The most popular and successful comedy team in entertainment history was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the timid thin one and the bossy fat one, who made an unbroken string of shorts (20 minutes each, as many as 13 a year) from 1927 to 1935, and features (averaging two annually) from 1930 to 1945. Since they began so near the 1929 arrival of full sound, and moved into talkies more smoothly than practically any other stars, comic or otherwise, it is often forgotten that they began in silents. Indeed, purists have always maintained that the best of Laurel and Hardy were their silent two-reelers—-all made in the first two years of the team’s existence—-and that the level of hilarity they achieved without dialog was never matched in the talking era, even though their voices perfectly suited the pantomimed personas they had so brilliantly established. These rare silent comedy classics have been collected in ten DVD compilations under the umbrella title, The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy (confusingly made available originally by Image Entertainment under volume numbers 1-10; check through Amazon.com).
English-born Stan Laurel (1890-1965) had already been featured or starred in a good number of short comedies and had worked as a gagman in pictures for over a decade before the brilliant writer-director Leo McCarey had the idea to team him up with Georgia-born bit-player Oliver (“Babe”) Hardy (1892-1957). This was the first stroke of genius for McCarey, who directed, wrote or supervised all the Laurel and Hardy silents, and would go on to have a most fruitful, memorable feature career, making such enduring favorites as the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Charles Laughton’s Ruggles of Red Gap, Cary Grant’s first success, The Awful Truth—-McCarey won the best director Oscar for that one—-and the first Love Affair (with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne), the remake, An Affair to Remember (with Grant) and Bing Crosby’s Academy Award-winning Going My Way (another directing Oscar plus best picture for producer McCarey).
Less than a year before he died in 1969, I interviewed Leo McCarey, and asked him how much he had to do with shaping the characters that Laurel and Hardy came to be. “I feel I had a lot to do with it,” he answered, “but modesty prevents me from saying that I gave them their breath and blood.” Explaining how the team’s gags and mannerisms were worked out, McCarey said, “Stan and I shaped all those things. Hardy was no good on stories. Right in front of him Laurel would say, ‘I’m doing twice as much as he is, and whatever he gets, I want to get twice as much money.’ So we always gave Laurel twice as much as Hardy… Laurel was one of those rare comics intelligent enough to invent his own gags. He was remarkably talented. Hardy wasn’t. That was the key to the Laurel-Hardy association.”
Their shorts also were paced slower than the usual frenetic comedies of the period. “At that time, comics had a tendency to do too much,” McCarey told me. “With Laurel and Hardy we introduced nearly the opposite… I came in one morning and I said, ‘We’re all working too fast. We ought to get away from these jerky movements and work at normal speed.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you an example of what I mean. There’s a royal dinner. All the royalty are seated around the table and somebody lets out a fart. Now everybody exchanges a glance, that’s all.’”
Each of these ten volumes is a mixed bag, always featuring one or two really good titles, but including solo Laurel or solo Hardy appearances that tend to be mainly of historical interest. The first volume kicks off with one of their most hilarious, Big Business—-the boys selling Christmas trees in California, wrecking a guy’s house while he destroys their wares and car—-and Vol. 3 contains the painfully, uproariously funny Liberty, in which the boys find themselves precariously stumbling around on the scaffolding of a tall building with a live crab in first one’s, and then the other’s, pants. Their outrageous interactions with women—-suspicious wives or flirtatious girlfriends—-are always especially comic, We Faw Down on Vol. 3 being a top example. Other masterpieces to look out for include the wholesale, outrageous destruction of an entire traffic jam in Two Tars, or the hilariously absurd substitution of a racehorse for a classic painting in Wrong Again (aka Blue Boy).
For sheer belly laughs, you can’t get better.