Saturday, June 16, 2018

SL

Stan Laurel was born June 16, 1890.  Laurel and Hardy have been beloved for a long time, but are they still remembered?  Perhaps people would recognize them in a photo (by the way, they're on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album), but have they seen their films?

Stan played the dopey one in the duo (not that Ollie was any smarter, he just thought he was), but he was the brains of the act, figuring out routines while Hardy just wanted to finish shooting and go play golf.

Truth is, Laurel had quite a career before he was associated with Hardy.  Laurel was born in England and joined Fred Karno's pantomime troupe as a young man.  He toured America, understudy to the troupe's leading man Charlie Chaplin.

In 1917, Laurel started making movies, starring in well over 50 comedy shorts before teaming up with Hardy--they appeared on screen the first time in 1921 in The Lucky Dog, though they wouldn't be a regular duo for years.

Laurel clearly was a talent, though he hadn't quite hit on a character yet.  Generally speaking, his character onscreen was fast and mischievous.  And in his earliest work with Hardy once they were teamed up, the two were still figuring out how to work it. Physically, they looked great together, but Laurel needed to get dumber and slower.  The deliberate pace was unusual in slapstick, and set them apart.  (They weren't unique in this--Harry Langdon could be childish and slow--it's quite possible Laurel was inspired by Langdon.)

The first official Laurel and Hardy film is considered to be Putting Pants On Philip in 1927, and though Laurel always loved it, it's nothing like a "Laurel and Hardy" film--for one thing, Laurel is a Scot who's woman-crazy while Hardy is embarrassed and tries to keep him under control.  But the team soon got into the groove with The Battle Of The Century in the same year, featuring a gigantic pie fight.

They were an immediate hit, turning out about one short per month over the next few years, with the occasional feature thrown in.  And when sound hit, they only got better, as their voices were perfect for their screen characters. (Also, in the early days of sound, they made some shorts in Spanish, French and German--no one had figured out dubbing, yet, so Stan and Ollie would shoot in English, then a new cast would come in and they'd shoot the same scene while speaking a different language phonetically.)

I'd say they're the only major silent clowns whose sound work is superior.  One of their movies, The Music Box (1932), even won Oscar for best short film.

In the late 30s they made mostly full-length films, since shorts were dying out and features were where the money was. They worked throughout the decade with producer Hal Roach,  but left for 20th Century Fox in 1941.  Unfortunately, these films are among their weakest, and by the mid-40s the team was done on film, except for Atoll K in 1951, which was probably a mistake.

The team, however, tour in their later career, performing in person in front of adoring crowds. By all accounts, they still had it.

Laurel lived till 1965, but didn't appear on TV or film.  He wanted his fans to remember him as he was.  Meanwhile, there was new interest in Laurel and Hardy, as the team's movies were shown on TV and revival houses.  He spent his last years in an apartment in Santa Monica, listed in the phone book and visited by major names in comedy who wanted to meet their inspiration.

He was far from the innocent he played, of course.  (And had trouble with women--Laurel married five times, twice to the same woman.)  But he created an indelible character, and I hope each new generation gets the joy of discovering him.  And Ollie too, of course.

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