Who can think of Laurel & Hardy without feeling a secret smile open up like the afterglow of a touch of brandy?
At the same time, is there anyone among us who can't recall at least half a dozen episodes whose comic effect is so cumulatively explosive that they continue to reverberate in mind long after we've seen them?
Sixty years after the beginning of their amazing partnership, it's surprising how little Laurel & Hardy have been played up in the body of critical comment devoted to Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and, to a lesser extent, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett and the Golden Age of American film comedy itself, which began in the late teens and petered out by 1940.
Perhaps that's because critical reflections on the 20th Century have tended to focus on alienation and the forces of darkness, of humanity scourged by its illusions of gleaming systematic progress. The modern temper likes its laughter hollow and derisive, its plucky comedic heroes bent as much on revenge as survival. That's why Chaplin's our emblematic man, all bent out of shape in the pulverizing industrial intestine of "Modern Times"; or why Groucho's sharp-voiced insinuations alone aren't enough to bring down Margaret Dumont's hauteur--he needs to leave her a humiliated shambles.
Maybe it's because Laurel & Hardy weren't quite of the 20th Century. Stylistically they belonged to the tradition of the English music hall (as did Chaplin, whom Laurel understudied at the Fred Karno London Comedians troupe). Thematically they were late Victorians, sexually discreet to the point of boyish timorousness; they didn't challenge huffy authority as much as they unintentionally subverted it in chain reactions of epic chaos.
Or perhaps it's because, of all the comedians who have pratfalled and panicked, jigged and schemed, tippled, ogled and have been riotously chased off the screen by posses of injured righteousness, Laurel & Hardy were simply the most enchanting.
They had their stylistic signatures--Ollie's fastidiously decorous hand-gestures, his tie-twiddle and direct stare at the camera; Stan's sleepy-time reactions, his whisk-broom hair style, his contrite crying jag, the down-at-the heels walk that made him appear as though he were trudging through wet concrete.
Sixty years after they first officially teamed up in "Putting Pants on Philip" (the 13th movie in which they both appeared), there remains something about them that resists touching for fear of spoilage. They had a quality that can't be intellectually decanted.
Their charm endures, as well as their influence. They were natural, if unconscious, prototypes for the most revolutionary work of the postwar Western theater, Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Marcel Marceau treasured them (Laurel was an early champion of Marceau's work). Political figures as disparate as Franklin Roosevelt and Benito Mussolini enjoyed private screenings of Laurel & Hardy films, perhaps not only for their merits as comedy diversion, but because their quality of self-contained naivete had to be a small source of nostalgia for anyone dealing in \o7 Realpolitik.\f7
In fact, they were the rage of weary postwar Europe, which adored them as unvanquishable symbols of lost innocence. They were perennial top-10 favorites through the 30s and their influence is still felt in Hollywood. In "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Candy and Steve Martin show a contemporary similarity to the L&H partnership, and even restore some classic old sight gags of automotive carnage, including a calamitous backing in through the window of a motel.
Their Gradual Beginning
No one at first had any idea of their extraordinary potential, least of all Laurel and Hardy themselves. They kept bypassing each other in one- and two-reel shorts, often appearing without working together, until director Leo McCarey, as well as a few others on the Hal Roach lot, began to pick up on the chemistry between them.
Their backgrounds were disparate. Stan was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson on June 16, 1890, in Ulverston, an English town near the Scottish border, to an actress named Madge Metcalfe and a father named Arthur J. Jefferson, an actor, director, manager and all-around theatrical entrepreneur.
In 1910, he joined the Fred Karno troupe. Karno was one of the most extravagantly successful theatrical impresarios of his day. Stan understudied Karno's star--Charles Spenser Chaplin--and made two American tours, playing almost every role in the company's feature, "A Night in an English Music Hall."
When Chaplin left Karno in 1912 to join Mack Sennett, Stan stayed in America to play the little tramp as part of a vaudeville act, that lasted a decade (his first film was the 1917 "Nuts in May"). The name Laurel was suggested by one of his vaudeville partners (and his common-law wife), an Australian named Mae Charlotte Dahlberg Cuthbert.