Outside the movie studios, and away from closed shootings on location, Laurel & Hardy, like so many Hollywood celebrities, were periodically captured on film by those intrepid and daring cameramen of the newsreel profession. Their candid footage gathered here, is new, indeed – and news, too – if one has not seen it before.
Motion picture newsreels extend back as far as the 1890s. They constitute visual, authentic time travel records of real life. After newspapers, but prior to radio, and before television, and long before the internet, people got their news by watching newsreels in darkened movie theaters. These ten minute short subjects were then an important part of any well-rounded theatrical program. For mere pennies, moviegoers might see a newsreel, a cartoon, a travelogue (or “scenic,” as Hal Roach called them), a live action short, the featured film, and several coming attractions trailers. During the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, this kind of program was taken for granted as the principal form of entertainment for audiences around the globe.
That it might ever change must have seemed unthinkable to most.
During the studio era there were even feature films about the roving, daredevil photographers who gathered such newsreel footage. Buster Keaton made THE CAMERMAN (1928) for mighty M-G-M. Clark Gable and Myrna Loy starred in TOO HOT TO HANDLE (1938) at the same prestigious Metro plant, just down the street from Hal Roach Studios. Three of the best “B” pictures on the subject were LADIES CRAVE EXCITEMENT (1935), HEADLINE CRASHERS (1936) and ANYTHING FOR A THRILL (1937). In fact arguably the greatest film ever made, CITIZEN KANE (1941), was nominally about the task of completing a newsreel story.
So newsreels were common, and everywhere. They were often employed as well within such popular pictures as Roy Rogers’ debut in UNDER WESTERN STARS (1938), in William Boyd’s stuntman programmer LUCKY DEVILS (1932), and even in Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT (1933). Remember seeing wives Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie seated at the movies comfortably watching the newsreel coverage of that certain wild convention in Chicago? And the parade footage with Stan and Ollie marching merrily by the camera? A title card had introduced the newsreel story: “Dull care is left at home by the ‘Sons of the Desert’ as they hold their annual conclave.”
Everyone knew newsreels.
From the birth of cinema more than a century ago, and up through the 1950s, most of the major studios maintained their own news gathering divisions: Warner-Pathe, British Pathe, Fox Movietone, Hearst Metrotone (for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount, Universal, etc. The footage that survives from their tireless efforts constitutes an accidental treasure trove. Meant, like newspapers, as disposable entertainment, newsreels vividly but unintentionally documented topical events and personalities that would otherwise be lost to history. These roundups of people and places and events have proven to be an invaluable resource to producers of documentaries hoping to illustrate time travel for viewers.
Happily newsreels covered more than just hard news. To take the edge off of accidents, epidemics, murder, natural disasters and war, there was usually a sampling of light entertainment stories to close out every reel.
Following are links to seven examples of Laurel & Hardy appearances before newsreel photographers who managed to find the two men and train a 35mm motion picture camera on whatever they were trying to do as ordinary private citizens in the real world. Unpaid private citizens, at that. All for British Pathe. All from the late 1940s and early 1950s. For which we are grateful. It is always fun to see Laurel & Hardy, especially when discovering footage not seen previously. So please do take a look at these short sequences as made available for previewing and licensing at the owner’s website:
From their 1947 European trip, Mr. Laurel looks on while Mr. Hardy tests the strength of a chair with hefty Misses Tessie O’Shea and Vera Pearce sitting on what must surely be his pained knees. What a trouper. This footage was taken at the Ideal Home Exhibition, whatever that may have been. Mr. Laurel gets kissed, and likes it, which no amount of acting can conceal! Whenever caught like this by either a still photographer or a newsreel cameraman, Stan seems to like to turn up the brim on his fedora hat. Both comedians, wearing topcoats, basically remain in character, though dressed to kill. There is no accompanying live or musical soundtrack and narration.
Again in 1947, Laurel and Hardy appear, in formal attire, at the Dorchester Hotel in London for the DAILY MAIL Film Awards – the British equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscar ceremonies. There is some live sound, but not involving Mr. Laurel or Mr. Hardy. The narrator tells us they arrived “two or three hours late,” with their wives, and the team improvises some visual comedy. At least Hardy does, making good use of some handy flowers. They are such artists; they make this look so easy, doubtless with only one take, and no rehearsal. At the website is also a longer cut of this newsreel story, showing the great English character actor Alastair Sim, among several others, but with no soundtrack. It allows for seconds more with Laurel & Hardy at the end.
This time, on the train, with their wives (Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy), the boys return to Britain from appearances in France. As they prepare to dine, the cutlery and the menu prove challenging for them. When departing, both smoking cigarettes, Stan wears a French beret (only once in any of these clips does someone wear a derby hat). Both men are dressed beautifully, as opposed to the shabby character costumes they wore on stage during this period, indicating the team agreed to improvise this brief bit of business only after being cornered by the newsreel cameraman. What else could they do? Narration only. 1947.
PEOPLE IN CAMERA offers a most interesting 1947 Pathe news story as a reporter meets passengers disembarking from the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner which has just arrived in harbor from America at Southampton, Hampshire. First interviewed on deck during this obviously very cold day are an unlikely but nevertheless husband and wife, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor (whose absolutely deathless line about their marriage – spoken elsewhere – cannot possibly be quoted here!), followed by Messrs. Laurel and Hardy.
“Straight from Cuckoo Land,” the narrator intones, “comes Stan Laurel, and tagging along behind is 21 stones worth of Oliver Hardy.” They start out by answering some questions, for once not immediately lapsing into the characters we know. These few seconds are priceless for we get a glimpse of the real Stan Laurel. The reporter, acting more like a customs agent, badgers them as to what they are doing in England. Laurel replies that he has plans to “visit my dad, and my sister, and a few cousins.” Hardy explains they have lined up a personal appearance tour, and may do a picture. When he cannot remember the title (because as always such things hardly mattered to him), Hardy turns to his partner for the answer. The film was to be a British production of ROBIN HOOD. Unfortunately, it was never made. The melancholy accompanying that alleged comedy ATOLL K (1951), their last feature film effort, remained a few years yet down the road.
Early in his career Laurel once did a parody of Robin Hood for G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson called WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923). Stan remained fond of the picture, sentiments he expressed through the years to Hal Roach as well as to his own biographer, John McCabe. The working title was ROB ’EM GOOD. Laurel always hoped to remake it, but never did.
From the website, one sad, written “cataloger’s note” states that “Stan and Ollie look very old in this item.” In 1947 they turned 57 and 55 respectively. Compare this footage with the long and widely circulated amateur film titled TRIP TO BRITAIN, documenting their famous tour of the British Isles in 1932 when both men looked so fit and young and vibrant. That they aged so dramatically in only fifteen years is difficult to understand. When Laurel’s personal life caused so many problems for both himself and Hal Roach Studios in the late 1930s, age was a key factor in the decision to let the team go after their contracts expired. “They were getting older,” Roach explained, “and I knew they were not going to continue projecting the kind of innocence so important to putting over their child-like characters.”
Nevertheless it is delightful to see Laurel & Hardy here, or anywhere, doing anything, at any age, any time, again and again!
Another PEOPLE IN CAMERA feature shows the boys in fine form at the Apollo Theatre in London, selling programs at a charity event to benefit the Farmers Distress Fund. They carry buckets and are wearing farmers’ smocks. Ollie tricks Stan and steals from his collecting tin. Also on hand gathering donations are British comedians Sid Field and George Robey. Evidently there had been a flood in 1947 and many farmers suffered. Music and narration only, no live sound.
Of marginal interest is coverage of a Variety Club Luncheon from 1952. There is live sound, but it comes and goes, with not much worth hearing anyway. Seeing is difficult as well, with so much cigarette smoke. It is a wonder no one summoned the fire department. Some mild comedy involves a clown and a chimpanzee.
It must have been difficult for two artists the caliber of Laurel and Hardy to withstand the never-ending assault of people everywhere who tried to perform and be funny for them, who would attempt to engage their attention, who assumed they were brainless like the characters they portrayed, and who expected them to perform their tried-and-true standard material on demand, just once more, as a favor, for “nth” time. It is a tribute to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy that they remained so genial, so patient, so accommodating, so funny, for so long, so often, and for so many. The one thing that comes shining through, in all this candid footage, is how unfailingly gracious and kind and eager to please, both of these gentle men really were.
Finally, in 1953 the boys visit the New Theatre in Northampton to start their final personal appearance music hall tour. Getting out of the car (this time with Hardy wearing the beret), they stage a series of gags with their chauffeur. Which they execute perfectly. Inside, we see them in their dressing room preparing for the performance, performing nonetheless, as usual, flawlessly, and with expert timing.
In fact, they are “performing” throughout all of these sequences, pretty much always in character. Each time the transformation from real-life disenfranchised Hollywood movie actor traveling abroad, to performing artist offering a characterization, is smooth, is instant, and the result appears to be effortless, easy, and charming. This particular story was filmed silent, with music and narration added, as was the usual style for newsreels.
All fascinating. Can we ever get enough of Laurel & Hardy? “No!” is the resounding answer. So here is hoping there is more such footage to be found, and shared, for all to enjoy. Let us know what you think.
-- Richard W. Bann --