Saturday, October 2, 2021

Laurel & Hardy: Creative Chaos

Early scene from Helpmates.
Comedy comes in a variety of forms, but however you dish it out the aim is generally the same: to make us laugh. After interviewing Tony Belmont, founder and director of the National Comedy Hall of Fame, I decided to continue down this path, following up with Paul Johnson's book The Humorists. I became acquainted with Paul Johnson through his books The Intellectuals and Modern Times. He's obviously someone who enjoys researching the lives of interesting people. The focus of The Humorists is on people who make us laugh, whether through cartoons, literature or the cinema. 

His deep dive into Laurel and Hardy prompted me to borrow a 10-disc set of Laurel and Hardy DVDs from the library. I'd always enjoyed their antics, but had forgotten just how skilled they were at tickling our funny bones.

Before becoming a team they were already quite successful in their careers. Stan Laurel had been in more than 50 films and had worked as a writer and director. Hardy had more than 250 productions under his belt. 

Their first appearance together was in The Lucky Dog, though they were not yet a pair. They just had roles in the short silent film. Their first team effort came five years later in 1926 when they signed up with the Hal Roach film studio. They officially became Laurel and Hardy in a silent film called Putting Pants on Philip. Their Laurel and Hardy career included 32 silent films, 40 short talkies and 23 full-length feature films.

A scene from Helpmates
Unlike Abbott and Costello, where Bud Abbott was a foil or straight man in contrast to the antics of Lou Costello, Laurel and Hardy equally shared in the buffoonery. 

(Trivia: Costello hitchhiked to Hollywood to be in the movies, inspired by Charlie Chaplin. Before becoming a somebody, he can be spotted as an extra in Laurel and Hardy's The Battle of the Century.)

All this to say that I find the slapstick creativity of Laurel and Hardy to be sensational. Paul Johnson labels what they do as "creative chaos." 

Timing plays an important part in comedy, and these guys had it down tight. They take the simplest element in a story and stretch it to the breaking point. Foreshadowing is another ingredient they employ well. Much like winding up a watch-spring, it produces a tension that precedes the next explosive moment.

They also knew the importance of creating characters and staying in character. Laurel doesn't attempt to be Hardy and vice versa. The characters they created were middle class, with bowler hats and attire to match, but their stories were never political statements. Nor did they stoop to blue humor. 

Oliver Hardy was probably the first to directly peer into the camera and thereby the eyes of his audience.

Because Stan Laurel was frequently script writer and sometimes director, he was paid more than Hardy, but Hardy never complained. They'd both done quite well for themselves, hence their enduring success.

One are where they were less successful was in their marriages. Each had a number of wives, with Laurel having married one of his wives three different times. I guess that's one of the burdens of Hollywood. It can take a toll on the domestic side of life.

* * * 

The movie Helpmates illustrates the manner in which L&H create their magic. 

The opening shot is a placard that reads: "When the cat's away-- The mice start looking up telephone numbers."

Next, we see an interior shot of a living room and dining room, littered with debris that includes empty liquor bottles, broken lamps, broken plates, upended furniture. The camera pans the debris up close to reveal cigarette butts, more empty bottles, ash trays full of butts, one smoldering. It's apparent that there had been some hard partying going on.

Cut to: Oliver Hardy with an ice bag on his head and a look of disgust. "Now aren't you ashamed of yourself," he says. "A man with your supposed intelligence acting like an empty headed idiot." 

He goes through a litany of things he did while his wife was away. It looks like he's talking to the camera, but when the camera pulls away we see he's looking into a mirror addressing himself.

No sooner does he finish scolding himself when the doorbell rings. It's a telegram from his wife. She'll be home at noon today. He immediately dials up his friend Stan to come over right away. 

Cut to: Stan in bed, tossing and turning. He knocks the alarm clock on the floor while trying to turn it off. The ringing continues and after much dismay at trying to rest he realizes it's the phone, which he must get up to answer. 

The manner in which he stretches this scene out is classic. What follows are a series of escalating stupidities as the two men attempt to prepare the house for Hardy's wife's return. 

I highly recommend Helpmates as typical of their oeuvre. Mad Hatter meets dumb and dumber to produce slapstick genius. 

* * *

Classic Quotes from Stan Laurel

You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead. 

  • I had a dream that I was awake and I woke up to find myself asleep. ...

  • A friend once asked me what comedy was. That floored me. What is comedy? I don't know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that's all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at, then proceed accordingly.

* * * 

If you need a break from all the disturbing events taking place at this moment in time, give Laurel and Hardy a try. Laughter really is good medicine.

1 comment:

Richard Scott said...

Hardy: "Here, you drink half and I'll drink half."
Laurel: [drinks entire glass]
Hardy: "What did you do THAT for?"
Laurel: "My half was on the bottom."

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