Laurel and Hardy: Best Friends For Life

By Film screenshot ("The Flying Deuces") [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the history of comedy, the world has seen some extremely talented performers. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers are just a few of the many who have succeeded at making the world laugh. But prior to the debut of these performers, there was one duo that set the comedy bar high: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Throughout their 30-year career, the magic that was Laurel and Hardy captured audiences and left them laughing long after the movie was over. But their off-screen friendship was special too as they both supported one another and remained a vital presence in each other’s lives.

It was fate that brought Stan and Oliver together since the two men came from completely different walks of life. In the early 1900s, Stan performed in music halls in England and served as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy in the Fred Karmo comedy troupe. Oliver, on the other hand, was a continent away, running a movie theater and performing as a stage singer in Milledgeville, Georgia. On their own, both men were successful, but each felt that they could be even more successful as movie actors. So, in 1912, Stan immigrated to America to pursue his acting career. It wasn’t until a year later, in 1913, that Oliver decided to quit his two jobs and become an actor. Little did they know that in a few years, their paths would soon cross.

In the beginning of their movie careers, Stan was finding some success as a leading comedic actor while Oliver was busy finding his place in Hollywood through a string of various supporting roles. However, fate decided to step in one day, and, in 1917, Stan and Oliver were hired to work on a silent comedy called The Lucky Dog (1921). Considering the close-knit relationship the two would develop later on — and the theme of comradeship that would be prevalent in all their future movies together — the synopsis of The Lucky Dog seems odd at the very least:  “Stan plays a penniless dog lover and Oliver plays a crook who tries to rob him and his new paramour.” As funny as they were in the movie, though, Hollywood didn’t immediately realize the potential that Stan and Oliver had as a comedic duo. But, in 1926, almost ten years after their first movie together, Leo McCarey — one of Hollywood’s leading directors and writers — realized their potential and turned Stan and Oliver into the comedy team Laurel and Hardy.

After witnessing Stan and Oliver’s comedic chemistry in Putting Pants on Philip (1927) and The Second Hundred Years (1927), McCarey convinced famed producer Hal Roach to keep Stan and Oliver together as a duo. Their popularity soon soared, and Laurel and Hardy found stardom as one of Hollywood’s leading slapstick duos. The premise for the majority of their movies was almost always the same: Oliver, the “leader,” would devise a plan (one that usually involved making money or winning the affections of a girl) while Stan, the “shy klutz,” would accidentally mess up Oliver’s plans, inevitably getting them into loads of trouble and mischief. Time and time again, Oliver would become frustrated at Stan for his ineptness, but at the end of every movie, they would always choose to laugh at their adventures and accept one another for who they were — flaws and all.

Off-screen, the real-life personalities of Stan and Oliver were reversed. Stan was the leader, often exerting creative control over the direction of their movies. Oliver, on the other hand, was quiet — completely content with trusting Stan and his decisions. But even though Stan and Oliver were the complete opposites of their on-screen personas, there was one thing that the movies and real life had in common: Stan and Oliver were the best of friends who truly cared about one another. For example, when Laurel and Hardy broke their partnership with Hal Roach in the late ‘30s, neither actor went off on their own to find fame as a solo comedian. Instead, they looked for a different studio that would have both of their interests at heart (which eventually proved to be 20th Century Fox and MGM). When they decided to quit the movie business in 1950, Stan and Oliver continued to work together, touring Europe with a vaudeville-like routine.

Sadly, towards the end of the 1950s, both men were in poor health. On August 7, 1957, Oliver died of a major stroke. Understandably, Stan was devastated; shortly after the funeral, on August 19, Stan wrote in a letter,  “I feel lost without him after 30 odd years of close friendship & happy association.” With his partner and best friend gone, Stan refused to perform again.

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