Stan and Ollie is due to have its world premiere tonight at the BFI Film Festival. To mark the occasion, we contribute this post on the first leg of their career as a comedy team — the silent period. We’d previously covered this ground with a bit more of analysis and pre-digestion in our earlier post on How Laurel and Hardy Became a Team, but this one breaks it down film by film. You’re making the worst mistake of your life if you think the silent work is somehow negligible and worth skipping because it lacks dialogue. Some of Laurel and Hardy’s later silents, once they were teamed and really got cooking are not just some of the funniest Laurel and Hardy movies, nor some of the funniest silent comedies, but some of the funniest movies of all time. There are maybe a dozen of them I’d show a newbie as an introduction to silent film comedy, not simply to demonstrate that it’s okay, but to demonstrate its sustained superlativity. Some of these movies are among the highest attainments of comedy film-making and comic performance.
We begin the survey in 1926 when the professional relationship began in earnest. This leaves out the earlier film The Lucky Dog, from five years earlier. To read about that bit of foreshadowing, go here. Now, the silent films:
Duck Soup (1926)
This film was long thought permanently lost until a copy surfaced in 1974. And it’s a good thing too, for the film has great historical importance, at least to film and comedy fans and scholars. It marks the first pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as co-stars, although they were not yet officially billed as a team here. Yet they are amazingly like the characters for which they would eventually become famous. This is remarkable especially given that their roles are unlike what they have previously played and that they would revert to other characterizations immediately afterward.
Why does it have the same title as the 1933 Marx Brothers movie? Perhaps the fact that the supervising director for the first one, and the director of the second one, were one and the same man: Leo McCarey. Apart from this, the films have almost nothing to do with one another.
In Duck Soup, Laurel and Hardy play a pair of tramps who are fleeing a conscription of hobos to fight a raging forest fire. They take refuge in a mansion where the owner is away for the weekend and masquerade as the owner and the maid (Laurel in drag). The owner returns early and furiously throws them out. They end up having to fight the fire, which they apparently started, anyway. Laurel is playing dumb (which he doesn’t always do) in this one. But Hardy is particularly close to what we know, perhaps because he is doing the kind of tramp who puts on airs. He sports a monocle and top hat, and exhibits a lot of the manners and mannerisms we associate with “Ollie.” If this sounds familiar, this film, based on a comedy sketch by Stan’s father Arthur Jefferson, was later remade by Laurel and Hardy as the talkie Another Fine Mess (1930).
With 20-20 hindsight we can see that in Duck Soup Laurel and Hardy (and the staff of Hal Roach studios) have stumbled onto a discovery without realizing it. For example, the powerful visual impression, with Ham and Bud as its obvious precedent, of two contrasting body types dressed identically, in this case, fat and skinny as opposed to short and tall. Laurel, by the way, wasn’t particularly thin at this stage in his life (and even less so going forward). The effect would be accomplished with over-sized clothes that made him look like a boy wearing hand-me-downs.
But apparently they would need to back away from this Eureka moment in order to notice what they had found. Over the next few films they would revert to other relationships and other characterizations, occasionally regaining a piece of it or making a new discovery but still not appearing as “Laurel and Hardy.”
Laurel is a door-to-door paint salesman, drafted by a disaffected housewife (Priscilla Dean) to pretend to be her lover so it will make her husband (Herbert Rawlinson) jealous and arouse his passions. Hardy plays the butler, who helps facilitate the scheme. Gunplay is involved. As in most of their films from this period, neither Laurel nor Hardy is playing anything like their more familiar screen characters.
Love ‘Em and Weep
Though this one was later remade by the team in 1931 as the talkie Chickens Come Home, this one is essentially a Laurel solo comedy, though it is chock full with a cast of Hal Roach regulars familiar as a sort of stock company from Laurel and Hardy’s films. Future foil James Finlayson plays Laurel’s boss; Mae Busch plays Finlayson’s blackmailing old flame who shows up to cause trouble. Fin enlists his secretary (Laurel) to prevent Busch from showing up his house, with many gags ensuing. A mustachioed Oliver Hardy has a bit part as a judge. Also in the film are Vivien Oakland (as Laurel’s wife), Charlie Hall, and Gale Henry.
Why Girls Love Sailors
This film was considered lost until its rediscovery in the 1980s. Laurel, a periwinkle fisherman, and a girl (Viola Richard) are sweethearts, promised to marry. Unfortunately, a rival (Malcolm Waite) storms in and interrupts their frolicking, a rough tough captain of a large vessel. Learning of their lovemaking plans, he throws Laurel down into a fishing net, and kidnaps the girl. Laurel sneaks onto the captain’s boat with a stocking on his head, scaring a drunken watchman who thinks he is a headless ghost. He then finds (what are the odds?) the steamer trunk of a female impersonator. The bulk of rest of his movie concerns Laurel in drag luring sailors, bonking them on the head, then posing them with their noses thumbed at first mate Oliver Hardy who get enraged and throws them all into the sea. Then, the final confrontation with the captain. To the rescue comes the captain’s furious wife (Anita Garvin) who knows of his philandering. Laurel manages to wiggle out of his predicament by making sure she shoots the captain with a gun. As he and the girl are fleeing, the wife shoots them—and their clothes all fly off.
With Love and Hisses
Rather dreary and familiar business. Laurel is a Beatle Bailey-like army private, Hardy is his exasperated sergeant, Jimmy Finlayson, the even more exasperated office. This sounds like a formula we recognize from later years, though Laurel is farther from his eventual character than the other two.
Laurel is a cab driver who gets swindled by beautiful Anita Garvin and her midget accomplice, who is posing as a baby (Harry Earles, from The Unholy Three and Freaks). He follows them onto a ship to straighten things out. Hardy plays the ship’s purser.
Now I’ll Tell One
This one is actually a Charley Chase comedy, with Laurel and Hardy each in the film playing bit parts. Edna Marion plays Chase’s wife, who is divorcing him. Laurel is Chase’s attorney, whose arguments make everything worse. Hardy has a walk-on as a cop.
Do Detectives Think?
This one has become considered retroactively notable for its costuming — it’s the first time Laurel and Hardy are paired wearing their familiar suits and derbies (they are playing detectives — the costumes were appropriate attire for such at the time). James Finlayson plays a judge who sends a terrifying crook (Noah Young) up the river for life. The crook vows revenge. Later he escapes from jail of course. The judge calls an agency seeking bodyguards. Thinking it is a simple security detail, the dispatcher assigns his worst men — Laurel and Hardy. The remainder of the film is essentially a spook comedy. Much hilarious business by the boys as they pass a graveyard and have to retrieve their windblown hats. By the time they get to the judge’s house, Young has arrived and is masquerading as the butler. Much bungling business in trying to apprehend the perp and his accomplices in the spooky old mansion. This one gives promising indications of great things to come!
The title would seem to presage Dumbo; as it turns out (as with many Laurel and Hardy movie titles) it’s a mere non sequitur. It’s a caveman comedy after the fashion of Chaplin’s His Prehistoric Past, and one of the segments in Keaton’s The Three Ages. Laurel and Hardy do battle for the affections of a fair maiden. James Finlayson and Tiny Sandford are also in the cast.
Finlayson plays a millionaire who married a gold digger (Charlotte Mineau) while inebriated. Also in his life now are the wife’s scary relatives who intimidate him for a shakedown. Laurel plays his lawyer and Hardy is his butler, both of whom are called upon to help him escape their clutches. Eugene Pallette is also in the film.
The Second Hundred Years
Laurel and Hardy are prisoners in jail. They attempt to dig a tunnel to escape. Laurel burns his butt on a candle. Then Hardy accidentally hits a water pipe with his pick axe. They have to dig in another direction. Unfortunately they make their exit into the warden’s office. He chases them around. A guard (Tiny Sandford) drills them in a line with other prisoners, a beautiful repetitive visual motif, perfect for silents. Separated from the others, they turn their clothes inside out and pretend to be painters, allowing them to slip outside the prison gates. A suspicious policeman follows them as they paint everything they pass all the way down the street. When they accidentally paint a flapper’s butt, it is time to flee. They jump into a taxi, toss out the passengers and steal their clothes. Unfortunately the passengers happen to be two French prison officials who are their way to the governor’s (James Finlayson) mansion for a fact finding visit. Which is precisely where our heroes are reluctantly delivered. A fellow Frenchman at the party (Eugene Pallette) kisses them on both cheeks at the party.They reason that since men kiss each other in France, they must shake ladies’ hands. Then Laurel has epic troubles trying to catch and eat a grape from his fruit cup. Meanwhile, the French prison experts have been caught and put into Laurel and Hardy’s old cell…and Laurel and Hardy have to go with the Governor and his group for a tour of the prison, where they are promptly found out and caught. One of the most enjoyable of the team’s silent pictures.
Call of the Cuckoo
Call of the Cuckoo is a Max Davidson comedy. Laurel and Hardy, along with others, play escapees from an insane asylum who make his life hell. Also in the film are Charley Chase and Charlie Hall.
Hats Off was later remade as Laurel and Hardy’s Oscar winning comedy The Music Box (1932), one of their best known pictures. Sadly most of the silent original has been lost. Laurel and Hardy play washing machine salesmen. The opening segment featured them carrying the machine up a long flight of stairs. The second routine had the team launching one of their epidemic “tit for tat” bits, a hat mix up between the boys that spreads to bystanders. In the end, the street is full of hats. A steamroller goes over their washing machine. A wonderful reconstruction of the film has been put together incorporating production stills. Like most of the films mentioned here, you can see it on Youtube.
Putting Pants on Philip
Laurel and Hardy had appeared in many films together by this stage, but this is the first movie to officially bill the pair as a team. The irony is, although in some previous films they had played characters quite close to the ones they became famous for — and together — in this one they do not! Here they revert to characters more like those they had played in lots of other films. It would take a few more films before they would re-discover the right formula, and then stick to it there ever afterward. In Phillip, Laurel is particularly different from the dim-witted “Stan” whom modern audience know and love, and much more like a character he had played in many solo films, a guy who is more mischievous, energetic and not particularly dumb.
In Putting Pants on Philip, Laurel plays Hardy’s visiting Scottish nephew in full kilt regalia, a lad who has a weakness for women. He literally “chases skirts”. Hardy meets the nephew at the boat and is immediately embarrassed by the kilt, and makes Laurel walk a good distance from him as they go through town. Crowds keep gathering to look at him. After a few blocks Laurel’s underwear falls off and then a gust of air from a subway vent blows his kilt up. Then they get on double decker bus. Laurel keeps chasing pretty girls. (Whenever he sees one, he gives a little cartoon-like leap).
Fed up, Hardy takes Laurel to the tailor to get fitted for pants. Laurel balks at the tailor measuring his inseam. Finally he is wrestled to the ground and humiliated, crying like a baby. He is given the pants to try on, but sees a girl’s legs out the dressing room window. He pursues her. A huge crowd follows him down the street. A lot of sexy flappers are walking around this town — Laurel flits from one to the other like a kid in a candy store. Laurel leaps off a bus to follow one at the same time another kilted Scotsman gets aboard, causing Hardy to trail the wrong Scotsman. Finally, Laurel chivalrously puts his kilt across a puddle so that a woman can cross it. She jumps across. Hardy steps on it and sinks in the puddle up to his neck. Laurel is now standing in his underwear, a new spectacle for the crowd to gawk at.
The Battle of the Century
For many many many years we had to watch this seminal comedy in fragments — a complete print was not found until 2015! This, despite the fact that it is a pretty significant film — it contains the most epic pie fight in any motion picture. Some reports estimate that as many as 10,000 pies may have been used for the climactic scene.
The first part of the film is a boxing match. Laurel is the boxer; Hardy, his manager. Somehow Laurel manages to knock his opponent down, but then foolishly squanders the victory by not going to his corner for the count, even going so far as to fight with the referee (as in literally wrestle with him). In the meantime, the opponent has more than sufficient time to recover. He K.O.s Laurel. When Laurel wakes up, the crowd is long gone. (Neat fact, one of the guys in the crowd is Lou Costello!) The middle scene has Hardy buying accident insurance for Stan. His plan is to have him slip on a banana peel. Meantime, a man unloading a pie truck slips on the peel and gets covered in pie. He throws a pie at Ollie. Ollie throws one, missing the guy and hitting a passing lady. This keeps multiplying until everyone on the entire block is embroiled. It looks like a Tong war. It is the zombie apocalypse of pie fights. This a legendary scene. One of the very few times I have enjoyed a pie fight. After it ends, a cop says to Ollie “Did you start this pie fight?” Ollie says “What pie fight?” Cop gets a pie in the face.
Leave ‘em Laughing
Stan has a toothache so he goes to the dentist –where Ollie accidentally gets a his tooth pulled. Then, both still high on laughing gas, they cause a traffic jam. Prior to this, a funny scene of slapstick in their apartment involving tacks on the floor and a hot water bottle.
The Finishing Touch
The Finishing Touch is a construction site comedy, that hearkens back to Laurel’s solo comedy Smithy (1924) and Hardy’s paper hanging comedy Stick Around (1925). They are hired to finish a house as quickly as possible. Their foil this time is a cop played by Edgar Kennedy who tries to make them be quiet so he won’t disturb the neighbors — and suffers many indignities as a consequence,
From Soup to Nuts
Directed by Edgar Kennedy. The plot is beyond simple, and it was used many times subsequently both by L & H (notably in 1940’s A Chump at Oxford) and by other teams such as The Three Stooges. The boys are hired as servants to work a fancy dinner party. (Their nouveau riche employers are Tiny Sandford and Anita Garvin. The chef is Otto Fries). Then STUFF happens. Hardy keeps slipping on the same banana peel that keeps getting tossed to a different spot. Crockery is broken. Cakes fall on heads. Pants split open at the back. When Laurel is told to bring the salad out undressed he comes back in his underwear.
I learned an interesting aspect of the dynamics of silent cinema from watching this film. Because there is no soundscape to remind us about what’s offscreen, the shot we are looking at exists in isolation. What we see is the only reality. There is no “offscreen” to be aware of. Thus Hardy can flounder on the floor with his face in a large cake for an unrealistically long period of time without us even wondering or thinking about what is going on at the dinner table at the same time. The dinner table, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist in that moment.
You’re Darn Tootin’
Directed by Kennedy. The opening scene very stagebound, like a clown piece. They are playing with an orchestra in a bandshell, Laurel on clarinet and Hardy on French horn. First they cant get in sync with the rest of the band with regarding to sitting or standing. Then they keep flubbing clues. Then there is a to-do over sheet music, then they knock over everybody’s music stands. They’re fired. They go back to their boarding house. A brief bit as they try to eat their soup in the dining room. A kid divulges that he was at the concert and saw them get fired. Their landlady overhears so they are kicked out of the boarding house. Then they try busking. Cop keeps making them move. At a certain point, they are outside the window of their old bandmaster. In the end, quarreling, they destroy each others instruments. Then they start this wonderful, music fight, with this terrific repetition. Hardy hitting Laurel in the stomach, Laurel kicking Hardy’s shin, and Hardy turning and hopping in pain. Others gradually get drawn into this with a tit for tat scenario until the street is full of guys hopping up and down on one foot. Then Laurel pulls Hardy’s pants down. Hardy accidentally pulls someone else’s down. Soon everybody else is drawn in and pants are flying all over the place. Laurel pulls a cop’s pants down. They run. In the end the two steal a very fat man’s pants and they exit, both wearing the same pair of pants, tipping their hats music hall style. Glorious!
Their Purple Moment
Laurel and Hardy are stepping out on their wives with a couple of floozies at a nightclub. Laurel entertains the table by performing the “flipping the spoon” trick. When Hardy tries it, the spoon lands down a dowager’s back. There’s a floor show of tin soldiers. Laurel buys all of them candy. Then he discovers that he has no money. Meanwhile, a cabbie is still waiting outside running the meter. He comes in with the meter demanding payment. He sits down at their table and orders a meal — on them. Waiters start coming around looking for payment. Across town, we see the wives are furious, and on their way. Laurel and Hardy try to confer under the table. Finally they are chased out of the establishment. In the kitchen they are caught by their wives. A pie fight ensues.
Should Married Men Go Home?
Like so many great comedy shorts, this one is in three parts. In the first, Mr. and Mrs. Hardy are having a quiet Sunday at home. A glance out the window reveals Stanley blissfully approaching up the sidewalk with his golf bag. The couple try to hide out but accidentally reveal their presence when they retrieve a note he leaves. They invite him in and he causes all manner of havoc, destroying a window shade, a chair, etc. When Oliver destroys the record player (which he is playing at Stanley’s request) it is too much for the wife and she throws them out. Luckily, Ollie is wearing his golf clothes under his robe. He complies most cheerfully.
The second part of the film will be well known to those who have seen the team’s talking short Men o’ War, which re-creates it. The boys meet two fetching young girls at the golf links; the couples need to pair up as the club is only allowing people onto the course in groups of four. They stop off at the clubhouse for a refreshment, but they only have fifteen cents. Ollie instructs Stan to say that he doesn’t want a drink, but he repeatedly bungles it. In the end, the strategy was futile. Drinks are a dime so they owe 30 cents (they leave a wristwatch to cover the bill).
The third part is simply hijinx on the links, a series of standard golf gags. The funniest is seeing Edgar Kennedy accidentally replace his toupee with a swatch of artificial turf. It all culminates with one of the team’s patented tit for tat battles in a mud hole, especially rewarding since everyone is wearing fancy golf clothes.
Early to Bed
Ollie gets news that he has inherited his uncle’s fortune, Laurel becomes his butler. The meat of the film concerns Ollie coming home late, drunk. Stan disapproves and Ollie is obnoxious. Stan attempts to put him to bed, even going so far to wrestle him (he loses). Ollie later sneaks into Stan’s bedroom while he is sleeping and pours cold water on him. This is the last straw, He attempts to quit, but Ollie won’t listen to him. In an attempt to get fired, Stan starts breaking everything breakable in the house. Ollie starts throwing things back, wreaking his own destruction. When Stan falls into a cake, getting frosting on his face, Ollie thinks Stan is frothing at the mouth insane and flees. In the film’s most memorable sight gag, Ollie disguises himself as a fountain (it is a gag we see coming with delight, it is a fountain composed of water-spouting Ollie heads). In the end, they make up, but not without some mutual head bashing with a fireplace shovel.
One of their best ones. Laurel and Hardy are two sailors on dates with a couple of girls in a rented car. In the opening bit, there is a near accident with Laurel at wheel. Hardy demands that they switch. Of course they immediately have a real accident. Then they meet the girls, and struggle with a gumball machine. Caught in bumper to bumper traffic on the road to the beach. Impatient, Hardy pulls off road and tries to go around. A bunch of cars follow him. They come up on an impassable construction site. There follows a huge tit for tat sequence, this time with fender benders. Hardy stops quick, the guy behind him bumps into him. They, and then everyone behind them in traffic, begin destroying each other’s cars. The havoc doesn’t end there.
A spook comedy. Laurel and Hardy are hired by mad scientist to do some grave robbing. Soon after they go to the task, the professor is picked up by authorities and brought back to the loony bin. Hardy climbs a pole to see where they are and gets to the top only to realize that it was freshly painted (a gag they would revive in one of their late films). He goes through the rest of the film with a stripe down his front and Laurel’s two handprints on his butt. Meanwhile the mad scientist’s butler has gone into the graveyard to try to scare them off, to prevent them from robbing the grave. Laurel goes in first (Hardy helpfully stays outside the gate to “protect him”.) The butler terrifies both Laurel and a security guard, who all flee. But the graveyard gate closes and locks behind them, trapping them. Much business with ghosts!
We Faw Down
Henpecked Laurel and Hardy sneak out to play poker, telling the wives they’re off to the Orpheum Theatre, where they work. On the way they great soaked by a street cleaner, and slip up to the apartment of a couple of girls to dry off. Meanwhile the wives get the news that the Orpheum theatre is on fire. Across town, the boys are in the strange women’s apartment in bathrobes, drinking beer. A husband comes home, catching them in compromising (but actually innocent) positions. He is ready with a knife to carve Laurel up. Hardy throws a pie at him. The two run out, hastily get dressed, and climb out a window. Their wives see them.
Hysterical. Laurel and Hardy escape from prison with the help of a couple of some confederates in a getaway car. In their haste to get out of their prison stripes and into civvies in the back seat, they each put on the wrong pants. This leads to a hilarious sequence in which they keep trying to switch their pants back. But every time they go to some discrete location like an alley and start to remove their trousers someone catches them and mistakes them for a couple of perverts. Then, a new rub. While they make their latest attempt, behind a fish store, a live crab winds up in Laurel’s pants. This leads to trouble with record store owner Jimmy Finlayson and his outdoor display of breakable record albums. This leads to the final act, which is both hilarious and interesting from the point of view of the comedy connoisseur, as it is basically Laurel and Hardy “doing” a Harold Lloyd thrill comedy. The pair take an elevator to the top of an unfinished skyscraper. They become trapped on the naked girders, each in the wrong pants, with a live crab to add to the havoc. After numerous near fatal mishaps they finally make it down in the elevator which crushes a policeman standing underneath. When he emerges and dusts himself he is about three feet tall.
One of the funniest movies ever. Laurel and Hardy have a work order to move the famous painting “The Blue Boy”. Unfortunately there is also a race horse by that name. What do you think happens?
That’s My Wife
Hilarious silent, very well constructed story. Mrs. Hardy is so fed up with Laurel living in their house that she leaves Ollie. This is bad news for Ollie – his inheritance depends on his being married. At just that moment, the rich uncle visits: “Where’s the wife?” In a panic, Hardy does the only thing he can do: dresses Laurel as a woman. (For breasts he inserts a dumbbell into the dress, ah, the joys of Pre-Code!). Pulling this feat off would be difficult enough. Then the uncle insist they go out to a night club. A drunk keeps harassing Laurel. Finally Hardy gets rid of him by dumping soup on his head. On his way ou,t the drunk orders a bowl of soup; we know that’s a chicken that will come home to roost. Next, a lady’s jewelry is stolen; they’re going to search everyone in the place. Of course the crook drops the necklace down Laurel’s dress. In yet another panic Hardy shakes Laurel down trying to get the jewelry out. The wig comes off. The Uncle gets wise and disinherits Hardy. Then comes….the piece de resistance. The expected bowl of soup on Hardy’s head.
One of the funniest movies of all time. The boys attempt to sell a Christmas tree to Jimmy Finlayson. As he slams the door on them, he traps tree branches. Their tree damaged, and Fin unwilling to pay for it, the boys proceed to destroy his house. His entire house. And Fin proceeds to destroy their car. Their entire car. Rarely has comic destruction been so complete or so hilarious.
This one is notable for featuring a young Jean Harlow in an early comic role. It’s set at a fancy Times Square hotel. Laurel and Hardy arrive at the hotel at the same time as a visiting king and are mistaken for him and his aide. They are welcomed with great fanfare. Then it turns out that they are just the two new bellhops. The king suffers a series of indignities and Laurel and Hardy start an epidemic of eye poking in the lobby.
The boys are repo men for the sheriff’s department. They have an order to seize Edgar Kennedy’s radio, but they are barely competent enough to even leave the office. Once they make it to Kennedy’s house, he is wise to them and most uncooperative, keeps eluding them so they can’t serve their papers. When they finally do so they are confronted with the second problem – how to take his radio. They try to get up to his second story window with a ladder (with predictable results). Finally a policeman helps them get the radio , but then – a steam roller runs over both the radio and their car.
“A dramatic story about a goat”. The boys suffer much trouble as the result of a lovelorn goat who keeps following around, climaxing with a giant slip act routine — and a new litter of kids. This is Laurel and Hardy’s last silent film, and one of the last of all silent comedies. 1929 was pretty late in the game for this sort of thing.
As indicated above, many or most of these films are available to watch on Youtube. You won’t regret checking them out. Go here for part two, about the team’s talkie shorts. Meantime, please peruse the Laurel and Hardy section of Travalanche, which has, among other articles, individual posts on all of their feature length films.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy including the seminal work of Laurel and Hardy, please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,