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Saturday, December 15, 2012

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 would build on Battle's momentum by pitting the boys against tit-for-tat humanity that fought not only with custard, but mud, soup, torn trousers ... anything that could strip away decorum.

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 San Francisco's Fox Theatre in November, 1929. Reviews of the team's stage performance indicate rough-and-tumble nearly equivalent to a wrestling match, Laurel and Hardy de-clothing not only each other, but bandleader Rube Wolf and stooge plant from the audience, Charlie Hall. All were forcibly stripped of outerwear and in Hall's case, tossed into the orchestra pit.

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.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

If theaters started showing Laurel and Hardy shorts again the audience would be in howl heaven.

There is nothing like being part of a few hundred (or even better a few thousand) people going nuts with laughter.

We don't get that level of comedy anymore.

4:27 AM  
Anonymous Lloyd said...

I love Laurel and Hardy. The DVD set of their Hal Roach talkies was the highlight of my year. And I have had experience showing the shorts to audience who absolutely delighted in them.

That said, I have also had the experience, increasingly in recent years, of showing the films to audiences who found them amusing but too slowly paced..

I say that hesitantly because I have been attacked by the Laurel and Hardy police for stating that fact elsewhere on the internet. They seem convinced I am making it up, just to besmirch the good name of the boys. But it isn't true. As I said, I love those films, myself. Their pacing, I think, just seems slow to generations raised on the hyperactive film and television editing that has become the norm in recent years.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe Stan himself felt this way when he saw these shorts on TV! It was a different experience for him to see the films without an audience--in that regard the films seemed slower to him.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I think the very nature of silent movies -- being one step removed from reality -- lent themselves to quicker cutting. There was no dialogue interfering with the cuts. Plus, comedies as a whole were projected at a slightly faster speed. With the coming of sound, sequences lasted longer -- long enough, in fact, to make "Them Thar Hills" and "Tit for Tat" seem slow-going, at least for me.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Ralph Schiller said...

I love the great photos on this wonderful tribute to
Laurel & Hardy.

By the way the Oriental Theatre in Chicago is still going strong. It was fully restored and now doing live stage shows and concerts.

I think the Laurel & Hardy silent two-reelers are the funniest of thei entire career.

Word is that the last Laurel & Hardy film "Atoll K" is being restored for DVD in it's original 100 minute length. Unfortunately bootleg copies of the American release of this film "Utopia" which was cut down to 82 minutes. I look forward to that one.

Ralph Schiller

10:05 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I've heard some horror stories from Rob Stone (Library of Congress Motion Picture Division curator) about the L&H silents and how the camera negatives were held by a rights-holder who allowed them to deteriorate. Just today Mr. Stone posted the following at Nitrateville:

"The reason that some of the silents look better in old video releases than the current film restoration is because the nitrate was in decent shape when the video transfers were made but the rights holders were to cheap to do any photochemical work. Now that FILM restoration is being done much of the nitrate is gone or in distress. I personally threw out HABEAS CORPUS and half of YOU'RE DARN TOOTIN' because the original camera negatives had turned to hockey pucks. Some moron had kept them in his garage subject to 100 degree temperatures....

"UCLA's efforts are to be commended. While DVD distributors (and buyers) look for more instant gratification there needs to be those willing to spend the money to insure this stuff survives as FILM. The next technology that comes along is going to want to go to that second generation fine grain that UCLA is making, not the last video master (or file)."

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To love Laurel and Hardy you need to be exposed to at an early age … and preferably with an audience. The absence of these shorts and viewing them exclusively solo KILLS them. SIGH! I remember when a local theater wold round up a bunch of shorts and show them back in the early 1960s. The audience roared with laughter and it was wonderful!

For people not already in love with Laurel and Hardy try starting them off with HELPMATES, A LIVE GHOST, THEM THAR HILLS, or TIT FOR TAT. Some of 'em ARE quite slow.

Spencer Gill (

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Rob W said...

John, it's important to note that UCLA's restoration project only covers the sound L&H Roach library - the rights being separate from the rights to the silents that are currently being mismanaged by the owner who shall remain nameless.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

I'd recommend TOWED IN A HOLE for all ages; it delivers reliable slapstick while neatly illustrating the difference between L&H and everybody else.

BLOTTO for teens and grownups who can appreciate two guys who think they're getting drunk/stoned.

SONS OF THE DESERT and WAY OUT WEST are the most surefire features. On BLOCKHEADS, warn them up front the plot is incidental, if that. The first two operettas have that early talkie stiffness, so save for audiences who are either heavy TCM fans or up to speed on L&H.

I have one lady friend who always had trouble watching THE MUSIC BOX. She identified too much with the frustration. Does anybody else run into that reaction?

4:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Is that Rob W as in "The Laurel and Hardy Show"?

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Wow -- what providential timing. I just got last year's Laurel and Hardy Hal Roach talkies for my husband for Xmas! He get's to open in in just four days, and I get to see them again after many years!

To address the 'slowness" of Laurel and Hardy -- if they are at all out of fashion today, I don't think it would be the pacing that is to blame. Rather, even at their most frenetic and splenetic, there is an underlying sweetness to the boys that is not in keeping with the current emotional tenor. Too bad for us!

6:06 PM  

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