Book Review Of Stan And Ollie, The Roots Of Comedy, The Double Life Of Laurel And Hardy
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/23/07
The one thing I’ve always wanted to know about the comedy team of Laurel And Hardy was, who was the straight man? If one thinks of all the other great comedy teams of the Twentieth Century, the answer is obvious. Moe Howard was the straight man for Curly Howard and Larry Fine in The Three Stooges, Zeppo Marx was the straight man for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico in The Marx Brothers, and Bud Abbott was the straight man for Lou Costello in Abbott And Costello (for my money the best comedy team of all time, because while their slapstick was the equal of any other team, their verbal repartee was nonpareil). Even in television, the roles are always clearly defined. Tony Randall was the straight man for Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple, and Desi Arnaz was Lucille Ball’s straight man in I Love Lucy. Perhaps the only other comedy team where the straight man role was not clearly defined was The Honeymooners’ pairing of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.
My query is a relevant one, because after reading Simon Louvish’s nearly five hundred page biography of Laurel and Hardy, it’s about the only question of mine, about the duo, that is still unanswered. Anything else- such as where Laurel had an erotic birthmark, is answered. Ok, not that; I’m kidding, but just about anything beside that is answered. The book, Stan And Ollie, The Roots Of Comedy, The Double Life Of Laurel And Hardy, printed by Thomas Dunne Books, was published in 2001, and relegated to almost immediate obscurity by a spate of mediocre to bad reviews, by both professional critics and Amazon.com wannabes. The basic charge against the book is that it is poorly written. The reason claimed is usually that Louvish’s writing is turgid, or turbid. The reviewers cannot make up their minds, which tells me that they really do not even know what the terms mean, save that they sound hoidy toidy enough for a ‘literary review.’ The reviewers usually point to phrases or sentences like, ‘To Stan, of course, art was not the issue so much as work and the remuneration thereof,’ or, ‘This fact alone should provide a vital clue for the constant conundrum- the disentangling of the claims of authorship to Laurel and Hardy, the characters, the lines, the movies, the plots.’ These are perfectly fine and grammatically parsable sentences, and reflect only the reviewers’ level of reading: i.e- sub-third grade. What separates Louvish’s book from many other accounts of the duo, however, as well as other celebrity biographies, is not his sterling prose, but the technique the book uses, of painting portraits and scenes of the two individual men, and slowly tying them together. It is a technique I have only seen used in the novelistic nonfiction works of the great historian Daniel J. Boorstin.
The book is uniformly fine in its research into the duo’s pasts, before their teaming up, and Louvish never goes too deeply into the sordid and irrelevant messes of the two men’s personal lives, be it their marriages- Hardy married a Jewish woman in 1913- the year of the infamous Leo Frank lynching in Georgia, and Laurel was a serial husband, nor their finances nor political positions. The book sticks to their art and craft, as it should- and it debunks many myths of the two men’s work. Louvish never gets too fellatric nor masturbatory about his heroes. There is an almost perfect dose of flippancy for the pair, as Louvish does realize that, as great as they were, they were not serious filmmakers of depth, in the Stanley Kubrick or Ingmar Bergman vein. Nor does he shy away from defining the duo’s filmic successes and clunkers. Although I would agree with his positive conclusions regarding classic films like Sons Of The Desert or The Music Box, and his linking the duo with Samuel Beckett’s later protagonists in Waiting For Godot, Louvish does sometimes reveal an odd bias and distaste for some films without any reasonable justification. As example, the duo’s 1940s B film work is tossed aside as virtually worthless, and Louvish totally dismisses the team’s greatest film, Babes In Toyland, seemingly because he sees racism in the portrayal of the monstrous Bogeymen, although his linkage to black stereotypes seems to be based upon the monsters’ wearing grass skirts. This alone bizarrely seems to signify African stereotype to him.
The book does such a good job of painting the men’s portraits that the very oddity of the famous comedians as real people soon dissipates. After all, few people- outside of fans, would guess that Laurel, born Stanley Jefferson, was an Englishman who toured with Charlie Chaplin in Fred Karno’s music hall revues (the British equivalent of Vaudeville), and that his father was a famed theater manager and lowbrow playwright. Louvish does a good job of contrasting Laurel’s selfless written accounts of his days abroad with Karno with Chaplin’s self-aggrandizing accounts. Nor would they know that Hardy was a Southerner, from Georgia, whose father (whom he never knew, due to early death), was a Civil War hero in his local town, wounded in the Battle Of Antietam. Louvish also notes that, like Judy Garland, the duo have been hailed, since their deaths (Hardy in 1957, Laurel in 1965) as gay heroes for what is seen as thinly veiled homosexual references throughout their work.
Louvish details the two men’s friendship, even as Hardy was almost always making far less than Laurel, due in part to their signing separate contracts. The pair made about 440 films between them (together and separately), with Hardy making far more films alone than Laurel; yet most have not survived. He also debunks some myths about the men, most notably Hardy’s claims about his past, such as the fact that he never starred in a traveling minstrel show across Dixie. Yet, along with who was the straight man, Louvish, like many other biographers, cannot pin down when and why Stanley Jefferson ever became Stan Laurel, and resorts to merely reiterating disproven prior claims.
Louvish does, importantly distinguish between several of the ‘firsts’ in the duo’s history, aside from the manifest first pairing of the team, as a team, in the 1926 Hal Roach silent film, 45 Minutes From Hollywood. However, the first officially billed film, with ‘Laurel And Hardy’ as a team was 1927’s The Second Hundred Years. To show how well researched the book is, though, Louvish goes even further, and nails the first film that both men ever appeared in, although not as a team, was 1921’s The Lucky Dog. Louvish also pins the fortuitous comic pairing on director Leo McCarey, not Roach, as widely believed. He also is wise to discern that Oliver Hardy’s filmic persona in the duo took longer to develop than Stan Laurel’s. While Laurel went through phases as a Chaplin imitator- ala Billy West, and a pale echo of Harold Lloyd’s go-getter persona, once he was paired with Hardy, his sob-happy schlemiel was pretty well set. Hardy, on the other hand, went from being the bullying villain to West, ala Chaplin’s early tormentor Eric Campbell, through a series of bumbling fat men personae that never quite meshed. Even after pairing with Laurel, it took a dozen or more films for the iconic ‘This is another fine mess’ slow boil Hardy to appear.
Yet, the minuses in this book are far outweighed by the major pluses, and Stan And Ollie, The Roots Of Comedy, The Double Life Of Laurel And Hardy is- if not the definitive work on the pair, certainly the best yet. And, as for who was the straight man, my money says it was Laurel, since Hardy seemed to suffer far more physical abuse, even though the laugh quotient was split equally. If you disagree, read the book, and you just may be right. Sort of like Laurel, or Hardy, always were about each other.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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