The Laurel & Hardy movie: an Empire primer

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The news arrived this week that Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly have signed up to play Laurel and Hardy for Jon S. Baird's biopic Stan And Ollie. The new film is set in the twilight of Laurel and Hardy's careers, when they undertook a tour of the UK's music halls in the 1950s. But it's a perfect excuse to break out some clips of the duo in their '20s and '30s heyday. Unlike most of their peers (Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton and so on), they effortlessly transitioned from silents to talkies, and between 1927 and 1944 they made an incredible 94 films together, including shorts and features. Here are some of Empire's favourites.

Way Out West (1937)

Stan and Ollie’s comedy Western contains a couple of stand-out musical numbers. In the above clip, the boys perform a justly famous, gloriously scrappy dance routine as The Avalon Boys sing At The Ball. Ollie is surprisingly dainty. Below, they muscle in on a guitar-picking cowboy’s rendition of The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine. Almost 40 years after it was recorded, John Peel championed it to number 2 in the UK charts in 1975. If the vocal antics aren’t enough for you, there’s a mallet later on.

Big Business (1929)

"What about escalation?" asks Commissioner Gordon at the end of Batman Begins. This is as good an illustration of the concept as you could wish for. Apparently trying to sell Christmas trees in the blazing sunshine, Stan and Ollie get into a fracas with their regular antagonist James Finlayson. The result is mutually assured destruction: a tit-for-tat litany of silent slapstick violence, and one of the greatest Laurel and Hardy shorts of all.

Below Zero (1930)

The bleak midwinter of the Great Depression gives the context for this clip, as the itenerant Stan and Ollie attempt to busk their way to their next meal. It doesn't go well: especially unsurprising given their incongruous choice of a summer-themed song. A grumpy street-sweeper with a snowball is unimpressed.

Going Bye-Bye! (1934)

One of the great telephone gags, as Ollie confuses a jug of milk for the reciever. He recovers with considerable aplomb. Stan cleans his jacket for him...

Laughing Gravy (1931)

A tiff over permission to read the contents of a private letter results in this masterclass in passive aggression from Ollie. Laughing Gravy is the name of the dog, incidentally.

Sons Of The Desert (1933)

Sneaking off for a weekend with their masonic lodge, Stan and Ollie are, sadly, very quickly busted by their wives. Returning home oblivious to this, they attempt a cheerful serenade to keep the fiction going that they've been in Honolulu on a rest cure, but find an empty house. Ollie's uke doesn't last long.

Perfect Day (1929)

Preparations for a picnic have already resulted in considerable sandwich-based violence inside the house. When the party finally get as far as the car, there's an almost interminable series of delays to them getting underway. This set of goodbyes is only one of many, many others. Also note the beleaguered uncle with the bandaged foot. In the cinema of the 1920s, almost nothing was funnier than gout.

Block-Heads (1938)

Not for the first or last time, this is another example of Stan and Ollie failing to achieve something for a really, really long time. In this case it's getting up the stairs of an apartment block. This particular interruption is Finlayson's branding Hardy an "overstuffed pollywog"... whatever that may be. A delighted Laurel anticipates that "there's going to be a fight."

County Hospital (1932)

There will be motor-carnage and hanging out of windows later, but at this point in Stan's hospital visit, it's just Ollie being irritable and exasperated. He's not a fan of hard-boiled eggs and nuts. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson would nick this set-up wholesale a couple of decades later for a radio episode of Hancock's Half Hour. Hancock was, in his turn, annoyed by a packet of crisps and a pint of winkles.

The Battle Of The Century (1927)

We said earlier that '20s audiences loved a man with gout. But they also loved a pie fight, and this was the one to end them all. More than 3000 cream pies were used for just 19 minutes of film. Parts of The Battle Of The Century were thought lost for decades, but a 16mm print of the missing second reel was rediscovered only last year. The messy slapstick extravaganza was extensively homaged in the 1965 caper The Great Race.

Towed In A Hole (1932)

A classic example of Stan and Ollie's many childish fights, this time involving repeated assaults with a bucket of water. Typically, they keep just allowing each other to proceed, as if they're curious as to what's about to happen. A soaking is probably a safe bet.

The Music Box

And finally, another nailed-on classic, as The Boys doggedly attempt the Sisyphean task of getting a piano up an enormous flight of steps. This is not a job that goes smoothly, with said instrument ending up back on the street more times than a sane person could cope with. Frankly, you wouldn't imagine it'd sound very good by the time it's delivered. But it doesn't ultimately matter. [Spoilers] Turns out the recipient doesn't want it anyway. The word "smithereens" springs to mind.