Their First Film?

A recurring question new fans ask is, “Which was the first Laurel & Hardy film?”

It depends. There is no clear answer. Perhaps because the question is not specific enough. But here is at least a fast answer, trying to be concise.

An independent film, LUCKY DOG, which we now believe was shot early in 1921, was the initial film. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in together. They were not, however, then a team. Mr. Laurel was the star, Mr. Hardy only a supporting character actor in a small role. It was strictly a one-shot, chance casting, and LUCKY DOG led to no follow-up project. Stan Laurel himself said as much many times over the years. The working partnership of Laurel & Hardy did not begin until several years later when both actors were employed by Hal Roach Studios. Their teaming at Roach’s Culver City comedy factory was not planned, and happened pretty much by accident – a cooking accident actually, but that’s another story.


In 1987 The Silent Society staged a tribute to Hal Roach at the Hollywood Studio Museum, housed in the DeMille-Lasky Barn, formerly located near Hollywood and Vine, later at Paramount Pictures, and currently designated a California Historic Landmark since 1956. Here is a relevant excerpt from the program notes I wrote for the screening that night:

“The independent recollections of both Stan Laurel and Hal Roach cite PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP (1927) as the first official Laurel & Hardy film. Yet, in this picture, they are not cast as the ‘Stan and Ollie’ characters we associate with the brand name of ‘Laurel & Hardy.’ Nor are the two men portrayed as friends. Nor do they wear their trademark derby hats. Laurel, as a kilted nitwit, doesn’t even wear pants. What’s more, they had already appeared in fourteen two-reelers together when PHILIP was made. And by the studio’s designation at the time insofar as how two-reel comedies were classified, packaged, branded, and distributed to theaters, the first official entry in the Laurel & Hardy series was SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME? Which wasn’t issued to exhibitors until about a year later.

“In fact, the partnership of Laurel & Hardy, as everyone regards it today, had amazingly enough already been fully formed in only the second motion picture they appeared in together for the Hal Roach Studios, DUCK SOUP, shot in 1926. So it was made almost a full year before PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, and almost two years before SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME? went before the cameras. Still it was produced five years after LUCKY DOG. Any one of these four shorts might qualify as the first Laurel & Hardy film, depending on how terms are defined. Yet most fans uncritically cite PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP because that’s what Roach and Laurel always named, despite persuasive arguments that can be made for any of the other three films.  

This apparent contradiction only underscores the unstudied way in which the team evolved under the guidance of Roach and director Leo McCarey. These people were, after all, filmmakers, not historians. They were hardly interested in recording history, and didn’t care or know they were making history. When they looked back, probably PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP stood out in the minds of Roach and Laurel because McCarey took a special interest in its production. Credits, notwithstanding, McCarey recalled directing the whole thing himself in order to prove the value of his own original story. According to McCarey, his vision for the film was not well received by Messrs. Roach and Laurel when first offered for consideration in story conference. So McCarey had a stake in proving the worth of his scenario; he worked hard on it and made big plans for this little comedy short subject.

This made PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP a watershed project since everyone paid special attention to the elaborate production and ballyhoo that arose surrounding the film. As one example, several hundred crowd extras were paid for appearing in the street scenes all around the nearby Culver City Hotel. Surviving candid still photos taken after work, back at the studio, show these same folks all lined up, backed up in twisted serpentine fashion, waiting to get to the payroll window, for the $5 day-wage. It was quite a sight and registered a durable memory in the minds of most who were there.

“So the extra effort marshaled by McCarey garnered extra attention, generated a bigger than usual exploitation campaign, and set off visionary light bulbs in the minds of the top talent around the lot. It is little wonder that PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP made a lasting impression for the brain trust of Roach, McCarey, and Laurel. For all intents and purposes, when they shot PUTTING PAN TS ON PHILIP, Laurel & Hardy were confirmed as a team in a permanent sense right there and then by their own creators – who were Roach, McCarey, Laurel, and Hardy. Because things were happening so fast, the casual evolution which brought everyone to this new beginning was forgotten.”

 -- Richard W. Bann --