Checking into a Newcastle hotel early in the new biopic Stan & Ollie, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) decide to delight the clerk with a bit of business. Dusting off an old routine, Stan bumbles his way through the lobby carrying way too many pieces of luggage while Ollie grows increasingly impatient. Then they keep it going, until the clerk, who never has to ask their names, says, “You just wait ‘til I tell my mom it’s you! We never get anybody famous staying here.”
The film mostly focuses on the duo during a low point of their fame as they tour 1950s England with a stage show. The movie opportunities have dried up and TV has yet to make them inescapable via reruns of their old movies that played in constant rotation for the next couple of decades. But even here, Laurel and Hardy need no introduction. And even today, Laurel and Hardy remain instantly recognizable: the big guy with the tiny mustache and the little guy with the vacuous expression, both wearing bowler hats that could fit a little bit better.
But anyone leaving Stan & Ollie wanting to go back to the source material will have to do a little work. Laurel and Hardy’s films haven’t been TV staples in decades and the best of them didn’t arrive on DVD until 2011, as the format was waning in popularity. Currently, you can stream some on Prime Video and many are on YouTube in copyright-skirting uploads of wildly variable quality. (And, please stay away from any colorized versions.) The best legitimate source remains the expansive (and expensive) ten-disc DVD set Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection, which collects almost all of the sound-era shorts and features that the duo shot for Hal Roach Studios between 1929 and 1940. But however you watch Laurel and Hardy, you’ll find a wealth of comedy that’s as funny today as it ever was. Below, we’ve compiled a few greatest hits to get you started.
The Second Hundred Years (1927)
Neither Stan Laurel nor Oliver Hardy was new to the entertainment business when producer Hal Roach teamed them up in 1927. The English Laurel had been part of the same acting troupe that produced Charlie Chaplin, even serving as Chaplin’s understudy for a bit. Hardy, a Georgia native known to his friends as “Babe,” had worked in vaudeville and came to Hollywood after making some films in Florida. They’d both been in the film business for a while, and even appeared in one short together years before becoming a team in 1927. It took a few films to work out the kinks, but The Second Hundred Years finds the familiar Stan and Ollie characters starting to take shape. Both sport alarmingly short crew cuts and at one point Stan actually has a good idea, but the chemistry is clearly in place as they play a pair of cellmates who break out of jail only to end up right back where they started. Also worth a look from this same nascent period: Battle of the Century, a lost-then-found short featuring the pie fight to end all pie fights.
Big Business (1929)
The most famous of the team’s silent films finds them traveling to the suburbs of Los Angeles trying, and failing, to sell Christmas trees. The day goes from bad to worse when they anger a reluctant customer (frequent Laurel and Hardy foil Jimmy Finlayson), leading to an escalating battle that leaves the customer’s home in shambles and Stan and Ollie’s business in ruins. It’s one of the best examples of a formula that the team would turn to again and again: introducing chaos to a situation and watching as things spin out of control.
That’s not to suggest that the team always stuck to formula. This weird, inventive short finds the boys trying to play checkers while tending to their misbehaving sons, also played by Laurel and Hardy, an effect achieved through a combination of special effects and oversize sets. The duo became beloved by sticking to their distinct, instantly recognizable personas. Laurel played the dunce, a sweet, easily befuddled, generally good-natured fellow who cried easily and scratched his head in dismay a lot. Hardy played his blustering, bossy companion, who fancied himself smarter than his pal but didn’t do much to prove it — which didn’t stop him from shooting priceless “Can you believe what I have to put up with?” glances at the camera years before Jim Halpert was born. The familiar approach made them stars, but they occasionally looked for ways to break out of it by playing their own doubles. (See also Our Relations, in which they co-star with themselves as “Alf” and “Bert.”) Here they use the opportunity to run wild, quarreling, refusing to go to sleep, and generally making a mess of things. It starts funny and gets funnier while offering the rare chance to see Stan and Ollie on the receiving end of others’ destructive tendencies.
Laurel and Hardy would still be remembered as being among the best of the silent-comedy teams even if they’d never made it into the sound era, but the introduction of sound gave them tools they never would have found otherwise: the contrast between Laurel’s English accent and Hardy’s gentlemanly drawl; Laurel’s malapropisms and uncontrollable sobs; Hardy’s agonized howls of pain. All are on display in this brilliantly simple short in which Ollie has to clean up his home on short notice when his wife announces her early return from a trip. He enlists Stan’s help and, to put it mildly, this proves to be a poor decision. Laurel and Hardy made more conceptually ambitious shorts than Helpmates, but anyone looking for the quintessence of what made the team work need look no further.
County Hospital (1932)
Laurel and Hardy operated using a clear division of labor: Hardy was purely a performer while Laurel oversaw every aspect of their films, serving as the team’s head writer and more or less working as its shadow producer, director, and editor. It’s an arrangement seemingly designed to lead to resentment, but though their relationship apparently wasn’t without its ups and downs — as depicted in Stan & Ollie — Laurel and Hardy remained close throughout their lives. It’s also an arrangement that obviously worked. Working with the irreplaceable Hardy, Laurel brought the sensibility of a brilliant gag man to each film, finding a funny scenario in which to drop the characters, and then figuring out how to escalate the comedy via a verbal routine, a misunderstanding, slapstick destruction, or just a carefully chosen facial expression. Here, Ollie, who’s laid up in the hospital with a broken leg, gets a visit from Stan, and the full spectrum of what the team could do is on display in a short that opens with Stan driving Ollie up the wall by eating a boiled egg and ends with a car chase.
The Music Box (1932)
This is Laurel and Hardy’s most famous short, and with good reason: It plays as the team had found a way to turn comic escalation into a science. The boys are charged with delivering a piano to a home high atop a steep staircase (which still exists in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake). That doesn’t go well, nor does their attempt to place it inside a locked home or tangle with the home’s owner who assures them that he does not want a piano. The premise is simplicity itself; the genius is in the hilariously baroque variations the film finds within it.
Their First Mistake (1932)
Beyond the brilliant gags, Stan and Ollie’s complex onscreen relationship helped make the team so enduring. The characters drove each other mad but clearly couldn’t live without one another. Beneath the bluster and abuse there’s a weird sort of love, and though nothing in their films suggested a sexual element, they seemed to exist in a sort of quasi-marriage, even in stories that paired them off with wives. Few efforts brought this closer to the surface than this 1932 short in which Ollie’s wife, unhappy that he spends all his time with Stan, threatens to leave him. The solution, per Stan: Adopt a baby so she’ll have something else to occupy her time. This, of course, leads to the boys being forced to care for the kid on their own, and in one especially funny stretch, Ollie gets to act the part of a scorned, single mother begging Stan not to leave. If it wasn’t hilarious, it would be heartbreaking.
Sons of the Desert (1933)
The team’s success in two-reelers (which run about 20 minutes) led Roach to try them out in longer projects, and beginning with the 1931 film Pardon Us, they began branching out into features. Even though these tended to clock in under 80 minutes, they could still occasionally feel padded, especially the films made after the team split with Roach after years of tension. Not so Sons of the Desert, in which Stan and Ollie lie to their wives in order to attend the convention of a Shriners-like fraternal lodge in Chicago. The film piles mishaps on top of complications, playing less like a short stretched to feature length than one that couldn’t be contained to two or three reels — plus, it features a ukulele number.
Way Out West (1937)
Charged with informing a prospector’s daughter that she’s inherited a fortune, Stan and Ollie head to an Old West town where they have to deal with a treacherous saloon keeper and his wife, who are determined to claim the inheritance as their own. (The term outwit doesn’t really apply here. They save the day, but it’s pretty much by accident.) One of the best of the team’s features, Way Out West remains delightful whether bringing in almost-surreal gags (Stan apparently has a thumb that doubles as a cigarette lighter) or song-and-dance numbers, most memorably a rendition of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” that takes some unexpected turns.
The Flying Deuces (1939)
Stan and Ollie join the French Foreign Legion in an effort to forget Ollie’s heartbreak, only to discover that it’s way too much work. The film moves along nicely, and even stirs some genuine pathos for poor Ollie, until a big, overlong flying finale that’s mostly a collection of reaction shots. Still, the epilogue features one of the best gags they ever created. Having died in a plane crash, Ollie returns in the form of a horse wearing his trademark bowler and mustache. “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,” the horse says. It’s one of the most memorable, and weirdly poignant, uses of the team’s most famous catchphrase. Even in death, they’re together forever.