Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Laurel and Hardy: Another Fine Mess

A fat man and a skinny one, the best of friends, sharing pratfalls and adventures. How delicately they danced together; how impishly they snuck away from wives and authority figures to pursue their own kind of fun. It sounds kinky, when I put it in those terms, but I’m really acknowledging how Laurel and Hardy, the greatest comedy duo in Hollywood history, captured the spirit of overgrown boys in their films. Whether they’re appearing in silent shorts or full-length talkies, their humor is so fresh that a seven-year-old of my acquaintance roared with delight when watching their antics on the big screen.

The occasion was a screening sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy, as part of its invaluable Last Remaining Seats series. The conservancy annually puts on several programs, featuring some of Hollywood’s greatest treasures, in the grand old movie palaces that still stud Broadway in Downtown L.A. The Orpheum Theatre, a Beaux-Arts beauty erected in 1926, was once a vaudeville showcase. That’s why it boasts a Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which was very much in evidence during the screening of a 1927 Laurel and Hardy short, ”The Battle of the Century.” This nineteen-minute gem, which was long considered lost, features the slim but flabby Laurel as a hapless prizefighter and the hefty Hardy as his manager. This film starts with a parody of the famous Dempsey vs. Tunney “Long Count” fight, but then memorably culminates in the world’s biggest and most elaborate pie fight, with thousands of cream pies flying through the air and landing on everyone within range, including a guy opening wide in the midst of a dental procedure.

After we’d survived the pie fight (and made mental notes to stop for dessert later), the feature attraction came on. This was the 1933 Sons of the Desert, in which the two buddies are fez-wearing lodge members determined to sneak out on their respective spouses to attend a rowdy convention in Chicago. As always, Laurel is the bumbling innocent and Hardy the crafty con artist. They’re also next-door neighbors who always seem to be popping up in each other’s living rooms, much to their wives’ disgust. In order to sneak away from home (and later sneak back), there are hijinks involving feigned illness, a pretend-doctor, some tiptoeing around their houses’ common attic, and a dramatic plummet into a rain-filled barrel. This is not the film in which they perform their famous soft-shoe terpsichore(that’s Way Out West), but it has charm and yuks galore.

Last fall a feature film based on the later years of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made its debut. Stan and Ollie, featuring a perfectly-cast Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, depicts the two on what turned out to be their final tour of the British Isles, circa 1953, long after their Hollywood celebrity had waned. Their brand of humor no longer fit the cinematic trends of the time, and Hardy’s ill health made every performance touch and go. Yet, heroically, they kept at it, delighting their British fans. Stan and Ollie isn’t much of a movie, but it gives a convincing portrait of two aging titans of comedy. That final dance routine, in which Ollie’s worsening condition has the audience holding its collective breath, is not easy to forget. Nor did Laurel forget Hardy easily. A crawl at the film’s end tells us that after Ollie’s death in 1957, Stan flatly refused to take on another partner. He spent the last eight years of his life creating unusable comic routines for himself and the buddy he could never forget. 


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