Whether or not you grew up watching comedy legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you have at least heard of them. But for those of you who actually do remember seeing the fat one and the skinny one on the screen of their square television sets in their living rooms, you must agree that their comedy has transcended generations.
Laurel and Hardy were, in their time, the biggest movie stars in the world. Today, over half a century after their deaths, they remain one of the most iconic duos in history. Aside from their impressive solo careers, the pair’s 30-year partnership included 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length features.
So what’s their story? Well, you’re about to go back in time and see.
Let’s begin with the early life of Stan Laurel. He was born on June 16, 1890, as Arthur Stanley Jefferson, in England, to a family of performers. His father, Arthur Joseph Jefferson, owned a theater in northern England and Scotland. He and his wife were a major force in the theatre industry. In 1905, one month short of his 16th birthday, Laurel made his stage debut in a Glasgow hall called the Britannia Panopticon.
Laurel’s father got him his first acting job with a juvenile theatrical company that specialized in Christmas pantomimes. In 1909, Laurel was taken under the wing of Britain’s leading comedy producer, Fred Karno. Laurel became a supporting actor and understudy for the one and only Charlie Chaplin.
In 1912, Laurel and the Fred Karno Troupe left England to tour the United States. The way Laurel saw it, the tour would be a fun, temporary experience – an interval before returning to London. Laurel, however, ended up staying in the US. By 1917, he was paired with Australian Mae Dahlberg as a double act both on the stage and on film. They were also living as common-law husband and wife.
That year, Laurel made his film debut with Dahlberg in Nuts. It was during his time working with Dahlberg that he began using the name “Stan Laurel,” changing it legally in 1931. With time, Dahlberg’s tempestuous nature made it difficult to work with her.
Dressing room arguments occurred often, and it got so bad that producer Joe Rock eventually paid her to leave Laurel and go back to her home country. By 1925, Laurel became director and writer for the Hal Roach film studio. The following year, he was credited in at least 22 films. Before he met his future comedic other half, he experienced only modest success.Still, by the time he teamed up with Hardy, Laurel had appeared in more than 50 films for various producers. It just so happened that it was difficult for producers, writers, and directors to write material for Laurel’s character. American audiences knew him as either a “nutty burglar” or the guy who made those Charlie Chaplin impressions.
And now for his other half…
On January 18, 1892, Norvell Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia. By his late teenage years, Hardy was already a popular stage singer. He was working in a movie house in Milledgeville called the Palace Theater, which was owned, in part, by his mother. When it came to choosing his stage name, he went with his father’s first name, calling himself “Oliver Norvell Hardy.”
Behind the scenes, people called him “Ollie,” even “Babe.” Why Babe? Well, the nickname originated from an Italian barber in Jacksonville, Florida, who would always rub Hardy’s face with baby powder and exclaim, in a thick accent, “That’s nice-a baby!” Other actors would copy this endearing moniker, and for a while, he was dubbed “Babe Hardy,” especially in his early films.
Hardy was inspired to take up comedy because of his exposure to comedies. In 1913, he started working with Lubin Motion Pictures in Jacksonville. At first, he helped around the studio with lights, props, and other tasks. Eventually, he learned how to be a script-clerk for the company. It was around this time that he married his first wife, Madelyn Saloshin.
In 1914, Hardy appeared in his first film, Outwitting Dad, as the character Babe Hardy. Over the next two years, Hardy made 177 short films with the Vim Comedy Company. Showing his ability as a chameleon, playing heroes, villains, and even female characters, Hardy became a hot commodity, and either starred or co-starred in over 250 silent shorts; 150 of them have been lost.
When it came time for the US to enlist men for the First World War, Hardy nobly made an attempt to join the force. But the Army rejected him due to his size. In 1917, as the Florida film industry collapsed, Hardy and his wife Madelyn relocated to California to seek new opportunities. It was there that he met his future partner in comedy crime.
Hal Roach, the American film producer, director, and actor, once described how the two actors met and became a team. Hardy was already working for Roach when Roach hired Laurel (after seeing him perform in vaudeville). Getting the two strangers together in their first film had a lot to do with Laurel’s eyes, of all things…
Laurel just so happened to have very light blue eyes. Roach discovered this because of the technology of film at the time. Laurel’s eyes couldn’t be photographed properly (because blue was seen as white on screen). This issue is physically apparent in their first silent movie together, The Lucky Dog. The team attempted to compensate for the problem by applying a lot of makeup to Laurel’s eyes.
For about a year, Roach gave blue-eyed Laurel a position as a writer in the studio. Once panchromatic film was developed, they tried getting Laurel on the screen again. Luckily, the problem was solved. Laurel and Hardy were then put in a film together, and it was like love at first sight – the two were like two peas in a pod.
Most comedy teams before them included a straight man and a funny man. But with Laurel and Hardy, both of them were comedians. That said, they each still knew how to play the straight man when the script called for it. “You could always cut to a close-up of either one, and their reaction was good for another laugh,” Roach said.
Depending on who you ask, the two of them either invented or perfected a whole collection of pantomimic moves. You know, the clumsy falls, the exaggerated face slaps, the goofy hat tips, the fourth wall looks to camera, the blinking eyes, and the bow-tie twiddles. But the real magic lay in the undeniable and irreplaceable chemistry between them.
Their films sparkled because of their chemistry. Right from their first appearances as a duo in Duck Soup and Slipping Wives in 1927, Laurel and Hardy did nothing but display great comedic chemistry. And when they interacted with fans and the press, their affection towards one another was palpable.
They were the perfect pair, with Hardy’s southern gentleman complementing Laurel’s childlike klutz. This collaboration continued on for more than 20 years, and even during their roughest days, their bond proved unbreakable because of the love they truly felt for one another.
Laurel and Hardy’s comedy was highly visual, and slapstick was used for emphasis. While in character, they would often have physical, complex, and cartoonish arguments with each other. Much of their comedy involved milking a joke – a rather simple idea that provided the basis to build multiple gags. No defined narrative was really needed.
It might not seem so, but Laurel was of average height and weight. He only looked small and thin next to Hardy, who was 6’1” and weighed about 280 pounds. Their costumes and hair styles only enhanced this natural contrast. Laurel’s flat-footed walk was a result of him removing the heels from his shoes. Both wore bowler hats, but, of course, Laurel’s was narrower than Hardy’s.
A popular routine of theirs was the “tit-for-tat” fight with an opponent – such as their wives (often played by Mae Busch, Anita Garvin, or Daphne Pollard) or a neighbor (often played by Charlie Hall or James Finlayson). In the skit, Laurel and Hardy would damage someone’s property by accident, and the injured party would get them back by ruining something that belonged to them.
The conflict would naturally escalate until both sides were destroying items in front of each other at the same time. An early example of this routine was seen in their classic short film Big Business from 1929. The film was later added to the National Film Registry in 1992. Another similar short film was aptly titled Tit for Tat, from 1935.
Another popular routine, and one of their best-remembered dialogues, was dubbed the “Tell me that again” routine. In it, Laurel would tell Hardy a smart idea that he had come up with, to which Hardy would reply, “Tell me that again.” Laurel would then try to repeat the idea, but since he had already forgotten it, he would babble utter nonsense instead.
Hardy wouldn’t really understand Laurel’s idea when he expressed clearly, but he would understand the jumbled version perfectly. Most of their comedy was mainly visual, but there were various lines of dialogue that appeared in their talking films. For example, in Oliver the Eighth, Laurel said, “I was dreaming I was awake, but I woke up and found myself asleep.”
There were moments when their comedy bordered on the surreal. It was a style that Laurel liked to call “white magic.” In the 1937 movie Way Out West, Laurel is seen clenching his fist and pouring tobacco into it as if it were a pipe. He then uses his thumb as if it was a lighter. His thumb then “ignites,” and he simply lights his pipe.
Amazed while watching this, Hardy tries to do the same thing, unsuccessfully, of course. He finally succeeds, only to be shocked when his thumb catches fire. Laurel repeated the white magic pipe joke in the 1938 film, Blockhead. But this time, the joke ends when Laurel’s match relights itself, and Hardy throws it into the fireplace, and it explodes with a loud bang.
The catchphrase that Laurel and Hardy used the most on film was, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” The phrase was first used by W. S. Gilbert in 1885 in The Mikado and in 1896 in The Grand Duke. Hardy first used it in 1930 in The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. In popular culture, though, the catchphrase is often misquoted.
People remember the phrase as, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” The misunderstanding stems from the name of one of their films, Another Fine Mess.
Another popular catchphrase, cried out by Hardy in moments of distress or frustration, was, “Why don’t you do something to help me?” Then, there was the phrase that a cartoon character later adopted as his own…
“D’oh!” was a catchphrase used by James Finlayson – a Scottish actor who appeared in 33 Laurel and Hardy films. The phrase, with its expression of surprise, impatience, or disbelief, was the inspiration for Homer Simpson’s “D’oh! ” which was voiced by Dan Castellaneta in The Simpsons. Homer’s first use of the phrase occurred in the short-titled Punching Bag in 1988.
In Unaccustomed As We Are, Laurel and Hardy’s first sound film, Hardy used the famous expression when his character’s wife smashed a record over his head. But “D’oh!” was definitely not the only phrase or antic that future pop-culture platforms would take from the comedy duo. The Office loved to use their typical turns to the camera.
The recent biopic, Stan and Ollie, featuring John C. Riley as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan, documents the comedy duo’s final tour. The ill-fated tour of the British Isles in 1953 came to an abrupt end in the city of Plymouth in May of 1954. The tour was called Birds of a Feather, and it began in Northampton in October of 1953.
When they began the tour, their star power had already faded, and their health was on the decline. Tensions that had been simmering for a decade below the surface came to a head. During their eight months in the UK, they were playing to half-empty theatres and sleeping in run-down hotels. They had to constantly reassure their fans that they hadn’t actually retired.
But their chemistry was never lost. As audiences rediscovered their love for the pair, so did the men behind the act. Their respect for one another remained strong until their historic final performances together. In his weekly report, theatre manager Bertie Adams wrote that Laurel and Hardy had “a very excellent reception.”
The duo, however, was not blind to the fact that they weren’t doing sold-out shows anymore. After a four-week run at the Nottingham Empire in 1954, Laurel wrote that show business in Britain was “not too good in general.” He wrote: “They are all blaming the invasion of TV, which I don’t think has anything to do with it. There is a terrific amount of unemployed plus a lot of labor trouble – strikes, etc.”
As the tour went on, the audience numbers went down, leading to a complete stop on May 17, 1954. After Laurel and Hardy performed a single night at the Palace Theatre in Plymouth, Hardy suffered a mild heart attack. It forced them to cancel their run in the city as well as the rest of the tour.
While Hardy stayed at a local hotel to recover, Laurel went ahead and visited the theatre every night to support other acts. Their tour had ended abruptly, but the duo had a lot still in store for them. Well, at least they planned to keep making people laugh. On December 1, 1954, they made their only American TV appearance on Ralph Edwards’ live program This Is Your Life.
Due to the positive response from that broadcast, the pair also went back to the negotiating table with Hal Roach Jr. to discuss a series of color TV specials that were going to be called Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables. But their plans never came to fruition. The specials had to be shelved, seeing that the aging comedians were both suffering from declining health.
In 1955, TV Guide ran a color spread with current photos of the duo. They made their final appearance in front of the cameras in 1956, in a private home movie that was shot by a family friend in the Reseda, California home of Laurel’s daughter, Lois. There’s no audio, and it runs three minutes in length.
In 1956, following his doctor’s orders to stay healthy, Hardy lost over 100 pounds. Still, he suffered several strokes, which resulted in reduced mobility and speech. Sadly, despite his long and successful career, he was forced to sell his home in order to help cover the cost of his medical expenses. Hardy passed away on August 7, 1957, due to a stroke. He was only 65.
His longtime friend Bob Chatterton said Hardy weighed just 138 pounds at the time of his death. Following his death, Laurel and Hardy’s films were returned to the cinemas so that clips of their work could be featured in Robert Youngson’s silent-film compilation called The Golden Age of Comedy.
With his best friend now gone, Laurel was devastated, and he never fully recovered from it. Laurel himself was far from healthy. In fact, he was so ill that he couldn’t even attend his dear friend’s funeral. After the ceremony, however, he wrote a public letter stating, “I feel lost without him after 30 odd years of close friendship & happy association.”
For the remaining eight years of his life, he refused to perform on stage or act in another movie without his best pal. He decided to retire from acting altogether. He even turned down Stanley Kramer’s offer for him to do a cameo in his famous film. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963.
Although Laurel didn’t appear on screen after Hardy’s death, he did contribute gags to a number of comedic filmmakers. He also met with his and Hardy’s many fans, who were more than eager to hear all about their time together and the stories they created along the way. Laurel was always glad to share them, as it gave him the opportunity to reminisce about his friend.
During this time, most of Laurel’s communication was done in the form of written correspondence. He insisted on personally answering every fan letter. Laurel was given a special Academy Award in 1960 for his contributions to film comedy, but due to his poor health, he was unable to attend the ceremony. Actor Danny Kaye accepted the award in his place.
During his final years, Laurel hosted many members of the new generation of comedy and other stars, including celebrities like Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, Marcel Marceau, Johnny Carson, and Dick Van Dyke. The one and only Jerry Lewis offered Laurel a job as a consultant, but he chose to help out only on Lewis’ 1960 feature film, The Bellboy.
Laurel lived until 1965, meaning he got to see the duo’s work rediscovered through TV and classic film revivals. He passed away on February 2, four days after suffering a heart attack. He was 74 years old. According to his nurse, minutes before his death, he told her that he wouldn’t mind going skiing. She said she didn’t know he was a skier, to which he replied, “I’m not. I’d rather be doing that than this!” He then died quietly in his armchair.
I think it goes without saying that Laurel and Hardy made a lasting impression on future generations. Take what Star Wars actor Mark Hamill said, for example: “If you don’t like Laurel and Hardy, you are no friend of mine.” Hamill is just one of the millions who were charmed and inspired by what many people refer to as the greatest comedy duo of all time.
They influenced artists, writers, musicians, and actors, including everyone from Alec Guinness to Ricky Gervais. For British comedians, in particular, Laurel and Hardy have always had a special place in their hearts as well as their comedy. Gervais openly admitted: “Everything I’ve done I’ve stolen from them.” Martin Freeman’s straight-to-camera looks in The Office were stolen from Hardy.
Physical grace was one of the loveable qualities they possessed. The dance scene in Way Out West was one to remember. Audiences watch as the thin Laurel and the heavy Hardy performed a soft-shoe shuffle-turned-waltz as the Avalon Boys sang At the Ball, That’s All.
The sequence turned out to be one of the most endearing moments in cinema history. Comic performer Frank Skinner even said that his new girlfriends were “subjected to the Laurel and Hardy test.” If he played a video of that sequence, and “she didn’t laugh at them dancing, I instantly wrote her off as a future companion.” (Very Jerry Seinfeld-esque if you ask me).
The British weren’t the only ones who truly fell in love with Laurel and Hardy, aka The Boys, as they were known in Hollywood. Bette Midler, for one, said that when she got together with her friend and fellow comedian Billy Crystal, they would “have a debate as to who was better, Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy?”
Steve Martin was another comedian who absolutely loved his “comedy heroes,” so much so that he seriously considered doing a movie about them. The idea was to take on the daunting task of playing both roles. It’s a shame it never came to be. Mark Hamill was another Stan and Ollie fan…
When Hamill landed the role of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, he would come to the set, even on his days off, just so that he could talk to Peter Cushing. “He was stunned that I knew he had appeared as one of the students in Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 movie A Chump at Oxford,” Hamill said.
“Oh my dear boy, you have done your homework,” is what Cushing said to Hamill. Cushing also told him that Laurel was actually very different from his onscreen persona. He explained how, between takes, Laurel would talk to the director about the framing in the scene while Hardy would sit quietly, reading a newspaper and talking about golf with the crew.
“Laurel was like the de facto director,” Hamill said after learning so much from Cushing. “And everyone would look to him for advice.” Hamill wasn’t the only fan among the Star Wars cast. After Laurel was given his honorary Oscar in 1961, Alec Guinness personally wrote to Laurel, saying, “For me, you are one of the true greats… one of my earliest ambitions was to emulate you.”
One of Hamill’s highlights of on Star Wars was being in scenes with R2-D2 and C-3PO. “I was the straight man to them,” he recalled. “My impression is that R2-D2 and C-3PO were the Laurel and Hardy, the comedy relief, with one being the superior intellect and dominant personality, pushing around a more innocent friend.”
Let’s conclude with a look into the duo’s final film. In 1950 and 1951, Laurel and Hardy made their last feature-length movie together, Atoll K. It was a French-Italian co-production that happened to be plagued by problems with not only language barriers but also production issues and the ever-obvious serious health issues both Laurel and Hardy suffered from.
As they were filming, Hardy was starting to lose weight and develop an irregular heartbeat. Laurel was experiencing complications due to a painful prostate. In the end, critics were disappointed with the storyline, the English dubbing, and Laurel’s ill-looking physical appearance. Their final film was not a commercial success upon its first release, bringing an end to Laurel and Hardy’s film careers.
Most of their films have survived and are even still in circulation. The silent film, Hats Off, from 1927, has disappeared as well as the first half of Now I’ll Tell One, from the same year. The second half was never released on video.