The release of the Laurel and Hardy film biopic Stan & Ollie has brought the legendary comedy duo back into the public consciousness for a while.
And it reminded me that, among various things I’ve written for this site over the years but never posted, there was a piece on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that I had notes for. It was originally to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Laurel’s death; but it works just as well to put it here now.
Even if it’s mainly about Laurel and the last days of his life, you actually can’t write about Laurel without it being about Hardy: the pair were inseparable, both in public consciousness and, as it happened, even in life and death.
It is a remarkable sign of the longeivity potential in the medium of film, and a testatement to the talents of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, that we still talk about them even now.
We are soon coming up to 100 years since the pair starred in their first movie together. Most of the shorts considered their classics are 80 and 90 years old by now. When I developed my love of Laurel and Hardy as a kid in the eighties, they had both already been dead for around two decades and their prime era had begun before even my grandparents had been born.
All this time later, they still have vast legions of fans, who keep the pair’s work and memory alive in all kinds of different ways. I tend to come back and binge-watch Laurel and Hardy shorts every few years. There is no question that both of them were comic geniuses who each brought something inimitable to the equation. Together, they were something special: whether they would’ve shone so brightly apart is difficult to know. They both did other work here and there, but the vast majority of their on-screen career was spent together.
Some unfairly limit the credit due to Oliver Hardy, which is to grossly misunderstand the real dynamics of the duo. Hardy was without doubt a highly talented comic actor in his own right: as well as a multi-talented all-rounder (the man could really sing). It might be fair to say, however, that Laurel was more of the comedy artisan: even if the two were essentially a perfect 50/50 in terms of what they brought to the equation.
The fact that Laurel had been Charlie Chaplin‘s understudy ranks as one of those particularly nice facts to reel out in casual bar conversation. But it’s true: the two of them had arrived in the United States on the same ship from Britain.
Unlike Chaplin’s Little Tramp, however, Laurel’s character took a while to find its feet. The on-screen ‘Stan Laurel’ character that would become so iconic for decades was something that was fine-tuned over time rather than something that appeared fully-formed. In Duck Soup, you can see some of the idyosyncracies already there, but it’s not quite fully formed. In their next few films, the characteristics develop more, until eventually you have the whole package (the head-scratching, the wide smile, the sad face, etc).
The sheer volume of the work they did together at the Hal Roach studio is without comparison: but the sheer quality of so much of it speaks for itself, and is particularly extraordinary given the insane speeds of production and turnaround (which today would be entirely impossible: they made nine films – including some of the very best – in just 1932 alone).
The universality of their work is also extraordinary, given how long ago it was; people all over Europe, and as far as India and Pakistan, were familiar with Laurel and Hardy films and grew up with them.
And the demand for the duo to return to action was ongoing for many years.
One of the most endearing stories about the pair concerns when Laurel briefly returned to England 1947 with Hardy and they went on a six-week tour of the United Kingdom: the duo were stunned to be mobbed by adoring crowds wherever they went (having had no idea they were this popular in the UK).
During Laurel’s homecoming to Ulverston, the duo were greeted by thousands of fans outside the Coronation Hall. These events – relatively late in their story – are what the new film Stan & Ollie is centered on. The pair had been stunned that this many people had come out to see them, apparently having been unaware of the extent of their popularity still.
In 1950, Laurel and Hardy were invited to France to make a feature film. The film, a French-Italian titled Atoll K, was in part designed to bring about their return to public consciousness: but it was a disaster, plagued by the ill health of both actors, panned by critics, and generally failing to recapture any of the magic of earlier years.
In 1955, they were planning to do a television series, Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables, based on children’s stories. The plans were delayed after Laurel suffered a stroke on 25th April. As he was planning to get back to work, his partner Hardy then also had a massive stroke, which resulted in his being unable to return to acting.
And that was more or less where their careers ended.
After Hardy’s passing in 1957, Laurel lived his final years in a small flat in the Oceana Apartments in Santa Monica, California. And this is the really melancholy epilogue to the whole story: and was the aspect of it that I’d been wanting to write something about.
It is claimed by some that he had ended up in the sixty dollar a month apartment because he was struggling financially; but others dispute this and say he was there entirely by choice.
While here, no longer working, he famously spent a lot of time answering fan mail. His phone number, EXbrook 3-1851, was listed in the telephone directory, and his fans could literally dial the number and speak to him directly. People would call him and say ‘Are you really the Stan Laurel? Can we come over and see you?’ Some actually got to do so; apparently Laurel would happily welcome visitors on good days.
It was here, in these twilight years in Santa Monica, that Jerry Lewis was among other younger stars of the time who visited Laurel. Laurel’s contributions to The Bellboy are not disputed: and they came from these visits.
Naturally there were even now also promptings for Laurel to come out of retirement and grace the screen one last time.
He was offered a cameo role in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); but he turned it down, apparently because he didn’t want to be seen on screen in his old age, especially without Hardy.
This is particularly understandable when you watch Atoll K, filmed over 10 years earlier: I personally find it a very depressing film to watch, because both of them are visibly too old and struggling too much to be able to recapture the old magic. Signs of failing health are evident in that movie, and Laurel lacks the physical flexibility to do what he’d done in the past.
It had been on 7th August 1957 that Oliver Hardy died. Laurel was too ill to attend the funeral.
He refused to perform on stage or act in another film without his friend.
It has been going around recently that Laurel had in fact become partially paralysed on one side literally the moment he heard (via telephone) that Oliver Hardy had died. This story (which is probably a myth and not true) appears to have come from Jerry Lewis and apparently appears in the commentary track for The Bellboy DVD. In it, Jerry Lewis says “When he (Stan) became paralysed – he was paralysed the day he picked up the phone and they said Ollie died. And he was paralysed on that side that held the phone… they had to pry the phone out of his hand… And this is the way he stayed for the rest of his life.”
This particular version of events definitely sounds like romantic embellishment and myth-making. It’s difficult to figure out whether he (Jerry Lewis) was embellishing the reality for dramatic effect or whether perhaps his own memory of the time had become a little warped by the time he recording the commentary track for the DVD (decades later).
Still, it is somehow fitting, when we think of how inseprable Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel are in the popular mindset, to consider that Laurel himself may have felt the same way: or that his own ill health might’ve even be triggered or accelerated by the death of the other.
A remarkable collection of letters recently(ish) went on sale in Britain, affording more insight into Laurel’s life and mind. Among other things, they reveal how Stan Laurel reacted to the death of Oliver Hardy, describing how “lost” he was. The type-written correspondence was written by Laurel and addressed to his cousin in Cumbria; a collection of around 40 letters sent between May 1947 and Jaunary 1965 just before his passing.
“I miss him terribly and feel quite lost – can’t realise that he has gone,” Laurel wrote in one of the letters. One of these letters was written only days before his own death. Other subjects included the death of George VI and succession of Elizabeth II, sailing on the Queen Mary at the same time as Winston Churchill, as well as various family matters.
They provide an interesting insight into the later days and preoccupations of one of the twentieth century’s most beloved entertainers; as well as some general insight into that particular time in the mid twentieth century.
An online resource also has a comprehensive archive of letters from various stages in Laurel’s life.
The letters reinforce a sense of melancholy you always get when reading about Laurel’s later life, and in particular the post-Hardy malaise, which, according to most, defined much of the remainder of Laurel’s life and from which he never really recovered.
He died on 23rd February 1965, at the age of 74, having suffered a heart attack four days earlier.
At his funeral, an array of early twentieth century screen stars and comedy pioneers (including from the silent era) were in attendance, and this included fellow comedy legend of the silent screen era, Buster Keaton (who would die of lung cancer one year later), who is said to have been overheard talking about Laurel, saying: “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.”
The film Stan & Ollie is out in cinemas already.
But, for anyone who’s never seen any Laurel & Hardy (I know there’s some quite youngish subscribers here), you would definitely do better to watch some of the Laurel & Hardy shorts first. Tit For Tat and Fixer Uppers are good starters: but, really, there’s a million of them, so practically any would do.
There have also long been rumours and claims about “lost” Laurel & Hardy shorts (specifically, I think, from the 1920s and not the 30s) that have never been seen by an audience. Whether those films will ever materialise or be stumbled upon remains to be seen (I guess they’re like a 20th century Dead Sea Scrolls or something): but if they ever are, it would be great for those to also get a full cinematic release somehow.
Read more: ‘The Extaordinary Life of Rita Hayworth‘, ‘Ben Hur: From Cinematic Masterpiece to Cheesy Remake‘, ‘Remembering Peter O’Toole: From Films to Foreskins‘, ‘The 20 Greatest Moments in Star Wars‘, ‘Who Killed Natalie Wood: The Unsolved Murder of a Film Icon‘…
See ALL ‘FILM’ posts here.