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The Comedians' Comedians

Laurel and Hardy

Today, in 1975, occasional letters addressed to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy arrive at the Los Angeles post office, though the comedians have been dead ten and seventeen years respectively.

Television personalities like Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett pause in mid-program to extol Stan Laurel, the smaller partner with the uncertain manner and wistful eyes. Funnyman Woody Allen joins with others in praising Oliver Hardy, the big, baby faced one.

Meanwhile, the rest of us wish more Laurel and Hardy comedies were visible on TV, especially those early silent two-and-three reelers that best exemplify the comic skills of the merry pair.

It's a top tribute to the abilities of these two comedians that they seem to grow funnier as years go by. Critics say that Charlie Chaplin seems overly sentimental to modern eyes, with Buster Keaton a hilarious robot, and Harold Lloyd a master stuntman. But the characters played by Stan and Ollie seem to show increasing heart, or universality. Why, they could easily be those two guys you just passed in the street!

The comedians were well aware of this normality. "Those two fellows we played," Oliver Hardy told an interviewer, "they were nice, very nice people. They never got anywhere because they were so very dumb, only they didn't know they were dumb."

A look at old Laurel-Hardy comedies only highlights the appeal. For all their knockabout nonsense, the two always managed to maintain a kind of forlorn dignity, particularly toward one another. Unique among comedians in using own names onscreen, they addressed each other as "Mr. Laurel" and "Mr. Hardy."

Also, there's the fact that so much of their laughter came from wholesale destruction. One of their two-reelers (Two Tars) involved the smashing of more automobiles than an audience could count; in others, they reduced single cars to bits. In Battle of the Century, they hurled enough custard pies to stock six bakeries. In a world growing increasingly difficult, the berserk antics of these two innocents resembled the protest of the average guy, who is getting a snow job from civilization.

"We always tried to be real," Stan Laurel said once. "Even with our shortest pictures, we tried to be real." A writer puts it differently — "they brought the breath and touch of humanity into wild and whirling deeds." So doing, little Stan seemed the more sympathetic of the two, the picked-on fellow easier to identify with. "There was a kind of affectionate edge to him," Dick Cavett says.

Perhaps the real strength of the Laurel-Hardy appeal lies in the way they represent brotherhood in an unfeeling world. Two dissimilar types nonetheless appear welded together by compassionate understanding. Stan Laurel was the gentle guy with scarecrow hair and simple eyes, Ollie the big blusterer without real bluster, baby face atop mountainous body. The big fellow often grew exasperated with the little one, but through thick (Ollie) and thin (Stan) the two stuck together. Their most visible sign of kinship was that on proper occasions both wore derby hats.

A glance behind the scenes of contemporary Hollywood shows them behaving much the same way in real life. First, they were men who genuinely liked one another, engaged in work they loved. Pauline Kael writes, "They loved what they were doing so much that they left the arithmetic to others" — which is why they never wound up millionaires. Their mutual feelings existed even though Stan contrived and perfected the gags for the team, with Ollie content merely to carry them out.

In his book Cavett, Dick Cavett offers evidence that in personal life Stan was fonder of Ollie than Ollie of Stan, with Stan giving a Christmas present when his partner had not thought of one. Yet in his fashion Ollie — or Babe, as friends called him — was devoted to Stan. They even took vacations together, once to far-off China.

Nor was Ollie ever guilt-ridden or envious because Stan did the brain work for the pictures. Instead, he seemed relieved and spent as much time as possible on the golf course. To Jack McCabe, author of the book Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, he said, "Not that I didn't appreciate a good gag, mind you. I liked to get a good reaction just the way any comedian does, but I never worked in the creation department. After all, just doing the gags was hard enough work, especially if you have taken as many falls and been dumped in as many mudholes as I have. I think I earned my money."

The two men were as diverse in background as in appearance. Stan, of course, was born in Lancashire, England, in 1895, christened Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Years later, as Stan Jefferson of American vaudeville, he realized his name contained thirteen letters. Quick as a sight-gag he changed to Laurel, but never could explain the choice of that particular moniker.

Stan's father was a successful performer-manager in the active world of English music halls. At age thirteen, Stan found himself working in the box office of a family owned theatre. The wispy little kid wasn't happy. "I can be funny," he told his father. Given a chance onstage, he proved it.

In the tough school of the music hall, young Stan learned the art of mime, or pantomime — that a single gesture or reaction, executed perfectly, can be funnier than words. Slowly acquiring skill, he joined the famed Fred Karno act composed of young male knockabout comedians. In 1910, the Karno troupe came to this country to headline in vaudeville as "A Night in an English Music Hall." Also in the company was Charlie Chaplin, with whom Stan shared boarding house rooms. Cooking was not allowed, but Charlie loudly played violin or cello while Stan fried food on a forbidden hot plate.

Chaplin really found himself in American vaudeville and became top man in the act, with Stan as understudy. When Charlie quit in 1913 to make films, Stan took his place. Deciding to remain after the Karno gang went home, he worked up an act imitating Chaplin. One west coast theatre manager thought him funnier than Charlie and backed a two-reel comedy called Nuts in May, with Stan as the nut. A funny one, it was mishandled in distribution and Stan returned to the three-a-day.

Stan Laurel at this moment was a neat, good looking young chap with an eager-eyed approach to the world. As in screen roles, though, he could be one of life's victims. Early on, he almost ended his career by picking an attractive Australian girl as partner in the act Stan and Mae Laurel: Knockabout Comedians. Where Stan quietly underplayed, Mae overdid it, being loud, raucous, and vulgar. Friends begged Stan to get rid of her, but offstage involvement made this hard. Stan began to drink, miss performances, show up with scratched face. His future hung precariously until friends pressured Mae to return to Australia, passing the hat for passage money. Throughout life, Stan continued to have trouble with women, divorcing and re-marrying several wives.

By the mid-1920's, Stan Laurel was a stalwart at the prospering studio of Hal Roach who, with Mack Sennett, sparked the Golden Age of Film Comedy. Also present were Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Snub Pollard — and Oliver Hardy.

Babe Hardy got to the Roach lot by a far different path. Born in Harlem, Georgia, he was brought up by a loving mother and doting sisters. Always a big fellow, he possessed a fine tenor voice, capable of hitting high C. Despite his size, he loved to dance, moving with amazing grace. When his mother moved to a larger town and opened a boarding house, Babe began a lifetime of what he called lobby-watching. He loved to sit in hotel lobbies and watch people. This was not altogether a waste of time, for it gave him rare insights in human foibles and suggested funny mannerisms.

Oliver Hardy was big rather than fat. But the infant face perched atop massive body made him seem the ridiculous fat boy and recruiters during World War I only laughed when he tried to enlist. Still, he enjoyed making people laugh and drifted toward a film-making operation in Florida, set up to rival Hollywood. Here he worked up a character based on the comic strip Helpful Henry — the big fellow trying to help but really making things worse. Fussy and self-important, but a good guy underneath.

When Florida collapsed as a film capital, Hardy made his way to Hollywood, where the creation of two-reel comedies to precede feature pictures was big business. It's worth noting that Babe Hardy never appeared on a stage, and for this reason Woody Allen and others call him a finer film comedian than Stan, who came from the broad theatre tradition with gestures and reactions sometimes too large for the silver screen. Oliver, on the other hand, acted only before the small lens of the camera. His gestures were tiny, precise, and telling, scaled perfectly to the medium. Coming from such a big man, they seemed funnier.

History fails to record precisely when Laurel and Hardy began acting together. It happened gradually — "joined by accident, they grew by indirection," says one account. Laurel, as top gag man on the Roach lot, directed some Ollie Hardy comedies, filling in himself at times. Hal Roach noted the happy contrast between the two and encouraged them. Officially their first appearance together was Putting Pants on Philip in 1926, directed by Leo McCarey. Followed a spate of one- and two-reelers with names like Do Detectives Think?, Why Girls Love Sailors, and Flying Elephants. Their Double Whoopee (1929) marked the screen debut of platinum-blonde Jean Harlow, who evoked laughter by unknowingly having her skirt ripped off by a taxi door.

"We seemed to sense each other," Stan said, of the way the pair worked together. Slowly they built up a bag of trade-mark tricks — Babe's necktie-wave and slow burns, Stan's takes and double-takes, his famous "cry."

Offstage the personalities meshed as well. Stan was the thoughtful one who endlessly evolved gag situations and spent days perfecting them, leaving Ollie plenty of time for golf. No matter who directed their comedies, Stan was really the man in the canvas chair. One thing he told directors was to wait until the end of a day's shooting to close-up Ollie's exasperated looks. Dying to get to the golf course, the big fellow was truly e-x-a-s-p-e-r-a-t-e-d.

Like other comedians spawned by silent films, Laurel and Hardy did their best work before the advent of sound. Along with Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and a few others, they worked visually, emphasis on sight gags, at which they were masterful. The arrival of sound introduced verbal gags, with comedians from stage and radio taking over. Chaplin made fewer pictures, Lloyd retired, and Keaton faded, as W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor gained eminence.

Still, Laurel and Hardy were lucky. Through part of the 1930's they kept working on the Roach lot, free to devise their own nonsense. Also, their voices enriched the comic personalities the two had evolved. Stan's piping tones seemed to have amusing Cockney overtones, while Ollie's richer deep-south resonance inexplicably held traces of Brooklynese, saying boid for bird and woild for world. Stan's high-pitched giggle could not be heard as well as imagined.

Yet problems remained. Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies hurt the market for two-reel comedies, then the popularity of double-features in Depression times allowed no time for them. Yet Laurel and Hardy kept on making two-reelers and also, like Chaplin, went on to full-length comedies. Among the long features of their career were Babes in Toyland, Out West, Swiss Miss, and A Chump at Oxford. Comic highlights of their big ones came in Swiss Miss (1938), when Stan and Ollie, maneuvering a piano across an Alp-to-Alp swing bridge, surprisingly encountered a gorilla.

The 1940's were hard. True, Ollie took a wife as the decade began, and enjoyed a happy marriage. Stan also married, divorced the girl, then took her back for good. Work-wise, though, it was bad. Hal Roach had quit comedy, leaving the boys to make eight films for Twentieth Century-Fox and two for M-G-M. They were disgruntled at both studios, claiming their comedy routines were written by others, handed to them at the beginning of a day's work. In the outside world, the unsubtle pictures of Abbott and Costello swept the public.

There was another side. Film historian William Everson writes that the skills of Laurel and Hardy had grown stale with age and that Stan, who had done his share of drinking between and during marriages, no longer looked whimsical and funny.

Still, they had fans. An overseas trip, taken together, proved a triumph. They made Atoll K (1952), their final picture ever, in France. Returning home, they found the new medium of television featuring their past films. It should have made them rich, but the studios owned the prints; only Chaplin and Lloyd, multi-millionaires both, retained control of their work. Stan hated the way his films were cut to make room for commercials and offered to do a better job for free. No one answered his letters.

If not wealthy, the two were financially comfortable. In movie theatres, high spots of their pictures were featured in so-called compilations like Golden Age of Comedy. Ollie was free to play his beloved golf until 1957, when he died of heart trouble at age sixty-five. Shortly before his death, he told an interviewer, "As for my life, it wasn't very exciting and I didn't do much outside of doing a lot of gags before a camera and playing golf the rest of the time."

Stan, with a solid marriage at last, also had a married daughter living nearby. He did not look well, but retained good spirits. In his last years, the Laurel-Hardy pictures enjoyed cult status, an "in" thing for young and old. Henry Miller called Battle of the Century "the greatest comic film ever seen, because it brought pie-throwing to apotheosis." Others used esoteric words to salute their art.

Stan Laurel kept his name in the phone book — he was that kind of guy — and a succession of aspiring young comedians beat a path to his door. Dick Van Dyke was the most devoted, with Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett following.

Those who sat with Stan before old Laurel-Hardy comedies on TV noted him watching Hardy more than himself. Queried about this he replied, "I don't know why I watch Babe all the time, I guess it's because the character fascinates me so much. He really is a funny, funny fellow, isn't he?"

Stan himself died in 1965, but the letters addressed to him and Ollie still come — in gratitude for creating joyous laughs for millions.

Publication Date: Summer 1975 Liberty Reprint Issue