Laurel and Hardy's Battles Of The Century
Someone asked John Ford to name his all-time favorite movie and he said Battle Of The Century with Laurel and Hardy. Now I don't know if Ford was on the level or having sport with an interviewer, but he wasn't alone for long remembering the comic duo's skirmishing, not only with pies, but any prop or implement handy. In fact, the title itself, Battle Of The Century, was more generic to all of (at least silent) Laurel and Hardy than specific to a 1927 comedy where pastry were extensively tossed. Follow-ups built on
And so it was that Laurel and Hardy first seized a public through mutual destruction. Exhibitors would describe their subjects in terms of "another Battle Of The Century." They had slowed the pace of two-reelers on one hand, and ramped levels of violence on the other, and make no mistake, early Laurel and Hardys were violent, many of their shorts ending in mass combat. Where shin-kicking and pants-ripping was funny between Stan and Babe, imagine a screenful of extras brought into the melee. The greater a crowd's laughter, the grander scales went. Two Tars saw lines of cars demolished toward a horizon's infinity, with Laurel and Hardy giving better than they got.
Theirs were some of the loudest silent comedies going for carnage shown. Theatre sound-effect techs surely ran wild on these. I'd like knowing whose suggestion it was to make reciprocal wreckage an ongoing format (Leo McCarey?). Best evidence of how Laurel and Hardy were perceived by their audience came with a brace of personal appearances at
Fans today might be shocked if they could go back and see such coarse play as Stan and Babe engaged for a 1929 crowd conditioned by L&H shorts to expect comedy as extreme contact sport. Each night found them exiting the stage in tatters. The Laurel and Hardy of later, and by comparison, genteel touring, came a long road from this. Did a stock market crashing just ahead of their Frisco brawl have anything to do with L&H ferocity on stage? I'm guessing roughhouse played out to avoid its going stale, and besides, arrival of sound would permit emphasis to be spread along not just physical, but verbal, ground.
June 1929's Men O' War is a best illustration of this, its initial two-thirds given to spoken back-and-forth between Laurel/Hardy and girl acquaintances met in a park. There is a soda fountain routine that plays mostly in dialogue, Laurel and Hardy's voices so ideally suitable that, from here, you'd not imagine them any other way (would 30's patronage have sat for old L&H silents?). It's only a final third of Men O' War that harks back to take this/take that of prior approach, primitive sound recording and a stationary camera rendering much of this awkward and not a little forced (then why is Men O' War one of my favorites of all Laurel and Hardy?).
The two-fro format worked better in brief once talkies took, and less than that for features they'd do. Not that battles of the century were abandoned. Popularity of 1934's Them Thar Hills and follow-up Tit For Tat was welcoming back of happy days with Laurel and Hardy unplugged and going again to the mat with old adversary Charlie Hall. So many tricks now in their bag enabled the team to eschew reliance on such singular approach however, thus song (Pardon Us), a children's story (Babes In Toyland), even dancing on occasion (Way Out West). Age would have made the rugged stuff unseemly in any event --- these weren't the Three Stooges, after all.
Later touring (as at left) saw Laurel and Hardy using a desk and chair in their Driver's License routine, and even a hospital bed for a sketch in which Hardy was immobilized, but still able to put across the gags and repartee. 1939 patronage, as opposed to 1929's, would probably have been alarmed to see Laurel and Hardy tearing away the other's trousers on stage. Had those ten years made comedy a kinder and gentler pursuit? When the boys turned back clocks in the forties by sparring with Edgar Kennedy in Air Raid Wardens, said reunion played like rose-hue nostalgia.
Silent shorts of violent yesteryear were in any case vault-bound and not to be re-seen until Robert Youngson put back the Battle Of Centuries label on now old-time act Laurel and Hardy in 1957's The Golden Age Of Comedy. Youngson's compilations and availability of mute shorts on 8 and 16mm made new generations realize just how wild and wooly Laurel and Hardy once were. Youngson saw increased appetite for cut-loose slapstick and made The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy (1967) all about The Great Soup, Water, Mud, and Furniture Fights the team had waged back when.
The compiling producer did in fact turn clocks back to 1929 setting when Laurel and Hardy were bywords for battling. It was sound marketing and I well remember Further Perils' sustained hour-and-a-half of tit-for-tat mayhem. These fights to the last goo were what Blake Edwards had in mind when he dedicated The Great Race and its epic pie war to Stan and Oliver. With their silent shorts currently out of DVD print, and no revival in sight, even The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy stays withdrawn, presumably for keeps. There is but occasional glimpse when TCM runs a packet of L&H silents during late-night. These are Library Of Congress polishes with best-ever quality on several of the titles (Two Tars never looked so good as here), making anticipation all the keener for UCLA's promised restoration of the whole Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy canon.