Laurel and Hardy fans who rewatch the legendary comedians’ 1934 take on Babes in Toyland every Christmas now have the opportunity to see them in another movie: the new biopic Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy, out Friday.
The movie is a fictionalized take on the comedians’ British tour in 1953 and 1954. Their third such tour, it would end up being their last tour together, due to the declining health of the duo TIME once described as “two of America’s few genuinely creative comedians.”
The funnymen were introduced to the public in the mid-1920s by Hollywood film and TV producer Hal Roach, who thought putting together a skinny Englishman and a rotund American would be comedic gold, says Simon Louvish, author of Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy: The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy and a visiting lecturer at the London Film School. Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, England) had been an understudy for Charlie Chaplin and a member of the London Comedians troupe run by Fred Karno, who is credited with having a role in launching Chaplin. Hardy was the son of an Atlanta politician, and studied law at the University of Georgia before he decided to pursue a career in singing.
Together, as TIME put it, they became Laurel — “slim, sad-eyed master mime” and “the brain behind the gags and the on-screen butt of them all” — and Hardy, “the master of mime and the bowler-bouncing doubletake” and “the withering glare.” They made dozens of silent film shorts in the late 1920s, such as Duck Soup, and began doing talkie shorts in 1929 and feature-length talkie films in the mid-’30s. Their seamless transition from silent to sound pictures was notable, winning them recognition as “virtually the only silent comedy stars to repeat their phenomenal success in talkies, probably because their miming spoke louder than words.” And the hard work that Laurel & Hardy put into lugging a piano up a staircase in The Music Box clearly hit the right note with the Academy, as the film won a 1932 Oscar.
And their popularity went even deeper than their talent. They rose to fame at a period in history when Americans needed a good laugh. “During the Great Depression, people are so desperate, and they need comedy,” says Louvish. “Here are two bums wandering about. They come from nowhere. They have no money. They’re always trying to do the right thing, but get into a fine mess. They take failure and make it into something you can laugh about.
Their relatability was a key part of what made them funny. They were “interested more, as Hardy once said, in ‘human appeal’ than in ‘straight clownish antics.’” Describing what made them special in 1965, TIME noted that “they were lovable caricatures of the dolt in Everyman, a bow and fiddle striking delightfully dissonant chords in a mad world. Witless innocence was their hallmark.”
But when their health was failing, they had trouble being funny.
While filming the movie originally entitled Atoll K in 1950 (later released as Utopia in 1954), Hardy’s general health worsened, exacerbated by his obesity, and Stan Laurel’s pre-existing diabetes was worsened by prostate issues and colitis. And yet they continued to tour.
“They embraced these demanding tours which were quite physically exhausting,” says Louvish. The film depicts the period as one of intense disagreement between the two; when asked whether they had a notable falling out, Louvish, who has not seen the film, says that if they argued in real life it was probably less because they didn’t like each other anymore and more because they were running on fumes. “They were both very ill in their later years,” says Louvish.
Even then, Laurel and Hardy never lost their commitment to self-deprecating humor, as opposed to put-downs. At an appearance in Newcastle, England, in 1952, they “looked down their noses at the modern generation,” TIME reported. “Present-day comedians, particularly those in America, gain laughs at the expense of someone else’s discomfort. Insult gags are a crudity we avoid,” they said.
And yet, they were determined to keep performing. “They had run out of stuff, yet they’re trying to do material and buoyed up by the fact that people love them,” says Louvish. “They can’t make more movies, yet they want to continue until death.”
It wasn’t just for their own benefit, though. Their British tours came during the difficult period of post-war shortages in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the laughter they provided was able to serve the same purpose it had served during the Great Depression.
And yet the recognition they received was more honorary than monetary. “The two men did not own their films, and thus did not reap any income from reruns,” TIME reported in 1967. “During their last years—Ollie died at 65 in 1957, Stan at 74 in 1965—neither was independently wealthy.” When Laurel received an Honorary Academy Award for “creative pioneering in the field of comedy” in 1961, he was too ill to accept it himself.
“They made us laugh because in them we kind of saw ourselves – ridiculous, frustrated, up to our necks in trouble, but nevertheless ourselves,” Danny Kaye said, accepting the award on his behalf. “Oliver Hardy delicately tipped his derby hat with his pudgy little fingers and left us a little while back. But the thin, sad-faced one, the one from whose fertile mind sprang many of the universally humorous notions that have been borrowed so freely by the comedians who have followed is still with us.”
Indeed, Jonathan Winters, Dick Cavett, Dick Van Dyke and Soupy Sales were all members of Sons of the Desert, a Laurel and Hardy appreciation society founded by fans in 1965. In light of the biopic, it’s recently been fielding an increased number of membership inquiries from young people. Before he died, Laurel had some parting advice to such fans, advising them to “have a hell of a lot of fun,” and avoid taking themselves too seriously — even when things get tough.
“Don’t sit around and tear comedy apart. It is like a fine watch, and you’ll never get it together again,” he said. “And don’t ask me why people laugh—that is the mystery of it all.”