Laurel and Hardy to ‘Make ’em Laugh’ in silent film benefit
Of all the comedy acts that hit it big during the silent era, Laurel and Hardy are perhaps the most beloved.
Their slapstick brand of comedy surfaced near the end of silent films and was versatile enough to make the transition to sound pictures, only to find their popularity wane during the 1940s.
Over the 30 years of their career, they starred together in 107 films, which included 32 short silent films, 40 short sound movies, and 23 full-length features.
Their respective film characters were defined early and changed imperceptibly from film to film. Laurel played the childlike, rather bewildered friend of the pompous and often exasperated Hardy, who popularized the saying: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
‘Big Business,’ Laurel and Hardy’s finest short
“Big Business” is often cited as their finest short film, and was deemed so culturally significant that it was added to the United States Library of Congress as a national treasure in 1992.
The plot revolves around the pair traveling door-to-door attempting to sell Christmas trees in sunny California.
They knock on the door of one particularly difficult customer (played by James Finlayson), who rejects what he thinks is their persistent sales pitches (their bumbling simply has them ringing his door bell constantly).
What ensues is a tit-for-tat battle that is one of the funniest comedic routines in silent film history.
Our hapless heroes demolish their customer’s house, and he, in turn, destroys their car.
According to Hal Roach, the famous producer of “Big Business,” he bought the house used in the picture from a studio worker for the expressed purpose of destroying it during the making of the film. This much is probably true.
What might not be true was the claim Roach made later that the cast and crew filmed at the wrong house and destroyed a neighbor’s home by accident.
Hal Roach and the career of silent film’s comedic duo
Whatever the truth might be, Roach was undoubtedly the most influential person in the careers of Laurel and Hardy.
He was an established producer with his own studio and stable of comedians.
His specialty was the quick production of comedy shorts, and he had an unparalleled eye for talent.
He had under contract many of the best comedians of the day, including Harold Lloyd (his most profitable star until his departure), Will Rogers, the Our Gang Kids, Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and, the incomparable, Laurel and Hardy.
The duo met in 1926 as individual members of the Roach Comedy All-Stars. While working on a film, the director Leo McCarey was impressed by the chemistry the pair exhibited and suggested that the two work together.
Laurel, uncredited director
McCarey and Laurel were soon working out the specific mannerisms of each character and executing scripts.
McCarey co-wrote the script for “Big Business,” and Laurel was involved in every aspect of the film’s making.
According to Roach, Stan Laurel was the un-credited director of all Laurel and Hardy comedies.
He often re-wrote gags while production was underway and encouraged cast and crewmembers to improvise.
Hardy was happy to sit back and allow Laurel free rein over the production process.
Luarel takes command
As the duo enjoyed increasing success, Laurel took command and worked out gags with often three or four writers, who engaged in a game of “Can You Top This?”
After filming was completed, Laurel even involved himself with the editing process.
Without question, Laurel was the driving artistic force behind every Laurel and Hardy comedy. As Roach said: “Laurel bossed the production.”
By the 1930s, Laurel was engaged in a contract dispute with Roach, which eventually led to his departure from the studio, and Hardy making one film without his partner.
Laurel soon returned, but the wounds caused by the dispute never fully healed, and the comedy team left Roach to make movies with 20th Century-Fox. But by the war years, Laurel and Hardy comedies had become formulaic and the popularity of their films entered a slow decline.
Laurel in particular led a tempestuous private life, marrying and divorcing numerous times, even marrying one of his wives twice.
By the 1950s, they suffered through a string of box office failures, and, in 1957, a planned comeback on television was scuttled when Hardy died after suffering a series of illnesses.
Laurel, who was plagued by his own health problems, was devastated by the news and refused to act without his partner.
He often entertained up-and-coming comedians in his small Santa Monica apartment.
Dick Van Dyke was a great admirer and talented imitator, who was surprised to find Laurel’s number listed in the phone book.
In 1961, Laurel realized a long-standing ambition, receiving an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In 1965 Laurel died, four days after suffering a heart attack. Dick Van Dyke delivered the eulogy, and Buster Keaton was overheard saying that Stan Laurel was the funniest of all the silent film comedians, himself and Chaplin included.
Few assembled needed to be reminded of Laurel’s earlier joke: “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again!”
See Laurel and Hardy in “Big Business” as part of this year’s Catalina Island Museum Annual Silent Film Benefit entitled Make ‘em Laugh.
Like to dress up and receive a discount on the price of admission to the Silent Film Benefit? Come in your best 1920s dress and receive 50 percent off the benefit’s ticket price.
Prizes will be awarded to the best-dressed individual and couple. Judging will occur upon arrival.Tickets for this year’s Silent Film Benefit are selling fast. Tickets are $13 for members of the museum, $15 for general admission and $7.50 for those in period dress.
To buy tickets, call (310) 510-2414, visit the museum in person, visit the Silent Film event page on www.CatalinaMuseum.org or mail your payment to Catalina Island Museum, PO Box 366, Avalon, CA 90704 (Attn: Silent Film).
The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history.
The museum, its digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, call the museum at (310) 510-2414 or visit CatalinaMuseum.org.