In the distant past when the arrival of December heralded the countdown to Christmas and not as contemporary mores decree, the festooning of department store windows with tinsel and assorted Winter Wonderlands in September; the onset of depressingly dark, frosty mornings also signalled a double bill of classic shorts featuring the Grandmasters of Slapstick; Messrs. Laurel and Hardy on BBC2.
As is often the case with the truly talented, it had taken them twenty years to hone their skills individually before they were eventually brought together by comedy producer, Hal Roach. Their subsequent success continued to flourish despite the onset of sound in 1929 which in stark contrast triggered a reversal in fortunes for their contemporaries including Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd who found the transition difficult to negotiate. However, it wasn’t just an ability to embrace change which ensured their popularity but also their physical and mental divergence: as Brit, Stanley Laurel, a hapless, wiry, mardy-arsed chip shop philosopher and proud owner of a loo brush quiff, was the complete anthesis to Southern gentleman, Oliver Norvell Hardy, a bossy, overbearing, thick as a plank porker with delusions of grandeur, oil slick hair and a dodgy mass-murderer moustache.
Of their many routines, one of the most robust encompassed an antagonistic relationship with members of the opposite sex, irrespective of who they were; wives, girlfriends or just random acquaintances in the street, the hapless pair always lost the inevitable dust-up. Their antagonisers were often diminutive, especially when squaring up to Hardy, but what they all shared was a particular air of menace which alluded to a potential two for the price of one castration and evisceration ‘combo’ if the duo didn’t beat a hasty retreat.
Spouses in particular were often stroppy strident control freaks who subjected them to an unrelenting pussy-whipping before the term was even conceived. And if on the odd occasion they summonsed the courage to stage a half-hearted rebellion, the twosome would immediately acquiesce under pain of death by an assortment of armoury including pick-axes, sawn-off shotguns and la pièce de la résistance; low-flying crockery. At a time when most women knew their place, and if they didn’t it would have been made patently clear to them, it’s been speculated that Laurel, who was the creative back room powerhouse, incorporated these characters because he was channelling the carnage of marital discord which both he and Hardy suffered off-screen.
As they were hugely prolific in their filmmaking, producing over 80 films, both shorts and features between 1927 and 1940 under the auspices of Roach’s studio, Laurel and Hardy were allowed virtual carte blanche to perfect their craft, which afforded them the required space to capitalise on their mistakes. For example, before his universally familiar, ‘That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into’ and ‘I have nothing to say’ declarations, Hardy’s initial idiosyncrasies which evolved during the making of the silent short, Why Girls Love Sailors (1927) were precipitated by a mistimed bucket of water thrown in his face. He said at the time, that he was embarrassed and didn’t know what to do next so he fumbled with his tie thus establishing the infamous ‘tie twiddle’, he then proceeded to use his fantastically expressive face to break the fourth wall and stare directly into the camera, addressing the audience with a masterful display of raw resignation as if to say; ‘Do you see what I have to put up with?’.
Additional aspects of their comedy which added depth, magic and complexity included the ‘tell me that again’ scenario where Laurel in a rare feat of articulacy conveyed an idea to a perplexed Hardy who would ask him to repeat it, causing Laurel to not only mangle his initial utterance, but for Hardy to decipher the mangled version and accept it as a ‘good idea’. Surrealism or ‘white magic’, was an intermittent feature of their repertoire too, and involved Laurel nonchalantly flicking his thumb and igniting it like a match, or using his hand as a pipe much to Hardy’s consternation, who eager not to be outshone, made continuous attempts to replicate the actions of his sidekick until he finally succeeded but not before almost having a coronary in the process.
Even though they fought one another, especially when Hardy’s pomposity became too much for Laurel to bear, they were quick to form a united front in the face of antagonism as illustrated in their classic short, Big Business (1929) and again in the self-explanatory Tit for Tat (1935), which followed a major slapstick masterclass in Them Thar Hills (1934). The simple premise involved the boys causing unintended offence or damage to somebody’s property, only for the injured party to retaliate thus precipitating an escalation in hostilities which was fantastically encapsulated by the twosome with a tilt of the hat and additional swagger, and always threatened to go nuclear until the appearance of a member of the local constabulary put paid to proceedings.
There is no doubt that Laurel and Hardy’s comedic alter-egos were gentle and innocent, despite their every day trials and tribulations which were set against the horrific backdrop of the Great Depression. In essence they were just two people attempting to navigate the world in all of its jungle-like manifestations, but they were loveable and to an extent gullible, because the jokes were always on them. They were devoid of malice, cruelty and abuse (well, except for that inflicted on them by their wives and the odd hard man) unlike a lot of current ‘cerebral’ comedy which manifests itself as either substance-free observational frippery or increasingly sly, sneering antipathy directed towards the vulnerable and the marginalised masquerading as irony.
In these uncertain times, though, perhaps a 2.0 reboot of the dynamic duo is required. But who possesses the requisite qualities to replace them? Who could not only take a good ole custard pie in the kisser, like a man but also possess a similar yet spectacular lack of self-awareness and awe-inspiring foolishness?
Please step forward pampered popinjay, and member of the furiously maligned and persecuted minority, Boris Johnson whose innate yet comprehensive cluelessness extends to a litany of misdemeanours including, the baseless whining concerning the ‘bashing’ of the super-rich which would make him a fine Laurel.
And as far as Hardy is concerned, despite a lack of height and girth, Janus-faced holy roller and pious moral arbiter of all that is antiquated and thus decent, The Right Honourable and atrocious arse, Michael Gove, would be perfectly fitting, since he not only embraces a joke, but is one too.
© 2019 Dawn Daniels