Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy made over 100 movies together in the 20’s, 30s and 40s, and set the stage for every comedy team since.
Oliver Norvell Hardy was born on January 28, 1892, in the tiny rural town of Harlem GA, about 15 miles from Augusta. His father died less than a year later, and his mother moved to nearby Milledgeville and became the manager of the local Baldwin Hotel, which hosted vaudeville shows and music acts. As a young man, Hardy got a job managing the local movie theater, and spent some time in Atlanta studying music before beginning his entertainment career as a stage singer.
In 1913, Hardy moved to Jacksonville FL, then a center for the fledgling motion picture industry. He soon became an accomplished character actor in silent films, most often in comedies where he played the “villain”. By 1917, he had moved to Hollywood CA, where his roles became more prominent. In 1925, Hardy had a part in the silent film “Yes, Yes, Nanette”. It is now part of movie history: the film was directed by an actor named Stan Laurel.
Stan Laurel had been born in England in 1890 as Stan Jefferson. His father was an actor who also managed a theater, and young Stan quickly fell into the business. In 1910, Jefferson (he had not yet adopted the stage name “Laurel”) joined an American comedy troupe which included then-rising star Charlie Chaplin, and became his understudy. When Chaplin left in 1913 to do movies, the group broke up and Jefferson returned to the UK, where in 1917 he met an Australian woman named Mae Dahlberg, who suggested he change his professional name. According to later stories, she opened a random book to a picture of Julius Caesar crowned with laurel leaves, and Stan Jefferson became Stan Laurel.
A short time later, both Stan and Mae were brought to the US again, where they had steady roles in comedic silent films. Mae eventually left and went back to Australia, and Stan began to take an interest in directing, editing and writing. In 1925, he directed “Yes, Yes, Nanette” starring Oliver Hardy.
If this were a Hollywood movie, the two would have joined forces then and there and taken the comedy world by storm. But they didn’t—they barely remembered each other, even though they had both earlier appeared in the 1921 movie “The Lucky Dog”. They didn’t meet again until later in 1925, when they found themselves in the same comedy group managed by Hollywood mogul Hal Roach, called “The All-Stars”.
It was Roach who recognized the unique on-screen chemistry that the portly Hardy and the skinny Laurel had, and he began casting them together. Their first film as the team “Laurel and Hardy” was 1927’s “Putting Pants on Philip”, in which Laurel plays a Scottish visitor to the US who wears a kilt, with Hardy attempting to make him wear pants. This was followed by a spurt of five different films before the end of the year.
By 1929, the pair had established the comedic image that would become world-famous: “Ollie” was the big bowler-hatted guy who fiddled with his tie and thought he was smart, while “Stan” was the meek bowler-hatted skinny guy who innocently got them into all sorts of trouble, which it was then Ollie’s comedic task to extract them from. “Well,” Ollie would sigh with exasperation, “there’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into….”
When “talkies” took over the industry in 1928, it revolutionized the movies: several of the biggest silent-film stars, including Buster Crabbe and Charlie Chaplin, found it difficult to make the transition, but Laurel and Hardy recognized that the dialogue was just an adjunct to their standard physical comedy routines. Their first “talkie”, in 1929, was titled “Unaccustomed As We Are…”—a play on a popular saying of the time, “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking ….”
In 1931, the pair made their first full-length feature film (all of their previous work had been short films known as “one- or two-reels”). Titled “Pardon Us”, it was followed quickly by a string of films including “Babes in Toyland”, probably the most famous of their work.
In all, Laurel and Hardy would make 106 films together. But by the time the last Laurel and Hardy feature, titled “Atoll K”, was shot in 1950, both men were suffering from health issues. Hardy died in 1957 at age 65. After the death of his friend and partner, Laurel never stepped in front of a camera again. When he was awarded a special Academy Award in 1961, he was too ill to attend the ceremony. Stan Laurel died in 1965 at age 74.
Today, the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem GA, where Ollie Hardy was born, celebrates their legacy. Often considered to be the best comedy pair in history, Stan and Ollie had a far-reaching influence that extends up to today. Virtually every comedic pair afterwards, from Abbott and Costello to Rowan and Martin to Bert and Ernie, owes a substantial debt to Laurel and Hardy.
Some photos from a visit to the museum.