Archive for the Laurel and Hardy Category

How Laurel and Hardy Became a Team

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2017 by travsd

339246_Laurel- Hardy- biographical film

Adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available from Bear Manor Media, copyright (c) 2013, Travis Stewart, All Rights reserved 

Despite the fact that Our Gang/ Little Rascals entertain audiences right down to the present day, it is still not the most successful Hal Roach comedy series. That honor would have to fall to the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who surpass even Harold Lloyd as the biggest comedy stars to come out of the Roach lot in terms of fame and longevity. Odd to report that the two men starred in far more movies separately than they did apart. When they were teamed in 1927, each of the men had already been in films for years, Hardy since 1913, Laurel since 1917. Even if they had never been paired, each of them would most certainly have rated inclusion in this book on his own merits.

Oliver Hardy had spent almost the entirety of his 14-year solo career as a reliable ensemble player. He usually played the “heavy” or comic villain, taking the kind of parts Eric Campbell or Bud Jamison had gotten , but obviously in films less prominent then Chaplin’s. He is unique in being one of the first movie actors to have been almost wholly a creature of the cinema (that is, he had a very minimal stage career; he went directly into films). A son of Southern Aristocracy, Hardy had done a little professional singing as a teenager, but nothing like the day-in, day-out job-of-work vaudeville and circus careers of a lot of the comedians we have discussed in these annals.

At age 18 he got a job as manager of a movie theatre in Milledgeville Georgia, where he ran the projector, ripped tickets, and swept up the popcorn. After three years of watching movies every day, he decided he knew all he needed to know to be up on the screen himself. He moved to Jacksonville, Florida (then one of the country’s several movie-making centers) and broke in within a few months, becoming one of the principal comedians of the Lubin Manufacturing Company. It was during this time that a local barber, while shaving the baby faced comedian, gave him the nickname that would stick for the rest of his life: Babe. When Lubin went bankrupt, Hardy went to New York for several months, jobbing for various studios. But the Big Apple didn’t suit this courtly southerner; he leapt at the chance to return to Jacksonville to star in the “Plump and Runt” series for the Vim Comedy Company.

A decade and a half from creating his famous persona, he truly is a “babe” in these early comedies. In One Too Many (1916) he sports a full mop of wavy curls on his head, and plays a lazy, layabout nephew suffering from a hangover, reminiscent of many Arbuckle characters. The plot is that old comedy stand-by: “I have to pretend that I have an infant, or Uncle will cut off my allowance.” In desperation, he hires a cigar smoking hobo to play the baby; it turns out about as well as expected. Battle Royal (1916) gives one a taste of one of the few amenities Jacksonville had to offer not available in Southern California: the Hatfields-and-McCoys style feud comedy is filmed in a Florida swamp. It’s a location I’ve not seen in any other film of the period and really worth watching for that novelty alone (because that’s about all it has to offer).

As close as we’ll ever get to a Chaplin and Hardy team-up,though Billy West is a surprisingly good consolation prize

Vim was purchased by King Bee and it was during this period that Hardy played the heavy for Billy Wests’s series of Chaplin imitations. Out of the half dozen or so of these I have seen, Hardy’s best turn is in the 1918 Charley Chase-directed He’s In Again, in which he plays a heavily-made-up Eric Campbell style waiter (a la The Immigrant) who has to keep throwing West’s penniless and conniving tramp out of a saloon.

With his hands full of Semon

In 1917, Hardy moved to Los Angeles, gradually working his way up to supporting player for Larry Semon. His roles are scarcely more distinguished in these pictures, but Semon was a big star and so Hardy enjoyed wide exposure as a result of appearing in them. Still, after the initial burst of “Look! It’s Oliver Hardy!” one’s interest begins to wane. He is an ensemble player merely; the Oliver Hardy we love so well from later pictures is entirely absent. In films like Golf, The Counter Jumper, The Barnyard, etc. etc. etc. (there are a lot of them) he tends to be your run of the mill stooge in overalls, just another body to bounce Larry Semon off of.

A thorn in Charley Chase’s side in “Isn’t Life Terrible?”

By the mid-1920s Semon was starting to flounder at the box office and that’s when Hardy began to work for Roach. Thanks to his high visibility in the Semon films he was among the many not-quite-stars that Roach cast in his “All-Star” series, trying to make that title a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, he gets much juicier turns. In Isn’t Life Terrible? (1925) he plays Charley Chase’s good-for-nothing brother-in-law, a lazy hypochondriac whose “weak heart” gets him a pass on doing any work, but conveniently qualifies him to tag along on the family vacation. (The movie has a happy ending though. When the ocean liner they’re taking stops off in South America, he is shot by a firing squad!)

In Yes, Yes, Nanette (1925), Hardy plays the former boyfriend of Jimmy Finlayson’s new wife (Lyle Tayo). Finlayson (still known as “Fin” to the fans who revere him) is best known today as  Laurel and Hardy’s comic foil, although he appeared in many other films, often as the star, like in this one. The Scottish comedian had gotten his start at Sennett and other studios in the late teens, gotten frustrated with playing supporting roles and come over to Roach in 1922. He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. There’s plenty of room for that in Yes, Yes, Nanette as Hardy’s character bullies and badgers the newlywed groom, until he snaps and sends the much larger Hardy running down the street with his tail between his legs. The film is especially notable here because it was directed by another member of the Roach All-Stars: Stan Laurel.

Laurel’s resume was quite different from Hardy’s.  At the time of their teaming, he was a stage veteran who had been tried and failed by several major movie producers in his own starring series over a period of a decade. Nearly everyone who watched him perform saw promise; all that was wanting was the right combination of ingredients to make his talents click. But they never seemed to materialize before he started working with Hardy.

Born in Lancashire in 1890, Stan was the son of Arthur Jefferson, a successful actor/manager and playwright. His parents struggled during Stan’s early years, but success came to Jefferson in 1896, touring the provinces with the melodramas that were so popular in that era. When Stan was 12, the family moved to Glasgow where his father managed the Metropole Theatre. When he was a teenager, Stanley made his debut at a local music hall. His father approved and got Stan a job with Levy and Cardwell’s Juvenile Pantomimes, with whom the boy performed for two years.

Laurel and Chaplin (center) w/ Karno & Co. during their U.S. vaudeville tour

In 1910, Stan was discovered by Fred Karno. By this time, Chaplin was already the Karno’s company’s principle comedian. Laurel was made second comedian and Chaplin’s understudy. Upon the troupe’s return to England, Stan left to tour music hall with his own sketches. He was on the brink of starvation when Karno manager Alf Reeves offered him a slot in the 1912 U.S tour. The troop was an even bigger hit this time around, word of mouth and memory serving to amplify audience expectations. When Chaplin left the company to make films, Karno lost all of the upcoming bookings. The act disbanded in 1913.

Some went back home to England, but Stanley Jefferson elected to stay in the land of opportunity. He teamed up with two other Karno alum, Edgar and Wren Hurley as “the Three Comiques”. Stanley wrote a sketch for them called “the Nutty Burglars” that played Chicago and environs for several months. On the advice of booking agent Gordon Bostock, the troupe then began to call themselves the Keystone Trio. Stan started to do his character as Charlie Chaplin, and the Hurleys began to do their parts as silent comedians Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand. I guess this was in the days before lawsuits. Anyway, the deception made the act highly bookable, and the team worked the Poli Circuit for many months, finally breaking up over “creative differences”.

In 1915, he teamed with Alice and Baldwin “Baldie” Cooke to form the “the Stan Jefferson trio”. This knockabout team followed very much the same formula as the Keystones (without the silent film star rip-off) with a sketch called “the Crazy Cracksman” they worked the Proctor, Fox, and Pantages circuits for two years.

Stan and Mae Laurel: Jolly good show! Ripping, wot?

In 1917, Stan met (and fell for) a woman named Mae Dahlberg, an Australian woman who was part of a dancing sister act. Stan dumped the Cookes and teamed up with Mae, making her both his comedy partner and common-law wife. (The fact that she had an actual husband down under stopped her from becoming the legal Mrs. Jefferson). It was Mae who gave Stan the surname the public came to know him by. With the high degree of superstition so common to stage folk, Stanley realized one day that “Stan Jefferson” has 13 letters. As the two were casting about for names, Mae cracked open a history book and saw a picture of Scipio Africanus wearing the traditional laurel wreath of a victorious Roman general. And that’s why we call him Stan Africanus. No, no, just kidding.

Stan and Mae struggled together in vaudeville and films for ten years. George Burns spoke highly of their two-act in later years. He recalled that Stan played Mae’s mother, cried a lot, and got pushed around a lot by Mae, who was a sort of matronly Margaret Dumont type. Onstage (and off it appears) Mae was the prototype of the countless shrewish wives that would be a staple of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy throughout their careers.

In 1917, the team was booked at the Hippodrome in Los Angeles. Producer Adolph Ramish caught the act and, impressed by what he saw, made a sort of demo film with Stan called Nuts in MayNuts in May previewed at the Hippodrome, where it was seen by both Carl Laemmle (the head of Universal Pictures) and Chaplin, who had been a star for three years by that point. Both expressed an interest in signing Stan, but only Laemmle acted on it.

 

In 1917, Stan launched the “Hickory Hiram” series of silent comedies around the eponymous rural character. The films tanked, proving the adage most succinctly expressed in Abel Green’s most famous Variety headline: “Hix Nix Stix Pix”. Jazz Age movie audiences did not go in for bumpkin characters. (tastes changed dramatically during the depression, however when Will Rogers, Chic Sale, and “Ma and Pa Kettle” would click big time with hick shtick. By that time, though, Laurel had long since moved on, to the character we all know him as).

It took years for Stan to catch fire in pictures. All throughout this period well into the 1920s, he continued to play in vaudeville with Mae, occasionally making films at various times for Hal Roach, Broncho Billy Anderson and Vitagraph, where he was teamed with Larry Semon.

Oh dear. In this photo Mae is plainly desperate to prove she was once Stan’s wife

(Mae was gotten out of the picture in 1925 by an enterprising producer named Joe Rock. Not only was she a scandal waiting to happen as Laurel’s long-standing common-law wife (cohabitation being frowned upon in those days), but she insisted on being in all his movies, and she wasn’t very good. The fact that she browbeat and controlled Laurel made her presence in his life further unwelcome. A large financial incentive got her on a boat back to Australia, and tellingly once that was accomplished Laurel’s career began to really take off.)

“Just Rambling Along” — Amusingly that’s not Hardy as the chef, but Bud Jamison. Some “types” just HAVE to be brought together

His earliest surviving vehicle, Just Rambling Along (1918), is an auspicious beginning, chuck full of funny gags and situations. The picture has a sort of Chaplinesque angle – Stan has no money to eat and finds himself trapped in a pay-as-you-exit cafeteria, frantically devising ways to escape before being kicked out into the arms of a waiting policeman. In Hustling for Health (1919) his character has shifted somewhat. Laurel (wearing a rather clown-like get-up) is about to go on vacation but he misses his train. Luckily his friend happens to be standing right there and offers that he come spend the vacation at his house. (Obviously the writers and producers didn’t think this through very thoroughly. The house appears to be in a typical suburban housing tract; why didn’t Laurel just go home?) At any rate, the comedy premise (and the explanation for the title) is that from the get-go, Laurel is made to work rather than relax. His character is much put-upon in this comedy, a very different sort of bloke from the freeloader in Just Rambling Along.

Laurel had the opposite problem of a lot of screen comedians. Because he was so well-trained, talented and versatile, he had a difficult time settling on a persona. Audiences, then as now, liked comedians to play variations on the same character from film to film. Laurel seemed to vacillate.  That he was an expert gag man there was no dispute.  He clearly had more going for him than most silent comedians of the day (say, a Chester Conklin or a Snub Pollard) but he was not (at least not yet) in a league with the giants. While good at gagging, he wasn’t much on story and downright weak on character.  He seemed to be going at it backwards. All of the great ones (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Normand, et al) developed the character first and let the gags arise from that. Then the narrative would evolve from the gags. Laurel seemed to start with the gags, leaving a hole at the center where the heart should be. His solo pictures are often funny enough but unsatisfying.

“West of Hot Dog” (1924)

The closest Laurel seemed to get to a recurring identity was a sort of mischievous young man with a Beetle Bailey-like aversion to work. “Dumb” or “slow” or “child-like” don’t yet enter to it – he usually wasn’t any of those things. We scarcely ever catch a glimpse of anything resembling his later character.  Often he comes across as more spritely than funny. His energy was like that of an adolescent. He had a habit when he was happy of running in place, or jumping from foot to foot.  He is not yet sporting the bed hair of his more familiar later character, but generally wears his hair slicked back, with a severe part in the middle, not too different from Alfalfa.

As with many comedians of the day, he often seemed to build the pictures around locations or work situations. In The Noon Whistle (1923) he is a loafer employed in a lumberyard, forever thinking of ways to hide his goofing off from foreman Jimmy Finlayson. In Oranges and Lemons (1923) he is a picker at a citrus grove. In Kill or Cure (1923) a door to door salesman. In such cases, the gags write themselves: people get hit with boards, or thrown fruit or stuck with bottles of poisonous patent medicine as the case may be.

Many of Laurel’s other films were burlesques of the sort Ben Turpin was already becoming famous for with Mack Sennett. These pictures tend to hang together better, because no real believable character is required as an engine to make it go. Among these were Mud and Sand (1922, a take-off on Valentino’s Blood and Sand in which Laurel played a Spanish bullfighter named Rhubarb Vaselino),When Knights Were Cold (1923, a spoof of Marion Davies’ When Knighthood Was in Flower), and Roughest Africa (1923, a very silly parody of safari travelogues).

Hardy and Laurel, listed separately amongst Roach’s All-Stars

Still, Laurel had a ways to go before he could be called a major comedy star. Roach wanted to change that. In 1925, in an effort to fill the void at the studio left by Harold Lloyd, Roach launched his All Stars series. For the most part the name of the series amounted to wishful thinking. The promised stars more often than not turned out to be comedians on their way up or on their way down. In 1927, two of the comedians included in that roster were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The evolution of the nascent team was rapid but not instantaneous. The two happened to be cast in some pictures together, it was noticed that they had some rapport, so they were gradually cast in even more pictures together, and finally a decision was made to formalize them as a team.  This was an extension I think of the same process that had begun to happen a few years earlier with Arbuckle, Keaton and St John. A certain chemical magic exists among some comedians who had previously worked independently. It takes someone to notice, take it in hand, identify its properties and codify it, but in such way as to not hamper their spontaneity. No one had really done that for Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John, but a sort of roughing-in had occurred…Arbuckle the hero, Keaton the friend or sidekick and St. John the rival. But it was still sort of loose and in flux. Hal Roach, on the other hand, aided by the supervision of Leo McCarey had seen what was latently there with Laurel and Hardy and proactively attempted to make something tangible out of it, including the historic contribution of matching bowler hats. (Interestingly, there had been initial talk of making Finlayson a formal member of the team as well. As it turned out, it worked out just fine with Fin as an adjunct member of the greater stock company instead.)

Their first scene together, six years prior to their teaming

Fortuitously, Laurel and Hardy had first appeared onscreen together several years earlier, though nothing came of it at the time. The movie is called The Lucky Dog (1921). In the film (undoubtedly inspired by A Dog’s Life) Laurel plays a ne’er-do-well who adopts a stray mutt and uses him as an excuse to follow a pretty girl into a dog show. Hardy plays one of his endless parade of armed robbers. This is the occasion on which the two comedians met for the very first time. Not particularly auspicious or seemingly significant at the time. There would be much water under the bridge before they would definitively join forces.

The potential for a team was apparently first noticed in the short Duck Soup (unrelated to the eponymous Marx Brothers film apart from the presence of Leo McCarey). In this film they are not yet officially teamed, merely co-starred, but 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. They play a pair of tramps who are fleeing a conscription of hoboes 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”.

With 20-20 hindsight we can see that they’ve stumbled onto a discovery without realizing it. 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.

“Putting Pants on Philip” is their official film as a team — but they don’t play their well-known characters!

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”. For example in Why Girls Love Sailors (1927) they couldn’t be any farther from a team. Laurel plays a boyfriend who has boarded a steamer to rescue his kidnapped fiancée; Hardy plays the vessel’s rough-and-tough first mate, much like the traditional heavies he had always played. Yet this is the film in which he discovered two of his lasting mannerisms: the nervous tie-twiddle, and the fourth-wall-breaking glare directly at the camera, as if to say “You see what I have to put up with?” To confuse matters, in their next few films (The Second Hundred Years, Hats Off and Do Detectives Think? all 1927) they are completely recognizable as the team we know them as (right down to the matching derbies) yet in their first official release as a team. Putting Pants on Philip (1927), they don’t wear the derbies and their characters are somewhat different (Laurel, for one, is a kilt-wearing Scotsman, and is much more like his traditional comic creations—energetic, and not particularly dumb). In their next one, though The Battle of the Century (1927) they revert to something resembling the familiar formula. It’s like that for the first several months, a little herky-jerky, until piece by piece, they magically discovered the characters, relationship and rhythms that would make them one of the most beloved comedy teams of all time.

As Walter Kerr points out in The Silent Clowns, the metronome was set by Hardy, whose wide girth and langorous Southern manners and pace were the very opposite of the under-cranked Keystone Kops and most other silent comedy as well. I’ll stick my neck out right here and now and say that not only is Hardy my favorite member of the team (most people prefer Laurel), he is also my favorite comedian – as a comedian — in this book. Watching him fills me with mirthful joy, mostly because of the absolute relish he takes in each and every gesture. Not just the obvious things like the tie-twiddle, or his embarrassed little wave. But how he does things: how he cocks his hat on his head when he is ready to take something on, or how, when he gets doused with a bucket of water he flicks the last drop off his finger.

 “Oliver” is a complex creation, much misunderstood. For example, it’s a gross mischaracterization to say that he is grumpy or even short-tempered. The whole point of the team’s films is that Ollie is naturally the opposite of that. In the early scenes of their pictures he is generally in a terrific mood, singing, smelling flowers, and so forth. As a character he is normally charming, gracious, and frequently (hilariously) bashful. All of these sweet qualities are necessary of course so that his face will have that much further to fall when Stanley ruins everything, as he inevitably does. And if Ollie blows his stack when Stanley causes trouble, well, who wouldn’t? Ollie’s not bad-tempered; he’s just normal.

I also don’t buy the line that Oliver is as dumb or dumber than Stanley which many commentators (including the comedians themselves) seem to espouse. Instead, what I observe in the films is that Hardy’s character is more worldly than Stan, knows on some level how the universe operates, has a bigger vocabulary, and would probably be just fine if he wasn’t saddled with his dim-witted partner. Hardy may be foolhardy and riddled with flaws, but in a milder sort of way than Laurel. He is impatient, vain and wildly overconfident in his own abilities. This causes him to make the mistake of initiating new projects and – the worst mistake of all – trusting Stanley.

It seems to me that any Laurel and Hardy movie is really a Hardy movie. He is the one we relate to (hence those shared moments when he engages the camera) and he is the one who goes on an emotional journey of some sort. Laurel, on the other hand, is merely a plot point, an obstacle, much like the female characters in some of Keaton’s films. This is not, by the way, to remotely put Laurel’s contribution down. Rather the opposite. His character is a force of nature akin to Keaton’s and Harry Langdon’s in that he is downright supernatural. He is not merely stupid, but he is completely vacant, like a beast of burden, like a black hole. That is why he is such an excellent gag machine. The consensus seems to be that the character grew out of Laurel’s need to adjust to Hardy’s slower rhythms, and in an effort to do so he (an encyclopedic gag man) plundered the Harry Langdon playbook. The child-like quality, the bursting into tears, the appearance of always being at least one beat behind – all these come from Langdon. Like Langdon, Laurel is a Holy Fool, so dumb that on occasion he doesn’t know that he should obey the laws of physics. There is a beautiful symbolism to the character (on top of the hilarity).  That he, like Keaton, never intended any, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The bird doesn’t know it’s singing, either. It just does it.

The combination of Laurel and Hardy is very much like two children who get each other into trouble. The effect of the story arc is usually enhanced by the respectability symbolized by the two derbies. This is the production house that gave us Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase, remember. This is middle class comedy. Their characters are members of the petit-bourgeoisie who in their films generally make the mistake of deviating from their routine. When you are Laurel and Hardy you must never try something. It generally leads to complete destruction. Often they are just a wee bit rebellious and like to step out on their wives. It is hard to judge the boys too harshly on this score since the deck is always stacked – they are invariably given a pair of terrifying spouses, rolling pin wielding shrews. Sometimes they are beautiful like Thelma Todd or Anita Garvin; sometimes a bit harsh like Mae Busch or Daphne Pollard. But the relationships are always oppressive and emasculating, inspiring the boys to assert their manhood by sneaking out to nightclubs and flirting with floozies. They like to whoop it up, but they always pay for it in the end. In one of the first of these Their Purple Moment (1928), they skip out on their wives and treat a couple of fast girls to a good time at a speakeasy. Unfortunately, neither Laurel nor Hardy has any money, so the boys will be doubly humiliated when their wives show up to bust them, as they will also have to bail them out of their jam. It’s a story template they would draw from for the next decade.

As a team, Laurel and Hardy played with audience’s expectations by ritualizing them, elaborating on them, embellishing them. They seemed to savor each moment, milk it, and wring every possible gag out of every situation. This is the word I would use for the duo: delicious. Even when I am not laughing I am filled with a pleasure from my head to my toes of the absolute poetry of their interplay. But times when I am not laughing at them are rare. As I said, Hardy is my favorite comedian, and Laurel, ironically the brains of the team, can’t help but impress me as well. Several of their shorts may be deemed among the funniest movies of all time, exceeding even those of Chaplin and Keaton. The fact is, I laugh longer and harder at their films than anyone else’s, and by a wide margin. Further, as with Keaton, the formal beauty of some of their moments on film often approaches dance or music, and even may be said to possess profound meaning.

I am thinking primarily of one of their most commonly used comic devises, dubbed by the duo and their support team the “Tit-for-Tat”. It’s an old English expression meaning roughly the same as “measure for measure”, “an eye for an eye” or “giving as good as you get”. By way of illustration one must unavoidably cite what may be their funniest movie (although it would be impossible to choose). In Big Business (1929) the pair are a couple of door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen who make the mistake of annoying Jimmy Finlayson one bright, sunny Southern California day. Fin slams the door in their faces, accidentally trapping a branch in the process. They irritate him some more by ringing the doorbell so they can free the tree, and then a kind of symbolic defilement happens as Laurel and Hardy proceed to destroy Fin’s house and all its contents, while Finlayson tears apart their automobile. By the end of the movie, all is rubble.

The humorous part of such exchanges is the veneer of civilization that governs them. It is a ritual, exactly like the chivalrous codes of a duel. One person stands and politely makes himself available as a target, while the other carefully takes aim and fires (or dumps a bowl of cake batter on his head, as the case may be). Often, as it is in Big Business, it is directed against a third party. Just as often, the boys engage in an internal quarrel and do it to each other. They each have their own style. When Hardy waits to “get his” he includes us, silently imploring “Isn’t this humiliating?” When Laurel waits he just stares vacantly at the ground like a cow or a mule, almost as though he’s already forgotten a scrap were in progress. When the deed is done, he merely blinks, the epitome of blankness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Laurel and Hardy’s greatest contribution to World Peace however is what I call the epidemic Tit-for-Tat. This a sort of comical zombie apocalypse scenario where the battle starts with a couple of characters and spreads to the general population like a virus, culminating in great, glorious set pieces of comedy, truly spectacular moments of cinema. This interesting innovation seems to have begun with Hat’s Off (1927), a lost film the first act of which was later remade as The Music Box (1932), substituting a piano for the washing machine in the original. The climax of the film had Laurel and Hardy mixing their hats up (as they would often do), then drawing another passerby in, and then another, until the entire street is full of mixed, discarded hats like some bloodless Antietam.

This was followed up with The Battle of the Century, a film justly renowned for showcasing the most epic pie fight ever recorded. How good it is? Let’s just say it’s impressive enough that even I like it, and I generally scorn pie fights, mostly due to that saturation and overexposure that has happened over the last century. In my view, a pie in the face ceased to be funny before your great grandfather was born. Buster Keaton agreed. When he started his solo contract in 1920 he vowed that there would be a moratorium on thrown pies; it was already a cliché by then. But Laurel and Hardy (and I of course include their directors, gagmen and co-stars) made ballet out of a pie fight – as they did with all physical business. In The Battle of the Century, the boys accidentally cause a pie delivery man to get one right in the puss. In retaliation, he starts to heave his wares out of his truck, which is naturally lined with an impossible number of pies. Soon, everyone on the street is drawn into the melee. The entire block resembles a Tong War, the entire atmosphere criss-crossed with airborne pies. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and that includes pie fights.

And so and so. You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928) ends with a sidewalk full of people pulling each other’s pants down. In Two Tars (1928) an entire highway full of backed-up traffic breaks out in madness, with drivers tearing apart each other’s stalled vehicles like Finlayson had done in Big Business, only times 2 or 3 dozen. In Double Whoopee (1929) everyone in a hotel lobby breaks out in an orgy of eye poking, instigated, as in all these cases, by Laurel and Hardy. (Incidentally, this movie is doubly worth watching for containing one of the first screen appearances of 17 year old Jean Harlow.) Big Business and Putting Pants on Philip contain mobs as well: crowds of the morbidly curious who can’t resist rubbernecking at the unfolding mayhem. H’m…they sound like stand-ins for us.

From the late 20s through the mid 30s Laurel and Hardy were one of Hollywood’s most popular comedy teams, cranking out some 70 shorts and ten features – some of which (in terms of the laughter generated) are among the most perfect comedies ever made.

For more (much more) on Laurel and Hardy and silent and slapstick film comedy, please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available from Bear Manor Media,

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War One. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:

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The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

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As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

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Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 

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A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!

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The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.

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Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.

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A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.

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Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy’s second feature for Hal Roach, is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

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Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.

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The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Laurel and Hardy in “A-Haunting We Will Go”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the 1942 comedy A-Haunting We Will Go, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This is one of my favorite films from the team’s worst period (1941-1951). A fairly conventional spook comedy, while still beneath the talents of the team, it is at least on par with the standard comedy fodder of the day (a low standard, but at least they weren’t beneath it on this occasion. Their vehicles sometimes were). Best of all, their co-star is Dante the Magician, and he proves to be a pretty good actor.

Laurel and Hardy play a pair of hobos who get a job transporting a coffin (little knowing that it contains, not a corpse, but a con man with an elaborate scheme). The coffin gets mixed up with one of Dante’s magic trunks. Then the pair become Dante’s assistants! And then…they get entangled with a fairly boring plot…the usual gangster business that was so popular in the 40s, which the studios seemed to think was so much better than letting two brilliant comedians be funny. But as I say, this one is better than their usual product of the period, and it’s a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or so.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Groucho, Laurel & Hardy in the Headlines

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by travsd

Two exciting stories to report; both have probably already exploded their way through every contact I have on social media, but for those who missed them, here they are:

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Variety reported yesterday that Steve Stoliar’s incredible book Raised Eyebrows (about Groucho Marx’s last days) is going to be made into a movie directed by horror helmsman Rob Zombie. It’s not such an odd fit. It’s well known that Zombie is a big Groucho fan and has named characters after Groucho personae in his films. And also..this is a DARK story. Groucho’s last decade or so were spent in an odd, one might venture to say exploitative relationship with an ambitious young actress named Erin Fleming. Stoliar had a ringside seat as Groucho’s personal assistant. Believe you me, there is psychodrama aplenty.

Raised Eyebrows is one of my favorite show biz books. I previously blogged about it here. And in fact, when the book was re-released by Bear Manor Media a couple of years ago, I reached out to Stoliar to gingerly inquire about screenplay rights for myself. (I figured it was worth a shot, I had found my previous out-of-print copy in a bargain bin — to my shock and surprise). But anyway Steve was like, “Yeah, no, I got this covered. I’m way ahead of ya, buddy.”

You can’t blame a guy for trying! I think very highly of this man and his book. It’s not just a compelling story, but it’s extremely well written, intelligent, funny, tragic, humane. Indeed when I heard that Bear Manor was re-printing Raised Eyebrows, I considered that a kind of seal of approval for Bear Manor. “If Steve Stoliar likes them, they have to be okay.” And they are more than OK. They published my book Chain of Fools and are about to publish Noah Diamond’s new book about I’ll Say She Is. 

Groucho fans rejoice! This is a Gala day for us!

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And the other exciting news which broke earlier this week…the long lamented missing reel of Laurel and Hardy’s epochal pie fight movie Battle of the Century , directed by Clyde Bruckmanhas been found. Classic comedy fans everywhere are overjoyed. Read an excellent account here at Slate. 

It’s said that good things come in threes. What else can be in store?

Laurel and Hardy in “The Battle of Century”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy silent comedy short The Battle of the Century (1927). In addition to being very funny in its own right, this film is famous for having in the cast a young extra named Lou Costello, who plays one of the people in the audience at a boxing match.

At the start of the picture Laurel is boxing in a bout, with Hardy as his manager and trainer. 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 wrestle with the referee about it. 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.

In the next scene, with the two broke from the loss of the bout, Hardy buys accident insurances for Stan, with the plan of having him slip on a banana peel. Meantime, a man unloading a pie truck slips on the peel and gets covered in pie. There follows a classic L & H “tit for tat” sequence, culminating in the titular melee. Enraged, the truck driver throws a pie at Ollie. Ollie throws another 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. In the end, a cop says to Ollie “did you start this pie fight?” Ollie says ‘what pie fight?” Then the cop gets a pie in the face.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Laurel and Hardy in “Sons of the Desert”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the 1933 Laurel and Hardy feature Sons of the Desert, directed by William Seiter. 

This remains one of the all-time favorite Laurel and Hardy films among fans. As they often do, Laurel and Hardy play hen-pecked but rebellious husbands on a tight leash. Their wives here are played by Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy. In this film the boys are not literal “Sons of the Desert” (which can be a little confusing because in a couple of their comedies their characters join the French Foreign Legion). In this case, the “Sons of the Desert” refers to their fraternal lodge and the boys are just itching to their annual convention in Chicago. Naturally their wives won’t permit this, so the boys claim that Hardy is sick and must go to Honolulu for his health. (A hilarious irony — who wouldn’t prefer to go to Honolulu than Chicago?). In Chicago they woop it up with Charley Chase, at his comical best as an obnoxious drunken lodge brother from Texas). Then the newsreels begin to cause trouble. The wives learn that the ship their husbands were supposedly on has sunk. They grieve. Then later they see newsreels that show their husbands drunkenly cavorting at the convention in Chicago. They fume. The boys are busted. The wives allow them to hang themselves with lies upon their return before they throw them out. Their is an extended climax with Hardy on the roof at night during a rainstorm, just one of many Hardy rooftop sequences.

This film is best known today for supplying the name of the international Laurel and Hardy society, one of the largest and heartiest of all movie star fan clubs. Learn more about the group here.

The premise of this film (and similar Laurel and Hardy comedies) had an extended reach, for it was much emulated by Jackie Gleason in the The Honeymooners in the early 1950s, and then later by Hanna Barbera on The Flintstones in the early 1960s.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Laurel and Hardy in “Babes in Toyland” or “March of the Wooden Soldiers”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy holiday classic Babes in Toyland a.k.a March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934). I’d never heard of this film until they began to show it on cable television in the 1980s. It rapidly became my favorite holiday film, for it is every bit as bizarre and dark as it is charming and festive.

For some reason Hal Roach liked to experiment with starring Laurel and Hardy in operas and operettas (he’d done the same with The Bohemian Girl and Fra Diavolo). Here of course, the team adapted the popular 1903 show by Victor Herbert. Much is changed from the stage version however. The film is set in a land populated by all the characters from nursery rhymes and other children’s literature (Stan and Babe are versions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, two toymakers who live in the Old Woman’s Shoe). The thing is very stage bound — they seem to have built two sets (the storybook village, and the hellish land of the bogeymen) on a couple of sound stages and shot the whole thing in a heartbeat. Much more enjoyable than the conventional plot about young lovers and a rapacious landlord/suitor are the film’s memorable details: a live monkey in a costume inexplicably dressed as Mickey Mouse; three midgets as the Three Little Pigs; the army of hairy little bogeymen; the melodrama villain Silas Barnaby, made up to look like the Crooked Man from the nursery rhyme; and the relentlessly marching wooden soldiers who save the day in the end, through Stan and Ollie’s quick thinking.  The whole thing is both sweet and unsettling and I can never get enough of it.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see 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

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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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