Most of us know that laughter is the best medicine. So, what could be everyone’s better example of true laughter than the images of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy — comedians par excellence — who laughed their way through the Great Depression? This is not all. Their impressions are still with us, as instant deliverers from our own sense of ennui, not just because they were the awesome two-man ensemble, the first great — and, perhaps, the last — Hollywood motion-picture comedy team, in a genre of their own, but also because they were to slapstick what the ‘falling apple’ was to Isaac Newton.
The moment their charming, immortal faces were made by god, generations were assured of deriving enormous mirth by way of their timeless enchantment. Just because of one, unique, element called pure hilarity and side-splitting surrealism. While one made us laugh, with his childlike innocent wails, the other was equally at home with personified conviviality, thanks to his straightforward, smiley-like corpulence, toothbrush moustache and infectious hypnotic grin.
Fat people are without doubt, winners of smile and champions in size. Hardy (1892-1957), was the greatest of them all. He’s one of a kind; his natural ‘foil,’ Laurel (1890-1965), was another. Laurel and Hardy never ever rationed their hilarious template; they never held back anything in the physics and chemistry of sparkling, ‘stand-in’ comedy. They shared every frame — and expanded on their histrionic brilliance — for sheer fun, replete with not just sublime thought, but also uplifting intonation and sizzling action. In addition, they drew upon the ground spring of their own images and ideas that came spontaneously, without forced effort. In so doing, they fashioned their truly holistic, ‘individualised’ character and personality on celluloid — of both slapstick and outright droll. Aside from this, they were awfully creative. As a matter of fact, none of their roles or histrionic leanings had in it any preconceived ‘decree’ — to any given situation. It was improvisation at its best — not just ‘sticking’ to the script, as it were.
Life was nasty, rough and short for most people, and cinema, in particular, bound for travelling fairs and beer halls. ‘Olly’ and his ‘frail’ friend had to reflect this grim reality, besides other forms of human behaviour that could make one laugh and even forget life’s innumerable adversities. Not that life is any different, today... Wait a moment. As the awesome duo achieved its apogee in grand style, impressively, articulately and compellingly, a legion of their admirers, in a host of climes, have incessantly tried, or continued, to imitate them in their own ‘game,’ without ever achieving anything more than unconvincing masquerade. Olly and Stan were inimitable. There was none like them before; there won’t be any in the future, too — even with cloning.
To cull, but just one scenic example from one of their films. The telephone rings. Hardy attends to the call. His acquaintance, who is on the line, invites him and Stan, for a boisterous, fun-filled party. Hardy, enticed by the invite, holds back from committing himself, since he’s promised his wife — and, Laurel his — that they would take them for an outing. Olly, therefore, tells the caller, “If a Hardy makes up his mind (to ignore the get-together), it’s as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar.” A moment later, Hardy has second thoughts. The rock crumbles, when the caller tempts him with the alluring names of the spirits they would be entertained with. Hardy confirms his acceptance. The drama unfolds, with a ‘blinding’ headache.
The departure time for the train approaches. Hardy, with a gloomy countenance, asks his wife to get going, along with Ms Laurel, promising that they would join them later. As the ladies leave, bedlam reigns. In his urgency, one of Hardy’s feet gets ‘jammed’ in Laurel’s boot, which he thinks is his. Annoyed with the gaffe, Olly tells his mate, “Another fine mess...” The duo’s theme song. Soon, the ladies return home, because they’ve ‘missed’ the train. The timeless ‘medley’ of confusion worse confounded begins anew. The audience is taken on yet another glorious trip of unadulterated, rip-roaring mirth.
When Hardy first studied law at the University of Georgia, US, he knew, sort of, that a career in legal matters would not be his cup of tea. Not only that. At age 17, Hardy even launched his hometown’s first movie theatre. Destiny was manifest. Lured by the tinsel bug, and his love for acting, Hardy soon joined the Lubin Motion Picture Company in Florida, in 1913. He started not only working with lights and props, but also as a small-time actor, ‘donning’ the villain’s role. He didn’t look dangerous, of course. It was status quo for a few years, albeit the moment he would finish his work at the studio, he’d rush to indulge in his other passion — golf. An avid golfer, Hardy was not in the big league, all right, but he’s good enough to pursue his fancy with as much ease as he’s to portray his enormous talent on celluloid.
Life for Hardy changed when he soon made his major debut in films, with Outwitting Dad. Destiny was, again, manifest, in 1917-1918, when Hardy met his alter ego at Hal Roach’s Studio, where he’s now acting, and Laurel, an Englishman, was writing scripts. Shape of things to come? Yes. As their fantastic rapport seemed to click, right from the word go, The Lucky Dog, their maiden film together, announced their stupendous arrival, juxtaposed by the outstanding success of yet another film, Slipping Wives, followed by Putting Pants on Philip. As their popularity escalated, the two discovered that they had acted in as many as 24 films, in as many months — what with their professional contract with their first producer taking effect to last for the next 12 years. After that? Viola! The laughing pair never lost its magical form till its last act together — Robinson Crusoeland in 1952.
As the awesome-twosome conquered many a sad heart, the amazing success of their finest film, A Chum at Oxford, initiated a new process, a great idea — novel in concept and practical in economics. The duo began to be featured in films consisting of sequences adapted from several movies. As many as eight were made, on the basis — the most popular among them being — When Comedy Was King. One ought to doff one’s hat for a host of Laurel and Hardy’s mirthful rallies, such as Leave ’em Laughing, The Battle of the Century, The Music Box, Way Out West, The Flying Deuces, Sons of the Desert, Block Heads and The March of the Wooden Soldiers, among the 100-odd films they worked together in a grand partnership that lasted for 26 glorious, fun-filled years. It’s an outstanding achievement — no more, no less.
The comedy mould, so to speak, was made for them both, in letter, word and spirit. If Hardy got initiated into films through his movie house, Laurel’s baptism emerged by way of his involvement as a stage comic with Levy & Cardwell’s Pantomime Company, which also had his father working as one of the stage managers. Laurel’s career was all set to move up the ladder of fame, sooner than later, when he arrived in the US, in 1910, with Fred Karno’s Vaudeville Company, which also had another ‘recruit’ who’s to become comedy’s first knight. No prizes for guessing. His name, Charlie Chaplin. A comparison, albeit odious, to use a cliché, would, therefore, be imminent. Chaplin came into films with his talent inherited from his parents, who were vaudevillians — small-time entertainers who could sing popular songs with topical allusions, dance, or perform, humorous skits and spoofs. Having been subject to parental instability and abject poverty, it was this Freudian impression that had the most profound effect on Chaplin. He could mime and dance superbly and with consummate skill — qualities that were so essential for the era of silent films. Hardy and Laurel were different. Theirs was a great, combined team effort. Sound, unlike Chaplin, was their éminence grise, so also their riveting dialogues. What’s more, they made the transition from silent films to sound motion pictures like duck to water.
Laurel and Hardy, two sides of the same coin, were, perforce, never ever complete without the other. Their genius, or art, knows no age, because they beam the lighter side of life, the child and the adult, wrapped within our psyche, naturally. Also, spontaneously. More so, because their spirit will live on, striking a special chord, as it were — while upholding their omnipresent element of happiness in every human heart — for the next hundred years. Or, so long as laughter exists.
(The writer, an ardent Laurel & Hardy fan, is a wellness physician and author)