‘Chump at Oxford’ courtesy of BFI

Sons of the Desert

28th December 2018

With a new biopic – ‘Stan and Ollie’ – on the big screens, and the BFI Southbank running a month-long season of their finest shorts and features, as well as releasing their last ever film, ‘Atoll K’, on Blu-ray/DVD, Laurel and Hardy are back in style. Jack Watkins admires arguably the greatest comedy duo of all time.

I gather that there are people who don’t like Laurel and Hardy, but I find it hard to understand. How can you not succumb to the sweetness of the pair, their unshakeable optimism and innocence? No matter how bad things get, whether the house has just fallen down, or they’ve wrecked the car, or the wives have walked out, they’re never cynical and they never, more than momentarily, lose hope.

Most vitally of all though, they are still very funny. Their work has lasted. That’s why the BFI has the confidence to close its long ‘Comedy Genius’ season, which started back in the autumn, with a month-long retrospective of their films. They don’t do a lot of lowbrow comedy seasons at the BFI – they maybe should do more – but they know that this pair still consistently hit the funny bone.

Intellectually, it’s true that the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton work on deeper levels. Laurel and Hardy emerged out of the same era of silent comedy as those two, as well as the likes of Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, but they handled the transition to talkies better, even though their work in the silent vein had been inferior. The trick, said Stan Laurel many years later, had been to slow it all down. Whereas a lot of 1920s comedy had been fast-paced slapstick, a breathless torrent of physical gags, Laurel said they thought it would also be funny to show the reaction of the victim of the ‘pie in the face’ type pratfalls. It was also smart because “the slower we went, the less gags we needed.” He was right. Watch Laurel and Hardy and notice how they wring every last ounce out of every joke sequence.

You are in good company if you think they deliver bigger belly laughs than Chaplin and Keaton. Even 80 years ago it was heretical to prefer them, admitted novelist Graham Greene during his time as a highly perceptive film reviewer for The Spectator. Greene argued, however, that they were ‘more agreeable’ than Chaplin. ‘Their clowning is purer, they aren’t out to better an unbetterable world; they’ve never wanted to play Hamlet,’ he wrote, as he praised A Chump at Oxford, perhaps the last of the due’s vintage comedies, released in 1939 (BFI screenings 14 & 25 January, on a double bill with The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case).
In fact, the pairing of the dream partnership that, in the words of BFI programmer Justin Johnson “united a disciplined, thoughtful Englishman from Ulverston in the Lake District, and a pompous but likeable American from Harlem, Georgia,” came about by chance. Stan Laurel, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Lancashire in 1890, the son of an actor-manager, had made his stage bow around 1906. By 1910 he was a member of the Fred Karno comedy sketch troupe, went with them to America in 1910 as Chaplin’s understudy, and stayed there. Shyer and less pushy than Chaplin, he struggled in vaudeville for many years after that, and though the new dual format release of Laurel and Hardy’s last film Atoll K features among its extras a silent comedy from 1925, showing his development as a likeable solo comedian, his preference was for directing and devising gags.

Oliver Norvell Hardy, born in 1892, always in his own mind an immaculately presented, well-mannered and dignified southern gentleman, was in films from 1913, with his hefty build leading to inevitable typecasting as a heavy. He didn’t share Laurel’s obsessive involvement with the writing, directing and editing side, preferring to concentrate on perfect execution of a joke in front of the camera before leaving the set to pursue his main offscreen interest of gambling.

It was producer Hal Roach who spotted the comic potential of putting together this pair of physical opposites, the first Laurel and Hardy comedy two-reeler (they had appeared in films together earlier than that) being Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Unaccustomed As We Are, released in 1929, was the first Laurel and Hardy talking picture and, from the start, it was clear the pair had grasped, in the words of their biographer Simon Louvish, author of Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy “that it is funnier to anticipate than to arrive at the joke itself, which is, more often than not, slight or banal.” The classic Laurel Hardy film where the build-up of comic suspense is barely containable is The Music Box (1932). In this the hapless pair are continually frustrated in their attempt to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a steep flight of steps, yet keep on trying, even though we, the audience, can see another catastrophe lying ahead. The 30-minute film was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Comedy Short, and for many fans, still remains their favourite film.

The Music Box is being screened at the BFI on 1 and 15 January, paired with another popular effort, the full-length feature Sons of the Desert (1933). In this one they try to fool their wives (one of them the formidably sour Mae Busch, a Laurel and Hardy regular) that Ollie must undertake a trip to Honolulu on account of his health, accompanied by Stan, so that they can surreptitiously attend a convention in Chicago. The film is so beloved, the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society took it as their official name. The society was founded in 1965 with Laurel’s blessing just before his death, about whose imminent approach he said: “If anyone comes to my funeral wearing a long face, I’ll never speak to them again.”

Among other films showing in the season, the feature film Bonnie Scotland (1935), screening on 3 and 18 January, was once nominated by Laurel as a personal favourite. More familiar, perhaps, is Way Out West (1937), paired on 13 and 19 January with another gem, Laughing Gravy (1930).

Not included in the season is their final film Atoll K, (released as Robinson Crusoeland in the UK), which received a special screening in December marking the Blu-ray/DVD release of the longest known English language version of this French-Italian co-production, made in 1950. It also features footage from the pair’s British tours, some of their early solo films, and an audio interview with Laurel recorded two days after Hardy’s death.

Atoll K marked their return to the screen after an absence of five years, an eternity for a pair who in their heyday were churning out several films a year. It is by no means their best film, and the shoot was apparently a torrid experience enjoyed by no-one. Laurel, at the age of 60, looks wasted, his emaciated appearance the result of serious diabetes (though he outlived Hardy, who died in 1957, by eight years). Yet the interplay in the boat scenes remains very funny. There was magic in the air when these two appeared together in front of a camera. Let’s hope Stan and Ollie introduces them to a new generation of fans.

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