It’s perhaps reasonable to say that American cinema’s Golden Age of Comedy occurred in the 1920s and 30s. Silent clowns, such a Buster Keaton (1895-1966), Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) and Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), changed the very language of comedy during the silent era, and such diverse talents as W.C. Fields (1880-1946), Mae West (1893-1980) and the Marx Brothers gave voice to that language.
But few comedic talents have a more devoted following than Stan Laurel (1890 – 1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892 –1957). To this day there are organizations nationwide operating under the umbrella group The Sons of the Desert (named after one of the team’s most famous films), with ‘tents’ in most major cities. For sheer mania, Laurel and Hardy buffs give devotees of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who and Star Wars/Trek a run for their money.
This fanaticism is understandable. There is a certain alchemy to Laurel and Hardy; at their best, the team could bond with viewers in a deep and emotional manner impossible to their equally famous colleagues.
I was thinking a great deal about Laurel and Hardy while reading Stan and Ollie; The Roots of Comedy; The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy -- an excellent book on the duo saddled with two unpunctuated subtitles. Once I was finished, I could honestly say that I wish I knew them.
The author, Simon Louvish (born 1947), does a fine job of detailing the story of their lives. He promises upfront not to gloss over the very human failings of the two, and present a warts-and-all biography. That he does, but the warts are not very disfiguring and both Laurel and Hardy emerge as fallible human beings who remain lovable. And while Louvish may not be the most limpid stylist, he gets the job done.
Stan was a jobbing vaudevillian born in the UK to a theatrical family. Ollie was born in Harlem, Georgia, to a near-do-well father and working mother. As a boy, Ollie became fascinated by the possibilities of moving pictures, starting as a projectionist. Stan traveled to the US as part of a comedy troupe (which included Chaplin!), and made several solo comedies that did not register much with audiences.
The pairing came about almost by accident, but after the first handful of their 107 co-starring films, the bare essentials were cemented and their screen personas set.
At this point, it’s essential for you to have had a taste of Laurel and Hardy (if you haven’t!) before proceeding. Jump to YouTube and look for any of the following: Laughing Gravy, Beau Hunks (both 1931), Helpmates, The Music Box (both 1932) or watch the boys dance in Way Out West (1937). If it were possible to crystalize joy, it’s this graceful and lovely dance!
Now, with that behind your belt, let’s see if we can analyze this magical combination. I have a few ideas of my own:
Laurel and Hardy are not just a team or a duo, they are a couple. It’s amazing how often they end up sharing the same bed, consoling one-another, protecting each-other, jointly raising surrogate children or caring for pets. It is almost silly how all close male relationship are now read for how they are ‘coded’ either hetero-or-homosexual, but I read the onscreen Stan and Ollie as homosexual in the purest, nonsexual sense. They loved one-another.
At heart, both Stan and Ollie are children. Yes, Ollie is often more intelligent and given to greater attempts to master the situation; he is the senior child of the two, but that does not make him less of a child. It is this engaging innocence (even when they’re being brats!) that so many people respond to.
This eternal childhood often makes them more (or less) than human. As such, they don’t change and seem subject to different physical, social and intellectual laws than we. It would seem as if the two great clowns were denizens of some alternate reality rather than our own prosaic surroundings. They are, first and last, their own unique selves. They are impervious within the protective cocoons of their own strangeness.
Yet, for all of the strangeness of Laurel and Hardy, the recurring note is one of sweetness. The couple had a core of sweetness – the kind of sweetness that comes from an innocent, inner benevolence. Even at their worst behavior (which often results in massive destruction of property), there is that core of kindliness.
As film historian Randy Skretvedt has written: The world is not their oyster; they are the pearl trapped in the oyster. Their jobs hang by a rapidly unraveling thread. Their possessions crumble to dust. Their dreams die just at the point of fruition. Their dignity is assaulted constantly. At times they can’t live with each other, but they’ll never be able to live without each other. Each other is all they will ever have. That, and the hope of a better day.
Though I enjoyed Stan and Ollie a great deal, I can’t help but feel that reading about great comedians is never as satisfying as watching them. Fortunately, Laurel and Hardy are readily available online and in a new DVD collection gathering their best films. Many of their later films, such as Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing but Trouble (1944) are despised by purists, but I find them watchable still for the inescapable benevolence of the duo. Make yourself happy – watch Laurel and Hardy.
Tomorrow: W. C. Fields