Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy went on to make 107 films together and were among the world’s show business elite for three decades after their first meeting in 1921.
The chances of the duo meeting were pretty slim, considering Laurel was born in Ulverston, Cumbria in the English Lake District and Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia. While both comics took an early interest in acting, they were more than 4,000 miles apart and in the days when travel wasn’t as simple as hopping on a plane!
If fate hadn’t intervened and thrown them together 94 years ago, the world would never have known one of the greatest slapstick comedy acts in history and the genre would have lost one of its major influences.
Born into a theatrical family, Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890. His father was an entrepreneur who owned theatres in northern England and Scotland. The family moved to Glasgow in 1905 to be nearer to their business, the Metropole Theatre. Laurel made his stage debut at the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow, just before his 16th birthday.
He joined the theatrical company, Levy and Cardwell, which led to his subsequent employment as a supporting actor to top British comedy impresario Fred Karno and then as an understudy to the London-born comic Charlie Chaplin.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Harlem, Hardy was born Norvell Hardy in 1892. He had a wonderful singing voice as a youngster, which led to him to becoming a stage singer by the time he was in his teens under the stage name Oliver, which was his father’s name. His mother part-owned a cinema and the young Oliver ran it for her, seeing many silent comedy films – which led to his interest in the genre.
In 1913, he took a job in Jacksonville working for Lubin Motion Pictures. Initially, he helped out around the studio with props and lightning, while learning to be a script clerk. In 1914, aged 22, Hardy was offered a role in a film called Outwitting Dad – he used the stage name, Babe Hardy. It was a big success and as a result he was commissioned to star in a series of short films with the Vim Comedy Company until 1917. His versatility saw him playing villains, heroes and even comic female characters and he was soon in great demand.
Meanwhile back in the UK, 22-year-old Laurel was invited to tour the United States in 1912 with the Fred Karno Troupe. It was supposed to be a short tour, with Laurel planning to return to London afterwards but instead he decided to emigrate. He became involved in the motion picture industry. He made his film debut in 1917 with Nuts in May, when he began using the stage name Stan Laurel. He starred in more than 50 films in his own right before meeting Hardy.
Laurel and Hardy were both established actors before they finally met. Both had been involved in the Hollywood film industry for several years, with Hardy having starred in more than 250 films. It was a chance pairing in the film ‘The Lucky Dog’ – produced by Hal Roach’s movie studio in 1921 – that finally brought them together, creating one of the world’s finest comedy duos.
Laurel plays a down-at-heel man who is evicted for non-payment of rent – he meets a dog on the streets. He bumps into a robber (played by Hardy) who is in the middle of carrying out a hold-up. Their paths intertwine throughout the film and later in the film, Laurel gets talking to a poodle-owner whose jealous boyfriend enlists Hardy’s help to teach him a lesson. Things take a turn for the worse when Hardy tries to blow up Laurel with a stick of dynamite but Laurel’s dog comes to the rescue, chasing Hardy and the jealous boyfriend away and thus saving Laurel’s life!
Although Laurel and Hardy were playing as separate characters in the film (and not as the comedy duo people came to know and love), their onscreen antics saw them being paired together for their famous series of comedy slapstick films from the 1920s to the 1940s. They starred together in a total of 107 films, all of which were a huge success.
Officially known as Laurel and Hardy, they made a striking impression before the film had even begun: Laurel was of average height and weight but because Hardy was a man mountain, standing 6ft 1in tall and weighing 280lb, he made Laurel appear small and weedy by comparison.
They soon developed their own characteristics, such as Hardy’s famous curls plastered to his forehead and well-oiled moustache, in contrast with Laurel’s vertical hairstyle and clumsy flat-footed walk – achieved by removing the heels from his shoes!
Their film partnership continued until 1955, when Laurel and Hardy made their final public appearance on the BBC television programme, This is Music Hall. In June 1955, their first film director, Roach, was due to start filming a series of one-hour Laurel and Hardy TV shows, returning to the slapstick comedy that audiences loved. However, Hardy, by now aged 63, suffered a stroke before filming began. Sadly, he never returned to full health and died aged 65 in 1957.
Laurel was shocked at the death of his lifelong friend and comedy partner, whom he described as being “like a brother”. He called the death of his “dear pal” a “terrible loss”, although it had not been unexpected due to Hardy’s failing health. In 1965, Laurel died at the age of 74.
Laurel and Hardy’s amazing legacy continues to live on. There are three Laurel and Hardy museums: one in Laurel’s birthplace of Ulverston in Cumbria, one in Hardy’s birthplace in Harlem in the US and one in Solingen, Germany. Their brand of comedy influenced many generations of performers and there are appreciation societies and fan groups all over the world.
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