The best of the best: Laurel & Hardy

by Martin Hafer

Continuing my run of articles about comedians from the silent and early sound era, who made some amazingly good films, that include the likes of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. However, it would be remiss of me not also mention that most famous comical duo of their age, the brilliant Laurel & Hardy. Like the other comedians I previously mentioned, they made both short and full-length films, as well as silents and talking pictures. Together, they would reach heights that Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin, never quite achieved. In fact, the pair were so popular throughout the world, that for a while in the early 30s, the team made films in multiple languages, including Spanish, Italian, German and French! Because the technology to dub films wasn’t perfected, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made these films, even though they didn’t speak the languages–practicing and re-practicing their lines with coaches until they got them right. Fortunately, in the newest DVD compilations, Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection, several of their foreign language films are included. Note: At the foot of the article, you can watch a rare clip of the pair’s last time seen together, from 1956.

A word of caution if you want to see films from this team. While they made quite a few full-length films in the 1940s and into the 50s, they weren’t made by the same studio or directors as they used while in their prime, … and it shows. The team look old and tired, and the films are not particularly inspired — even occasionally painful to watch. But with over a hundred films pairing the two, there are so many wonderful pictures to see, including:

Sons of the Desert: Probably their most famous full-length film, it’s been copied MANY times by such TV shows as The Honeymooners and even The Flintstones! Stan and Ollie want to sneak off to their lodge’s annual convention but the wives will hear nothing of it. So, Ollie concocts a scheme to convince the wives that he is suffering from nervous exhaustion and needs a holiday to calm his nerves…and his pal, Stan, will go along to keep him company and nurse him back to health.

Why I love this film: This film is about as perfect as you get with a wonderful combination of comedy, great plot and a nice cameo by fellow Hal Roach Studio comic, Charley Chase. This film is so good that my wife didn’t hate it when we watched it together!

Big Business: Despite being a silent, this one is perhaps their funniest short film. Stan and Ollie decide to sell Christmas trees door-to-door and they are not about to take NO for an answer…even if it’s from a very determined customer! Very similar to their later short, Tit for Tat.

Why I love this film: The short is incredibly violent and incredibly funny. The best thing about it, however, is its very wicked sense of humor. I showed this film to groups of 8th graders when I was teaching and the kids laughed themselves sick with this one…and never lost interest despite the lack of sound.
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Perfect Day: Stan and Ollie have decided to take their families on a little outing–just to get out into the country and have a relaxing picnic. The trouble is, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to get going.

Why I love this film: While it has one of the simplest of plots, the pair and director make the most of the film. Plus, I loved how just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does! Also, this one features the great comic supporting actor Edgar Kennedy–always a treat in their films.

Brats: Stan and Ollie play themselves and their own sons! Of course, the kids get into one problem after another.

Why I love this film: I will admit that this is not the pair’s funniest film. However, the trick cinematography and amazing sets make this one a visual treat!

The Music Box: This is the duo’s only Oscar-winning film, as it took the Best Live Action Short award. Stan and Ollie are deliverymen who are supposed to deliver a player piano to a house located up a huge set of stairs.

Why I love it: While The Three Stooges copied this film, it had nowhere near the same grace, style and laughs as this one.

Helpmates: Ollie’s had a big party and the house is a huge mess. So, insanely, he calls his pal Stanley to come over and help him clean up.

Why I love it: Despite a simple plot, there are so many laughs in this one that I cannot help but admire their films. Filled with good old fashioned violence and belly-laughs, this one is a treat.

Busy Bodies: Considering how clumsy and stupid the pair are in their films, having them build a house and operate a saw mill is probably not a good idea!

Why I love it: Like Helpmates, a very simple idea is so full of laughs and hilarious violence that it practically never lets up. More laughs in this short than in most full-length comedies.

Block-Heads: This picture begins during WWI. Stanley is ordered by his commanding officer to stay behind and guard the trenches while the regiment storms the German lines. Now, it’s 1938–20 years later and Stan is still waiting to be relieved of duty!! When Ollie learns that his old pal is alive, he rushes to bring him home to stay with him and his wife….a big mistake.

Why I love it: While a few of the gags in this film were recycled from some of their earlier films, this film is extremely funny and is among their best full-length films.

So there you have it–a small sampling of just a few of Laurel and Hardy’s best films. Many are shorts, Block-Heads and Sons of the Desert are full-length…all are very funny and well-crafted. And, all have held up tremendously well over the decades. Give them a look and let me know what you think.

last ever footage of Laurel & Hardy together