Tipping the hat to Laurel & Hardy’s Silent Shorts (1921 – 1929)

tumblr_pmui4bLToL1ve2klwo1_400Our last blog focused on the wonderful 1929 short ‘Angora Love‘. As well as being a typically funny Laurel & Hardy comedy, it’s also a very significant film in Stan & Ollie‘s canon, as it has the distinction of being the very last silent film they ever made together (with the exception of ‘The Tree in a Test Tube‘ (1943), but that doesn’t really count).

Before we turn completely away from the silent era and venture into the golden age of the talkies, I wanted to take a moment and pay one final homage to this period in the boys’ career.

It’s no secret that a lot of fans, probably even the majority of fans, prefer the Laurel & Hardy talkies above the silent films, with some on social media keenly dismissing the teams’ early films as not worthy of watching. But, I have to say that I find this disappointing, sad even. Okay, so it’s none of my business what people choose to watch, or don’t watch as the case may be, but for ‘fans’ of Laurel & Hardy to be so instinctively dismissive of the boys’ silent work, doesn’t sit right with me.

Don’t get me wrong, I myself recently voted for the talkies ahead of the silents in a recent Facebook poll, aimed to uncover what fans prefer. There’s really no argument as far as I’m concerned that the boys’ voices and dialogue add so much to the team’s comedy and there’s just so many more talkies to go at, so my preference has to be the sound films. But, having recently re-watched all the boys’ silent films, in chronological order of when they were made, I have a new-found admiration and appreciation for them that makes me want to fight their corner, sing their praises from the rooftops and hopefully convince anyone that has dismissed them in the past as not worth watching, to maybe think again.

In a way, it’s a shame that the talkies arrived when they did, as Stan & Babe had just gotten into their stride by 1929 and had fine tuned their films to the extent that each one was a little work of art in its own right. They were riding high on the crest of a wave and their popularity was sky-high, even to the point that MGM were giving just as much publicity to the boys’ two-reelers as they usually only afforded to features. As an example, one only has to look at the scale of the marketing of Hats Off (1927), as illustrated in Randy Skretvedt’s updated masterpiece on the team, to get an understanding of the confidence that the studios had in their new comedy duo’s films.

As I’ve said, the talkies are indeed sublimely wonderful, but they are only wonderful because of the work the boys put in during the silent period. The development of the characters and their comedy is easily visible film by film. As I see it, tfe74163e7be3281ae736633dfda587c7he key year for the boys is 1927. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that this was the year of trial, error and ultimately success for Stan & Ollie and their team at the Hal Roach Studios. The year opened with ‘Duck Soup‘ and in this film we already get a very strong indicator of the magic that is to come, but their potential went seemingly unnoticed in this first outing, as over the course of the next five pictures there’s no continuity and a lot of trying out of different ideas and character mannerisms. Having said that, I think one can clearly see Stan in particular getting closer and closer to honing his ‘Stanley’ character with each film. Then we reach ‘Do Detectives Think?‘ and this is our first real look at the boys in their soon-to-be trademark derbys and suits and in roles that actually have them working together as opposed to against each other.

hqdefault (1)I consider this film as a crucial moment in the timeline. It’s likely the film where people such as Leo McCarey and Hal Roach must have finally sat up and took proper notice of what these two actors could do and potentially be together. Now, admittedly the next two films, ‘Flying Elephants‘ and ‘Sugar Daddies‘ don’t do anything to progress the team’s development at all, but I do wonder whether this possibly had something to do with pre-existing studio commitments to make these two films, before they’d had the opportunity to realise the potential of the boys’ characters, as seen in ‘Do Detectives Think?’.

zlimage002The next picture, ‘The Second-Hundred Years‘, filmed in June 1927 and released in October, was the moment that Hal Roach Studios publicly announced Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy as an official ‘comedy team’, as this headline from the official press sheet declares: “New starring team uncorks riotous performance in first picture as comedy duo“. The boys are cast as prison inmates and as such we don’t get the familiar attire of hats and suits, instead they are in traditional prison garb, but the performance is very ‘Stan & Ollie’ and very, very funny.

From here on, (with the exception of ‘Early to Bed‘ (1928) ), Stan & Ollie remain inseparable friends, two chums pitted against a harsh and sometimes confusing world. And the fabulous comedies just start to come thick and fast. With wonderful examples Liberty5such as ‘The Finishing Touch’ (1928), ‘You’re Darn’ Tootin‘ (1928), ‘Two Tars‘ (1928), Liberty (1929), Wrong Again (1929), and ‘Big Business‘ (1929), to name but a few, the silent movies of Laurel & Hardy are an absolute treasure trove of everything we enjoy and love about the boys.

Anybody who decides not to watch the boys’ silent films, merely because they are silent are so missing out on key pieces of Stan & Ollie‘s work – and many would argue, some of their very best work. In fact, many of Laurel & Hardy‘s best comedy moments, even in the sound pictures, are devoid of dialogue. Stan and Babe mastered their craft so well during the silent era, that even when using dialogue in their films became possible, the boys spent whole scenes not saying a word to each other – it just wasn’t necessary, and would more than likely have gotten in the way of their beautiful visual comedy and been to the detriment of the film.

charlie-chaplin-obit-deadI think it is fair to say that Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd,were absolute masters of silent comedy. Their genius shines through, even today, in their movies. Chaplin’s films were intricately and delicately crafted and perfected and injected with so much emotion and pathos that, I think, dialogue would’ve been cumbersome, gotten in the way and detracted from the art.

buster-keaton_RWBE2fwBuster Keaton and also Harold Lloyd to perhaps a lesser extent, was truly from another planet, with super human acrobatics, his brand of comedy seems to take place in another world and a world where dialogue doesn’t seem to have much of a place.

Laurel & Hardy, on the other hand were all about the real world and finding their place in it. Rather than speeding up the film to enhance the action (apart from a small handful of gags), and making their comedy world ‘other-worldly’, their films were slowed right down, to allow the viewer in and see the gags before they happened. Their comedy was not all about action, it was mostly about reaction and dialogue was not necessary, but neither would it hinder them.

But most of all, the two key factors that I thin enabled Stan and Babe to continue seamlessly into the talkies was firstly their voices were perfect extensions of their physical appearances and secondly, there was two of them. They had each other to talk to, just as they had (albeit silently) throughout their silent movies. Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd were all solo players, that didn’t have to talk, because they were on their own so much of the time. So, in a new age where everyone now HAD to talk to remain relevant and popular, a huge part , possibly too big a part of the three genius’ acts had to change.

But, since their official pairing, Laurel & Hardy had always been a team. They had always talked to each other in their films. As long as their voices weren’t ridiculously out of character, they were ideally placed to succeed in the golden era of talking pictures.

Fortunately, for Stan & Babe (and for all of us fans), their voices were a perfect match and the dialogue that the boys were given was very funny, hilarious at times and added and extra, wonderful dimension to their already brilliant act.

Sadly, for many silent stars the talkies were another (not so) nice mess, but for Stan and Ollie it became big business – “You Don’t Believe Me!”

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog and especially on Laurel & Hardy‘s silent era and their transition to the talkies. You can share your views in the comments box below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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8 thoughts on “Tipping the hat to Laurel & Hardy’s Silent Shorts (1921 – 1929)

  1. As a life long L&H fan I am guilty as the rest for having never explored their silent period, at least, until just these last few years.
    RE-posted on twitter @trefology

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  2. As a child, I discovered Laurel and Hardy when a station here in Canada ran the silents on Saturday afternoons. I was too young to read, but my grandfather (who was old enough to remember when many of the films were first released) read the title cards to me. It became a Saturday ritual for us–and quite often the series would show some of the films Stan made without Babe, which I still enjoyed, but I couldn’t even recognize Stan since he wasn’t “his usual self.”
    I recall that the first one I saw was “Angora Love,” and while it was my first, I had no idea until years later that it was actually their last silent. My favorites were “Liberty” and “Habeas Corpus” though I didn’t know the titles until years later.
    For many years I had no idea that they did talkies. I loved the TV series “Get Smart” and was happy to see “Laurel and Hardy” (actually, of course, two impersonators) in one episode, but was confused when they started speaking to each other! It wasn’t until my late teens that I finally had a chance to see a talkie (“Swiss Miss” was my first of those–not their best, but not too bad either).
    So, basically, to me I can’t ignore their silent films because to me I once could not think of them as ever speaking!

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