May 8th, 2004

Stan And Ollie

For an absurdly paltry  £150, you can now acquire The Laurel & Hardy Collection. This comprises 21 DVDs, 68 hours worth of material covering Stan and Ollie’s classic period, circa 1929-1939. They first made their reputation in the silent era but were among the few comedians of that era who actually benefitted from the awkward transition into talkies. Although they were quite effective in the medium of cranked-up slapstick, especially when involved in mutual bouts of wanton demolition with James Finlayson (who uttered the first “Doh!” decades before The Simpsons), their comedic relationship came into its own via the (albeit not exactly quickfire) dialogue of H M Walker.

There are many comedians whom I admire, a tiny handful whom I love. I’m not alone in loving Laurel & Hardy, who inspire a unique and lingering affection. Much as their characters were generally treated with indifference, even cruelty by a cold, Thirties world, so during their lifetimes and posthumously, they’ve not always been afforded the respect and due care they deserve. Summarily dismissed by Hal Roach in the late Thirties, they spent their remaining years shunted from studio to studio, none of whom were sensitive to the chemistry between the pair. Hence a slew of films made during the Forties which you simply wish had never been made, especially Atoll K in which Stan Laurel looks conspicuously and desperately unwell.

By the Fifties, Stan and Ollie enjoyed a revival when their 20 minute shorts were screened on the emerging new medium of television. They even made a forced and reluctant appearance on This Is Your Life. However, by this time the pair were too ill to properly to enjoy or take advantage of a retrospective wave of adulation.

Oliver Hardy died in 1957, aged just 62, in unmerciful circumstances – ironically, he weighed just 120 pounds when he expired. Stan Laurel passed in 1965 after a similarly protracted and painful illness. Although their comedies have been frequently repeated and televised since their deaths, broadcasts and reissues have either been uninterrupted or unsatisfactory. In the Eighties, a dispute over copyright involving a German company meant that it became impossible to show Laurel & Hardy repeats for some years. They were also the victims of colourisation, a ghastly concept introduced when some executive halfwit panicked and market research which suggested that younger Americans tended to click right past anything black and white when channel surfing. The colourised versions are extraneously available on this DVD reissue – one of the extras consists of a TV “tribute” hosted by Dom DeLuise, uses entirely colourised clips. They are unnaturally awful, sacrilegious, like daubing the face of a corpse in an open coffin pink. Laurel & Hardy were always meant to be black and white, harlequins who didn’t even belong to their own times, yet alone subsequent decades (yet who transcend all geographical and temporal boundaries). Stan especially belongs to some ethereal species of holy fools.

Furthermore, Laurel & Hardy have not always enjoyed the greatest of critical reputations among the superior nibs, who tend to follow the Woody Allen line that The Marx Brothers represent the apex of early 20th century comedy. (And there’s another Reaper, already up, by the way). Certainly, the sheer, tumblefire rapidity of Duck Soup, etc, lends a hipster air to their comedy, suggested that they were thinking twenty blocks ahead of everyone else. Laurel & Hardy’s comedy, by contrast, appears innocent, often painfully slow. Indeed, Stan Laurel, on viewing some of those old Thirties shorts shortly before he died, was appalled at the lethargic pace at which they proceeded, the lengthy pauses in between gags. There was, it turns out, a reason for that – it was to leave time for audiences who were busy rolling in the aisles to recover themselves for the next joke.

However, the slow, almost courtly pace of Laurel & Hardy has other benefits, that far outlive and outweigh perishable puns on “sanity clause”. There’s often the sense that in each new comedy they’re formally enduring a Sisyphus-type ritual of human futility (The Music Box, c’mon!). Stan and Ollie are often vagrants, victims of the depression, in Laughing Gravy, for instance. Just as often, however, they’re regularly prosperous middle class types and in one short, Ollie is on the point of marrying into a wealthy oil family. No matter. Whatever milieu, aspiration or caper they happen to be in, their fortunes systematically unravel over the 20 or so minutes they spend in it. there’s often the sense that it’s the same characters enduring the same fate in a whole series of parallel universes and circumstances.

They set forth in each new short with apparently no idea that they are so inevitably accident prone. In one short, Mae Busch’s character explains to them that her boyfriend has accidentally fallen and locked himself into a trunk. The boys look bemused at how such a bizarre accident might befall anyone before Stan philosophically observes, “It could happen”. There are many things at which the sceptic could cavil in Laurel & Hardyland. The editing, as I’ve mentioned, seems shoddy and naive. Dialogue, especially as delivered by the supporting cast, is often wooden as a spoon, a too clunking reminder of the infancy of the talkies. The verbal gags aren’t always out of the top drawer (I have one friend who quotes the exchange “What are you going to cook? I’m going to cook his goose!” as damning evidence of L&H’s unworthiness). Furthermore, the climactic visual gags, such as Stan falling asleep at the car wheel at the end of “County Hospital” against an obvious screen backdrop might have been the height of SFX in the Thirties but are unsatisfactory nowadays.

No matter. You’re never looking for Laurel & Hardy to top themselves with some bigger comedic spectacular set piece. Whenever you watch them, you’re actually looking to revisit the same things, the same people, the same accidents and failures and punctures, blank looks and exasperation. Much as Christ supposedly suffered and died for our sins, so in a (very) funny kind of way, Ollie goes through his inevitable physical privations for us, as a demonstration of what life’s about; grand folly, puffed up dreams and ambitions of self-betterment brought ever crashing down. There’s where some of the love resides. What is more affecting in all of comedy than those lingering, to-camera glances Ollie delivers as he sits there on his ample backside laid low by adversity or the idiocy of poor Stan, scratching his head or twiddling his thumbs? Those glances count for so much, speak so directly to audiences several decades down the line, to decades of fans as yet unborn. They say, “what are we lumbered with?” and, as one ardent fan recently remarked in discussing her love of Laurel & Hardy, “Yeah, I know how you feel, mate.” Who doesn’t? And to whom are Stan and Ollie not truly mates in the way that Buster, Charlie, Groucho, W.C. never were?

Stan Laurel devised the gags, was the “brains” behind Laurel & Hardy despite his magnificently vacant, dumbcluck persona and this has sometimes prompted a downgrading of Ollie’s contribution, like those people who hiply see The Beatles as consisting in John Lennon alone. The South Bank Show once devoted an entire edition to Stan Laurel, as if to imply that he was the valid, auteur half of the partnership. The myth is that Ollie was a jobbing actor who once the work was done disappeared to the golf course. However, Oliver is so much the better player onscreen, so infinitely subtle and elegant and fastidious in his body language (the more to emphasise his pratfalls) that he commands at least equal respect, as well as dominating the screen time. Biographer Simon Louvish makes much of Oliver Hardy’s Southern backgrounds and even asserts that his elaborate politeness in the L&H shorts, as well as his wounded looks when that politeness is abruptly shunned, carried in it seeds of the hurt suffered by the South when it was shunted by the Yankees in the civil war. That strikes me as a little far fetched but certainly there’s a poignancy in the harshness with which L&H are treated by those whom they come across, how hard their attempts simply to make a modest stake in the world are coldly rebuffed, how they must fall back forever on their own peculiar dependency on one another (indeed, although Oliver is generally seen to be carrying Stan – literally, in The Music Box, you sometimes get the impression that as well as being no less dumb than Stan, Ollie is a little more dependent on him than vice versa).

The accusation of misogyny is often levelled against Stan and Ollie – their wives are generally appalling battleaxes and this admittedly feeds into the fiction perpetuated by tradcom that Western societies are matriarchal. Nonsense, of course. However, in Laurel & Hardy’s case, the oppressiveness of their spouses only serves to emphasise how much the world is against them. There’s a further suggestion, skimming the surface for evidence that Laurel & Hardy are a gay couple. To bluster in denial isn’t to be to be reflexively homophobic. It’s just that, that wasn’t the point. Sure, they shared a bed, a la Morecambe & Wise. There’s actually a prosaic reason for this, as my friend and colleague Chris Bohn observed – this was the Thirties, it was very probably that sharing beds in cheap b&b lodgings like those depicted in Laughing Gravy wasn’t uncommon among itinerent, luckless men roving the country in search of work.

Still, their pathetic, touching relationship is more profound than any mooted (non existent) sexual connotation. It’s about two people in a state of collective loneliness against an America, which in the Thirties especially, presented a hostile climate but which still speaks to anybody trying to walk unconfidently into the cold outdoors and make their modest claim to a small piece of the world. To depict this as a single person would have been too, too sad (Charlie Chaplin is potentially such a person but he compensates by being immensely resourceful in a way L&H are not). As for three – now, you’re in Stooges territory.

What’s most wonderful, most piercingly moving is the way L&H are saddled with each other. They’re opposite in every respect and it’s hard to divine what original contract brought them together (actually, this is explained in an early silent, where Stan turns up in a kilt in America). Ollie’s bulbous, puffed up, a creature of some deeply American tradition of manners which has been brusquely swept aside in the modern age (all right, maybe Louvish does have a point), Stan’s a clueless, skinny immigrant who, unlike most American immigrants has retained the blankness of identity he had when he first landed up on the shores of the USA, has somehow had nothing of that country inscribed on him through experience. Ollie bullies Stan because that’s the privilege of the second least powerful citizen in America (Ollie) to exercise against the least powerful (Stan). Yet, you sometimes suspect that when Stan neglectfully visits on Ollie the slapstick misery of tumbling down rooftops or chimneys, being hoisted out of hospital windows, being poked in the eye, dumped in a full bath, dislodged from a ladder or squeezed into a tiny car, that despite his whimpers of “Well, I couldn’t help it!” Stan subconsciously is exercising a passive-aggressive revenge against his pompous and overbearing companion, a suspicion intensified when he openly revolts against him.

Anyway, you’d be an absolute mug not to buy this sucker (although if you wait a few months they might mark it down to under  £99.99). As for me, I’m going to be, ahem, 68 hours late for work tomorrow . . .

*NB. In July 2010, this boxed set was available on Amazon for £32.77.

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