Monday, May 28, 2012

The Weird Fade-Out Gags of Laurel and Hardy

From 1927 to 1950, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made over 100 films together as a comedy team.  They starred in 23 feature films, 40 short sound films and 32 short silent films.  They also appeared as guest stars in 12 other films.    They remain one of the funniest, most beloved and critically acclaimed comedy duos in the history of cinema.  I have been a huge fan of their work my entire life.  

Many of their movies were domestic comedies -- sit-coms -- in which Stan and Ollie had trouble coping with their wives and their married lives.  They also made a number of brilliant workplace movies, in which the pair managed to wreck everything in sight.  Then there were classic period pieces and costume comedies in which Stan and Ollie went out west, played gypsies, lived in Toyland, joined the foreign legion, went to war, and basically found locations and plots that best suited their unique brand of comedy. 

In most of these films, the slapstick endings seem to be logical conclusions to the plotlines.  But there are a handful of Laurel and Hardy films that have bizarre, unexpected and even macabre endings.  

A mild example of this is the final gag in the short “Below Zero” (1930).   Hiding in a barrel of water, Stan has managed to survive by apparently drinking the contents of the barrel.  The last shot of the film shows a frantic Stan running around with an impossibly distended belly. 


Okay, it’s a goofy visual gag.  But it foreshadows darker gags to come at the end of subsequent Laurel and Hardy movies. 

In "Dirty Work," a short from 1933, Stan and Ollie get involved with a mad scientist whose final experiment in the film transforms Ollie into a chimp (that's wearing Ollie’s hat).  Here’s another nice mess Stan has gotten him into.    

In the short “Going Bye Bye”(1934),  a thug’s threat is carried out in the final scene... 

...where we find Stan and Ollie each tied in a knot, with their legs tied tightly around their necks.   

It’s a startling-if-not-funny visual gag but, in real life, no one could survive being twisted into such a body-pretzel.  

At the end of the otherwise-humorous  short “Thicker Than Water “(1935) , a blood transfusion between the two pals switches their personalities and their voices…and even Ollie’s moustache.  Will this change wear off in time?   No hint is given.    

When I saw these Laurel and Hardy shorts as a kid, I always felt a little bad for Stan and Ollie, and wished that the endings weren’t quite so brutal for the pair.  

But in some of the duo’s feature films, the endings were even more distressing – they were sad, bleak even. 

In the feature costume comedy “The Bohemian Girl” (1936),  Stan and Ollie are loyal and true guardians who make many sacrifices over many years to help the title character, only to wind up being sent to the torture chamber,  from which they emerge at the fade out.  Stan has been crushed to the height of a lawn jockey,  while Ollie has been stretched on the rack to a new height of about 12 feet.

This freakish ending always disturbed me as a kid.  And it still does.  This has to be one of the most unjustifiable endings  for the heroes of a comedy --  and for a comedy team -- in movie history. 

Three years after “The Bohemian Girl,” the climax of “Flying Deuces” (1939) has Stan and Ollie in an airplane crash.   Stan survives, but Ollie does not.  Ollie’s spirit, with angel wings, rises to heaven.   In the final scene, we see Stan as a tramp walking along a road and he comes upon a horse that calls out to him.  The horse has Ollie’s moustache and hat, and speaks with Ollie’s voice.  The horse tells Stand: “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

I’ve always found this particular finale to be a creepy and sad way to end a comedy.

And here’s the last weird-not-funny ending to a Laurel and Hardy movie that I can recall.  It’s from their feature film “The Bullfighters” (1945).  

The best of the Laurel and Hardy films were made from 1927 to 1940.  After that date, producer Hal Roach and the team parted ways, and Laurel and Hardy started making movies for 20th Century Fox and MGM.  These later films are not considered  to be among the team’s best.  “The Bullfighters” is one of these.  

In the course of “The Bullfighters” story, an adversary demands that Stan and Ollie must do what he says and, if the two fail, the adversary vows to “skin them alive.”   In the end of this “comedy,” guess what?  Stan and Ollie are shown to be skinned alive.  Their heads and hats and ties remain, perched atop skeletons that walk around.   Ollie tells Stan, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,” and Stan weeps.

This ending is even more freakish and bizarre and morbid than the ending  to “The Bohemian Girl.”

I’m not sure why these otherwise great comedians decided to tack on these weird endings to a handful of their otherwise enjoyable and humorous films.  It’s well-known that Stan was the comedy leader of the team and was deeply involved in the stories and comic routines for each film, so I suspect he had a hand in these fade-out gags.  If these comic bits are any indication, Stan clearly had a dark side.  And yet,  maybe he just wanted to end these particular films with something no one else had tried before. 

If that was Stan’s goal, he succeeded.   No one has tried using these end gags before -- or since!    


  1. Back in the early/mid-1960s in New York, WPIX would normally program an L&H feature when they'd get a Yankees game rained out, which is where I first saw some of the endings, which as a little kid, are particularly disturbing.

    The horse reincarnation gag in "Deuces" is a call-back to an earlier part of the movie where Ollie is talking about wanting to come back as a horse, but to get to the end gag, you still have to kill Ollie in the plane crash. That's a pretty big hurdle for the audience to get over in the 45 or so seconds it takes between the death and the closing gag reveal.

  2. Stan Laurel loved these bizarre and "dark" humor type gags and would often try to put them in the films against the wishes of producer Hal Roach. "Flying Deuces," interstingly, wasn't produced by Roach.

  3. As a teenager, I watched Laurel & Hardy silent films on a TV show compilation that aired every night. I liked to over-complicate movements in Laurelishly comical ways.

    I guess I still do sometimes, to amuse/annoy my wife...!

  4. I know I haven't seen all those as a child (or an adult), but the end of "Flying Deuces" is probably my earliest memory of Laurel & Hardy. As J Lee mentioned, the ending refers to an earlier discussion of reincarnation (Stan wants to come back as himself). I don't remember being disturbed by it though.

    Part of the reason for these gags is probably because it's hard to come up with a good ending that is also funny. The many WB cartoons that finish with a character going mad come to mind; arguably worse than a mere physical injury! (Tragedy is easy: after the climax, you can just have the characters comment upon the lessons they've learned, albeit too late. The only way to do that in a comedy would be to mock the idea of a closing tag that features the moral of the story. Hey, somebody ought to try that some time!)

    >"In the feature costume comedy “The Bohemian Girl” (1936), […] Stan has been crushed to the height of a lawn jockey, while Ollie has been stretched on the rack to a new height of about 12 feet. This freakish ending always disturbed me as a kid."

    Well, whaddya expect in an opera, a happy ending??

    -David "always thought the placement of equine-Ollie's moustache was a bit freaky, though" Green

  5. The ending that always struck me as too mean was "Babes In Toyland." Stan and Ollie are pretty heroic in this one, clearing an accused murderer, routing the bad guy, creating and later leading an army of toy soldiers against some damn scary bogeymen, and as a reward, Ollie is shot all up the butt and back with enough sharp darts to kill a legion of marines. I guess what really gets me is that everyone in the scene watching thinks this is a hilarious joke. I mean, this flick is set in Toyland, so characters like Little Bo Peep, King Cole, the three pigs and other "innocent" fun fairy tale types whose lives were just saved by Stan and Ollie are laughing their asses off as Ollie runs around roaring in pain while a flustered and weeping Stan tries to pull the darts out of his pal. Who wrote that ending, the Marquis DeSade?

  6. Some "normal" people might call it a personality disorder, Manic Depression or the like. But I wonder if such dark twists in comedy come from a different way of seeing life. The same intensity that births some of the most brilliant comedy can swing in what seems to be the opposite direction (which might have something to do with why some of the funniest comics are so hard to live with.) I say it *seems* to be the opposite direction because this is only from a linear perspective.

    Like Plato said (Plato of the comments above, not *the* Plato--unless the two are the same??? Hmm, Plato reincarnated...) anyway, like Plato said, comedy affords us the opportunity to show, rather than tell, the moral of the story, no matter how absurd it may be. When it makes the leap off the typical linear strand to a darker twist, it may lose some of its audience (much like the most jarring twists of a rollercoaster) but others will look at the comic character literally twisted like a pretzel and identify: "Hey, that's me!"

    The ability to not only find the funny in diverse situations, but also the diversity within the very definition of funny is a gift not always easily understood.

    Since I'm trudging through a particularly dark segment of life, this might be a good time for me to revisit some of these weird fade-out gags of Laurel and Hardy. From the perspective of one who has been feeling like I'm tied up in knots, stretched, smashed, and nearly skinned alive, maybe such literal depictions will be what it takes for me to laugh my ass off.

    Thank you for mining the treasures of comedy history and presenting a perspective that spurs questions.

    Oh, and thank you for the great playlist!

    1. Great post! Yes, it seems quite possible that these physical gags were a physical manifestation of some inner turmoil, like you alluded to, "being tied up in knots." However, I wonder if it wasn't so much a symbolic representation as it was a reflection of the ubiquitous despair and, oftentimes, viciousness that characterized the time period of Oliver Hardy's youth and young adulthood (1900's-1920's).

      His father was a Civil War veteran, where wounds weren't healed, they were hacked; World War One was underway, where thousands of enemy combatants sprinted straight at one another and at certain death; prisoners were electrocuted; welfare and social security didn't exist; life expectancy was shorter; policemen were inadequately equipped, fire codes were inexistent, and there was no such thing as workplace safety.

      All in all, life was much more violent then and definitely omnipresent in people's daily lives. Back then, it seems, you weren't just fighting for success, you were truly fighting for survival. Maybe that's what Oliver Hardy experienced as a child growing up poor and it simply became instilled within him.

  7. Rebekah -- thanks for taking the time to analyze the dark side of Stan's comedy from a thoughtful and insightful perspective. Feeling tied up like a pretzel ("Hey, that's me!") -- brilliant. You help me see what Stan was going for -- the whole human condition. Really appreciate your sharp thinking and beautifully written overview.

  8. Perhaps part of it is just the mentality of the times. People found gruesomeness amusing, cf. sideshow freaks being so popular then. I guess gross-out humor never really went away, as it's still here in different forms these days.

  9. It was Stan that did most the creative off screen work of the two and it was he that had the odd liking for that sort of humor. As mentioned above, their producer Hal Roach, disliked this sort of gag. He disagreed with Stan frequently. He even re-shot the ending of Blockheads with L & H's doubles. Stan's ending would have had their heads mounted as trophies on a big game hunters wall, Roach considered it too morbid. The strain of freakish/morbid endings runs through many of their films, the ones sited above are just some of the more pronounced examples. Generally, L & H fans enjoy their work so much they are willing to overlook this odd note in their films. Most critics and biographers have glossed over the subject with a mere mention. One author, Wes Gehring in "Laurel & Hardy: A Bio-bibliography", actually takes a serious look at the topic. He ties it in with Stan's personal life and off screen sense of humor. Apparently Stan had a strong tendency toward practical jokes that could be a little on the mean side at times.
    I believe this dark stuff is especially ill suited to their movies because those characters were so warm and beautifully portrayed. They are childlike but believable and most fans feel affection for them. Other comics may amuse but not engage on that level. The Three Stooges, for example, may get a laugh but we are not nearly as inclined to take offense at some particular joke because we don't care about them, they are not as 'real' to us. I do not think Stan felt the affection or protectiveness for those on screen characters that a lot of the films fans did and still do. He saw them as a vehicle to express gags he thought funny. In Midnight Patrol they are cops who have annoyed their chief to the point where he reaches for a revolver and shoots them as they run off camera. The rest of the assembled force removes their hats and bows their heads as the chief turns to the desk sergeant and says "Send for the coroner". Hardly a funny closing 'gag' in my estimation for any comedy but for the bumbling and innocent Stan & Ollie it's totally out of place. I don't think it has anything to do with the times or changing taste. Dark humor has always been around and has had some level of 'appeal'. In the case of Laurel and Hardy it is just a very odd combination: incredibly warm, childlike roles acted with exceptional skill and a use of dark humor that the creator found amusing but was a real misfit for the context.

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  12. You forgot The LIVE GHOST, which finds Stan and Ollie with their heads twisted around backward so that when they're "walking north they'll be looking south!"

  13. Good catch Mike...I did miss that one. There might be others I missed.

  14. If you do not like these endings, you are taking their films too seriously. Their films were funny, and the endings were funny.