Watching the melancholy film Stan and Ollie, well acted but sad made me realise how little I know about the men whose old films made me laugh so much as a child. They were favourites of my Dad, and I played them to my own children, so influential were they.
The film focused on the demise of the comedy duo in their twilight years, so was bound to be poignant. As a child, I always preferred Stan Laurel in his oversized jacket, bullied as he was by the huge mass that was Oliver Hardy in his undersized jacket, straining across his belly. Despite playing the dumb one, Stan was apparently the brains of the outfit, the perfectionist.
The film Stan and Ollie received rave reviews, rightly so, for Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly excelled as the comic pair. Even now, many years after their deaths, there is an official Laurel & Hardy website. This tells us that Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Cumbria, in 1890. He died in 1965. Oliver Hardy (aka Babe) was born Norvell Hardy in 1892, in Harlem, Georgia, and died in 1957. Hardy was the youngest of five children. His older brother, Sam, drowned after Oliver pulled him from a river but could not resuscitate him. The two, like many comedians, had a good deal of sadness during their lives. They met in America, via the Hal Roach Studio, which made them a household name but never made them rich.
Why the longevity of appeal? The website says, and I’d agree:
“There are many reasons why Laurel and Hardy were a great comedy team,” Hal Roach once explained, “but one of the basic reasons is that each was a perfect straight man for the other. Each was individually brilliant as a comedian, yet each could serve as a foil for the other. They complemented each other perfectly.”
“Basically, the Stan and Ollie characters were childlike, innocent. The best visual comedians imitate children really. No one could do this as well as Laurel and Hardy, and still be believable. We always strived for that and we sure must have succeeded. . . . People like that aren’t around anymore.“
This is probably true because children loved their visual humour including my slapstick- loving eldest son. However, the dialogue also had its clever highlights, and their catchphrase became well known: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” (which apparently comes from The Mikado). The duo used “D’oh” long before Homer Simpson. There were also surreal parts to their performances.
They were around during the Classical Hollywood era of cinema, a great success for around twenty years, which is good by any celebrity standard. Both had been reasonably successful in their own right prior to their meeting, officially becoming a team in 1927. Stan had gone on a tour of the States, where he was known as a Chaplin imitator, but then migrated. Roach was the person who saw the potential of combining the two.
They did get through numerous wives between them. Laurel had a common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg, from 1919-1925 before she accepted a one-way ticket to Australia to get rid of her (she returned later). His first wife was Lois Neilson, married in 1926, with whom he had a daughter, Lois, and a son, Stanley, who died after only nine days having been born two months prematurely. They divorced in 1934. In 1935, he married Ruth Rogers but filed for divorce in 1937, wanting to reconcile with Lois. She refused! In 1938, he married Vera Shuvelova in a very volatile relationship where she accused him of trying to bury her in the back yard. In 1941, he remarried Ruth Rogers, and then post-divorce in 1946, he married Ida Kitaeva Raphael with whom he stayed until death. She is represented in the film. Stan was not great husband material.
As for Oliver, in 1913, he married pianist, Madelyn Soloshin. In 1919, they separated before divorcing in 1920. In 1921, he married actress Myrtle Reeves, who was said to become alcoholic. The marriage was unhappy though long, so they divorced in 1937. He finally married Lucille Jones with whom he was thought to be happy until his death. No wonder the guys were skint, all that alimony, but they were also not in control of their own films.
Their last live performance was in Plymouth, Devon, in 1954. By this time, Oliver Hardy was very unwell. In 1956, on doctor’s orders, he lost weight (over 7 stones, possibly due to terminal cancer) but, a heavy smoker, he also suffered some strokes so additionally lost speech. His house was sold to pay his medical expenses, and it is said he weighed 9 stone 9 at death. Laurel was said to have pined for his friend Hardy (they argued, so all wasn’t constant sweetness and light). Another heavy smoker until 1960, Laurel died of a heart attack.
Their life as a duo was over, and yet they live on. They were still shown on television in the 1970s, which is when I saw most of their material. I do love Frank Skinner’s old approach to romance ‘though!
In this article, comedian Frank Skinner admits: new girlfriends were always “subjected to the Laurel and Hardy test”, when he would play a video of the Laurel and Hardy dance sequence from Way Out West. “If she didn’t laugh, I instantly wrote her off as a future companion,” said Skinner, conceding that this wasn’t exactly rational behaviour.