I don’t know what possessed me when, on a trip up to Manchester last week, I walked into a store and purchased a 21-DVD box set of shorts and feature films starring Messrs. Laurel and Hardy. Silent two-reelers, early talkies, as well as their reworkings in Spanish and French. Even rediscovered snippets of a German version of Pardon Us titled Hinter Schloss und Riegel. I guess, discovering Oliver Hardy’s feminine side a few weeks ago up in Ithaca, New York, and stumbling upon Hal Roach’s grave in nearby Elmira got me into this fine mess.
As mentioned earlier, I generally turn to Harold Lloyd for laughs generated by flying pies, pratfalls, and assorted pickles. After years of copying earlier masters, Lloyd hit on just the right formula with his clever combination of slapstick, wit, and romance. None of the sentimentality that makes the coy and ingratiating Chaplin such a turn-off for me.
Sure, the romance in Lloyd movies is of the old boy-meets-girl variety. By comparison, the emphasis in the works of short-tempered Mr. Hardy and his feeble-brained pal is on male bonding. Years ago, I taught a course examining definitions and boundaries of friendship in American culture. I might well have included this odd couple in my discussions. What, besides a chance at getting even after suffering insult and sustaining injury through mutual ineptness, kept those two together?
Shorts like “Helpmates” reveal that Hardy did not have a happy home. Well, by the end of it, he does not have much of a home at all, once Laurel, the home wrecker, is through with his botched efforts to assist in cleaning up after a wild party held in the absence of Hardy’s formidable missus. “Our Wife,” in turn, suggests that Laurel and Hardy are best wed to one another; and “Their First Mistake” shows them as a couple raising the baby Hardy adopted to keep his marriage from falling apart. Too late. Returning with the infant, Hardy discovers that he has been abandoned by his wife, who accused him of thinking more of Stan than of herself. “Well, you do,” Laurel agrees. “We won’t go into that!” his friend retorts.
No doubt, their violent, destructive streak is their way—and Roach’s as well as America’s—of dealing with men having feelings for one another in a manner that might be deemed bad mannered or puerile, but that does not raise suspicion in mainstreamed minds. Their Tom-and-Jerry-foolery was a precursor to those 1980s buddy movies. Screwball comedy without the girl.
“Should Married Men Go Home?” another of the pair’s outings invites viewers to debate. I did not ponder such questions much when last I watched Laurel and Hardy in action. I had never even heard the two of them speak in their native Englishes. What I heard them say had been in German, in which language they are known as “Dick und Doof” (Fat and Stupid). Not the kind of sobriquets to instill respect for their craft or encourage intellectual engagement.
Well, it was I who ended up looking pretty “doof,” staring at various screens on which I expected Laurel and Hardy to appear. “Me and My Pal,” the title selected for this evening’s small-screening, simply refused to emerge in anything other than an unintelligible mosaic of greenish pixels. So far, my picture of their relationship, its secret and extent, is hardly much clearer than that . . .