Laurel & Hardy were one of the most popular and critically acclaimed comedy double acts of the early Classical Hollywood era of American cinema. Composed of thin Englishman Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and heavy American Oliver Hardy (1892–1957), they became well known during the late 1920s to the mid-1940s for their slapstick comedy, with Laurel playing the clumsy and childlike friend of the pompous Hardy. They made over 100 films together, initially two-reelers (short films) before expanding into feature length films in the 1930s. Their films include Sons of the Desert (1933), the Academy Award winning short film The Music Box (1932), Babes in Toyland (1934), and Way Out West (1937). Hardy’s catchphrase “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” is still widely recognized.
Prior to the double act both were established actors with Laurel appearing in over 50 films and Hardy in over 250 films. Although the two comedians first worked together on the film The Lucky Dog (1921), this was a chance pairing and it was not until 1926, when both separately signed contracts with the Hal Roach film studio, that they began appearing in movie shorts together. Laurel and Hardy officially became a team the following year in the silent short film Putting Pants on Philip (1927). The pair remained with the Roach studio until 1940, then appeared in eight “B” comedies for 20th Century Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1941 to 1945. After finishing their movie commitments at the end of 1944, they concentrated on stage shows, embarking on a music hall tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland. In 1950 they made their last film, a French/Italian co-production called Atoll K, before retiring from the screen. In total they appeared together in 107 films. They starred in 40 short sound films, 32 short silent films and 23 full-length feature films, and made 12 guest or cameo appearances, including the recently discovered Galaxy of Stars promotional film (1936).
A common comedy routine was a tit-for-tat fight. Their silent film Big Business (1929), which includes one of these routines, was added to the Library of Congress as a national treasure in 1992. Notable Laurel traits included crying like a baby while being berated and scratching his hair when in shock. On December 1, 1954, the team made their only American television appearance, surprised by Ralph Edwards on his live NBC-TV program, This Is Your Life.
The works of Laurel and Hardy have been re-released in numerous theatrical reissues, television revivals, 16mm and 8mm home movies, feature-film compilations, and home videos since the 1930s. They were voted the seventh greatest comedy act in a 2005 UK poll by fellow comedians. The duo’s signature tune, known variously as “The Cuckoo Song”, “Ku-Ku”, or “The Dance of the Cuckoos”, played on the opening credits of their films. The official Laurel and Hardy appreciation society is known as The Sons of the Desert, after a fraternal society in their film of the same name.
Stan Laurel (June 16, 1890 – February 23, 1965) was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire, England. His father, Arthur Joseph Jefferson, was a theatrical entrepreneur and theatre owner in Northern England and Scotland, who with his wife was a major force in the industry. Laurel was born into a family with theatre in its blood. In 1905 the Jefferson family moved to Glasgow to be closer to their business mainstay, The Metropole Theatre, with Laurel making his stage debut in a Glasgow hall called the Panoptikon, a month short of his 16th birthday. Arthur Jefferson secured Laurel his first acting job with a theatrical juvenile company, Levy and Cardwell, specialising in Christmas Pantomimes. In 1909 he was employed by Britain’s leading comedy impresario, Fred Karno, working as a supporting actor and as an understudy of Charlie Chaplin. Laurel said of Karno “There was no one like him. He had no equal. His name was box-office.”
In 1912, Laurel left England with a Fred Karno Troupe, to tour the United States of America. Laurel expected the tour to be merely a pleasant interval in his life before returning to London; however, he had, in actuality, emigrated. In 1917 Laurel was teamed with Mae Dahlberg: they worked as a double act for stage and film and were common law husband and wife. Laurel made his film debut with Dahlberg in Nuts in May (1917). It was while working with her that he started using the stage name Stan Laurel, changing his name legally in 1931. Dahlberg held Laurel’s career back because she demanded parts in Laurel’s films and her tempestuous nature made her difficult to work with; dressing room arguments between the two were common, so film producer Joe Rock paid her to leave Laurel and return to her native Australia. In 1925 Laurel joined the Hal Roach film studio as a director and writer and between May 1925 and September 1926 he was credited in at least 22 films. Laurel starred in over 50 films for various producers before teaming up with Hardy, but without Hardy he experienced only modest success because it was difficult for producers, writers and directors to figure out what character he might be playing, and American audiences knew him either as a “nutty burglar” or as a Charlie Chaplin imitator.
Oliver Hardy (January 18, 1892 – August 7, 1957) was born Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia. He took his father’s first name, calling himself “Oliver Norvell Hardy.” His offscreen nicknames were “Ollie” and “Babe.” Hardy’s nickname “Babe” originated from an Italian barber near the Lubin Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, who would rub Hardy’s face with talcum powder and say, “That’s nice a baby!” which the other Lubin actors mimicked. Hardy was billed as “Babe Hardy” in his early films. By his late teens, Hardy was a popular stage singer, and he operated his own movie house in Milledgeville, Georgia, the Palace Theater, partly financed by his mother.
Seeing film comedies inspired him with an urge to take up comedy himself and in 1913 he began working with Lubin Motion Pictures in Jacksonville, Florida. He started out by helping around the studio with lights, props and other duties, gradually learning the craft as a script-clerk. Around the same time, he married his first wife, Madelyn Salosihn. In 1914, Hardy acted as Babe in his first film called Outwitting Dad. Between 1914 and 1916, Hardy made 177 shorts as Babe with the Vim Comedy Company, which were released up to the end of 1917. Exhibiting a versatility in playing heroes, villains and even female characters, Hardy became much in demand as a supporting actor, comic villain or second banana. For the next 10 years he memorably assisted star comics Billy West, a Charlie Chaplin imitator, Jimmy Aubrey, Larry Semon and Charley Chase. In total, Hardy starred or co-starred in more than 250 silent shorts, about 150 of which have been lost. While in New York, his abortive effort to enlist in 1917 led him and his wife, Madelyn, to seek new opportunities in California.