Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire. His father was born to the music-hall theatre and introduced young Stan to the business at an early age. In 1907, Stan joined Fred Karno's troupe of slapstick comedians in Manchester, and in the company's two celebrated productions, Mumming Birds and Jail Birds, he polished the comic techniques which were to carry him to success in the future. In Mumming Birds he understudied the part of an obstreperous drunk who repeatedly interrupts the other performers, but he never got to play the part. His principal never missed a performance - his name was Charlie Chaplin.
The Karno company's tour of the USA in 1910 proved so successful that they returned within the year. While Stan continued to tour the American vaudeville theatre circuits, Charlie tried his luck on the West Coast and was soon a star of the new motion pictures. Stan followed him in 1917 and made his first film, Nuts In May, the same year.
Oliver Norvell Hardy - always known as "Babe" was born in Harlem, Georgia. His father, a lawyer, died when Babe was a child. Babe claimed that he could trace his ancestry back to the Captain Hardy who was present at Nelson's death. His mother, of Scottish descent, kept a hotel in Madison, Georgia. Babe's delightful tenor voice was trained at the Atlanta Conservatory of Music, and in about 1910 he opened the first cinema in Milledgeville, Georgia. Seeing film comedies inspired him with an urge to take up comedy himself and in 1913 he began work as an actor with Lubin Motion Pictures in Jacksonville, Florida.
Both men continued to work in movies and eventually came together in Hollywood working at the Hal Roach Studios in 1926. By this time, Stan had had some success in many two-reel comedies, some of which he directed himself. These were mainly satirical versions of popular feature films - Mud And Sand, The Soilers , Monsieur Don't Care and Doctor Pyckle And Mr Pryde are examples of the titles. Babe was generally cast at the heavyweight menace to the leading comedian.
In 1926, Roach launched the Hal Roach All-Stars, a company of outstanding slapstick comedians, centred around the popular James Finlayson. Before long it was clear that there was a strange chemistry in the scenes shared by Stan and Babe which raised them into a different class from their fellow comedians. Stan was a clown in the classic tradition. Babe was a fine actor with a rare gift for comic timing and a pomposity which, combined with his physical grace, became somehow loveable. He was the perfect straight man and although he believed he was clever, he was, in fact, a bigger fool than the simple-witted Stan. Together they made more than fifty short comedies - mostly two-reelers, but sometimes three reels. One, The Music Box (1933) won an Academy Award.
Most of their work is available on video, though some silent films are now lost as, very sadly, is their first musical feature, The Rogue Song (1929), made in the early two-colour Technicolor. The remainder of their talkie features survived, though. Towards the end of the 30's with double-feature programmes becoming established, Roach ceased making two-reelers. All in all, Laurel and Hardy made twenty feature comedies.
From 1941 onwards, their work shows a sad falling-off. Their contracts with Roach had ended and their subsequent employers showed little appreciation for their unique abilities. Moreover, the fact that they were ageing robbed their comedy of its childlike innocence. Their last film, Atoll K, is almost painful to watch.
Individually, Stan was a workaholic and virtually directed many of their films himself, whereas the basically unambitious and easy-going Babe wanted nothing more than to get back to the golf course at the end of a day's shooting. It is said that Stan deliberately kept back the reaction shots, when Babe would express in close-up his exasperation at his partner's stupidity, until the end of the day when Babe's growing exasperation would be all too real as he saw his time of the golf course dwindling. Though they rarely met socially, they had a lifelong professional regard for each other and in his retirement, years after Babe's death, Stan continued to write down ideas for dialogue and situations for Laurel and Hardy comedies which could never be made.