “nice mess.” Their deep bond is admirable. The underlying friendship, which provoked a deep empathy in audiences, involved mutual acceptance and tolerance, a sense of not being alone in having to face a frightening reality. Neither is able to abandon the other.

Laurel and Hardy faced a painful world filled with indignities, and their characters embodied human foibles and follies. Laurel and Hardy accepted such a world with dignity, with only their friendship to sustain them. Their society, or faith, or their own skills, or even a traditional family couldn’t protect them. Theirs is a case for friendship above all else sustaining a person through the nonsense of life. Nonetheless, Laurel and Hardy were very realistic about friendship. They knew it included mutual aggression, and they were able to define a perfect conflict model, a way of fighting while retaining the friendship.

See, they got along in real life too!

See, they got along in real life too!

It’s friendship – realistic friendship – that defines the two characters on screen. It’s one of the strongest cases of a comedic relationship mirroring real life that I can think of – two best friends working their way through life (disastrously), much like we do with our friends (although on a larger destructive scale, no doubt). Growing up, I’d always struggled to make friends due to undiagnosed Asperger’s, and I longed for a relationship like the one they had on screen. I didn’t know it as a kid, but when I became an adult and got more invested in my research I’d find a double act that reflected what I was looking for perfectly. I just wanted a friend to do things with and go through life with, one who wouldn’t judge me even though I had a tendency to screw things up every once in a while. When I really started watching these two in detail, it clicked for me – they were what I’d wanted my whole childhood. I wanted a friend who wouldn’t abandon me, as so many “friends” did, and they had that.

So it probably surprises absolutely nobody when I say that my all-time favorite clip of these two is one from Fra Diavolo (1933) where you can see the friendship is clearly real off-screen:

If you skip to about 5 minutes in, you’ll see what I’m talking about. After ‘getting rid’ of that wine in the first half of the video by essentially chugging it, Stan starts succumbing to a giggle fit for literally no reason. It’s adorable, of course (if you know me you’ll know just how cute I find it because I talk about his stupid laugh all the time – especially since that was his actual laugh in real life), but that’s not the best part of the whole thing. As in Blotto (1930) and Scram! (1932), he drags Ollie down with him, but about halfway through the whole thing it becomes apparent that they’re not acting anymore. They’re both laughing for real, and every time they make eye contact they just lose it all over again and start laughing even harder. It’s obvious why they have to cut to a different shot when Stan starts drunkenly singing – it’s an entirely different take because they literally weren’t able to stop laughing for absolutely no reason whatsoever. (It doesn’t help that Stan was contagious as all hell, of course.) That’s a genuine bond you’re seeing on the screen in that one scene, and it’s beautiful. Those are two people who adore being together and being silly. It just warms my heart beyond belief.

I wrote a primer on Tumblr about a month ago for people who wanted to get into watching these two, which is reposted below because how could you not want to get into watching them after this? The films are in order so as to chart the evolution of their characters (and themselves as comedians).

So here you are – Stan and Ollie: A Love Story.

Prologue: The Lucky Dog (attributed to either 1917 or 1921)

I call this film Stan and Ollie’s blind date because they both appeared in it – hence being on screen together for the first time – but then went their separate ways again for several years before being paired up (likely by Leo McCarey) at Hal Roach Studios. It’s a good thing to watch to get a sense of what they were like before their legendary comedy marriage.

Silent Shorts, 1927-1929

Once being officially paired as a double act, the boys started making shorts together. A lot of the early ones (like Putting Pants on Philip, which is literally twenty minutes of Ollie trying to get Stan to wear a kilt) are interesting because they haven’t fully slotted into the characterizations we know and love yet. Battle of the Century, their last entry in 1927, is particularly notable solely because they attempted – and succeeded – to break a record for most pies thrown in a film. Various reports have the cast throwing between 3000 and 4000 pies in one giant fight.

By 1928, however, they’ve become the Stan and Ollie we’re familiar with, and in Leave ‘Em Laughing we see the familiar sight of the two of them sharing a bed. This one literally ends with nine minutes of the two of them giggling hysterically due to accidentally getting too much nitrous oxide at the dentist’s office which more or less incapacitates them and causes them to cause a major pile-up when driving. Which, of course, just makes them laugh even more. The reason I bring this up is that the two of them use the power of contagious laughter to even greater effect once sound comes into the picture. Believe me, it’s my favorite thing they do.

There are two mandatory viewing shorts from 1929 that I have to bring up before we forge into sound, though – Liberty, in which the boys both accidentally swap trousers and end up on top of a construction site, and Big Business, one of the greatest silent comedy shorts ever made. The latter is a shining example of mutual destruction/tit for tat – Stan and Ollie are selling Christmas trees, and when they try to sell one to perpetual nemesis James Finlayson, it somehow devolves into them destroying his house as he destroys their car. It’s legendary.

Sound Shorts, 1929 on

There’s a long list here, so I’ll just do bullet points.

  • Unaccustomed As We Are (1929): the boys’ first sound short, which is why it’s notable. Also, Thelma Todd, Mae Busch and Edgar Kennedy are in it.
  • Blotto (1930): Set during Prohibition, the boys “borrow” Anita Garvin’s liquor (which she’s swapped out with cold tea, knowing what’s up). This is the first time you get to hear Stan laugh with audio, and believe me, you’ll fall in love. (It’s made even better that Word of God – aka Stan’s daughter Lois – has confirmed that, although he was acting, that is Stan’s actual laugh in real life.)
  • Brats (1930): I unfortunately can’t seem to find a full video for this one (the one I watched on YouTube may have been taken down), but if you can find it, watch it solely for the giant sets they used to make the boys look like kids. They’re amazing. (Also, they’re raising smaller versions of themselves as children. IT’S CUTE.)
  • Laughing Gravy (1931): Stan and Ollie have a dog. Landlord Charlie Hall wants the dog to shut up. The dog doesn’t, so the boys keep sneaking the dog back inside after Hall keeps moving it outside. The version I linked to is the alternate ending – the original version has a very dark ending (the apartment building is quarantined, keeping the boys and the dog inside for months, and Hall goes off-screen and shoots himself), but I prefer the alternate version because it really nails the relationship between Stan and Ollie better. They get a letter that’ll fix their money woes – Stan will get a massive inheritance, but on one condition: that he splits up with Ollie. He refuses, of course, and they stay together.
  • Our Wife (1931): There is one reason and one reason only that I’m linking this one – they got away with an awfully daring gag for 1931. Ollie and his girlfriend are eloping, and best man Stanley helps them get away from the girl’s father, James Finlayson. After cramming into a car (which is AMAZING to watch), they find a judge to marry them. The judge is Ben Turpin, who was famous solely for being cross-eyed. Guess who gets married instead.
  • The Music Box (1932): Probably the most famous short they ever did. I generally sum this one up as “Stan and Ollie win an Oscar for carrying a piano up a staircase for 20 minutes.” (They did get an Oscar – their only one that wasn’t an honorary award – for this film.)
  • County Hospital (1932): I was only able to find a colorized version, but this one’s notable because it’s the origin of Ollie’s exasperated “hard-boiled eggs and nuts” complaint that gets quoted a lot.
  • Scram! (1932): It’s not one of their better-known ones, but I’m biased towards it solely because the boys have one of those patented giggle fits again. I love those a lot, if you didn’t know.
  • Their First Mistake (1932): If you like Ho Yay, this one’s perfect for you. Stan and Ollie raise a baby together and it’s really adorable. (Greek subtitles.)
  • Towed In A Hole (1932): Stan and Ollie sell fish. They also end up in the water, as one might expect, and they even have a water fight with each other. (Japanese subtitles.)
  • Twice Two (1933): Stan and Ollie are married to each other’s twin sisters, which more or less means this is another film in which they’re technically married since they play both parts.
  • Oliver The Eighth (1934): Black widow Mae Busch has killed seven fiances named Oliver. Guess who gets lined up to be number eight.
  • Tit For Tat (1935): Named, of course, for the style of mutual destruction the boys were so good at.

Feature Films

Hal Roach didn’t initially jump on the comedy features bandwagon, but as they grew in popularity he ended up nudging Stan and Ollie into more and more of them until by the end of 1935 they were doing them exclusively. The shorts are a lot more polished, as it’s easier to do short subject comedies than feature films, but these are great, as well.

Here are some of the best ones.

  • Pack Up Your Troubles (1932): Stan and Ollie return from World War I and end up trying to get the daughter of a fallen comrade to her grandparents. In the meantime, they raise her together, and it’s the most amazingly cute thing. (The scene I linked to is a bit of a role reversal, where Jacquie Lyn, the little girl, ends up reading a bedtime story to Stanley instead and OH GOD IT’S THE CUTEST THING.)
  • Fra Diavolo/The Devil’s Brother (1933): My actual favorite scene in any of their entire films is in this one. Of course, it’s the one I’ve linked to – the actual greatest giggle fit ever filmed. And it’s absolutely real, too – you can tell the boys start out acting and crack up for real in the middle and then just keep looking at each other and laughing even more. It’s adorable. (This is actually an adaptation of the operetta Fra Diavolo, and Dennis King and Thelma Todd play great roles in this, as well.)
  • Sons of the Desert (1933): More or less an extended version of a short called Be Big! from a couple of years prior, but it’s easily one of their strongest features and it’s lovely. The international fan society for the boys takes its name from this film.
  • Babes in Toyland/March of the Wooden Soldiers (1933): Nearly every kid’s gateway drug into Laurel and Hardy. It’s usually aired on TV during the holidays. The boys more or less end up playing unwitting heroes after royally screwing up an order from Santa and making a set of life-sized toy soldiers. Also, Stan’s hand-eye coordination, previously displayed in Fra Diavolo, becomes even more legendary here.
  • Way Out West (1937): MY FAVORITE FEATURE THEY EVER DID. This movie’s pacing is wonderful. Its comedy is wonderful. Its everything is wonderful. There are just too many good scenes in it to list them all (fortunately, that link goes to the full film), but the two most famous are the adorable dance number and the scene where they all end up fighting over the deed and Stan gets locked in a room with the female lead and she more or less body searches him. Inevitably, Stan becomes a flailing, giggling mess, and it’s the cutest thing.
  • And if you want to cry, watch The Flying Deuces (1939). You will cry. Trust me. You just will.

When I went to write that primer, I ended up putting in the films that I felt best represented the relationship between the two characters, but it’s evident when you watch them closely that there’s some real-life fondness in there. These two just enjoyed working together so much and their real-life friendship is one of my favorite stories in comedy history. There’s just something about it that makes me smile so much.

Thanks, you two, for restoring my faith in myself and in others. I don’t know where I’d be without you.

Stop it, you two are perfect.

Stop it, you two are perfect.

This post was written as part of Classic Movie Hub and Once Upon a Screen’s dually hosted blogathon on film duos. Seriously, you should go read all the other posts here because they’re just lovely!

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