Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy went solo for years in silent comedies, each working variations on the comic types developed by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle. Then in 1926, they signed on separately with Hal Roach Studios, and ended up sharing a little screen-time, and then more and more, until in 1927 they received their first official billing as “Laurel & Hardy.” Unlike a lot of other comedy teams from Hollywood’s golden age, Laurel and Hardy survived the transition from silents to sound, in large part because Laurel—the more driven, creative one—was smart enough to understand his and his partner’s gifts, and to adapt them to the marketplace. The team mixed slapstick, character humor, and the odd bit of verbal wit, and they developed shorts and features ranging from simple domestic comedies to stories that spanned continents and eras. With the exception of a few commercial stumbles, they remained a viable box-office draw into the ’40s, and saw their films translated into other languages and shipped around the world; sometimes they even reshot entire two-reelers in French or Spanish, reciting their lines phonetically.
The remarkable 10-disc Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection DVD box set contains a few examples of those foreign-language versions, as well as more than three dozen sound-era shorts and 10 features. The set adds lively commentary tracks by Laurel and Hardy enthusiasts on selected films (though the tracks are buried deep in the DVD menus and un-marked in the liner notes), and an interactive tour of famous locations in Laurel and Hardy movies. The scholarly material adds historical context to more than a decade of the duo’s work—from 1929 to 1940—giving proper due to their regular cast of co-stars and collaborators, including character actor James Finlayson, the originator of the exclamation, “D’oh!” The bonus features also explain how the boys would find a spot in Los Angeles that they liked and would start building gags there, not leaving until they’d exhausted every comic possibility.
The recurring Laurel and Hardy shtick still works: Hardy’s exaggerated gentlemanliness, Laurel’s simpering, Hardy taking a hard shot in his ample hindquarters, Laurel narrowly averting a minor calamity before setting off a much bigger one, etc. But what makes the pair’s best films so rewatchable are the small, impeccable comic details: the way Oliver Hardy runs his fingers up and down the piano keys with a flourish in “Another Fine Mess” before playing a tinkly, remedial piece. (There’s nearly always a huge gap between Hardy’s bluster and his abilities.) It’s also there in the casually risqué jokes, as in “Tit For Tat,” where a jealous husband overhears Hardy walking down the stairs with his wife, saying, “I’ve never been in a position like that before!” And it’s in the brilliant use of screen space and sound—especially masterful in the Oscar-winning “The Music Box,” where Laurel and Hardy push a crated piano up an endless flight of steps, getting maximum comic mileage out of the clanking sound the piano makes when jostled, and by the vast distance between the top of the steps and the bottom.
More than anything, what made Laurel and Hardy so popular was that they fit together so snugly. They were both funny; neither was a conventional “straight man.” And though Hardy’s character frequently became exasperated with Laurel’s, there was an obvious affection there that made the pair appear inseparable. The quintessential Laurel and Hardy scene—appearing in multiple films, such as “Berth Marks” and “Pardon Us”—sees the two men forced to share a bed, with the clumsy Laurel wriggling his way into whatever space the massive Hardy left behind, all while stealing his friend’s covers and poking him in places he’d rather not be poked. The two men suffered each other, learning to expect some discomfort as part of friendship.
Key features: A star-studded 40-minute appreciation (in which comics like Tim Conway, Jerry Lewis, and Penn Jillette analyze what it’s like to work with a partner), plus bonus shorts and those curiously hard-to-find commentary tracks.