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The Enduring Appeal of Laurel & Hardy

29 December 15 words: Ashley Carter
With a double bill of their films showing at Broadway on New Year's Eve, we look back on why they remain such a popular double act
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The films of Laurel & Hardy have had a massive impact on my life in two ways. As a fat, dark-haired man, the four or five smaller, light-haired friends that I’ve had down the years inevitably get thrown together with me as a great fancy dress suggestion. But more importantly, their films – along with episodes of Steptoe and Son – were essential viewing during the occasions I was allowed to sleep aboard my Dad’s ship whilst he was in the New Zealand Navy. They were the first black and white films I’d ever seen, and I remember them being the first things my Dad found funny that I actually understood.

That’s testament to the universal, and lasting appeal of their enormous canon of work. Few would argue that their films - along with the comedies of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton - remain the most popular available from the silent era.  Ricky Gervais attests their enduring popularity to “the basic comic premise that has never been bettered. Two people both thinking they’d be better off without the other, and both being wrong.” His work is full of homages of that relationship: between Gareth and Tim, and David Brent and Gareth in The Office, between Maggie and Andy in Extras, or with Derek and Kev in Derek. It’s the blind leading the blind, both thinking they’ve got the inside scoop, but both blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings.

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As a member of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, Lancastrian Stan Laurel was understudy to Charlie Chaplin. The two travelled to America aboard the same ship in 1912, where Laurel carved out a decent enough career before signing to the Hal Roach film studio in 1925. Oliver Hardy worked in a number of crew roles before his debut performance in Outwitting Dad in 1914, going on to make nearly 200 shorts as Babe Hardy with the Vim Comedy Company. Both well-established actors in their own right, they appeared in several productions - including The Lucky Dog – together, before officially becoming a double-act in the Hal Roach production Putting Pants on Phillip, released in 1927.

Forging a career of over 100 films together, including over thirty silent short, forty short talkies and twenty-three full-length feature films, their work has continued to be re-issued and re-released through countless television and theatrical revivals. While Chaplin, or maybe Keaton, might be considered the great comedy auteur of the silent era, it is Laurel & Hardy who sit alone as the greatest double-act.  Hardy, with his hefty frame and pompous demeanor, always had ideas above his station, considering himself a dignified Southern gent and acting accordingly. The childlike, diminutive Laurel was clumsy, more relaxed and seemingly content with life. One always looking forward, the other happy where he was; a relationship in a constantly precarious state. It isn’t their slapstick comedy that remains most endearing, but their ability to constantly dust themselves off and try again after another of their schemes inevitably goes wrong. Tomorrow was always going to be a better day.  

In comedy terms, that relationship has never been improved upon. Although ostensibly their motivations might be slightly nefarious, audiences of Laurel & Hardy know they are fundamentally good people, and are naturally on their side. You want them to succeed, despite knowing that it’s only a matter of time before calamity (usually self-inflicted) befalls them and the pair find themselves in yet another fine mess.

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The rate at which they created work during their professional partnership was phenomenal, even at a time where films were churned out at ridiculous speeds. While there are naturally some lesser films, the overwhelming majority of their work holds up, as funny and poignant today as it was when released; testament to two naturally funny people that found common truth in their comedy. Dick Van Dyke talks about the occasions on which he would visit Stan, long after the death of Ollie. He’d take him lunch, and the two would talk for hours before Stan would reveal a notebook in which he’d written the latest Laurel & Hardy adventures. Decades after their last commercial film release, his mind was still working, thinking up new scenarios for the pair to get themselves in to.

Though fuelled by his genius, Stan’s potential for countless new scenarios is facilitated by that perfect relationship. Everyone knows a blundering Stan or a haughty Ollie, and everyone has been in a situation where they’d have felt better off without them. It’s what made their films as funny to me as they were to my Dad, a universal appeal that connects indiscriminant of age or gender; timeless in its perfect acuity and always, always funny.

Towed in the Hole and Way Out West will be showing at Broadway Cinema on Thursday 31 December 2015.

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