Laurel & Hardy: The eternal friendship of Stan and Ollie


The following is my contribution to the You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 18-20, 2016 by Debra at the blog Moon in Gemini. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to some of cinema’s most memorable friendships!


Usually, anyone who writes about Laurel & Hardy dwells on their comedy highlights (and justifiably so). But in this instance, I’d like to discuss some of their more thoughtful moments and show why, as L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt once said, they have more “depth” than most comedy teams.

It’s not for nothing that, within their fan base, Laurel & Hardy are just as likely to inspire a tear as a laugh. The most commonly cited instance is the famous softshoe dance from Way Out West (1937; embedded below), in which the deep bond of Stan and Ollie is just as obvious as their superb comic timing.

But there are plenty of other instances — not as funny, maybe, but just as touching — that illuminate Stan and Ollie’s friendship. I’d like to cite just four of them. (SPOILER ALERTS)

At the climax of their short subject Below Zero (1930), Stan and Ollie have just been, literally, knocked out and thrown out of the back of a greasy-spoon cafe for not paying their dinner tab. (They thought they had sufficient funds to pay for it, but you know, it’s Stan and Ollie.) When Ollie regains consciousness, he doesn’t see Stan anywhere, and he yells for Stan several times — first in a normal tone of voice, then with fear that his friend is missing or has been physically harmed. All of this is conveyed simply by Ollie calling Stan’s name four times, followed by Ollie grabbing a large piece of wood and rushing to the cafe’s back door to bang on it.


This is also a tribute to Oliver Hardy’s often-underrated acting. (And of course, Stan turns out to be all right — I’ll let you discover the movie’s silly ending for yourself.)


In L&H’s first feature film Pardon Us (1931), The Boys have been sentenced to prison for trying to sell bootleg liquor (to a cop, as it happens). Stan has a troublesome lisp that makes the end of his every sentence sound as though he’s blowing a raspberry. It’s determined that Stan needs to go the prison dentist to get a loose tooth pulled. Stan has grave misgivings about this idea, especially after seeing a couple of patients in the dentist’s waiting room who are vocalizing their agony. Suddenly, Ollie sneaks in, takes a seat next to Stan, and declares that he’ll stay with Stan all through the dental visit. It’s a tiny moment that’s not dwelled upon, but Stan’s delight at seeing a cheerful, familiar face in a hostile environment speaks volumes.


In Busy Bodies (1933), Stan and Ollie are having a back-and-forth physical row with an antagonistic co-worker (Charlie Hall). At one point, Stan hits Ollie by mistake. Charlie laughs and starts to make friends with Stan, telling Stan he has “a kind face.” Stan starts to get chummy with his new buddy and offers him a cigar. Ollie’s look to the camera — a device that always conveys Ollie’s exasperation to the audience — has an undertone of pity in this instance, as Ollie fears that Stan has turned on him. (Not to worry. Stan gets Charlie ejected from work — theirs is a “No Smoking” place of business.)


The most profound instance of Stan and Ollie’s loss-and-regaining of friendship occurs at the end of their feature film A Chump at Oxford (1940). (Major spoilers follow.) Stan and Ollie are attending Oxford University on a scholarship. Unbeknownst to them, Oxford once had a brilliant professor named Lord Paddington who, one day, inexplicably walked away from Oxford for good. Paddington’s former servant notices Stan’s resemblance to the former genius and declares that Stan is Lord Paddington returned to his old stomping grounds. Ollie laughs derisively at the idea.

OLLIE: Why, I’ve known him for years, and he’s the dumbest guy that I ever saw. Aren’t you, Stan?

STAN: I certainly am.

But when Stan leans out a window and is conked on the head by the window’s pane, Lord Paddington’s memory returns — as does Lord P. in all of his snobby glory.


There follows a delicious scene in which Ollie is justly punished for all of his years of condescending treatment of Stan, as Ollie is demoted to being Lord P.’s lackey. At one point, Paddington instructs Ollie on how to behave with more poise. “Lift your chin up,” he tells Ollie. When Ollie duly lifts his chin, Stan instructs him, “No, no, no, both of them!”

Ollie eventually loses it, telling Paddington that he’s had enough and that he’s returning to America without him. As it happens, some of Lord P.’s followers are singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” outside his window. Lord P. goes to the window to listen, the window pane does its business again, and Stan is returned to his old self.

Ollie is still on a rampage when Stan starts to cry at the thought of Ollie deserting him. Eventually, it dawns on Ollie that Stan is back to normal. Ollie laughs in happiness and throws his arms around his old buddy, briefly looking down at his derided double-chin before resuming his joy at the return of his old friend.



You have to think that Stan Laurel, as the uncredited co-creator of most of Laurel & Hardy’s movies, felt compelled to add these subtle grace notes to L&H’s characterizations. They’re minor, but they’re there for anyone who looks for them, and they add a little emotion to what could have simply been (superb) slapstick comedies.


A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940) – Routine Laurel & Hardy comedy with an amazing finale


The following in my contribution to The Back-to-School Blogathon, being hosted Sept. 2-5, 2016 by Robin at her blog Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of school-themed movies!


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

If I had to choose one average Laurel & Hardy movie to watch just for a single, extraordinary sequence, the hands-down winner would be A Chump at Oxford. The movie’s premise is that Stan and Ollie inadvertently thwart a bank robbery, and the bank president rewards them with a scholarship to Oxford. The movie’s college setting, and its title, are a spoof on the then-current movie A Yank at Oxford, but otherwise, there’s little reason to think that a comedy written and performed by men who probably never set foot in a college will be at all relevant to collegiate life then or now. (The Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers suffers from the same defect.) Indeed, knowing what one knows about Stan and Ollie, one would think that a lifetime scholarship to night school would be far more appropriate.

The movie was Laurel & Hardy’s penultimate film for Hal Roach, a producer who was far more sympathetic to their characterizations and work methods than later “big” studios would prove to be. Knowing this in hindsight offers a certain retrospective tinge to the movie, which is emphasized by the movie’s primary opening sequence, where Stan and Ollie get a job as maid (disguised, of course) and butler. This sequence was added to the film when Roach realized that the movie’s four-reel length was insufficient to satisfy L&H fans. L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt characterizes this sequence as, “in essence, their first two-reeler since [their final short subject] Thicker Than Water,” and it is fairly self-contained. The scene’s nostalgia is further underlined by the use of old L&H cohorts such as James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. And when Ollie comes out to announce, “There’s everything from soup to nuts, folks,” invoking the title of the L&H silent film from which this sequence liberally borrows, the movie is awash in nostalgia.

As fun as it is, though, this is not the extraordinary part of the movie. Neither is the middle (or is it “middling”?) section where Stan and Ollie go to Oxford and have juvenile pranks played on them by a drearily pretentious group of British students (one of whom is played by Peter Cushing).


The Boys with Cushing (4th from left).

Just before the students attempt a nasty revenge on Stan and Ollie for “snitching” on them, a butler named Meredith mistakes Stan for the college’s legendary scholar, Lord Paddington. It seems that Lord Paddington had a windowpane fall on his head one day and wandered out of Oxford, never to be seen again — and Stan has an uncanny resemblance to Lord Paddington. Ollie poo-poos the whole thing, saying “Why, I’ve known him for years, and he’s the dumbest person I ever saw. Aren’t you, Stan?” Stan illustrates the point by agreeing heartily.

But Stan and Ollie go through an open window to try and escape along a ledge, and wouldn’t you know it, the windowpane falls down on him, and he becomes Lord Paddington. This opens up some interesting questions (and potential plot developments) that the movie doesn’t begin to touch. First off, is it possible that Stan really is Lord Paddington, and if so, what happened between the time he first lost his memory and the time he met Ollie in America? Or is it possible that Stan’s subconscious absorbed Meredith’s Lord Paddington story and allowed his other side to break out in best Freudian style? One could almost imagine one of H.M. Walker’s priceless subtitles prefacing this sequence, such as…


But back to the plot. Stan-as-Lord-Paddington’s ears twitch furiously (which has been foretold as a sign that he means trouble), and he dispatches the mobbing students through the open window, while an incredulous Ollie looks on from the ledge. When Ollie enters back through the window, he is thrown out as well. Normally, Ollie would have been infuriated by Stan’s presumptuousness, but here he’s more amazed by Stan’s strength and his forgetting their friendship. Ollie’s appeal to Stan’s emotions is met with Paddington’s frosty query to Meredith: “Who is this coarse person with the foreign accent?” When Ollie is informed that he is beneath Paddington’s station, the old Ollie returns to inform Paddington and Meredith that he will not bow to this simpleton, whereupon he is dispatched through the window again.


Fade in on Lord Paddington, returned to his former status at Oxford, and Ollie, who is now Paddington’s manservant and is addressed by Paddington as “Fatty.” Just the beginning of this sequence is delicious enough, as we imagine Ollie having to pay for all those years of his condescending treatment of Stan. Paddington is informed that he has an appointment to talk with Albert Einstein, who is “a bit confused about his theory.” This is one instance where a silent look to the camera just isn’t enough. Ollie looks straight at us and blurts, “Einstein! Before that bump on the head, he wouldn’t know Einstein from a beer stein!”

The next sequence rewards one’s anticipation. Paddington tells Ollie that he needs a bit more poise in his appearance. He directs Ollie to stand up straight and lift his chin. Ollie resignedly lifts his chin, but Paddington demands, “No, no, no, both of them!” L&H biographer Charles Barr suggests that this sequence might have been close to real life, where Stan Laurel, the uncredited writer-director of the L&H comedies, directed Oliver Hardy, who was content to go through his paces and then rush to the golf course at the end of filming.

Ollie tries to follow Paddington’s directions and succeeds only in tripping himself, whereupon Paddington denounces his clumsiness. Ollie can take no more. He blows up at Paddington and announces he’s packing his bags and leaving for America. Paddington, unperturbed, shrugs off Ollie as “a witty old stick-in-the-mud.”

Outside, a group of students sings “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to Paddington, who unfortunately never had the window repaired or his memory checked. He sticks his head out to hear the tribute, and boom! he is Stan again. He turns and asks Ollie why he’s leaving. It takes a few moments before the situation sinks in for Ollie, but when it does, he happily hugs his old friend — briefly looking down at his double-chin and then realizing that it is no longer of any consequence.

As much as we want to see Stan and Ollie in any form, it’s tempting to wish that this final scene had been their farewell to movies. It wraps everything up nostalgically, retrospectively, and with an air of finality. And had this been the coda of their film career, we would have been spared the below-average antics of their last Hal Roach film Saps at Sea, not to mention the painfulness of their final studio films and the foreign-made disaster Utopia. Indeed, Charles Barr closes his comprehensive look at Laurel & Hardy at this very point. That’s bad movie history, of course — but after all, everyone loves a happy ending.