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Mr. Laurel (ne Arthur Stanley Jefferson, 1890-1965) and Mr. Hardy (ne Norvell Hardy, 1892-1957) the former a lank, childlike innocent with a penchant for anarchy, the latter a rotund, bossy incompetent with a naive pomposity, arrived on the film scene late in the silent era. Their brand of comedy served as a link between the era of silent character comedy, with its emphasis on aspirations to success and happiness, and the chaotic comedies of the 1930s, with its complete bedlam created by the characters' consistent failures. Laurel and Hardy slowed down the pace of silent slapstick, adjusting its gag structure for the more mundane pacing of sound film comedy. In the process, the duo became two of the most recognized faces in the film world.
Before their pairing in 1927, Laurel and Hardy had separate film careers, Stan's dating back to 1917 and Ollie's to 1913. As a teenager, Laurel joined Fred Karno's British music hall troupe, understudying for Charlie Chaplin. During the Karno troupe's first tour of the United States, he quit the company in 1911, seeking success on the American vaudeville stage. He would later rejoin Karno, only to quit a final time. Although he did meet with limited success in American vaudeville, he made his first film appearance in "Nuts in May" (1917), a slapdash slapstick chaser. He then signed with Universal to make a series of shorts as the character Hickory Hiram. In 1919, Laurel appeared in a modestly successful group of comedies that parodied contemporary film hits. Despite two stints with the successful producer Hal Roach, by the mid-20s, Laurel had practically given up the hope of being a successful comic performer; he signed once again with Roach in 1926, this time as a writer and gagman.
As a young man, Oliver Hardy liked to sneak out of college and music school to go on the road singing with theater quartets and minstrel shows. At 18, he managed the first movie theater in Milledgeville, Georgia, but in 1913, he abandoned theatrical management for a film career, joining the Lubin Company as a character player and general assistant. After three years with Lubin, Hardy appeared through the late teens and early 20s in the Frank Baum "Oz" series and as a comic foil for various silent film comedians such as Billy West, Earl Williams, Jimmy Aubrey and Larry Semon. By the mid-20s, Hardy, like Laurel, had signed with Roach.
At that point, Roach was frantically seeking to regain the commercial success he had enjoyed with Harold Lloyd, who had left him for feature film stardom. In an act of desperation, Roach formed the Hal Roach Comedy All-Stars, into which he thrust his stock company of James Finlayson, Max Davidson, Clyde Cook, Eugene Palette, Edgar Kennedy, Noah Young, Mae Busch, Anita Garvin and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
It was only a matter of time before Roach's shuffling of his players would deal Laurel and Hardy into the same film. "Slipping Wives" (1927), however, found Laurel supporting Hardy. It was "Putting Pants on Philip" (1927) in which the Laurel and Hardy team first flowered. The famous mannerisms appeared, in Hardy's pomposity and Southern courtliness and Laurel's squeaky, squashed-faced cries. Previously known for his frenetic slapstick pace, Laurel slowed down and instead of a catalyst of action became a reactor to the destruction raining down upon Hardy's head.
In their methodical style, Laurel and Hardy transformed silent comedy and conducted a scientific investigation of gag structures. The jokes became rituals in which a gag is dissected, studied and explained in a process of passionless stateliness. In this emotionless artifice, the characters paused to await their fate. One character would stand by as his partner clipped off his tie with a pair of garden shears. Equally detached, the second character would watch as the tie-less gentlemen clasps the shears and hurls them through the second character's car windshield. In the world of Laurel and Hardy, there are continually dispassionate shifts between victims and victimizers, resulting in mammoth destruction of hundreds of pies, a traffic jam of dozens of cars or the gutting of an entire residential neighborhood.
Over the next several years, Laurel and Hardy refined their pace in such shorts as "Leave 'em Laughing" (1928), "From Soup to Nuts" (1928), "Big Business" (1929) and "The Battle of the Century" (1927). The pair easily made the transition to sound, their slapstick style perfectly suited to its reality-bound pacing. From 1929 to 1935, Laurel and Hardy made several dozen shorts containing their best screen work, highlighted by the Academy Award-winning "The Music Box" (1932).
But the popularity of sound animated cartoons forced Laurel and Hardy into features, which either encased the team in cumbersome operettas or expanded their short-subject comic routines into clumsy assemblages. For every wonderful success--"Sons of the Desert" (1933) or "Way Out West" (1937)--there were several stumbles--"Babes in Toyland" (1934), "Pack Up Your Troubles" (1932) or "Saps at Sea" (1940). The end came when Laurel and Hardy signed on with the big Hollywood studios (RKO, FOX, MGM), who emasculated the darker aspects of their comedy and forced them into hackneyed formula films that denied them the creative freedom permitted by Roach. By the time their last film, "Atoll K/Utopia", was released in 1951, the team was bedraggled and gutted, Laurel looking seriously ill and Hardy shocked and embarrassed.
But in their early films of 1927-35, Laurel and Hardy created brilliant comic structures and developed two characters who perfectly complemented one another in a poetic, primordial relationship that shifted from the realm of the comic into something broader which found its ultimate reflection in the barren landscapes of Samuel Beckett.
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