Comedy is a subjective thing. One generation’s biggest comedy star might have made no sense to people who came earlier, and might seem like a mystery to those who come later. (Jerry Lewis was the most popular comedian in America for a decade.) But the right personalities with right material are timeless. My favorite film comedians of all time are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Stan and Ollie never earned the lasting, iconic status of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, although they were massively popular at the time. I think this is due to a couple of things. The most productive part of their careers ended earlier than Chaplin, who went on to make acclaimed, feature-length sound films on into the 1940s and even 1950s. (If a younger person today has heard of Chaplin, I’d be willing to bet it is for the recognizable The Great Dictator rather than for the early silent films.) Keaton’s films are full of complex stunts and acts of daring, which helps them to translate better to modern audiences. But Stan and Ollie have a different pace, a different rhythm, a specific sweetness and sadness that makes them my favorite of all.
They make an odd couple. Stan (the actual mastermind behind the scenes, who wrote most of their bits) plays a cheerful simpleton with a childlike curiosity and a knack for little acts of close-up legerdemain which he called “white magic.” Ollie plays a blustery, exasperated entrepreneur, always having his get-rich-quick schemes foiled by a harpy of a wife or the clumsiness of his best pal. Stan is slender, disheveled and British; Ollie is a rotund, dapper gentleman from Georgia. Their best work is a series of two-, and four-reel shorts for Hal Roach’s studio in the late-20s and early -30s, and their masterpiece is the feature-length Sons of the Desert (1933). The gags are simple enough for a child to be amused by while the subtleties are complex enough for adults.
I am less familiar with their earlier work before their iconic Hal Roach talkies, so I’m excited that the Somerville Theatre is presenting a collection of four of their silent shorts on Sunday afternoon. Presented in the main auditorium and with live piano accompaniment and a live audience to laugh along with, this is the best way that a modern audience can get the original experience of the silent era.
Stan and Ollie are personal to me — they are the comic team that my grandfather loved best, and we watched every tape in the “Laurel and Hardy Classic Collection” VHS series from Video Treasures together a hundred times. Maybe every punchline or spit-take won’t resonate to the same extent with a contemporary film-goer, but they are part of my childhood and I hope to pass them down to the next generation as well. See you at the movies.