The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Saturday, 27 June 2015


When the Daily Telegraph reviewed Slapstick or Lonesome No More, the 1977 novel by the much loved and brilliant American author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut, it said: ‘The non-stop invention, the jokes and clowning are in the familiar Vonnegut tradition.’ But Vonnegut had himself been influenced by two great clowns – Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy – and he dedicated this novel to their memory, describing them as ‘two angels of my time’. On the page facing the dedication is a black-and-white caricature of the unmistakeable and unforgettable faces of the two men. Their faces are so familiar that they were burned into the collective memory of the generation that watched their films and made them laugh. Their films have since been passed down from generation to generation and will, I suspect, be passed down forever.

Forget Chaplin – he never made me laugh anyway – his ‘humour’ was far too sentimental for my taste. Other performers at the time were much funnier – Harold Lloyd and the marvellous Buster Keaton to name just two. But sitting atop the mountain of Hollywood’s comic talent were the undisputed Kings of Comedy, Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy, who are known throughout the English speaking world under the more familiar names of Laurel and Hardy.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made my grandparents laugh, they made my parents laugh, they made me laugh and they make my kids laugh. In the 1960s their films were made available on 16mm reels for home viewing, then on VHS in the 1980s, DVD in the 1990s and now on Blu-Ray. They were prolific in their output.

In his terrific biography Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy Simon Louvish writes:
Before the advent of sound, Stan and Ollie made 32 silent films together. They followed this with 40 short talkies and 24 feature films as a team, as well as guest appearances in other movies. Separately, they had appeared in over 340 films. In total their tally comes to over 440 titles. This statistic alone places them at the top of the totem pole of Hollywood’s labouring artisans.
Among my favourites of their films are Sons of the Desert (1932), where they trick their wives into thinking they're taking a medicinal cruise to Hawaii, while they are actually attending a male-only Sons of the Desert convention in Chicago. Unfortunately for them their wives go to a movie theatre while they are away where they see a newsreel showing the ship bound for Hawaii that they were supposed to be on sinking on its way there, followed by a newsreel of the annual Sons of the Desert convention, where our two heroes are caught on camera. There's Way Out West (1937) that's worth watching just for their sublime performance of Trail of the Lonesome Pine. And then there's Block-Heads (1938) where Ollie finds Stan in the Soldier's Home and, thinking he has lost a leg in the war, takes pity on him and takes him home for a nice home-cooked meal, only to have his life completely dismantled by his hapless friend. 

But it's their 1932 Oscar-winning short The Music Box that I love the most. The story has been described as an updating of the mythological story of Sisyphus where, according to Greek legend, Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for his deceitfulness and was made to roll an enormous boulder up a hill and then watch it roll back down, whereupon he would repeat the action until the end of time. Whether Stan Laurel thought that deeply into it when he wrote the screenplay is a matter for academics to discuss. All I know is that this simple tale of two workmen trying to deliver a Player Piano to a house at the top of a monumental flight of steps is 27 minutes of pure comic genius and a serious contender for one of the top ten funniest films of all time.

The stairs sequence, which takes up the bulk of the film's short running time, must have been a nightmare to film but Stan and Ollie make it look so effortless. It's slapstick comedy at its absolute finest - perfectly written and superbly executed - but there's also some dry wit and irony in there amongst all the chaos. When they (finally) get it to the top of the steps they discover that no-one's home and watching them trying to get the Piano through an upstairs window is the equivalent of watching two ballet dancers performing - their movements are so graceful, especially Ollie's.

As well as Stan an Ollie, the film features the great Billy Gilbert as the apoplectic Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen MD,AD, DDS, FLD, FFF und F, who meets them on the steps, but feels that he is too important to step aside and allow them to pass, which he demonstrates by constantly repeatiing his name and the letters that follow it.

When I showed this film to my two boys a few years ago the first question they asked me (in their whiny 'Why us?' voices) upon discovering that it was made in 1932 was "Is it in black-and-white?" Normally, if anyone asks me that question I make them repeat the following mantra in a kind of sing-song way:

Just because a film's in black-and white,
Doesn't mean to say it's rubbish!

My children were no exception. After they had repeated the mantra they watched the film and, despite it being of a monochromatic nature, they laughed their heads off for just about its entire length.

And that's because the humour in The Music Box is universal and timeless.

Laurel and Hardy's influence on the development of comedy cannot be underestimated. They wee, in real life, the very best of friends and without them we would not have Morcambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies or Vic and Bob. Mind you, they probably influenced the least funny comedy dou ever - Cannon and Ball - featuring Bobby Ball, whose only joke seemed to be snapping his braces against his chest, and who gave us probably the worst comedy film of all time, The Boys in Blue (1982), which was (surprisingly) written and directed by the great Val Guest and was easily the lowest point in his illustrious career, and was itself a retread of his far superior Will Hay vehicle of 1939 Ask A Policeman. The difference between the two films was that Ask A Policeman had jokes in it and was actually funny, whereas The Boys in Blue made you want to scoop your own eyeballs out with a spoon.

Much has been written about Stan and Ollie over the years and it would therefore be pointless of me me to attempt to say anything new about these two much-loved men and the characters they played. I'll use the words of Simon Louvish, whose affectionate celebration of cinema's most graceful and enduring comedy duo is an absolute joy to read.

Laurel and Hardy present themselves to us as the most familiar of images. For anyone up to the age of eighty, they have been with us since our childhood, wedded together, as in the scene in which they walk out of frame both encased in one pair of outsize trousers, tipping their hats, in You're Darn Tootin'; 'that sweet,' as they were eulogized by comedian Dick Van Dyke, 'for whom the halls of heaven must be ring with divine laughter'. They have entered our unconscious thoughts, as primal beings, iconic figures to be used in advertising and cartoons, metaphors for a certain kind of chaos, a byword for confusion and incompetence.

Ollie would often say to Stan, "That's another fine mess you've got me into", but The Music Box is not a mess but it is a very fine film indeed. It is, for want of a better phrase, their masterpiece. 

Louvish, Simon; Stan and Ollie - The Roots of Comedy - The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy; Faber and Faber; ISBN 0-571-21590-4
Vonnegut, Kurt; Slapstick or Lonesome No More; Vintage Classics; ISBN 978-0099842705