The Happy Dog - Laurel and Hardy's first film together
A Year100Knowledge interview with Germanist Dr. Dominik Orth
In October 1921, the short film "The lucky dog" was made. What makes the film so noteworthy?
Orth: As a film in itself, "The lucky dog" is honestly not really worth mentioning. It's a typical slapstick short film of the time: a klutz strolls through life and meets a villain, the klutz tricks the villain and the villain tries to take revenge. But: it is the first film in which Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appear together, and that in turn makes this film extremely noteworthy and significant in terms of film history. However - and this is also very remarkable - it is not the first Laurel and Hardy film in the strict sense, because the two do not appear as a duo, but are just two actors who happen to play in a joint film and portray characters who also happen to collide and fight - at the end of the film then literally in an absurd and grotesque brawl. It wasn't until a few years later, in the second half of the 1920s, that they appeared in films together again and quickly became the successful comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, with whom they then became world famous. From a German point of view, it is worth mentioning that this film, which is not unimportant in terms of film history, was not shown in Germany at the time. In 1921, however, it is said to have been released in the USA, but the exact year of production is disputed.
Laurel and Hardy were among the few artists who seemingly had no problem switching from silent to talkies. How did they manage that?
Orth: First and foremost, of course, because of the form of the slapstick film - this kind of comedy also works without sound. It may also have played a role that for a short transitional period some of their films were produced in two versions, one with sound and one without. This was of great importance, especially for cinemas that could not or did not want to immediately use the new technical equipment for cost reasons, because in this way the Laurel and Hardy films did not simply disappear from the program. In addition, it was also due to the actors themselves: they had each been endowed by nature with voices that audiences - contemporary reports point to this - found fundamentally pleasant and suited to the characters. Moreover, the new technique was deliberately used to generate comedy, for example, when a character is introduced as a klutz and in a follow-up scene it is seen that the character goes into a room and virtually disappears from the picture, because the camera does not show the character in the other room into which he has gone, but only that he has gone into the room. Suddenly, a loud clattering can be heard, making it clear that the klutz has once again been clumsy - but this is only told via the soundtrack and not explicitly on the picture level, so the element of sound was used for a new form of comedy.
For the German-speaking countries in particular, the adaptation of films to the international market played a very special role in the successful transition to the sound film era. Before dubbing became the accepted method, it was not uncommon for films to be made in different languages so that income could be generated not only in the English-speaking world. And so some Laurel and Hardy comedies found their way into German-speaking countries, in which the actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy audibly struggled to speak German, which in turn led to a whole new form of comedy due to the unmistakable accent. Thus, even in non-English-speaking countries, the transition to the sound film era was successful, before dubbed versions were then shown and also accepted by the audience.
The two mimes, who always appeared together from 1927, are also known as the most successful comedy duo in film history. For what reason?
Orth: Such attributions are always somewhat exaggerated and not entirely unproblematic, and often function as a marketing strategy, for example on the book market. For example, the Heyne publishing house gave the biography "Laurel & Hardy" by Reiner Dick the subtitle "The Greatest Comedians of All Time"; of course, that sounds interesting and potentially promotes sales.
Regardless of this, the two are of course among the most successful comedians in the history of cinema; everyone actually knows Laurel and Hardy - although it would be exciting to find out whether this is actually still the case with today's generation of students. However, in comparison to other stars of the time, such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, they are usually less appreciated in the German-speaking world, especially in the feuilleton and above all, with a few exceptions, in German-language film studies. Among other things, this has to do with the fact that for a long time there were hardly any authentic versions of their films available in this country, but often only out-of-context cuts from several films, and with the fact that the duo has remained known to this day not least because of the ZDF series from the 1970s, in which basically the films were only misused as raw material to be reassembled, commented on and underlaid with music.
But back to the reason for the success: On the one hand, this is certainly based on the successful transition from the silent film era to the sound film era, which was just mentioned. Another factor is probably the large number of films - over 100! - in which the two have appeared together, even if most of them are short films. And last but not least, they managed early on to become a successful brand, also and especially in the international film landscape. For example, they were able to build on a not inconsiderably large fan base in Germany as early as the Weimar Republic.
In Germany, the two became known under the very uncharming name Dick and Doof. How did that come about?
Orth: The exact origin is not entirely clear, but there is a fairly plausible theory. What is certain is that the two comedians had already made a name for themselves in Germany by the end of the 1920s, but there was no catchy brand name yet. However, they were already perceived as a duo, and reviews often referred to the "frequently and gladly seen comedian couple". So it was obvious for the German distribution company to come up with an appropriate name that would be effective in advertising. The first German distribution title with this brand name was "Dick und Dof im Sündenpfuhl", in the original "Their Purple Moment", and "doof" was spelled with only one "o", i.e. "dof". Unfortunately, we don't know if that was just a silly misspelling or a supposedly particularly clever spelling, as if someone was too 'dumb' to spell the name correctly. Even in the 1930s, films by the two were advertised in this way, including other comedies with Laurel and Hardy, although "Laurel & Hardy" often also appeared on the film posters. Only after the war did it become "Dick & Doof" in the correct spelling. The names finally became established through the television career of Laurel and Hardy in the 1970s, when their films were heavily edited and commented on as a series flickering across the screen under this title. Presumably, "Dick and Doof" instead of "Laurel and Hardy" was intended to emphasize the clownish character; moreover, ZDF, where the series ran, was able to tie in with the "Dick and Doof" brand, which already had a decades-long history, with the naming.
Laurel is almost universally dubbed in Germany by Walter Bluhm, whose whiny falsetto voice belies the fact that Stan was actually a baritone, which is well heard in various songs such as "Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia" from the 1937 film "Way out West." He was also, believe it or not, the more intellectual of the two with many other qualities. What were they?
Orth: Stan Laurel was the creative head of the duo, he was not only an actor, but before the Laurel and Hardy period he also directed, he wrote scripts and sketches and took care of the editing. Even as a child, he organized theatrical performances at home and had received great encouragement at performances, which in no small part encouraged him to venture into an acting career. His influence on the style of the Laurel and Hardy films should not be underestimated; many directors didn't dare contradict him when he wanted to put his stamp on a scene or a film.
When did the successful collaboration end?
Orth: At the beginning of the 1950s, the duo made their last film, "Atoll K," which was released in German under the title "Dick und Doof erben eine Insel" ("Dick and Doof inherit an island") and was often panned. In it, Laurel is already severely marked by illness. Although his condition improved afterwards and he and Oliver Hardy toured England with sketches and made television appearances, they never made another film. In Germany, however, numerous earlier films by the two from the 1930s and 1940s were released during this time, sometimes as compilations of several screen flicks. In 1955, Laurel then suffered a stroke, shortly before the start of filming a new television series, which could then no longer be realized, because Hardy was also increasingly worse, he emaciated strongly, also suffered a stroke and finally died in the summer of 1957. Laurel was very affected by the death of his partner, he then also no longer worked and finally died in 1965.
The two are also present in the Bergisches Land region. There is a Laurel and Hardy museum in Solingen. Have you ever been there?
Orth: No, I honestly didn't even know it existed. But now that I know, it's a good reason to take a look.
Uwe Blass (interview from 01.09.2021)
Dominik Orth completed a master's degree with the subjects Cultural Studies, German Studies and History at the Universities of Bonn and Bremen. He received his PhD from the University of Bremen in 2012. Since 2017, he has been working as a lecturer for special tasks in the field of Modern German Literature in the Department of German Studies at Bergische Universität.