classics

The 25 Most Essential Laurel and Hardy Comedy Shorts

Laurel and Hardy in Battle of the Century. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Newfound fans watching the 25 weekday hours of Friends reruns on TBS or who are streaming all ten seasons on HBO Max may have noticed a poster in Joey and Chandler’s apartment of a rotund guy and a skinny guy. That visual Easter egg is a poster of Laurel and Hardy, perhaps the screen’s most beloved comedy team.

Friends set decorator Greg Grande said in a phone interview he was reminded of Laurel and Hardy when he watched rehearsals for the fledgling series’ pilot episode and saw in roommates Joey and Chandler a similar comedy dynamic and close-knit bond. And so it was kismet when he was poking around a Warner Bros. studio prop house and found an unframed black-and-white Laurel and Hardy poster from their 1928 short Leave ’Em Laughing. Grande, himself a fan (“Who’s not?” he asked rhetorically), hung it in Joey and Chandler’s apartment, where it became a piece of iconic set design and, he proudly noted, introduced new generations to the comedy duo.

Laurel, a British-born music-hall performer in the same troupe as Charlie Chaplin, was the thin and perpetually befuddled one (offscreen, he took the upper hand in creating the team’s routines). Hardy, a native of Harlem, Georgia, was the mustachioed long-suffering big one, the deluded “strong” who grandiosely took it upon himself to help the “weak” Laurel. They appeared for the first time together, but not as a team, in the 1917 Laurel comedy, Lucky Dog. As contract players for producer Hal Roach, they were first teamed in 1927. They survived the transition from silent to sound films and made more than 100 shorts and features together. Hardy died in 1957, Laurel in 1965.

“The Boys,” as they were affectionately called, never had a Zeitgeist revival moment during the Vietnam War era as did the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Mae West, whose subversive, anti-authority personas resonated with rebellious college students. But they have never gone out of style. Even “sick” comic Lenny Bruce was charmed by them. “The relationship that Laurel and Hardy had was so delightful and such a hard thing to do,” he said in a 1959 radio broadcast included on the four-CD box set, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware. “You really feel a sincere love there.”

They were caricatured in 1930s Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons. They are in Vladimir and Estragon’s DNA in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Hanna-Barbera created a short-loved animated series, The Laurel and Hardy Show, in 1966. Baby boomers discovered them on television. In 2018, John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan brilliantly portrayed them in the affectionate Stan & Ollie. And the global appreciation society, the Sons of the Desert, formed in 1965 “to perpetuate the spirit and genius of Laurel and Hardy,” is still going strong.

The team is seen to its best advantage on Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations, a recently released four-disc Blu-ray collection distributed by Kit Parker Films. The set contains 2K and 4K digital restorations of the team’s two best features, Sons of the Desert and Way Out West, plus 17 mostly essential shorts, along with over eight hours of commentaries, interviews, archival photos, posters and studio files, and rarities, such as “That’s That,” an outtakes reel compiled for Laurel’s birthday in 1937.

On The Definitive Restorations, the films themselves don’t look like they’re pushing a century. In an email, film historian Leonard Maltin, who wrote the book on Movie Comedy Teams, said, “They’ve never looked or sounded as good as they do, that’s for sure.”

Laurel and Hardy have aged remarkably well with their emphasis on physical humor and slapstick, the universal language of laughter. We’ve chosen 25 essential shorts, presented alphabetically. Unless noted, all are in the Blu-ray collection. (The videos included are not indicative of the pristine Blu-ray restorations.)

Angora Love (1929)

Laurel and Hardy’s silent-era swan song pairs them with a scene-stealing (and hotel-room-eating) goat that escapes its grocery-store chains and follows the boys home. Edgar Kennedy is their “killer landlord,” from whom they try to hide their new companion. “I want you guys to know this is a respectable hotel,” Kennedy proclaims, as we see behind him a woman pass by in the hallway followed by a randy sailor. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Bacon Grabbers (1929)

Repo men Stan and Ollie are dispatched to retrieve an unpaid-for radio from “tough guy” Edgar Kennedy. Serving him a summons is only half the battle; next comes thwarting his efforts to keep them from getting the radio. The short ends with a fleeting moment of triumph in which the boys almost get the last laugh. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Battle of the Century (1927)

The jewel in the crown of the Blu-ray collection is this long-lost short, which, along with the Marx Brothers’ 1921 short Humor Risk, was long considered the Holy Grail of silent comedy. Watching cinema’s greatest-ever pie fight, one is reminded of the immortal words of Ron Burgundy: “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” A reported 3,000 actual pies were harmed in the making of this picture.

Big Business (1929)

Stan and Ollie are door-to-door Christmas-tree salesmen in Southern California. They try to sell Jimmy Finlayson a tree. They inadvertently infuriate him to the point where he takes a clipper to their tree. And then things jump up a notch. This is one of two Laurel and Hardy shorts enshrined in the National Film Registry and a master class in slapstick gag construction (or is that destruction?). But the delayed reactions of the warring parties as they stand by to observe what their adversary will do next are equally hilarious. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Brats (1930)

Stan and Ollie babysit while their kids wreak havoc on the apartment and each other. Child is father to the man in this ingeniously conceived stunt short in which Laurel and Hardy portray their own children courtesy of trick photography and an oversize duplicate set. A final gag speaks volumes about the team’s dynamic: Hardy imperiously stops Laurel from fulfilling their kids’ bedtime request for a drink of water. “You might spill it,” he states and then opens the door to the bathroom, where the younger Laurel has left the bathwater running and is washed away by the ensuing flood. See also Twice Two (1933), in which Laurel and Hardy portray each other’s wives.

Busy Bodies (1933)

When Charlie Chaplin transformed himself into a literal cog in a factory machine in Modern Times, he was making a satirical point about dehumanizing automation. When Oliver Hardy falls into the works at a woodworking plant, it’s all in the name of paying homage to the slapstick gods. In this short, Hardy takes all manner of abuse, from wooden planks in the face to being clobbered with a sink. The sound effects are the real star here.

Chickens Come Home (1931)

As soon as “people’s choice” mayoral candidate Oliver Hardy dictates his acceptance speech, a blackmailing old flame arrives with an incriminating photo and demands a settlement. The Hal Roach stock company shines in this frantic farce. Mae Busch is the blackmailer; Thelma Todd is Hardy’s wife, who is throwing a dinner party for her husband’s campaign backers; and Jimmy Finlayson, master of the double take, is Hardy’s butler. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Come Clean (1931)

A rare moment of marital bliss in the Hardy home is shattered by the arrival of Laurel and his wife. The boys depart to buy some ice cream but end up saving the life of a suicidal woman (Mae Busch at her most formidable). She blackmails them into taking her home with them, where they frantically try to keep her hidden from their wives. A surreal capper anticipates by decades John Lennon’s bathtub gag in A Hard Day’s Night.

County Hospital (1932)

Oliver is resting comfortably in the hospital with a horrifically bandaged broken leg. And then Stan shows up. For those who like their Laurel and Hardy slapstick on the sadistic side, this one’s just what the doctor ordered. But this is included here mainly for the sublime moment when Stan luxuriantly eats a hard-boiled egg, a routine Steve Coogan brilliantly
re-created in Stan & Ollie.

The Fixer Uppers (1935)

The boys are hapless greeting-card salesmen who gallantly come to the aid of a sales prospect (a more endearing Mae Busch) whose artist husband neglects her. The plan: Oliver will pretend to be her lover, thus making the husband jealous. But first she must teach him how to kiss her convincingly, which she demonstrates with Stan. Hardy’s signature fourth-wall-breaking takes as the prolonged kiss unfolds are the highlight of this scene that ranks among the team’s funniest, as is the topper when an uncharacteristically aroused Laurel returns the passionate kiss. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Helpmates (1932)

Oliver is in a “slight predicament”: His wife is returning unexpectedly from a trip to Chicago the day after a wild party has left their house in shambles. He calls in Laurel to help him restore order. In Laurel and Hardy’s world, out of chaos comes only more chaos, leaving Hardy sitting alone and rained upon in the burnt-out shell of what was once his home, maintaining what is left of his dignity with a look that says, “This might as well happen.”

Hog Wild (1930)

Oliver’s plans for a day out with Stan are put on hold after his wife demands he erect a radio antenna on the roof. “Do you mind if I help you?” Stan asks. “I don’t mind,” Oliver responds, “that is, as long as you help me.” And so the die is cast. This ceaselessly inventive gagfest is elevated by atypical grace notes — Laurel distracted at the wheel by the sight of a woman adjusting her skirt, and Hardy’s wife allowing herself a smile as she observes his futile rooftop efforts.

Liberty (1929)

Stan and Ollie make one of their most memorable onscreen entrances as newly escaped convicts frantically fleeing a policeman. This rare foray into Harold Lloyd–style thrill comedy turns on a lobster hidden inside Hardy’s trousers (don’t ask), and he eludes the law while navigating the girders atop a skyscraper construction site. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Me and My Pal (1933)

“This is the happiest day of my life,” Oliver gushes on the day of his marriage to the daughter of an oil magnate and his installation as the vast organization’s general manager. And then he sits down to do a jigsaw puzzle with Stan, and it’s all downhill from there in this exercise in exquisitely prolonged frustration.

Men o’ War (1929)

Sailors Laurel and Hardy pick up a couple of willing young women in the park and embark on an ill-fated afternoon that ends with a massive rowboat mêlée. Prior to that, we’re treated to two of the team’s best dialogue-driven scenes. The first involves a misunderstanding over a found pair of bloomers and one of the ladies’ lost gloves. (“Good thing it’s warm weather, isn’t it?” Oliver coyly asks like a naughty schoolboy.) The other is set at a soda fountain, where an increasingly exasperated Ollie tries to make Stan understand that there isn’t enough money for him to order a soda. “Can’t you grasp the situation?” he pleads. Not on the Blu-ray set.

The Music Box (1932)

Laurel and Hardy’s one and only Oscar-winning short and one of two enshrined in the National Film Registry. It’s piano deliverymen Stan and Ollie vs. 133 steps, a Sisyphean struggle that gives new meaning to “What goes up must come down.” “The Music Box” wears its “certified classic” status well both as an introduction to the team and as the pinnacle of their art: This is what we talk about when we talk about Laurel and Hardy.

One Good Turn (1931)

Stan and Ollie, self-professed “victims of the Depression,” are so moved by an elderly woman’s act of kindness toward them that they set out to raise the money for her when they mistakenly believe she is on the verge of being evicted by a heartless landlord. Usually when Laurel rains disaster on Hardy, it is accidental or inadvertent, but when Hardy falsely accuses him of stealing the widow’s wallet, the worm ferociously turns.

Perfect Day (1929)

“Oh, shit.” Yes, Edgar Kennedy does indeed utter this epithet in one of this near-perfect short’s more frantic moments. It’s the Sabbath, and a grand day out is planned with the Laurels, the Hardys, and Kennedy’s Uncle Edgar, who is suffering mightily with gout. An escalating series of disasters shut this outing down. Atypical for a Laurel and Hardy short, the wives here act as peacemakers. “Accidents will happen,” Oliver’s wife sagely observes. They certainly do. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Scram! (1932)

An ill-tempered judge orders vagrants Laurel and Hardy to leave town within the hour. Their kindness in helping a well-to-do drunk retrieve his car keys in a sewer grating is rewarded with his offer to bring them home with him (“What’s mine is yours”). Unfortunately, it’s the wrong house. Guess whose it is? The highlight is an extended sequence in which Stan and Ollie inadvertently get the lady of the house snoggered, and the illicit trio collapse on the bed in paroxysms of laughter while her husband (yes, the judge) plots duo-cide.

The Second 100 Years (1927)

Stan and Ollie had made 11 shorts together. This, their 12th, is considered the first “official” Laurel and Hardy comedy, but it is atypical in that Hardy is more straight man to Laurel, who is the recipient of much of the slapstick gags. But one moment anticipates their more familiar dynamic: Newly incarcerated, Hardy magnanimously breaks his last cigarette in half to share with the pitiable Laurel. Not on the Blu-ray set.

Their First Mistake (1932)

Laurel:What’s the matter with (your wife), anyway?
Hardy: “Oh, I don’t know. She says that I think more of you than I do of her.”
Laurel: “Well, you do, don’t you?”
Hardy: “Well, we won’t go into that.”

Them Thar Hills (1934)

An epic case of gout sends Oliver, along with Stan, to the country to “get away from all this wild life.” Wouldn’t you know they choose to camp next to a well where bootleggers have stashed their liquor? Along comes a stranded motorist (Charlie Hall) and his wife (Mae Busch), who proceeds to join the boys in many glasses of “water” while her husband departs to retrieve their car. He returns to find them all engaged in a bacchanal. Of course you know this means war.

Towed in a Hole (1932)

A professed Maltin favorite, this short finds Laurel and Hardy a success with “a nice little fish business.” And then Laurel gets the idea for the two to buy a boat to catch their own fish and eliminate the middleman. Repairing the boat illustrates how Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of shock vs. suspense can be applied to comedy. Sure, it would be funny if Oliver simply toppled over while standing on a ladder to paint the mast. But it’s funnier still if we hear the sound of Laurel’s offscreen sawing and anticipate the imminent disaster.

Unaccustomed As We Are (1929)

Laurel and Hardy’s first all-talking two-reeler marks the team’s seamless transition to sound. Now we get to hear man-child Laurel’s signature hysterical sobs, and the exasperated Hardy’s plea, “Why don’t you do something to help me?” Plus, we get Mae Busch as Hardy’s wife, who rebels when Hardy brings Stan home unannounced for dinner, and Thelma Todd as the next-door neighbor, whose husband, a policemen (Edgar Kennedy), will not understand the wholly innocent but nonetheless compromising situation she’s in when she offers to cook for the boys and burns her dress in the process. Not on the Blu-ray set.

You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928)

Musicians Stan and Ollie make a shambles of their orchestra concert, are evicted from their boarding house, and are reduced to busking. Mishaps (the boys never met an open manhole cover they didn’t step into) and pent-up frustrations boil over into a gut-punching, shin-kicking, and pants-ripping mêlée. The boys sharing an oversize pair of trousers to make a graceful exit from the frenzy they initiated is what passes for a happy ending in a Laurel and Hardy short. Not on the Blu-ray set.