After seven years of incredible success, as a slapstick movie team, Laurel and Hardy began to be menaced by a new kind of competition: the smart, sophisticated talkie. It was now the era of the screwball comedy, and Capra, Lubitch, Hawks, etc. were in. Slapstick was out. Without sensing this sea change, Laurel started making the wrong career decisions. In 1936, he toyed with the idea of leaving Hal Roach.
Laurel formed “Stan Laurel Productions” but that entity was never much more than a name. Oliver Hardy was staying with Roach, and there was no way Laurel could work as a single with the character he had created. (Whereas, Hardy could. In fact, there are two interesting proofs: Zenobia, made for Roach in 1939, and 1949’s The Fighting Kentuckian, in which Hardy co-starred with John Wayne. )
Laurel and Hardy broke with Roach together in 1940. To their surprise, no other studio would sign them. The team was in a real bind for some while until columnist Louella Parsons persuaded Daryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox to do so. But the situation for Laurel and Hardy at Fox was worse than any they had ever endured before. Disrespected, shunted aside, they were given only low-quality projects that were produced according to assembly line production values. Unable to watch themselves on the screen any longer, the team voluntarily broke their own contract in 1945, preferring not to do any films at all, then to do the films they were doing.
But there was life in the old boys yet. A 1947 tour of England played to sold out crowds. In the late 40s their earlier films started to be shown on television and they began to receive a huge new flood of fans – more than they had ever enjoyed in the past. Their last film Robinson Crusoe-land a.k.a. Utopia a.k.a Atoll K was bizarre and atrocious, ending their cinema career on a sour note. But they squeezed in another successful tour before strokes felled both Laurel (1955) and Hardy (1956). Hardy passed away in 1957.
Laurel managed to fight his way back and was quite vital for almost another decade.
His last utterance was a joke. As his nurse was assisting him in his sickbed, he said “I’d rather be skiing than doing this. The nurse said, “Do you ski, Mr. Laurel?” and he said, “No, I but I’d rather be doing that than this.” He passed away in 1965.
As it happens, I’ve blogged about nearly every film in which Laurel appears. For Laurel’s solo starring vehicles from the silent days go here. For Laurel and Hardy’s films together go here. (Hardy’s early solo career was spent mostly as a supporting player; as yet, I’ve not given his solo career a separate section).
To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy please out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.