In this age of the “cancel culture,” where social media have become the forum for quick gang assaults against anyone and everyone over a trivial, often nonexistent offense, is there any decent antidote? What refuge might we find from this trend of shaming people for perceived offenses against “progressive” moral codes? Is our world evolving where fewer people seem to smile anymore?
Perhaps the antidote is what we call laughter. No one has ever satisfactorily explained laughter and the emotion, if there be one, that underlies it. It can overpower us at times, often unexpectedly. That unexpected, pleasantly surprising quality may well be partly why laughter uplifts us.
So let’s try an exercise in laughter, through the medium of film comedy. We’ll take advantage of RiverheadLocal’s online medium to offer a few brief excerpts of film videos. By the end of this column, possibly you will have discovered, or rediscovered what appears to be the lost art of a comedy team, and hopefully the laughter that goes with it.
With this in mind, let’s look back to Hal Roach Studios, the very first film studio devoted strictly to comedy — to the art of capturing our imagination, freeing us for the moment from life’s arduous journey, and absorbing us in that indefinable state of mind of laughter.
Founded in the 1914, Hal Roach Studios reached its peak with a variety of such wildly popular comedy acts as the Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd, and the Our Gang kids. The comedy pioneers from Hal Roach Studios who will be our focus here will be the team of Laurel & Hardy. They offer a level of genius to comedy that is as challenging to put in words as is a definition of laughter. Yet, many readers of today will be totally unfamiliar with them.
Hal Roach Studios put the British-born Stan Laurel and Georgia, USA native Oliver Hardy, (“the skinny one and the fat one”) together before the movies had talking sound. They quickly gained a following, and their 99 comedy films reached their peak in the 1930s. Then television enhanced their fame.
In later years, such comedy icons as Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Carson, and Jack Benny praised Stan and Ollie as their inspiration. In their famous 39 episodes of the Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney freely admitted that they were their own version of Laurel & Hardy.
Once again, comedy and laughter defy any clear explanation, even when it comes to those who made it an art form. But let’s try…..
First, Laurel & Hardy skillfully adopted some unique mannerisms, character traits that became reassuringly familiar, creating a persona that conveyed to the audience a deep affection for each other. They also invented a list of comic devices and phrases that projected an almost child-like — at times baby-like — innocence, an innocence that is perpetual and impregnable, topped off by their signature Derby hats. Indeed, “Babe” was Hardy’s nickname from boyhood owing to his cherubic, baby face. That face, and the nickname, stayed with him for life.
Consider the thin-bodied Laurel’s eye-blink, where he closes his eyes for a long second, then opens them wide as if they had come unglued; or his high pitched cry, or his rhetorical confusion, that unique grin, and his comedic but subtle gesture and movement. His mangled aphorisms never failed: ”A horse can be brought to water, but a pencil must be lead.”
The overweight Hardy is just as gifted with his devices of wiggling his neckties in a flutter; or his looking directly at the camera, with a fabulously expressive, long-suffering exasperation or despair; or his trademark line (to Stan, of course): “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
They made their physical contrariety both absurd and ludicrous, constantly aided with little touches, but still clinging to reality. This helps to some degree to define their enduring charm. Add to this their joyous theme tune, and we come to our first video excerpt from their film, “Beau Hunks,” where a military band unexpectedly injects this tune as a company of new recruits, in the French Foreign Legion, Stan & Ollie among them, marches in formation into a fort:
In our second video, from their classic “Going Bye-Bye,” we see what the TV and film writer, Romeo Muller, deftly observed about Laurel & Hardy: “A great comic personality is the most human of all artistic creations: for humanity, really, is not much more than a disorganized parade of all the ‘little fellows’ whom the great clowns represent. And to me, Laurel & Hardy are the most human of all. They seldom win. Most of us seldom win.”
At the studio and throughout Hollywood, Stan and Babe were known to be not only marvelously funny, but also remarkably kind, both on-screen and off. Always mentoring younger, comedic stars-to-be at the studio lot, they were two sweet personalities who were loved by the camera and stage crews and their fellow cast members. And for their own work, Stan was the creative gag writer, the real improviser of the two.
On screen, they were both victims of Stan’s engaging foolishness. They had the style, grace and finesse of great clowns, which they surely were. In their subtle way, they shared a belief that life is sweet, despite the brutal forces they always faced in a truly laughable way. And, as in our final video, from a short entitled “Scram,” they did it with perfect timing:
Perhaps their humor has such a durable quality because they don’t rely on jokes. Rather we can identify with them, no matter what our age or background, from the basic situations where they always find themselves, and where something goes hilariously wrong.
One of their classic contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin, was asked what was it about Laurel & Hardy that made him laugh “so heartily,” and he said, “I don’t know. I leave that to the professors and the savants. I gave up trying to find out why people are funny a long, long time ago.”
Try to check such sources as YouTube for these other L&H classics, such “two reelers” as “Another Fine Mess,” “Blotto,” “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” and their own favorite, “Way Out West,” to appreciate more of what limited space precludes offering here.
Today, the idea of winning takes increasing priority. Maybe that helps to explain the comedy of Laurel & Hardy, and in turn helps somewhat to define laughter for us: they make losing, and then moving on, so bearable. But then again, maybe we’re better off with some things in the world that we can’t really put into words. It might be quite acceptable that there’s no satisfactory explanation of comedy and laughing, and the Laurels and Hardys, scarce though they be, who have passed our way.
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