Culture Heritage Learning

Kings of Slapstick

January 20, 2016 by User deactivated | 0 comments

As the BBC announce they are to begin shooting a new film about the lives of Laurel and Hardy, we’ve trawled the Scran archives and found images of the comedy pair visiting Scotland on a number of occasions in the 1940s and 1950s. Laurel and Hardy  remain one of the best known duos of American film comedy. Their slapstick style and faultless comic timing are still popular today, even though the first of their films was released way back in 1927.

Stan Laurel

Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson on 16th June 1890 in Ulverston in Cumbria. He was the son of a showman. By the tender age of 16, Stan was performing in music hall. He started as a supporting act but eventually became the star of the show and even understudied Charlie Chaplin. In 1912, he emigrated to America and changed his name to Stan Laurel. He found work but it took 12 years before he was recognised as an act of some merit. He performed eccentric mime and was known as a ‘nut comic’.

Oliver Hardy

Oliver Hardy was born in Harlem in 1892. He started in show business at an early age and by his late teens was a singer and ran a movie house with his mother. He aspired to take up comedy and started working with Lubin Motion Picture in Florida. By 1914 Oliver was acting and over the next two years made an astonishing 177 short films. He played a variety of parts – even women. Movie makers were keen to employ him and Oliver Hardy found himself in demand.

This short silent film clip shows Stan and Ollie in Edinburgh in 1932 making an appearance on stage at the Playhouse Cinema

Comedy Duo

Laurel and Hardy first appeared together in a film called ‘Lucky Dog’ in 1919. However, it was not until 1927 that they starred as the now so familiar Stan and Ollie in the movie ‘The Second Hundred Years’. Hal Roach decided the two should become a permanent duo and for the next ten years he worked with them, making silent short movies, talking pictures and feature films. Most silent movie acts found the transition from silent to talking pictures difficult but the contrast between Stan’s English and Oliver’s American accents and Oliver’s singing added new dimensions to their act.

‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’

The well known catchphrase, often misquoted, is the most quoted line in the Laurel and Hardy movies. The basic premise of each of their movies was that Laurel and Hardy are two dimwitted men who try and accomplish something simple, but make so many mistakes that they spoil everything. Laurel was portrayed as the dimmer of the two.

They used a great deal of slapstick humour and comical violence. The results of this violence were not always shown but sometimes illustrated by sound effects. Another common but smaller theme was what Stan Laurel called ‘White Magic’ where he would perform a bizarre and impossible feat such a getting dressed in seconds or using his thumb as a cigarette lighter. While their on screen personalities portrayed Hardy as the more organized man, it was the opposite in real life. Laurel wrote most of their material.


Visually the two made a great comical pair. Stan Laurel was of average height and build but Oliver Hardy was a large and very tall man, making Laurel seem smaller. They dressed to emphasise this. Laurel wore a tight fitting suit and a bow tie, Hardy wore loose fitting clothes and a neck tie. Both wore bowler hats and had stylized haircuts.

After Hal

After many years working with Hal Roach the duo went on to work with 20th Century Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The films they made there were big box office hits but the duo had far less creative input than they were used to and critically the films were not as well received. Laurel and Hardy decided to take to the stage instead and toured Europe. They made one final film together in 1950 called ‘Atoll K’ but both men were succumbing to ill health and it showed on camera. The film was not well received. After a short recuperation break the pair continued to work, doing small public appearances and making their only American TV appearance on ‘This Is Your Life’. Their final public appearance was for a documentary about the British Variety Organisation called the Grand Order of Water Rats. Their last appearance on camera was a silent home video shot at Laurel’s home which they called ‘One Moment Please’.

Illness and Death

Neither Laurel or Hardy ever recovered from their ill health. Hardy was instructed by his doctor to lose weight and rapidly shed over seven stone. The weight loss may have done more harm than good as he suffered a series of strokes. He lost mobility and speech and after a major stroke on August 7th 1957 he died, a shadow of the man he had been, weighing only 9.9 stone. Laurel was very ill himself, too ill, in fact, to come to Hardy’s funeral. This upset him but he knew his long-term comedy partner and friend would have understood.

Laurel refused to perform again, despite requests, although he did continue to write. He wrote for other film-makers but also continued to write for Laurel and Hardy – material he wrote for his own pleasure. He also enjoyed correspondence and insisted on replying to every piece of fan mail personally. He was awarded an Academy Award for his contributions to film comedy in 1960. He died on 23rd February 1965 in Santa Monica.

Sons of the Desert, Edinburgh, 1985

Sons of the Desert, Edinburgh, 1985

Sons of the Desert

‘The Sons of the Desert’ is the official Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. Set up by a fan and friend of the famous duo, John McCabe, the organisation took its name from one of Laurel and Hardy’s films. Stan Laurel himself contributed to the group’s constitution. The crest bears the words ‘Two minds without a single thought’ in Latin. Each branch has a ‘Tent’ name, again a film title. There are now almost 220 ‘Tents’.

Images & Video © The Scotsman Publications Ltd, NLS Scottish Screen Archive | Licensor Scran

This gallery contains 5 photos

It’s Panto Time! Oh, no it isn’t. Oh, yes it is!

December 4, 2015 by User deactivated | 0 comments

Alec Finlay Pantomime DameIt’s that time of year when the pantomime or ‘panto’, as it is commonly known comes to town. This peculiarly British form of theatrical entertainment is usually based on a fairy tale or nursery story. It involves music, slapstick comedy, topical jokes and audience participation.  The well-worn phrases, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Oh no, it isn’t!’ have been shouted by panto-goers for generations. Many theatres in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom offer some form of annual pantomime.  (Oh, yes they have!)


A Few Panto Facts

  • The word pantomime comes from the Greek ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’ and ‘mimos’ meaning ‘imitator’
  • ‘Cinderella’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dick Whittington’ and ‘Snow White’ remain the most popular pantomimes performed today
  • The popularity of some pantos has waxed and waned over time. Shows, such as ‘Goody Two Shoes’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, popular in the early to mid-20th century, have now virtually disappeared
  • Others shows have had to adapt to survive: the story of ‘Babes in the Wood’, for example, is often integrated into the pantomime ‘Robin Hood’
  • ‘New’ pantomimes include ‘Peter Pan’, written by the novelist J M Barrie. This was first staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London in 1904 but is considered by purists to not be strictly pantomime material

The Roots of Modern Panto

The roots of modern pantomime lie in ancient Roman mime and draw heavily on medieval theatre, the tradition of Italian Commedia Dell’Arte and the British Music Hall. The recognisable structure of the modern pantomime is built around a strong story line in which good battles against and overcomes evil. In the theatre, the pantomime villain traditionally enters from stage left, known as ‘the dark side’, and the hero enters from stage right. This echoes morality plays of the middle ages in which the entrance to ‘heaven’ was stage right, and the entrance to ‘hell’ was stage left.

Singing and dancing, key elements in the pantomime form, evolved from the craft of the travelling Commedia Dell’Arte artistes in the 16th century. These ‘players’ entertained audiences throughout France and Italy by playing masked stock characters in comical situations. These characters can still be recognised in modern pantomime. They included ‘Harlequin’ the hero, ‘Columbine’ his true love, ‘Pantaloon’ the protective father and ‘Pulchinello’ the clown. (Pulchinello provided the inspiration for the puppet, Mr Punch of Punch and Judy fame.) Commedia Dell’Arte also employed comic chases and ‘business’. When performed for British audiences this style of physical theatre became known as slapstick. It remains a key component of the modern pantomime. (The word slapstick is taken from the sound made by Harlequin’s magic wand, a slapping noise created for theatrical effect.)

A New Popular Entertainment

In the early-18th century, John Rich, best-known for his staging of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, coined the term ‘pantomime’, when he introduced an entertainment at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in London. It was a bawdy hybrid of dance, music, spectacle and Commedia Dell’Arte and featured the familiar figure of Harlequin at its centre. This new genre of accessible entertainment was immediately popular. It led to the esteemed actor and theatre manager, David Garrick, staging his own ‘pantomime’ at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. By the 1770s, the first recognisable pantomime by modern standards, ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, was being performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Others followed: ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1781), ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ (1788) and ‘Cinderella’ (1804).

The Pantomime Dame

Joseph Grimaldi set the standard for the pantomime clown. He first appeared in 1800. He developed the tradition of gender cross-dressing in pantomime, creating the characters of Queen Rondabellyana in ‘Harlequin and the Red Dwarf’ and Dame Cecily Suet in ‘Harlequin Whittington’. Men dressing as women harked back to earlier days of the theatre when the profession was considered unfit for women and female roles were played by men. Later influences from the Victorian Music Hall firmly established the role of the Pantomime Dame. The most famous of these was Dan Leno, one of the most popular comedians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He played ‘Mother Goose’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1902, bringing ‘stage business’ and comedy songs to the role.

Principal Boy

Pantomimes also introduced the principal boy, a role usually played by a girl dressed as a boy. By the 1950s, the role began to be taken up by popular male stars of the day, such as Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. Today the trend has moved back to the role being played by women.

The Panto Impresario

From the 19th century and through into the 20th century, pantomime was produced and promoted as a popular artform by a series of theatre impresarios. Augustus Harris was considered the ‘Father of Modern Pantomime’. He introduced popular music hall stars into his productions at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in the 1870s. These were lavish affairs and went on to tour around the country. In the 1930s and 1940s, Francis Laidler became the ‘King of Pantomimes’. He produced shows at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, which also went on to tour nationally. In the 1950s and 1960s, Derek Salberg was famed for his productions which ran at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. Today, many pantomimes across the country are produced by a company called Qdos.

Panto Today

The modern pantomime continues to adapt to survive. The genre remains peculiarly British. Some shows have run in countries such as Canada and Australia, but with limited success. Today’s productions endeavour to combine tradition with novelty, drawing on modern trends and topicality to engage audiences. Pantomime remains a thriving business in theatres across the country, attracting popular stars for runs of six to eight weeks and providing healthy box office revenues.

Images © Hulton Getty, Glasgow University Library, The Scotsman Publications Ltd, Alan Wylie  | Licensor Scran

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