On Tuesday, I went to see Laurel and Hardy at the cinema. Not at a special silent film event, or in a little indie cinema, but in an ordinary Vue multiplex. Thanks to L & H devotee Ross Owen, who has coordinated several batches of UK-wide Laurel & Hardy Roadshow cinema screenings this year, Stan and Babe took their place once again amongst all the other contemporary comedies, dramas and romances filling cinema screens. It’s been a terrific thing to see, and it got me thinking about the conditions under which these films were first seen.
This is the age of information. Unlike the nebulous facts available to the first waves of silent film historians, we have precise, accurate information at our fingertips. Take L & H, for instance. We know the exact order they filmed their shorts and features, even down to precise filming dates. We know all about scripts, working titles and the days on which the films were released. Thanks to books and the internet, much of this information is now in the public domain.
In recent years, the internet has even begun to play host to reproductions of film trade magazines and newspapers, all helping to build our understanding of the films’ context, production and release.
Paradoxically, the glut of information can sometimes undermine our neat and tidy filmographies. With UK cinema screenings in mind, I explored the British Newspaper Archive to see how the L & H films were first advertised and reviewed.
Now, if you’re an L & H buff, you know that their first films as a bona fide team were ‘The Second Hundred Years’ and ‘Putting Pants on Philip’ released in late 1927. Most sources give a date of 8th October for ‘Second’ and 3rd December for ‘Philip’. Now, these were the dates they hit general release at the ‘first run’ cinemas; these were the most prestigious, big city film theatres. However, if you lived in Nowheresville, USA, or even worse, in the UK, you wouldn’t have had chance to see the films until they had completed their runs in all the first-run houses, and then the next most important cities and cinemas. I’ve not been able to trace any Uk release dates for those first two L and H’s as of yet, but at this time many regional cinemas were still playing Stan’s solo comedies from 2-3 years earlier! 1924’s ‘RUPERT OF HEE-HAW’ is being proudly exhibited as late as April 1927, for instance. This 2 year lag is standatd for much of the late 20s.
‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ was released to first-run cinemas on Dec 31st, 1927. It was one of L & H’s first big hits to really launch them in the public consciousness (helped by a big promotional campaign).
According to local newspapers, ‘BATTLE’ didn’t reach small towns in the UK until May and June of 1929! This means that the L & H team were only just beginning to make an impact with audiences almost 2 years after they had done so in the US. Let’s not forget that L & H were snubbed by many critics; their real fans were, for the large part, the everyday people in these small towns and regional cities.
The UK press seemingly weren’t aware of the official teaming yet, either. In contrast to the barrage of publicity greeting ‘BATTLE’ in the US, here it was billed as merely ‘A Hal Roach comedy’.
When the performers do start getting a mention, it’s like this:
Notice anything missing? The UK publicity dept. seem totally oblivious to Oliver Hardy and his role in the team. Was this partly due to Stan’s British origins taking precedent? The Glasgow newspapers sometimes refer to him proudly as ‘The Glasgow Comedian’.
Well into Stan and Babe’s mature partnership, films like ‘EARLY TO BED’ and ‘YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’are being referred to as Stan Laurel comedies. In the US, the boys were making sound films by this time, and yet we were still seeing their early silents, apparently hardly being publicised as team efforts!
The other interesting thing you might notice above is the use of alternate titles for the UK market. I’ve heard ‘YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN” as ‘THE MUSIC BLASTERS’ before, but ‘THE WEDDING WRING’ is new to me. I presume this represents the blackmail plot of ‘SUGAR DADDIES’, it’s title a mysterious Americanism alien to the patrons of the Oxford Cinema, Whitstable. (The Oxford’s slogan: “Always the first with the best” seems a little ironic when showing this 2-year old film…). More trivial is the change of ‘SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME?’, to ‘SHOULD HUSBANDS STAY HOME?’ in at least one source.
By late 1929, the boys are finally being billed as a team; ‘HABEAS CORPUS’, and ‘DOUBLE WHOOPEE’, for instance, are both billed as ‘Laurel and Hardy in…’. The introduction of sound probably heralded more publicity which helped to establish this, and also helped to close the time lag in film exhibition. York cinemas are showing ‘MEN O’ WAR’ by November of 1929, but the silents do continue straggling on into 1930 and even 1931. What I do find remarkable about all of this is that, given the time lag in establishing the team, how jubilant the reception was greeting them to the U.K. in 1932, a mere couple of years after they really seem to have established themselves as a team in the eyes of the everyday public here in the UK.
All of this might seem pretty trivial, but I find it quite fascinating. It just goes to show that our neat and precise filmographies are inaccurate. Film release dates and exhibition were fluid and overlapping, even down to the films’ titles. Viewing the L & H filmographies through the lens of local newspapers offers just another window on their fascinating and beloved partnership. And, if the recent cinema screenings show anything, it’s that they might have taken a while to get established, but the boys are here to stay!