The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 25, 2001

Forgotten comedians in classic mould remembered
Review by Philip French

Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy
by Simon Louvish. Faber, London. Pages 518.

IN the English-speaking world and in France they are called Laurel and Hardy. Elsewhere, they are known by a dozen or more different titles - Dick und Doof in Germany, Gog og Cokke in Denmark, Sisman ve Naif in Turkey, Stan es Pan in Poland. But whatever we call them, their names have been inseparable these past 70-odd years.

Other comedians may invite awe, affection, admiration, but Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are universally loved. "From the moment I saw them on the screen I knew they were my friends," Spike Milligan once said.

Their comedy, for all its destructiveness, has a purity, a grace and a kindness that rarely sinks into sentimentality. Unlike other celebrated double acts, they genuinely like each other; there is none of the mutual treachery of Hope and Crosby, and Hardy never conspires with a third party the way Abbott does against the hapless Costello. Fortunately, they were never embraced during their heyday by intellectuals telling them that they embodied the human condition or were spokesmen for the insulted and injured, the way Chaplin was from the mid-1920s onwards, to the serious detriment of his work.


They did, however, inspire the most famous play of the second half of the 20th century — Beckettt’s "Waiting for Godot", a Laurel and Hardy sketch transformed into an existential fable. In his 1955 Observer review of the first English production, Ken Tynan thought they would be "the ideal casting" as Vladimir and Estragon.

The careers of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, as he was known until 1917, and Norvell Hardy, as he was called until around 1919, began an ocean apart. Nearly 200 pages of Simon Louvish’s fascinating joint biography have passed before their paths briefly cross in Hollywood in 1921, and it takes a further 50 pages for them to become partners.

Stanley was born in Lancashire in 1890 and he took to the boards early on. The Todmorden Herald reported of the 19-year-old Stan that he was "a first-rate comedian and dancer, and his eccentricities create roars of laughter". But he was not a star, and when he first went to the USA in 1910 with Fred Karno’s troupe (sharing a cabin and hotel rooms with Charlie Chaplin), he found no immediate success and soon returned home.

Born in 1892, Hardy was a southerner from Georgia, whose hotelier father died when Ollie was a few months old and whose mother continued to manage hotels. A gifted singer, he developed skills as an entertainer to divert other boys from mocking his obesity (200lb at 15). He entered show business as a small-town picture-house projectionist and, at 22, started on a movie career in Florida where he appeared in 270 films as "Babe Hardy" and was advertised as "the funniest fat comedian in the world".

Louvish rightly attaches considerable importance to the fact that both Hardy and Laurel worked at different times with the great, short-lived silent star Larry Semon, whose simpleton persona was involved in highly destructive gags. But it was in the comedy "Lucky Dog", a production by "Bronco Billy" Anderson that the pair first performed together, and it was through Hal Roach’s Studio, where they were both contract performers, that the partnership was forged.

Once they had established themselves as the slight, pale-faced Mr Laurel and the vast, rubicund Mr Hardy, they never varied their personas and kept their names on screen. They had the good fortune to have a regular team of gifted collaborators on both sides of the camera that included the great Leo McCarey as director and the brilliant comic straight men James Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy in support. They had in Roach a stern taskmaster who kept them steadily at work for a decade from 1927 to the late thirties with no hiatus caused by the coming of sound.

As well as making a confident transition from silence to sound, they moved easily into the Depression, catching the mood of the time as down and outs always eager to work, however ineffectually, in "One Good Turn" and "Below Zero". Their greatest, most perfect movie, the Oscar-winning "The Music Box", came in 1932, a version of the myth of Sisyphus rendered as comedy in which they attempt to deliver a crate containing a player piano up a steep flight of steps.

The decreasing demand for short films forced them into feature-length pictures, which worked fitfully and lacked the finesse of the shorts, though a couple of them –- "Sons of the Desert" and "Way Out West" — are magnificent. All featured their childlike adventures with, as the shrewd American critic Walter Kerr put it: "Hardy as discreet but firm aggressor, and Laurel as deferential, if stunned tag-along".

Louvish sums up the ever hopeful philosophy thus:" If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again". The pair’s private lives were much less interesting than their professional ones. Both were womanisers and heavy drinkers, whose succession of disastrous marriages and affairs made for steamy newspaper stories over the years. Laurel seems to have spent his spare time working on gags and scripts. Hardy was a dedicated Mason, a serious golfer and inveterate gambler.

Their last days were troubled by money problems, law suits and ill-health. But their European tours in the post-war years attracted immense crowds and at the time of their deaths (Ollie in 1957, Stan in 1965) their cult status was established. Stan’s last words were a joke, pulling the leg of the nurse who was giving him an injection.