I must’ve written this very lengthy piece on my old Angelfire site (not all in one sitting) sometime in 2005. It spotlights 29 comedians and comedy teams from the silent and early sound era, some of them not as well-known as others. Part I contains the introduction and my only possible choice to kick off such a list, my belovèd Laurel and Hardy, whom I will love till there’s no more breath left in my body.
It’s incredibly cliché, but it’s also so beyond incredibly true that they just don’t make stuff like they used to. There will always be dumb petty contests and fights over whom the best silent clown was, the funniest overall comedian of the first half of the century, the best comedy team, with people using their pet faves to clobber other people’s pets, pathetic lists of the best 300 comics ever (even if you can be objective enough to get an honest accurate Top 10, how do you decide who gets in 175th place over 156th place, say?), but the fact remains that a lot of these old comedies have had extremely long shelf lives because they’re so damn timeless and funny.
Sure there are the references and gags that don’t age well or at best just aren’t relevant anymore, but like with The Divine Comedy, the underlying message transcends the era in which it was made. There have been a lot of funny films made since (and it’s rather sad how the comedy short has all but died away; a lot of these old comedy shorts are tighter than some of the full-length features made by these same people in some cases), but overall they just don’t have the same timeless feel to them. They’re so focused in on being hip and cutting-edge, with topical humour that might make people roll in the aisles with laughter in the beginning yet 25 years down the line come across as terminally stiff, boring, and dated.
A lot of the jokes in the television shows I grew up with certainly would go right over the heads of young people today, since they have no idea whom all these people and what all these fads and events being referred to are. What was considered funny and cutting-edge in 1975 comes off as lame and passé today; they’re too aimed at the current climate instead of focused and honed in on being funny and relevant for all time. People will always laugh at a train falling into the river below a bridge which just collapsed, a piano falling on someone’s head, someone’s pants falling down in public, a feeding machine going out of control on the test subject, or someone getting into a vat of lemonade; the same can’t be said for gags and situations which play entirely and only upon contemporary events and references.
Comedy had heart and soul back then; apart from some of the very early comedy made when film was in its infancy, it had class, heart and soul, tastefulness. It didn’t dumb itself down to the lowest common denominator or use vulgarity and insults to get laughs, and even in comedies which feature those things, they’re very very tame by today’s standards. Mutual retaliation in a film like Two Tars or the risqué dialogue in Men O’ War is so nothing compared to how there are so many juvenile insults, filthy jokes, and cruel situations in the “comedies” of today.
It’s also very personal; you don’t find too many people saying they don’t really have an opinion on a certain group or solo performer, you either love or hate them, or at best don’t find them funny or get what their humour is all about. Most of the comics listed farther down on the page I’ve only heard of and amn’t familiar with the work of, but the ones higher up have my highest recommendations, if it means anything; I like to think of myself as someone with very good taste.
Comedians in the old days not only were by and large clean and wholesome, sweet and endearing, but also respectful of their audience. They played to what they knew was a winning formula, getting rid of gags and situations they might think to be rip-roaringly funny but knew most people wouldn’t be that amused by. Some comedians even previewed their stuff to audiences before officially releasing it, so they could edit out stuff that didn’t get laughs or add new jokes that worked better. Sometimes a four-reeler was reduced to a two-reeler in this way, such as the 1921 Harold Lloyd short I Do (which co-starred his future wife Mildred Davis).
These comedians were good kind sweet people, genuinely caring about their fan base, living only to make people happy and joyful, knowing, as Stan Laurel once said, “it is your audience that counts, not you.” They had great comic timing in addition to writing and performing great material. Too many people automatically dismiss, depricate, and make fun of comedians, be they comic actors, clowns, mimes, or in stand-up, thinking any idiot can be a comedian or that it’s not as serious a profession as something like accounting or medicine, or that comedic actors aren’t as good or serious as dramatic ones.
Anyone can do a fine upstanding job in an ordinary field or learn all his or her lines for a dramatic picture, but it takes someone with a special personality, a warm kind heart, a giving magnanimous soul, to take up a profession that might not make as much money as a doctor or get as much respect as an actor in dramas but brings joy, love, laughter, and happiness to the hearts, souls, and lives of millions.
1. I could never say enough about what Laurel and Hardy meant to me during my junior year of high school. I had already discovered them in July of ’96, and we moved against my will that August. I don’t know what I would’ve done had AMC not shown them every Saturday morning at 11:30 like clockwork, and sometimes during other times during the week as well.
This was one of the darkest nights of my soul, and no matter how my father dismisses them snidely as “products of their time” or not funny to very many people anymore (I’m sure the length of the membership rolls of the Sons of the Desert doesn’t count, since his mind is already made up most stuff in black and white and from that long ago is irrelevant and couldn’t possibly attract more than a few weird people anymore), I will always always love them and be deeply grateful for how they were the one thing holding me together back then, my clown prince angels.
Even after the darkness has passed, the emotional bond that was forged in fire, during very bestial circumstances, remains, and my joy and laughter are no less when I watch them over and over again now. Like with all great comedians, I can watch them over and over again, knowing all the words and gags by heart backwards and forwards, and yet it never gets old and tiresome.
It’s their genuine friendship, love, companionship, politeness, sweetness, that attracted me, besides the fact that they’re just plain damn funny. Some comedy teams, like Abbott and Costello, didn’t really get along well off-camera, but Laurel and Hardy were best friends off-camera as well, closer than brothers. You know they often beat one another up and verbally abuse one another, but it’s out of frustration or retaliation, not because they get off on being mean.
And when an outsider steps in and tries to do the same, they won’t stand for that; the attitude of “I can knock this blockhead around all I want, but you mess with my pal and you have me to deal with.” Many times they get into trouble because they’re so nice and gentlemanly, too nice and naïve for their own good, needing one another because no one else could put up with them. The hug at the end of A Chump at Oxford is so sweet, genuine, and sincere, knowing they were best friends and practically brothers in real life too.
You can just sense they’re really nice sweet guys, very kind and polite to everyone (sometimes too nice), true gentlemen, good to animals and children (it’s really touching how they look after Eddie’s small daughter in Pack Up Your Troubles), just very genuine, caring, compassionate, sincere people.
Of course, they started out performing solo in silent comedy and were formally teamed in 1927, after having appeared in a number of shorts together but not as a team. People dispute when exactly the teaming took place (was it when they were acting as a team or at least more together than in their earliest pairings, or was it when they first wore their bowler hats, first demonstrated what we’ve come to recognise as their screen personas, for example?), but it was sometime in 1927. There were some false starts, with them acting as a team in one film, then in the next few they happened to be together but not a team, and then back to a team again.
They transitioned to sound in 1929 (after having made a couple of silent shorts earlier that year), and sound was VERY kind to them. You couldn’t imagine them having different voices; they match their personalities, physical appearances, and what’s going on onscreen to a damn tee. It’s uncanny.
They began making full-length features in 1931 in addition to continuing with their very successful shorts, but a few years later, in 1935, made their last shorts and only made features, since shorts were fast becoming a thing of the past. After 1940, they left Hal Roach Studios and went to Fox (and made two MGM films), as well as entertaining troops in America during WWII and later touring English music halls.
Their later features are hit and miss; like with Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, their later films aren’t less funny and weaker than their earlier stuff because they’d stopped being funny, but because they were given less creative control, not allowed to preview the stuff to audiences for a test-drive to see if any editing were needed, and because, as funny and great as you may be, even if you’re the best comedian the world has ever seen, you can’t be that funny or great if you’re given crap material to work with.
Of course they did the best they could with what was sometimes very weak material, and always gave great performances, just that some of the later stuff is a far cry from the glory days of features like Blockheads and Pack Up Your Troubles. For example, a lot of people dislike their 1943 film Air Raid Wardens because they’re just made out to be stupid bumbling morons, as in WAY stupider than they had been.
The boys had always been kinda dumb, which is a large part of their appeal, but dumb in a sweet endearing way, not dumb as in practically borderline retarded or just foolish hicks bumbling their way into and out of trouble. In this film they actually say, “I guess we’re not smart like other people,” and one of the funny bits is supposed to be Stan struggling to write the four letters of his name on his ID card.
Many people have pointed out this is WAY dumber than they’re supposed to be, and like being asked to laugh at someone who’s retarded. Though I do like this film, because it does have a lot of funny bits and is very topical to the American homefront during WWII (one of my fave eras of history), despite the sign they hang on the door of their business, “Gone to fight the Japs” (knowing how in real life they were very against racial prejudice and were left-wing Democrats, even though just about every film made during WWII is “Japs this” and “Japs that”), and despite how dumb they come across as, they do save the day in the end.
Mention should also be made of the great supporting players they had throughout their career, many of whom also transitioned into sound very successfully. James Finlayson, who had a fake handlebar moustache, usually played their foil, and had a lovely Scottish accent. He also appeared in a number of Stan’s solo shorts, as well as ones Stan directed but didn’t appear in. He had the best facial expressions of disgust and astonishment, and as the man who does the voice of Homer Simpson has acknowledged, Jimmy was the one who first said “D’oh!”
They also worked with Edgar Kennedy, whose trademark character was a slow burn (usually Edgar played a cop), Thelma Todd, Anita Garvin (who usually played one of their wives), Mae Busch (who frequently played Mrs. Hardy, and even when she didn’t, she was an incredibly henpecking, take-charge, fiesty, in-control lady), Charley Hall (a short little guy with a big temper), and Billy Gilbert, an awesome character actor (who also appeared in The Great Dictator and was the inspiration and voice of Sneezy in Snow White) whose trademark was blustering, going wildly out of control, and having hilarious fits of temper and righteous indignition. They just don’t make character actors the way they used to.