Friday, January 18, 2013

121 Years Ago Oliver Hardy Was Born

If someone is asked to name the greatest comedy teams of all time, chances are very good that he or she will name "Abbot and Costello," "The Marx Brothers," "Hope and Crosby," and "The Three Stooges." Among the first comedy teams he or she might name, if not the very first, would be Laurel and Hardy.  Beginning in 1927 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy would make a series of shorts and later feature films that established them as one of the most legendary comedy duos of all time. Indeed, the pair remain instantly recognisable 85 years after they first appeared as a team. Today it was 121 years ago that Oliver Hardy was born.

Oliver Hardy was born Norvell Hardy on 18 September 1892 in Harlem, Georgia. His father, Oliver Hardy, died when young Norvell Hardy was less than a year old. At some time during his youth he started referring to himself as "Oliver Norvell Hardy," taking his father's first name in tribute to him. Oliver Hardy  was interested in both music and theatre from a young age. By the time he was 8 he was singing in a travelling minstrel show. He would eventually display such talent for music that for a time he attended the Atlanta Conservatory of Music.

It was in 1910 that a cinema opened in Midgeville, Georgia, where Oliver Hardy and his family lived. Oliver Hardy took on the jobs of projectionist, ticket taker, janitor, and manager at the cinema. Watching the films at the movie theatre, he became convinced that he could act in motion pictures. It was in 1913 that a friend suggested he move to Florida to pursue a job acting in motion pictures. Once in Florida Oliver Hardy took jobs acting for films made by the the Lubin Manufacturing Company by day and performing vaudeville by night. It was in 1914, billed as O. N. Hardy, that he appeared in his first motion picture, the short subject, "Outwitting Dad." Afterwards he would be billed as "Babe Hardy," "Babe" being his nickname. With the short "An Expensive Visit" in 1915 he would be billed for the first time by the name by which he would be best known: "Oliver Hardy." He would continue being billed as "Babe Hardy" into the Twenties until, starting with the short "The Girl in the Limousine," he was forever after "Oliver Hardy."

Oliver Hardy would continue working for Lubin until 1915 when he went to work for the Vim Comedy Film Company. Mr. Hardy would make several films for Vim. Unfortunately, he also discovered that the company's owners,  Louis Burstein and Mark Dintenfass, were stealing from the payroll. Vim Comedy Film Company then went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1917. Oliver Hardy then worked briefly for King Bee Studios, who had bought out Vim, before moving to Los Angeles, California. It was there, in 1921, that Oliver Hardy first appeared in a film with Stan Laurel, although they were not yet a comedy team. In the short "The Lucky Dog," Oliver Hardy played a masked robber who confronts Stan Laurel. From 1918 to 1923 Oliver Hardy made films for Vitagraph.

In 1925 Oliver Hardy played the roles of the Tin Woodsman, Knight of the Garter, and a farmhand in The Wizard of Oz. It was also that year that he went to work for the studio that would make him famous, Hal Roach Studios. His first film for the studio was the short "Wild Papa." In his early days with Hal Roach, Oliver Hardy appeared in short subjects with Charley Chase, and in "Our Gang" shorts as well.  In fact, it was on the "Our Gang" short "Yes, Yes, Nanette" that Oliver Hardy would first work with Stan Laurel at Hal Roach Studios, although not as a comedy team. Along with Clarence Hennecke, Stan Laurel directed "Yes, Yes, Nanette." Mr. Laurel would also direct Mr. Hardy in the short subjects "Wandering Papas" and "Madame Mystery."

It was in 1927 that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared as the leads in the short "Duck Soup (not to be confused with the Marx Brothers feature of the same name)." Following "Duck Soup" they would appear as the leads in the short subjects "Slipping Wives" "Love 'Em and Weep," and "With Love and Hisses." Leo McCarey, then the supervising director at Hal Roach Studios, realised that the combination of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was a hit with audiences. It was then that Laurel and Hardy officially became a comedy team. While they had played other characters in "Duck Soup," "Slipping Wives" "Love 'Em and Weep," and "With Love and Hisses," thereafter they would primarily play the characters of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. With the 1927 short "Putting Pants on Philip," Laurel and Hardy made their debut as a comedy duo.

From the beginning Laurel and Hardy proved incredibly successful as a comedy team.  Starting out with silent films, Laurel and Hardy made the transition to talkies with the short "Unaccustomed As We Are" in 1929. In all Laurel and Hardy would make over 60 short subjects while at Hal Roach, not including those in which they made guest appearances (such as the Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts short "On the Loose"). Among these, "The Music Box" would be the first film to receive an Oscar for  Best Live Action Short Film (Comedy).  Given their success in short subjects, it was natural that Laurel and Hardy would move into feature films. They made their feature film debut in 1929 in one of the segments of MGM's The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It would be two years later that Laurel and Hardy would have their first starring roles in a feature film, Pardon Us for Hal Roach Studios.

Feature films would become increasingly more important in the film careers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. As the Thirties progressed more and more cinemas were foregoing the traditional cinema programme in which short subjects and a newsreel would precede a feature film in favour of double bills. The demand for short subjects was then reduced. Laurel and Hardy would make their last short for Hal Roach in 1935, "Thicker Than Water." From that time forward they only made feature films for Hal Roach. In all they appeared in thirteen feature films while at the studio, including Pardon Us (1931), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), The Devil's Brother (1933), Sons of the Desert (1933), Babes in Toyland (1934--reissued as March of the Wooden Soldiers), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Bohemian Girl (1936), Our Relations (1936), Way Out West (1937), Swiss Miss (1938), Block-Heads (1938), A Chump at Oxford (1940), and Saps at Sea (1940).

Interestingly enough Oliver Hardy would appear in a film without Stan Laurel in the Thirties. In 1939 Stan Laurel was having a dispute with Hal Roach. As a result Mr. Roach teamed Oliver Hardy with Harry Langdon for the film Zenobia. Laurel and Hardy would also make a film outside Hal Roach Studios during the period.  The Flying Deuces (1939) was produced by Boris Morros Productions and released by RKO.

Laurel and Hardy left Hal Roach Studios in 1940. The Forties would see them make feature films for both 20th Century Fox and MGM. For 20th Century Fox they made Great Guns (1941), A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Jitterbugs (1943), The Dancing Masters (1943), The Big Noise (1944), , and The Bullfighters (1945). At MGM they made Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing But Trouble (1944).

Laurel and Hardy left the Hal Roach Studios in 1940. They moved onto 20 Century Fox, where they would make the films Great Guns (1941), A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Air Raid Wardens (1943), Jitterbugs (1943), The Dancing Masters (1943), The Big Noise (1944), and The Bullfighters. They made  Nothing But Trouble (1944) for MGM.  In 1946 Laurel and Hardy retired from film. Oliver Hardy would then make two appearances on film without Stan Laurel. John Wayne wanted Oliver Hardy to play a role in The Fighting Kentuckian (1949). Mr. Hardy was reluctant to take the role, although he finally accepted it at Stan Laurel's insistence.  The following year Oliver Hardy had a cameo in Frank Capra's Riding High (1950).

This is not to say that Laurel and Hardy were dormant as a comedy team. The pair made three tours of the United Kingdom between 1947 and 1954. During the period they also visited Belgium, Denmark, France, and Switzerland. Laurel and Hardy had been wildly popular in Europe since the Thirties. While their films would be banned in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II, they would be re-released across Europe following the war. As a result the popularity of Laurel and Hardy, already popular before the war, soared in Europe. It was for that reason that Laurel and Hardy were invited to make a film in Europe by a consortium of the British, French, and Italian film industries.

Sadly, Laurel and Hardy's final feature film, Atoll K (1951--renamed Utopia in the United States and Robinson Crusoeland in the United Kingdom) would prove to be a less than pleasant experience for the duo. The film was only supposed to take twelve weeks to film, but in the end took a full year. Language barriers presented themselves in the making of the film, to the point that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy would deliver their lines in English, while their co-stars would deliver their lines in their native tongue. The pair's health also suffered during the making of the film. Oliver Hardy not only had problems cardiac fibrillation, but also contracted the flu. Stan Laurel developed colitis, dysentery, and a prostate ulcer that required immediate surgery. Sadly, for all the trouble the film created, Atoll K would be a success in neither Europe nor North America.

Laurel and Hardy would continue their tours of the United Kingdom and Europe until 1954. In 1955 Laurel and Hardy had contracted with Hal Roach, Jr. to make a television series entitled  Laurel and Hardy's Fabulous Fables, which would based around classic children's stories. The series never materialised. on 25 April 1955 Stan Laurel suffered a stroke, from which he took some time to recover. On 14 September 1956 Oliver Hardy had a massive stroke from which he never recovered. On 7 August 1957 Oliver Hardy died from cerebral thrombosis. Stan Laurel was too ill to attend Oliver Hardy's funeral. He said, "Babe would understand." Stan Laurel was devastated by his comedy partner and friend's death, to the point that he refused to ever again perform on stage, on film, or on television. He would turn down a role in the comedy epic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Stan Laurel continued to associate with his many fans, answering fan mail and even talking to them on the phone (his number was actually listed in the phone book) and letting them visit him in his home. It was on 19 February 1965 that Stan Laurel had a heart attack. He died four days later at the age of 74.

Laurel and Hardy are often counted among the greatest of all comedy teams, and more often than not as the greatest comedy team of all time. The reason for their success perhaps rest in the fact that they were singular as a comedy team. Most double acts consisted of a straight man and a gag man, Bud Abbott to Lou Costello or Dick Smothers to Tom Smothers. In the case of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, however, it would seem that both men played the role of straight man or gag man at various times.

Given that neither Stan Laurel nor Oliver Hardy could be described as the straight man or gag man of the act, it should come as no surprise that Oliver Hardy was responsible for generating many of the laughs in their shorts and features. Perhaps no one was better at the slow burn than Oliver Hardy, something he almost always did after yet another one of Stanley's many mistakes. And while Oliver Hardy was a large man, he was surprisingly limber and athletic. For that reason he handled much of the team's physical comedy, from slipping on banana peels to falling out of everything from windows to boats. Ollie also had a number of idiosyncrasies. He often moved with exaggerated grace, whether it was opening a door or signing papers. And he often twiddled his tie when he was embarrassed or flirting. Here it must be pointed out that it was Ollie who always delivered the catchphrase most associated with Laurel and Hardy, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" The arrogant, stubborn, and often bombastic Ollie was a perfect match for the none too bright, child like Stanley. Together Laurel and Hardy created two of the funniest characters in film history. Laurel and Hardy were quite unlike their screen characters. In fact, it was Stan Laurel who came up with many of the ideas for their shorts and feature films, making many suggestions to directors. Oliver Hardy was more easy going and laid back, content to follow Stan Laurel's lead.

Of course, Oliver Hardy had a career beyond his long partnership with Stan Laurel. He made a number of comedy shorts before he and Stan Laurel became a team. In these comedy shorts Oliver Hardy demonstrated his talent as comic actor, well before he and Stan Laurel became partners. And while the vast majority of Oliver Hardy's career was spent in comedy, he gave an impressive dramatic performance in The Fighting Kentuckian. Had Oliver Hardy not become one half of possible the most famous comedy double act of all time, he might well have had a career as a dramatic actor.

One hundred and twenty one years after his birth and nearly ninety nine years after his first appearance on film, Oliver Hardy remains a household name. Even when someone does not recognise Oliver Hardy's name, they will usually recognise the comedy team Laurel and Hardy. Given the continued popularity of the team's shorts and feature films, it seems likely that people will still recognise the name of Oliver Hardy in another 121 years.

1 comment:

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