A Brief History
FIRST FILM -
The first film in which the two comedians appeared was The Lucky Dog, long thought to have been made either in 1917 or 1919 but now believed to have been produced during 1921 and released the following year. This `Sun-Lite’ film was produced by G.M. `Broncho Billy’ Anderson, formerly co-proprietor of the Essanay Film Company (where Hal Roach found himself working alongside Charlie Chaplin during 1915). It is well known that Hardy appears in a brief scene where he tries to rob Laurel at gunpoint; less often mentioned is that he reappears later in the film, still threatening to shoot his future screen partner! Both Laurel and Hardy had extensive film careers as solo performers and this first joint appearance was a chance encounter that would not be repeated for several years.
THE HAL ROACH STUDIOS –
Hal Roach, originally an actor playing small roles, went into production in 1914 after receiving a legacy. His principal star was comedian Harold Lloyd, initially playing a character called `Willie Work’. After a hiatus during 1915 - with Roach directing for Essanay and Lloyd appearing in Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedies – Lloyd’s new character, `Lonesome Luke’, made his debut for the `Rolin Film Company’, owned by Roach and Dan Linthicum with Dwight Whiting as General Manager. By 1919 Linthicum and Whiting’s interests had been bought out and a new 14.5-acre `Hal Roach Studios’ was built in Culver City, a facility nicknamed `The Lot of Fun’. Lloyd had already abandoned `Luke’ for the familiar character in horn-rimmed spectacles and would remain with Roach until the early 1920s. In the years immediately following Lloyd’s departure, the most successful Roach films were the Our Gang comedies and the Charley Chase series, both of which continued into the 1930s.
By 1925, Stan Laurel was training as a director at Roach. Among those he directed was Oliver Hardy, as in Yes, Yes, Nanette! starring James Finlayson and Wandering Papas, a Clyde Cook comedy. After Laurel had returned to performing, he contributed a small bit to a Hal Roach two-reeler starring Glenn Tryon, 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926), in which Hardy also appears (they are not seen together on-screen). At the end of 1926 they worked together in two films that were released early the following year, Duck Soup and Slipping Wives. Duck Soup – probably by coincidence – presents the two comedians in a format strongly resembling their eventual teaming, but in Slipping Wives they play against each other, as they would in most of the films running up to their formal partnership, with the single exception of Do Detectives Think? (1927). By mid-1927, it was decided – largely by studio supervisor Leo McCarey – that they complemented each other sufficiently for a permanent team to be established. Both Hal Roach and the comedians themselves recalled Putting Pants on Philip (with their new characters temporarily abandoned in favour of playing Uncle and Scottish nephew) and The Battle of the Century as their first `official’ films together, though neither was announced as such publicly or given any in-house designation to that effect (the official `Laurel & Hardy Series’ – as opposed to the `All Star’ series from which it had grown – did not begin until September 1928). A contemporary pressbook suggests that The Second Hundred Years (1927), directed by Fred Guiol, was considered their first `official’ release.
SILENT SHORTS –
Their earliest Roach films were released by Pathé, from whom Roach moved his distribution to M-G-M in mid-1927. M-G-M promoted the new team heavily and their short comedies established Laurel & Hardy as the last major comedians to emerge during the silent era. Among the best-loved of their silents are You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928), Two Tars (1928), Big Business (1929) and – thanks in no small measure to an undressed Jean Harlow – Double Whoopee (1929).
SOUND SHORTS -
While most silent-film actors saw their careers decline with the advent of sound, Laurel and Hardy adapted perfectly. Their voices – respectively an Englishman of indeterminate region and a Georgia-born Southern gentleman – suited their screen personalities and, unlike comedians who worked solo, the interaction between the two facilitated the use of dialogue. Technical limitations aside, a studio policy of continuing to place emphasis on visual humour – as opposed to the talk-for-its-own-sake mentality that blighted many early sound films – meant that Laurel & Hardy’s talkies soon reached a maturity far ahead of most of their contemporaries. Their first sound short was Unaccustomed As We Are (1929); the last, Thicker than Water (1935). Most ran for two reels (approximately 20 minutes). Some, including their 1932 OscarTM-winner The Music Box, ran to three. Beau Hunks (1931) ran four reels, a length usually only seen in some of the films remade by the team in foreign languages (a practice common before dubbing and subtitling became the norm).
FEATURE FILMS –
Their first appearance together in a feature-length film was M-G-M’s The Hollywood Revue of 1929, with the team contributing a comic magic act. Soon after, they appeared as comic relief in an all-TechnicolorTM operetta, The Rogue Song (1930). All that survives of the film are fragments (including some L&H footage) plus a trailer and the complete soundtrack, on discs supplied to theatres that were not equipped for sound-on-film. Laurel and Hardy's first starring feature, Pardon Us, was released in 1931. For the next four years, their features appeared in between their usual output of shorts and included Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), Fra Diavolo (aka The Devil's Brother, 1933), Sons of the Desert (1933) and Babes in Toyland (1934). As double-feature programmes diminished the market for short subjects, Roach discontinued all shorts apart from the Our Gang series (which was taken over by M-G-M in 1938). Laurel & Hardy continued at Roach with the features Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Bohemian Girl (1936), Our Relations (1936), Way Out West (1937) (which includes their now-famous rendering of `The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’), Pick a Star (1937, as guests), Swiss Miss (1938), Block-Heads (1938), A Chump at Oxford (1940) and Saps at Sea (1940). The last two were released by United Artists, who had taken over distribution of the Roach product. In 1939 L&H had made one film at RKO, The Flying Deuces, while on loan to producer Boris Morros.
LATER FILMS –
In 1941, hoping for greater artistic freedom, Laurel and Hardy signed with a major studio, 20th Century-Fox, to make six feature films. Both these and two others made at M-G-M offered them instead only reduced status, as hired actors in B-pictures without any influence over script content and no opportunity to improvise on set as they had at Roach. The films were still successful – partly, one suspects, owing to the goodwill attached to their names and the public’s need for comedy during wartime – but by 1945 the team, weary of the conditions imposed, withdrew from the screen. Aside from an unfortunate project made in France – a 1951 film known variously as Atoll K, Robinson Crusoeland and Utopia – their work thereafter was primarily in stage tours of Europe in 1947-8, 1952 and 1953-4.
THE IMAGES AND FILES -
The Hal Roach Studios, once known as "The Lot of Fun," containing 55 buildings, was torn down in 1963, and replaced by light industrial buildings, businesses, and an automobile dealership. (A plaque sits in a small park across from the studio's location, placed there by the international Laurel & Hardy society The Sons of the Desert.) Many of the stills, contacts, scripts, letters and correspondence, were retained by Richard Feiner and Company Inc. copyright owner for the Laurel and Hardy images and files, which were left after the demise of the Hal Roach Studios, and in 2006, these images and files were digitally retained and preserved for future generations to view the magic behind the films of Laurel and Hardy.