A Century Ago This Month: Stan Laurel’s First Film

We’ll be blogging (and hopefully lecturing) shortly on why 1917 was the most fortuitous year in silent comedy. Among many other things, it was Keaton’s first year before the cameras, the year Harold Lloyd introduced his glasses character, and the year Larry Semon began starring in his own comedies. And there are several other notable developments of a similar nature. It also happens to be the year that Stan Laurel made his first film.

Stan’s early, pre-Hardy career is not widely known nowadays, to put it mildly. Many folks aren’t even aware that the boys started in silents — let alone that Laurel was a SOLO star of silents for a decade before being officially teamed with Hardy (and Hardy had been in films several years prior to Laurel). But it is so. Laurel had first come to America as a member of Karno’s Speechless Comedians, where he understudied  for Charlie Chaplin. Like Chaplin before him, Laurel left the company during a vaudeville tour of the states. He toured American vaudeville with a wide variety of comedy partners for the next few years, sometimes as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, (see my extensive post on him and those events here) until he was seen and discovered while performing an act with his wife Mae Dahlberg at the Hippodrome Theatre in Los Angeles in May 1917. Isadore Bernstein, former general manager at Universal, was the man who put Laurel in his first picture, the two reeler Nuts in May. 

Now IMDB and most books may give different accounts, but I’m going to go with author Rob Stone’s, which seems the most authoritative. The info comes from his book Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. He says Nuts in May was filmed in late June 1917, and released in early July (actual date unknown). “Released” is a stretch, at all events. The outfit that made it got out of the comedy business directly after it was made, but it was given at least one high profile industry screening attended by both Charlie Chaplin and Universal’s Carl Laemmle. Chaplin, while encouraging, proved evasive, so it was Universal that ended up picking up Stan for his first movie contract (he was to have several at many different studios during his bumpy solo career).

And what about the film? Stan played a patient in a mental asylum who goes around wearing a Napoleon costume, and is attended by an orderly who humors him by wearing a French soldier’s outfit. Then Stan escapes, and there is all sorts of nonsense with a steam roller. The only reason we know all this is that some of the film was later acquired by another studio, and portions were cut into another Laurel comedy called Mixed Nuts (1925.) There is reportedly about a minute’s worth of Nuts in May footage extant; whether this is also the same footage that was used in Mixed Nuts. A blurry, mislabeled print of what purports to be the latter is currently to be found here on Youtube.

For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy, including Stan Laurel, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

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