They were tagged with a number of nicknames over the years, were Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy, their original names. But those still living who saw their comedy shorts and, later, features, back in the 1930s, or who were first introduced to them in childhood, as I was, on TV in the 1950s, just remember them as “Laurel and Hardy.”
There were a number of comic teams in show business — mostly movies and television — from the 1920s through the ’50s: Weber and Fields, Smith and Dale, the Marx Brothers, Olsen and Johnson, Wheeler and Woolsey, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis. But to many, many of their fans — me included — Stan and Ollie were the giants. They were the ones who appealed to our hearts, as well as our funnybones. Stan was of medium height, slender, with large, innocent blue eyes, a “babe in the woods” who gave the impression of being about 6 years old, mentally and emotionally. Ollie was a big man, 6-2 in height, heavy-set in their earlier movies, downright fat (by 1930s standards) in their later ones. He had a small, square mustache, a pronounced Georgia accent, the manners of a Southern aristocrat, and an explosive temper when “Stanley” would do something stupid that inadvertantly made whatever mess they were in, even worse. And Ollie was a superb actor, and a fine singer.
Ollie — Oliver Norvell Hardy, as his name was after he took on the first name of his father, who had died when he was just a baby — was always the dominant personality in their movies. He decided where they were going, and what they were going to do. He introduced the pair to strangers (“I’m Mr. Hardy, and this is my friend Mr. Laurel!”) He thought of himself as the smart one of the duo. But he made many stupid moves of his own in their stories. As Hardy once said in an interview, “There’s nothing funnier than a dumb guy, who thinks he’s smart.”
But, in real life, when they were not acting, Stan Laurel was the “brains,” so to speak, of the team. That is, he lived and breathed comedy. He wrote practically all of their gags and “business;” he was the “director behind the director” in all their films; he viewed the rushes (raw, not-yet-edited footage) of their movies at the end of each day of filming. All his friends were involved in show business. It was “his life.”
On the other hand, Oliver Hardy, or “Babe” as was his nickname in real life, did nearly all his work before the cameras. He had little interest in crafting gags or doing any editing of their films. To him, acting as a “movie comic” was his job — not his passion. He reserved his strong emotions for playing golf (it’s a toss-up whether Hardy or Adolphe Menjou was the best golfer in Hollywood, in the 1930s and ’40s); cooking (he became a gourmet chef); dancing (when he and his wife attended a dance at the country club where they were members, women would line up to dance with Babe, because of his skill at “tripping the light fantastic”;) gardening, and so forth.
In their films, Stan and Ollie were occasionally married, middle-class men (with wives who were always shrewish hen-peckers). But much more often, they were a pair of wandering, penniless bachelors, trying to live by their wits — such as they were.
There was no particular reason that Stan and Babe should have become a team. They were close in age (Stan born in northern England in 1890; Babe, in Harlem, Georgia in 1892), but did not meet until they were around 30 years old, when they had a couple of scenes together in “Lucky Dog,” a silent comic film. But they were not “Laurel and Hardy” in that movie. Stan was a young man with a dog, who accidentally while on the street backs up into a robber, played by Ollie, who is wielding a revolver to relieve another citizen of his valuables. Ollie turns on Stan, threatens him, and demands his money, too. But Stan manages to escape, and the two have little action together for the rest of the movie.
Stan said many years later that he and Babe met for the first time when filming of “Lucky Dog” began. They chatted between takes and got on well, but neither had any inkling that, a few years later, they would become what many believe was the world’s most popular comic team, ever.
Stan Jefferson (he changed his last name to “Laurel” a few years later, because “Stan Jefferson” contained 13 letters — bad luck!) came to America on a British ship in 1913, in a group that included a good friend of his, a guy from London named Charles Spencer Chaplin. Their goal? To “make it big” in American show business.
Within a couple of years, Charlie Chaplin was well on the way toward “big,” having developed his famous “tramp” character which became the most popular comic star in early American cinema. Stan got work in movies, too, but he had trouble establishing just what kind of a comic character he wanted to play: Manic? Stupid? Shy? Every established comic character had to have a “shape,” so to speak; a personality. Chaplin nailed his early: “The Tramp,” permanently down on his luck, but resourceful, athletic, and exuding occasional bathos. Stan, who deep down enjoyed writing gags and — a few years later — directing, more than he did performing before the camera, floundered around for some years. There was something else — someONE else — that he needed.
Meanwhile, Norvell Hardy had left Harlem, Georgia in his teens after being manager and singer at a local movie house for a time. He wound up in Jacksonville, Florida, where early American movies were now being turned out by the score. With his size, and his personal singing and acting talents, “Babe” Hardy had no trouble landing parts as the “heavy” or “bad guy” in many of those flicks.
He gained his lifelong nickname in Jacksonville, too. Norvell would get his haircuts at a barber shop where the barber was, as Hardy said many years later, “a boy who liked boys.” After giving the big man a trim, the Italian barber would rub talcum powder into his chubby cheeks, all the while intoning, “Nice-a baby! Nice-a baby!” Hardy’s fellow actors soon learned of it, and began teasing him by calling him “Baby,” which soon became shortened to “Babe.” And there you are.
Stan Laurel had done a lot of comic acting in vaudeville as well as in movies, teaming for a while with a woman named Mae who became his common-law wife. She was one of four different women Laurel married in his lifetime. He was hitched to one of them, twice, making a total of five marriages. Babe Hardy didn’t have great luck with matrimony, either, tying the knot with three different women, then later untying it with the first two. Each man finally found his ideal woman, the fifth, or third, time.
But that was all in the future. The two labored separately through the early 1920s as comic actors, but were well behind Chaplin, and others such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. They were each still “singles,” with Stan continuing to seek his comic identity, and Babe continuing to play large, often threatening “heavies.”
By 1926, the Hal Roach Studios, their employer, placed Stan and Babe in several movies together. But they were just actors in the same comic movies; they weren’t “Stan and Ollie” yet. After several of those movies had been filmed, director Leo McCarey began to see that there was a magic there when Stan and Babe worked together. As one biographer said, “They fit together without a seam showing.” They could anticipate each other’s actions. They had marvelous comic timing as a team. They could “sense” each other, and often while filming a scene one would think of an ad lib that wasn’t in the script, and the other would pick up on this brainstorm, and the scene would wind up being different than scripted. And Hal Roach and their various directors didn’t mind a bit. They recognized genius when they saw it.
Stan’s perplexed, “without a clue,” persona; and Ollie’s perpetually frustrated, angry one, complemented one another like no other comedy team’s ever did. Stan would do, and say, stupid things, because he was simple and childish. Ollie would do slow burns, erupt in anger, even smack Stan occasionally (and usually get smacked back) because Stan’s dense, childish view of the world and actions to match, greatly violated Ollie’s precise, Southern gentleman’s view of how the world should be run; of what was right and proper.
But perhaps that is too much analysis. Why are comedians funny? Because they wear funny clothes or wigs, and make with endless wise cracks, a la the Marx Brothers? Because one is funny and the other is not — the “straight man,” like Bud Abbott in Abbott and Costello? Because the three comedians (Moe, Curly and Larry) do rapid-fire, rock ’em-sock ’em patter and slapstick like the Three Stooges? Just what constitutes a funny team?
Well, Stan and Ollie were funny, because of their personalities, because of how they contrasted, clashed, became angry with each other — and then made up again at the end of the film. “Below Zero” is a short feature about two Depression-era guys trying desperately to survive as street musicians during “the winter of ’29,” who wind up getting thrown out of a restaurant because they can’t pay their bill. Ollie, dumped into the alley, gets up after the “bouncers” have gone back inside, looks around, and can’t find Stan (who was tossed into a barrel of freezing water by the back door). Ollie starts shouting: “Stan! STAN!” and picks up a club laying in the alley, approaching the back door and pounding on it before Stan’s hiccuping from all that water reveal to Ollie where his partner is. The film ends on a funny note when Stan obviously is about to “pee his pants” from all that water, and they run off to find a bathroom. But here’s the thing about that scene that is moving and will touch your heartstrings: If you ever get to watch that film, listen to Ollie’s voice when he’s yelling Stan’s name. There is real concern, genuine panic, in his tones: “What’s happened to my buddy? Where is he? What did they do to him?”
Or in another early short, “Laughing Gravy,” “the boys” are being thrown out of their apartment, again during snowy, freezing weather, after one too many run-ins with their landlord. Their little dog, Laughing Gravy, is the principal cause, as they’re not allowed to have pets. As they’re packing up to leave, the landlord brings a letter to Stan which has just arrived and hands it to him. It proves to be from a recently-deceased uncle, who is leaving his entire fortune to Stan — PROVIDED that he has nothing more to do with Oliver Hardy, who the uncle believes has been “the cause of your downfall.” Ollie notices immediately that Stan has a letter, and wants to know who it’s from, what it contains, etc. Stan is deliberately evasive, and won’t show Ollie the letter, which of course enrages his substantial partner into a stream of sarcastic cracks and an extempore song in the same vein. After some more wrangling, Stan finally lets Ollie see the letter. After reading it, Hardy’s expression changes from outrage at his partner’s “holding out” on him, to shock and then sadness. “Now I know why you didn’t want me to see it,” he says in a quiet, hurt voice. Stan nods, appearing nearly in tears himself.
But after a few more words from Hardy about often not being aware how others see us, and a heart-felt handshake of farewell, the boys end the movie on another comic note. Stan Laurel was very sparing about allowing such sentiments into the team’s movies — unlike Chaplin, who often gloried in them. And Laurel would always bring the sad or soulful moment to an end quickly with another gag.
“The boys” not only had superb timing, but they changed the pace of comedy — at least, for THEIR movies. The Stooges, Chaplin, Keaton, the Marxes, tended to operate in overdrive most of the time. Stan and Ollie, reasoning that two “dumb guys” wouldn’t be moving that fast, slowed their comedy down. With them, you could savor the reactions, the dialogue, the slapstick, as you would a fine steak dinner. Who would want to wolf down a juicy steak? Remember what Mae West said in one of her movies: “I like a man who takes his time!”
Speaking of erotic matters, in Laurel and Hardy’s era, which was less self-conscious about sex, many probably didn’t notice, but Laurel and Leo McCarey, in fashioning and manipulating the pair’s screen images, sometimes suggested, in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes not, that there was more than just “friendship” between Stan and Ollie. In the films, they always slept in the same bed. Stan sometimes appeared “in drag” (but always in the context of the story). In the short, “Their First Mistake,” Ollie’s wife storms out of the house, furious with him and presumably heading for a lawyer’s office to start divorce proceedings. When Stan asks Ollie what the reasons are, “the fat one” answers, “Oh, she thinks I care more about you than I do about her.” Stan ponders this, then realizes, in his slow way, the implications of Ollie’s statement. Stan asks, “Well, you DO, don’t you?” Ollie says, drily and without any kind of “take,” “Well, we won’t go into that.”
One of their features, “Beau Hunks,” starts with a shot of Ollie, playing the piano and singing a song called, “The Idol of My Dreams,” which begins, “I love you, I love you, I love you …” and looking straight into the camera as he warbles. Cut several times to shots of Stan, in the same room, tidying things up, folding a newspaper, etc. The first time you watch that scene, it can be unsettling. Is Ollie telling Stan he “loves” him, in a romantic way? As it turns out, Ollie announces to Stan after he’s finished singing that he is going to be married — to a woman. Needless to say, that doesn’t work out. At any rate, Stan and Leo set up certain scenes to plant a suspicion in many minds — but there was never anything overt, and anything obvious was always strictly heterosexual.
But, it was all of a piece. Stan and Ollie were not only the most-loved comedy team, but also the most complex.
Their unique, inimitable combination thrilled the world. After the first couple of years of their pairing (their first official film was made in 1927; their first sound short, in 1929), Hal Roach had the team begin making each short not only in the team’s native English, but also in French, German, Italian and Spanish versions, often with changes in the cast for each. Stan and Ollie, and any other English-speaking actors, had to learn their lines phonetically, the way they sounded to them. Of course their command of the various other languages was non-existent, but as Stan once said, “We’re funnier if we don’t speak the other languages too fluently. But of course, we have to be understandable.” Although the process was time consuming, tiring, and expensive, Roach made huge profits on the L & H films shown at hundreds of theaters in Latin America, as well as Europe.
Stan and Ollie, working steadily to turn out a collection of comic shorts each year — plus, from 1931 on, an increasing number of feature-length comedies — didn’t realize how well known and popular they had become until they went on a trip to England in 1932. Thousands of fans mobbed them (in a warm, adoring way) everywhere they went. They made a number of personal appearances, were often annoyed by autograph seekers while they were eating in restaurants, and returned home at last, exhausted, and stunned at their reception. They had genuinely never imagined …
Laurel and Hardy’s career at Roach continued successfully throughout the 1930s, although “creative differences” between Roach and Laurel became ever more of a problem — as did the two comics’ never-ending marital troubles. Laurel had stood up to Roach on differences they had about a number of their movies, and Roach resented being talked back to by a “mere employee.” After their final Roach feature, “Saps At Sea,” was released in 1940, L & H and Roach went their separate ways.
“The boys” signed contracts with 20th Century-Fox, and later with M-G-M, to make comedy feature films. But the results were disappointing. The studios wouldn’t give the pair any room for improvisation, for ad-libbing during a take, or anything else of that nature, which had been routine practice at the Roach studio. Stan and Babe’s frustration with this new restriction, and finally their resignation, showed very plainly on the screen in their final films.
The pair were in their 50s now; different lighting and make-up insisted upon by the two bigger studios made this fact painfully obvious. It’s much harder for two “old” men to be funny. And while they weren’t “old” by today’s standards, Stan developed diabetes, and Babe’s weight ballooned completely out of control, as the 1950s began.
But their career as comics wasn’t over; not quite. In 1952, they were invited to do a tour of live theaters in England, putting on Laurel and Hardy skits. They accepted, gladly, and were in Europe for the better part of a year. During that time (they were accompanied most of the time by their wives), Stan and Babe became fast friends. They had always liked, and worked well with, each other, but had not gotten together socially much in the days of their greatest success. Now, they were closer than many brothers.
Stan and Babe last appeared before the public, together, in December 1954 when Ralph Edwards surprised them by doing their double histories on his TV show “This Is Your Life.” I remember seeing that program, when I was just a month short of turning 10. Babe got into the spirit of the thing, did a few of his “tie-twiddles” and other things for the crowd. Stan was much more reserved, uttering only 12 words audible to the TV audience during the entire half hour. He resented Edwards’ tricking of them to get them onto the show, and also his somewhat condescending attitude toward them during the program.
During the next three years, Stan suffered a stroke — but eventually recovered from it. Babe was not so lucky. He suffered a very severe stroke in 1956, that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. In the summer of the next year, he died at home, aged 65.
Stan lived on until 1965, comfortable but not wealthy in retirement, experiencing increasingly poor health. In February 1965 he was in a hospital for tests, and while being wheeled into a room for a procedure, cracked a one-liner, to the amusement of the nurse. Two minutes later, he suffered a massive heart attack, dying at the age of 74.
Just weeks before his death, Laurel had talked with a much younger man, John McCabe, who had written a joint biography of the team in 1961, called “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” He and Stan had become good friends during their extensive interviews, and very early in 1965, McCabe presented Laurel a plan he had, hoping for Stan’s blessing. McCabe wanted to start a Laurel and Hardy fan club, to be named “Sons of the Desert,” after their feature film of 1933 which most film historians consider their finest work. Laurel gladly gave McCabe the go-ahead. So despite the comedian’s death only weeks later, McCabe started the ball rolling for the fan club. It exists to this day, in many countries around the world. You can find their website; just google “Sons of the Desert,” and it’ll come up. You’ll be able to watch some of their films on there, too, if you’re so inclined. Or you can check YouTube; just google “Laurel and Hardy” and a large number of videos of their movies, and clips from same, will appear for you to enjoy.
If you saw them at a theater in the 1930s, or on TV in the 1950s, you’ll get to laugh at “the boys” all over again. And love them, as we all did. If you’re of the younger generation, and you’ve never experienced Stan and Ollie, you’ve got a very pleasant surprise coming.
I’ll close with two personal observations made about Stan and Babe by two different people whose quotes I’ve read. One said, “The minute I started watching my first movie of theirs, I knew they liked me.” The other, in discussing the pair when they did personal appearances, said, “They always would chat with the stage hands, the janitor at the theater — they didn’t think they were any better than anyone else.”
That was Stan and Ollie — just two guys, working at their trade, trying to get along. And astounded when they learned they were loved, all over the world.