Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I See Laurel and Hardy

It is fine if a person simply wants to watch a funny film to laugh. But if a person cares more deeply about these films and wants to appreciate the craft that went into them, they need to look at the history of film comedy and understand the performers who worked so hard to establish a solid foundation for contemporary film comedians.

Take, for example, Laurel and Hardy. You have two stupid guys, one of whom is arrogant and ambitious and oblivious to his limitations. The strong influence of Laurel and Hardy persists in popular modern comedies, including The Big Lebowski, Pineapple Express, Shaun of the Dead and Napoleon Dynamite.

Pineapple Express features two lead characters very much in the mold of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy. Saul Silver is slow-witted. Dale Denton, his bigger and rounder companion, may be more blustery and assertive than Saul, but this does not make him any more intelligent. Saul and Dale can't do simple things, like operate a door buzzer. This is right out of Laurel and Hardy comedies like Sons of the Desert and Night Owls, where Stan and Ollie confronted similar problems with doorbells and answering doors. Saul and Dale are running away from a drug traffixer "crazy about murdering." Laurel and Hardy, too, had to deal with insanely homicidal bad guys. Dale, proud of a plan he has devised, tells Saul, "If we keep on thinking like this, we're fucking gravy." He is as smug as Hardy, who tells Stan about a plan to fool their wives and assures his friend, "The wives will be none the wiser." Saul and Dale get into a slapstick brawl. They get chased by an irate father with a rifle. They barely survive a wild and funny car chase in which their car gets totaled. These are all situations that can be found in Laurel and Hardy comedies. Laurel and Hardy were more inventive than most comedians when it came to demolishing cars.

Saul and Dale, like Stan and Ollie, are bungling fools elevated by their affable personalities and mutual devotion. Saul and Dale, like Stan and Ollie, are innocent bystanders who run afoul of irate authority figures. Friendship saw Stan and Ollie through many of their misadventures. The theme of friendship - "bro's before ho's," says the character Red - is just as dominant in Pineapple Express.

The Big Lebowski featured a Hardy-like character in the oversized and overreaching Walter Sobchak. Walter is volatile, arrogant and calculating compared to his addle-brained slacker best friend Dude, but he is considerably less smart than he thinks he is and his ideas only manage get him and friend into further trouble. Walter and Dude are childish innocents drawn into a kidnapping plot and find themselves up against a number of irate authority figures, including a millionaire, a sheriff and a wealthy pornographer. Women tend to be domineering figures in their lives much as it was for Stan and Ollie. For all they go through, their friendship remains the one thing in their lives that proves stable and secure.

Friendship is similarly important in Shaun of the Dead. The title character, Shaun, remains loyal to his childishly inept best friend Ed and will let nothing - not his roommate, not his girlfriend, not zombies, and not even death - keep the two of them apart. Shaun is as protective of Ed as Ollie was protective of Stan. Appropriately, the song that plays over the closing credits is Queen's "You're My Best Friend."

Napoleon Dynamite lacks a Hardy figure but Napoleon, himself, has much in common with Laurel. Think of Stan Laurel's unique qualities. Weird hair. Dumb blank expression. Delayed reflexes. Long, skinny neck. Ill-fitting clothing. Stan, as the original comedy geek, is a forerunner of Napoleon Dynamite.

Both characters also have oddly special abilities. Laurel, an idiot savant, could blow on his finger to raise his hat, wiggle his ears, and strike his thumb and forefinger to create a flame. Napoleon is able to perform sign language, designs a half tiger/ half lion hybrid called a "liger," and manages to perform surprisingly funky dance moves.

It is inescapable for me that, so many times when looking at a new comedy, I see Laurel and Hardy.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Pineapple Express last night with my kids, and was thinking the whole time that once you got past the foul language, crude sexual references, extreme violence and pervasive drug use, this was basically a Laurel and Hardy movie. It shows how much we have to turn up the volume these days to get people to appreciate an old-fashioned slapstick routine.