He, and They, but Mostly, Babe

There is always a longer story. Often, more than one. Pull one strand and three stories become visible.

The first one begins begins in 1890 when Arthur Stanley Jefferson is born into a noted theatrical family in Ulverston, a market town in Cumbria, which is located north of England’s second largest city, Manchester. The family controlled the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. Before he was 16 years old, the boy was occasionally performing onstage. By the time he was twenty, the young actor was understudying for an actor he would always admire, Charlie Chaplin. An American tour followed, and he decided to relocate. Soon, he was making movies with the first of what would become many wives. By 1925–by now, he was 35 years old–he was calling himself Stan Laurel, and working as a writer/director for Hal Roach Studios (also known for the Our Gang comedies). Hardly famous, Stan Laurel’s involvement in dozens of films (all two-reelers, each about 20 minutes long), with a long resume of stage performance, with a distinct talent for comedy, might have taken him a long way as he matured along with the growing business of motion pictures. We’ll pick up on that story shortly.

The second story begins two years after Stan Laurel was born, in 1892, this time in Harlem, Georgia, then in Milledgeville, not far from Macon. Again, a show business family of sorts. Norvell Hardy sang locally, and operated a movie theater. By age 21, he (most often, “Babe,” less often “Oliver”) was working in Florida for Lubin Motion Pictures (one of the largest early movie companies) as a production and script assistant. A year later, Oliver Hardy made his first film, and more than 200 short films followed. When Florida’s film industry failed, he and his wife (again, many wives in Babe’s story, too), and ended up at the Hal Roach studio.

When Hal Roach puts the two actors together, the third story begins in 1927 with two-reelers. Laurel & Hardy are among the few silent film stars who built even-more-successful careers in full-length features with sound. Stan is in his glory as head writer and creative lead–he develops the gags, and simply falls in love with the popular confection known as Laurel & Hardy. Babe is more of a talented actor who enjoys the lifestyle–including gambling, women, and so on–but when he on set, he is the consummate professional.

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Both live a life consumed by failed relationships with women, and money issues (both closely related). They are among Hollywood’s biggest stars, but they are contract players with little economic leverage. Each lives with his own demons.

At times, they are not sure whether they even like one another, but there is no question about whether they love one another. The story of Laurel & Hardy is the story of one of the great 20th century friendships, often tested by the ups and downs of a career that continued into the 1950s.

That’s when the end of the third story picks up, not in real life, but as a motion picture. It’s called Stan & Ollie (2018). This chapter begins while Laurel & Hardy are at the peak of their creative endeavors at the Roach studio, and provides several winning examples of the two making movies. There are hints of financial troubles and struggles with producer Hal Roach, and these advance the plot to a less-than-stellar start of a tour of England in the 1953. As they wait for a British movie producer (“Miffin,” often called “Muffin” by these silly guys) to green light a feature based upon Robin Hood (which is never made), they tour to modest audiences that are only partially filled. It’s depressing, a too-close look at what happens after a star is no longer a star. Still, the show must go on, even if it requires free promotional appearances to get their names out (most people seem to think they’ve retired, but they cannot because past divorce settlements must be paid). Somehow, the promo dates turn things around, and suddenly, they are filling the biggest theaters. But Ollie’s health is beginning to fail.

shareThe magic of Stan & Ollie is presented with ideal timing and winning personality by John C. Reilly (in a fat suit), and British comedian Steve Coogan (with a bit of prosthetic as well, most to shape his chin). They do marvelous work with several of the funniest bits, including a “double door” routine at an onstage railroad station that demonstrates Stan’s spectacular control over coming timing.

Along the way, we gain some insight into Stan’s creative mind, his insecurities about his relationship with Babe, the decisions never made or made for the wrong reasons, the wives, the financial mess he keeps getting himself into (as Babe does the same), the stormy relationship with Hal Roach, who seems to be getting rich on the backs of their work. And then, it ends. Babe dies. Stan continues writing scripts for Laurel & Hardy in a Los Angeles apartment because he cannot imagine any better way to spend his days.

Every good show business story demands a fair amount of imaginative leeway. So, too, is the case with he. Who’s “he?” He is Stan Laurel, unsure what remains of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and the young man who was once nearly on par with the great Charlie Chaplin. He is Stan Laurel who never could convince Babe to leave the Roach studio so they could set up their studio and make the fortune to which they were so deeply entitled. He is a sad man who experienced so much happiness, fame, and if not fortune, so much pleasure during the heights of his creative activities. He made magic.

s-l640He is the title of a novel–not a biography, but a novel that seems a lot like a biography but allows itself ample opportunity to explore what Stan was probably thinking and why. At first, author John Connolly’s idea for a book seems too ambitious, too flaky, too far removed from reality, too close to reality. And then, half the book is passed. Embellished by moving images of Steve Coogan portraying Stan Laurel, illuminated by watching Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton on YouTube (another opportunity for none of them to get paid for their work), Stan takes shape as more than part of a famous show business duo. He becomes a whole person, powerful in his way, and deeply wounded, too.

The wound runs deep. There is resentment–why could Chaplin succeed in ways that he could not–why was Roach so unfair–how did Laurel & Hardy lose their careers–how did they manage to go so low as to play to small unfilled houses in 1953–but in the end, none of that stays in his mind for too long. When he looks out the window, and watches the ocean–he does that a lot in his later years, at least according to Connolly, he thinks only of Babe.

They were swell together.

And he wants nothing more than to work a gag with Babe for eternity.

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