When reminiscing on the Golden Age of Hollywood, many think of the genres widely associated with the era. Noirs or grand musicals or sword-and-sandal epics. The types of pictures that were at their peak during the Golden Age thanks to the studio system and each studio having their in-house style. In reality, the golden streets of Hollywood were paved with laughter. Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers were consistently reliable acts when the rest of the industry was struggling and, more often than not, would push forward innovations in cinema that no one else saw coming.
Two names that aren’t usually too far from the same conversation are Laurel & Hardy. Though Stan and Ollie aren’t as solidly in the consciousness of mainstream audiences as acts like Chaplin or Keaton (and they damn well should be), the duo have an army of fans all over the globe. Regardless of their names, many will be familiar with the two for their famed bowler hats, or even for the photo of the couple which hangs proudly in Joey and Chandler’s apartment in ‘Friends’.
Working as one of cinema’s first “little and large” double acts, the two compliment each other perfectly. Though they were both adept at playing silly and over the top characters, they could play a scene straight at a moment’s notice. Whether it be in silent short films or feature-length talkies, Stan Laurel and Oliver Norvell Hardy (the third) are renowned for their slapstick abilities. Capable of getting laughs from the biggest stunt or the most subtle facial expressions, Laurel & Hardy rightfully earned the nickname “the kings of comedy.”
Although they are no longer with us, their work and legacy lives on, with over one hundred films available to watch at any given moment. With so much to choose from, knowing where to start is sometimes the most daunting task. Here is The Film Magazine’s guide on Where to Start with Laurel & Hardy.
1. The Music Box (1932)
Winning the very first Academy Award for best live-action short film, The Music Box has rightfully gone on to become the most iconic work of Laurel & Hardy’s career, with the “Music Box steps” going on to become a tourist attraction that many visit to this day.
The short follows Stan and Ollie as piano-movers attempting to move a piano up a long flight of stairs. What is a very simple premise leads to hilarity which perfectly encapsulates the pair’s dynamic; Stan as a quiet, bumbling fool who continuously makes idiotic decisions, and Ollie as the leader of the two who thinks he is much smarter and more respectable than his cohort but who can be just as idiotic and foolish.
Coming in at thirty minutes long, you’d think the schtick of trying, and failing, to get a piano up some stairs would grow tiresome, but the two keep finding ways to make it funnier. It features many of their trademark gags, such as fourth wall breaks, some dancing, and of course the two men being seriously hurt in the process of completing a simple task, all of which leads to a wonderful crescendo which has us leaving the film in the same way that we started it, laughing.
With The Music Box, the boys show us just how much can be done with a simple premise and truly show off their wonderful comedic timing in the process. As far as introductions go, there is no greater starting point for Laurel & Hardy than The Music Box.
2. Sons of the Desert (1933)
Just as many Laurel & Hardy fans will undergo a great pilgrimage just to visit the “Music Box steps”, Sons of the Desert also has some major importance in the lives of fans of Stan and Ollie. The International Laurel & Hardy Society names itself The Sons of the Desert after the film. With over one hundred active chapters of the society around the world, each local chapter is called a “tent,” and is named after a Laurel & Hardy film. Safe to say, Sons of the Desert is a special film for fans.
It follows Stan and Ollie as they attempt to attend the Sons of the Desert national conference in Chicago without their wives knowing. Of course, their lies soon catch up with them and lead to hilarious consequences. Much like many earlier comedy pictures, particularly silent comedies like Safety Last, the movie feels like three distinct short films combined with a slight throughline to make it all work together. This ensures that the Sons of the Desert constantly feels fresh, with new locations, actors and gags every twenty minutes or so, all the while allowing for the premise to constantly build upon itself, leading to some brilliant payoffs.
The result is the greatest feature film of their careers. Though they would have more sophisticated productions with adaptations of European operetta’s such as The Devil’s Brothers, or productions of a higher value with bigger sets and grander stunts like Pardon Us or Way Out West, Sons of the Desert proves that less is more. Whereas the leap from shorts to features could be difficult for many comedy acts, including Laurel & Hardy, finding it difficult to stretch a series of gags over the space of an hour or to make the key premise compelling enough, Sons of the Desert succeeds and is a great time all round.
With a bigger cast to bounce off and a longer runtime to play around with, Sons of the Desert is a terrific first feature for those looking to dip their toe into the water that is the filmography of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
3. Tit for Tat (1935)
Although The Music Box and Sons of the Desert are certified greats among the Laurel & Hardy fandom, choosing a third film to suggest to a newcomer is a difficult task which, more or less, comes down to personal taste. Some may choose Brats, others might go for Laughing Gravy, but for this list there seems to be no better option than Tit for Tat.
The only sequel ever made by the duo, Tit for Tat follows on from their previous short Them Thar Hills. Though it helps to have seen its predecessor, you can dive right in to Tit for Tat without having done so, with the events of the previous film being explained through dialogue very early in the film.
Here, Stan and Ollie own a hardware store and Mr. Hall – whom they had a few scraps with in Them Thar Hills – owns a grocery store right across the street. With Mr. Hall not willing to let bygones be bygones, the film plays out the only way a Laurel & Hardy picture possibly can; with reciprocal destruction.
Given the location of a hardware store and a grocery store, the film is ripe with potential for stunts and slapstick gags, all of which are used to great effect. At only nineteen minutes it moves along at a breakneck pace, piling on joke after joke and not wasting a single second of its runtime. With some of the smoothest storytelling of their career and with a non-stop barrage of comedy violence, Tit for Tat is sure to be an entertaining watch and an excellent gateway into black and white comedy.
Recommended for you: The Enduring Legacy of Stan and Ollie
Although Laurel & Hardy most certainly had their shtick, a style which they had perfected throughout their careers, the duo always found ways to come up with new gags and keep their act fresh. Though their names may not be as recognisable as Chaplin or Keaton, they deserve to be. As long as people keep watching their movies, there’ll be no shortage of Laurel & Hardy fans in the world.