The immortal comedy duo of Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was young, my father introduced me to them. My siblings and I watched their movies repeatedly on tape and laughed uproariously at their various antics. As time has passed, I watch them less but still find them funny. Being older, I enjoy noticing the finer parts of their comedy, particularly their facial expressions, vocal intonation and exact comedic timing. They were true masters of their art.
What is it about these two that will forever make them remembered? They represent the yin and yang, order and chaos; the virtuously aspirant pair who strove hard to solve a problem and do good but occasionally failed, often through their own undoing. Oliver Hardy is the strong character directing the pair, his size and presence dictates this; Stanley Laurel is the meek, mild individual who affronts Hardy unintentionally through naïve silliness. Most of the time, they act like childish grown-ups who are lucky to get through whatever they’re trying to do; sometimes they succeed but other times they end in anarchy. Despite all that happens, they inevitably remain friends and know that in an odd way, they somehow need the other.
Whilst I will always remember Laurel & Hardy for an infinite number of laughs, it’s ironic that one of their most memorable scenes is one where they’re not funny nor really attempting to be. It’s a scene where they are just a perfect expression of self, joy and existential happiness. I call this scene The Sublime Dance.
It occurs in Way Out West (1937), one of their renowned feature films. In the film, Laurel & Hardy are on a mission to meet Mary Roberts and gift her with the deed to her father’s goldmine they have in their possession. The two have just arrived in Brushwood Gulch and pull up with their mule outside Mickey Finn’s saloon. They pause, take in the pleasant melody being performed by The Avalon Boys quartet, before being swept away and dancing along to it. The melody is an old tune called ‘At the Ball, That’s All’ composed by John Leubrie Hill (d. 1916).[i] An original recording can be listened to here, and it appears the song was being used around 1913 as part of The Ziegfield Follies.[ii]
The man who stands out from the quartet is Chill Wills, the vocalist singing the “bo-bo-bo-bo”/“diddly-bo” and high-pitched warbling. Interestingly, Wills also provides the deep-bass voice Stanley Laurel transitions into when Laurel & Hardy sing ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ later in the movie.[iii] Simon Louvish, a well-known biographer of Laurel & Hardy, said that both the dance outside the saloon and their singing of ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ weren’t in the original script of Way Out West – these sequences ended up being “a serendipitous addition”.[iv] As a scene unto itself, the dance bears no impact on the movie’s plot but it’s there regardless; Stanley Laurel must have pictured how wonderful it would be and since then, I’m sure many people are eternally grateful it was included.
The Sublime Dance scene is one of the greatest moments in all of film history. It gives one chills watching it each time and it never fails to make me smile.
Louvish elucidates on the scene’s wonder when he describes that:
…as Stan and Ollie dance, swaying and tangoing to the rhythm of an old turn-of-the-century tune, they touch the core of their distinct appeal to all ages, all creeds and nationalities – the sheer joy of an untrammelled freedom to express oneself, for no apparent reason, in a crowded street, among strangers. We seldom do it, but we know, in the often perplexing, annoying, harsh or plain humdrum progress of life, that we should. Laurel and Hardy are there to do it for us. They are, at root – although often themselves confined, suppressed, or apparently socialized – free spirits, imps of the perverse.[v]
Words really can’t describe how perfect it is. Yet, I think life ought to be about working towards moments like The Sublime Dance, to share and experience pure joy with others. It is the beauty of the moment Laurel & Hardy beckon us to imitate and taste. The two perfectly encapsulate this joy and in this particular scene, they actually go beyond their usual comedic personalities. They transcend the moment, tap into ancient memory and embody unvarnished, sweet truth in what they do. The Sublime Dance isn’t a scene where we laugh but more feel and experience a divine touch.
If you’ve never seen this, you are in for a treat. I recommend watching it with the sound turned up high. Don’t let anything disturb you. Allow yourself to be swept away meditatively, and feel its innate, pure goodness.
[iii] Simon Louvish, Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy: The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2002), p. 350.
[iv] Ibid., p. 350.
[v] Ibid., p. 350.