Marriage is on the way out: according to a Bloomberg story last year, the percentage of Americans who are married has dropped in the last half century from 72 percent to about 50 percent. For comedians, professional marriage has become even more rare. Gone are the days of the great comedy duos: Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Burns and Allen, Olsen and Johnson, Clark and McCullough, Wheeler and Woolsey. A relic of vaudeville, the “double act” petered out in the “Me Decade” of the 1970s with teams like Cheech and Chong, Stiller and Meara, and Burns and Schreiber. Sure, there have been comedians who lived together for a while—Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler—but they never tied the knot. The double act survives now mostly in the one-night stand of the “buddy movie,” where performers such as Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg might try out their chemistry together (The Other Guys) and then walk away.
The recently released box set Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection revisits the greatest double act of them all, and for once the marketing buzzword essential is perfectly legitimate. For decades, much of the team’s best work has been unavailable on video, especially the two- and three-reel shorts that were their metier. But the new set, a handsome book of ten DVDs, collects all the sound films Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made during their salad days at the Hal Roach Studios, from 1929 to 1940. By any measure it represents a landmark of American film comedy, not to mention the product of an enviable creative partnership. In private life the two men blew through marriages at an astonishing rate—between them, they had eight wives—but professionally they worked together, with virtually no friction, for nearly 30 years. It was the longest nonfamilial relationship either one of them ever had.
Such harmony was rare in double acts. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (together for ten years) fought bitterly, as did Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (together for 20). Strangely, the working dynamic of the great comedy duos was often the inversion of the characters’ onscreen relationship: the ostensible fool (Laurel, Costello, Lewis) was actually the brains of the operation, supervising the gag writers and shaping the films, while his supposedly domineering partner (Hardy, Abbott, Martin) was content to show up, deliver his lines, and enjoy the good life of Hollywood stardom. Conflicts usually resulted from the fool’s rampaging ego: in a typical power play, Costello once announced he would walk unless the act’s billing was changed to Costello and Abbott, and Lewis hastened his split with Martin by deciding he was a singer and horning in on the latter’s musical numbers. (Imagine trying to grab verses away from Dean Martin!)
With Laurel and Hardy there was none of this, because the two men genuinely enjoyed each other’s comic talent. When their manager, Ben Shipman, appeared with them on the TV show This Is Your Life in the 1950s, he remarked, “The most enjoyable and most wonderful part about working with them has been to observe that extreme loyalty to one another, and the desire to please one another, and the desire to make each other successful.” The key to their happy partnership may have been the fact that each had already proved himself professionally before they came together in 1927: Hardy, a native of Georgia, had been working as a movie actor for 13 years, appearing in nearly 270 films, and Laurel, born to a modest theatrical family in Lancashire, England, had made about 90 films, many as the star attraction. Both were respected players at Roach before someone at the studio (most probably Leo McCarey, who went on to direct Going My Way, The Awful Truth, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup) hit on the idea of pairing them.
Laurel resisted the idea at first—he’d spent years struggling to establish himself as a comedy star in vaudeville and then movies—but once the two began working together his natural generosity took over. Given the fact that he masterminded the gag creation, one has to marvel at how many laughs accrue to Ollie: he’s the victim of every slapstick disaster, each crowned by that priceless close-up of him staring at the camera in mute dismay. Actress Lona Andre, quoted in the liner notes to the box set, remembers Laurel “roaring” with laughter at nearly everything his partner did. For his part, Hardy understood Laurel’s creative need to work out his comic ideas behind the scenes and never complained that his costar, with his extra duties, earned much more than he did. Roach had them signed to separate contracts, a tactical advantage he exploited for years as they became the studio’s top stars, and in 1938 he fired the argumentative Laurel, briefly pairing Hardy with the faded silent comedian Harry Langdon. Laurel might have simply moved on, but instead the two friends waited Roach out and, when Hardy’s contract expired, negotiated a better deal.
If only their relations with women had been so easygoing. To Roach’s displeasure, both men became regulars in the Hollywood gossip columns as their marriages came apart, often in spectacular fashion, and their wives and ex-wives came after them in court. As a young man of 21, Hardy had married Madelyn Saloshin back in Georgia, then divorced her eight years later in Hollywood so he could marry Myrtle Reeves, an aspiring actress. The second Mrs. Hardy turned out to be an alcoholic, and after 19 increasingly miserable years the couple divorced in 1940 (around the time Laurel and Hardy released their last film for Hal Roach). She issued the standard charge of mental cruelty, complaining that Hardy spent all his leisure time hanging out at the track or golfing with his pals. Before the ink on the second divorce settlement was dry, Hardy married Lucille Jones, a script-continuity girl for their RKO feature The Flying Deuces. Three’s a charm, and the two lived together happily until Hardy’s death.
Hardy was a model of constancy compared to Laurel, whose love life bordered on the farcical. As a young vaudevillian he struck up a performing and romantic partnership with Mae Dahlberg, which lasted nearly ten years but grew acrimonious as his movie career took off and hers stalled out. In 1926 he married Lois Neilson, another aspiring actress; the marriage produced a daughter and lasted nine years before Laurel filed for divorce. In 1935 he married Virginia Ruth Rogers, but after two years that union exploded too and Laurel married a Russian singer named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova (the ceremony erupted into chaos when Rogers appeared suddenly to protest that Laurel was still legally married). The third Mrs. Laurel (fourth if you count his common-law wife, Dahlberg) lasted about a year, after which Laurel remarried and then redivorced Rogers. In 1946, after the team’s movie career had sputtered out, Laurel married Ida Kitaeva and stuck with her for the rest of his life, possibly from exhaustion.
Matrimonial strife had been a staple of the English music hall sketches Laurel grew up with, not to mention American movie comedy, but in the Roach shorts it’s portrayed with remarkable venom. The wives are almost always harridans, barking orders and smashing crockery, and Stan and Ollie resort to all manner of deception to steal away from them for a little fun. In Blotto (1930), Stan contrives to sneak out so he and Ollie can whoop it up at a speakeasy, but Stan’s wife overhears their scheme and shows up at the next table brandishing a shotgun. The same weapon figures in Be Big (1931), in which Ollie feigns illness so he and Stan can skip a vacation with their wives and attend a stag party at their lodge. Helpmates (1932) is a marathon of housecleaning gags as the boys try to straighten up after a wild party before Ollie’s wife gets home. Oliver the Eighth (1934) may be the direst vision of marriage in the Laurel and Hardy canon: after Ollie replies to a personal ad from a woman seeking a husband, he and Stan discover that she’s a serial killer.
Sons of the Desert (1933), generally regarded as the team’s best feature, expands the premise of Be Big into a hilarious tale of marital mistrust and duplicity. At a meeting of their fraternal order, the Sons of the Desert, Stan and Ollie swear an oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago despite the fact that they and their spouses are scheduled to vacation in the Rockies. Ollie’s wife (Mae Busch, a wonderful stock player for Roach who often played the fearsome spouse) forbids Ollie to go, poking him in the chest with a carving knife, so the boys enlist a friend to pose as a doctor, diagnose Ollie with a terrible disease, and prescribe a trip to Honolulu. After the ocean liner to Honolulu is lost at sea, the grieving wives seek diversion in a movie house and catch a newsreel of their husbands cavorting in Chicago. The men return home, the women confront them, and Stan tearfully confesses; to reward his honesty, his wife (Dorothy Christie) treats him like a prince, whereas Ollie’s wife breaks every dish in the house over his head.
Though inseparable friends onscreen and congenial collaborators off, Laurel and Hardy moved in different social circles during the Roach years; their friendship deepened only in the 50s, when they embarked on a series of theatrical tours of the UK. The British treated them like rock stars, and they were stunned by the outpouring of affection. But their health began to falter, and in August 1957 Hardy died following a series of strokes and heart attacks. Laurel would live for another seven and a half years, but he never performed again: in 1961 he sent Danny Kaye to the Oscar ceremony to collect his lifetime achievement award, and in 1963 he turned down an offer to appear in Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Partly he was reluctant for fans to see him in his weakened condition, but also he could no longer imagine working without Hardy. Like an old married couple, both men were slightly awed by what they’d created together, which had somehow grown larger than the both of them.