Monday, August 2, 2010

Stan and Ollie by Simon Louvish

Simon Louvish. Stan and Ollie: The Root of Comedy. The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.

The author argues that “no culture was complete without it’s clowns”. Joe Grimaldi was a famous comedic figure in early 19th century England. Many clowns subsequently were patterned after Grimaldi. Clowns understood the fears and joys of their audiences and played to those emotions. Dan Leno carried on as leading comic actor in the late 19th century until his death in 1904. Dan Leno inspired Stan Laurel, who with Oliver Hardy would become the roots of cinematic comedy.

Oliver Hardy was fat from birth and probably genetically destined to be overweight. As a 200 pound teenager he attended a military school which may explain where he learned the agility he displayed on film.

Stan Laurel’s father was an actor who died when Stan was 16. Stan acted as a solo comedian, using work inspired by Dan Leno’s partner Harry Randall and indirectly by Leno. Fred Karno, who also helped Charlie Chaplin’s career, discovered Laurel and helped his career. Karno’s performances bridget the era between Grimaldi and silent film comedies.

Karno’s act invented self-referential stage comedy, where acts were interrupted for off stage comments.

The New York Times in January 1909 reported that 45 million attended movies weekly and that $40 million had been invested into the movie industry. Movies cost 5 cents or 10 cents, which compares to the 40 cents or 50 cents charged then for a top level vaudeville show or $1 for a legitimate musical comedy.

Oliver Hardy married Madelyn Saloshin, a piano player in 1913. Oliver was a singer.

Karno spent much time training his actors to have a keen sense of the pace and timing of humor. Mack Sennett hired Charlie Chaplin at $150 per week to star in Keystone film comedies.

Jacksonville, Florida in 1914 claimed to have more movie units than did Los Angeles. Oliver Hardy joined the Lubin film company in movies there. Hardy learned his craft beginning with this film work. He made 65 Vim films in 1915 through 1917 at an average of one a week. He appeared as Babe Hardy.

Vim films failed and was taken over by Caws films. They moved the entire crew including Hardy to film seven films in Bayonne, New Jersey. Then they moved to Hollywood, where Oliver’s first Hollywood film was as the Sultan of Bacteria in “The Slave”. This also claims to be the first film to no use intertitles. Hardy also appeared in this pre-censorship film “Playmates” which dealt with characters stealing cocaine for a homosexual drug user.

Stan Laurel filmed several comedies at Universal. Early comedies then relied heavily on physical humor.

Larry Semon signed for Vitagraph in 1919 for $3,600,000 for three years. He was a master of stunt comedy that was very popular in the early 1920s. Stan Laurel appeared in several Larry Semon films. Oliver Hardy also appeared in some Larry Semon films. Both Laurel and Hardy appeared in the picture ‘The Lucky Dog”, which Laruen playing a thief whose filrst words to Hardy’s character are intertitled as “put ‘em both up, insect, before I comb your hair with lead.” After that film, Laurel and Hardy wouldn’t meet again for a few more years. Laurel wett to do films for Broncho Billy Anderson. He also appeared in several Hal Roach movies, but separately from Hardy.

Larry Semon starred in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1925. Oliver Hardy was in the film. Semon’s reliance on slapstick was met with mixed reviews. A new era of comedy was emerging with focused more on plots and characters. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd emerged as the new comedy film stars.

Hal Roach spent over $1 million to make films in 1925. Director Leo McCarey liked “slow burn” comedies where jokes were set up and provided reasons why slapstick comedy resulted.

When Laurel and Hardy were paired together, their director James Parrott helped their progress. Parrott had great faith in their abilities. He helped their successful move from silent to talking films.

Hal Roach Studios paid the following salaries: 1925, $5,695 for Laurel, $2,116.07 for Hardy.
1926, $12,050 for Laurel, $11,850 for Hardy.
1927, $20,450 for Laurel, $15,541 for Hardy.
1928, $33,150 for Laurel, $21,166,67 for Hardy.
In 1927, Laurel and Hardy were brought working together. Their first movie was “Duck Soup”.

There are numerous stories as to how Laurel and Hardy were brought together. The author believes it most likely was film supervisor Leo McCarey who decided they should be a team. The marketing for Roach Studios listed them as a team. It is also noted that McCary would reuse the title “Duck Soup” in a later and separate Marx Brothers movie.

Hal Roach saw Hardy as a tough guy character. He was not happy with him becoming a comedy partner. He later would claim credit for pairing them.

The author notes that Stan Laurel had a career that continually improved over time. Oliver Hardy’s career, until being teamed with Laurel, was one that has it progressions and regressions. The first teaming of Laurel and Hardy, as written by Hal Roach, was designed to showcase Laurel. In one of their early paired movies, “Love ‘Em and Weep”, Hardy is only in a few scenes. In “Sailor’s Beware” there first was a line that would become their trademark, “here’s another mess you’ve gotten me into”. The author believes their next film “Do Detectives Think?” was the first “proper” Laurel and Hardy film.

In 1927, Roach switched his distribution from Pathe Exchange to the large MGM. This led to lawsuits that were settled in 1932.

The first MGM Laurel and Hardy movie was “Sugar Daddies”. After that, Leo McCarey returned to direct or supervise the next 18 Laurel and Hardy movies. The author notes their comedic competition faded in comparison. The Marx Brothers became tired, W.C. Fields worked loss, Mae West lost her best looks, Buster Keaton didn’t switch as well to movies with sound, and Charlie Chaplin became more political. The author argues only Laurel and Hardy maintained a steady comedic trait.

The author attributed Laurel and Hardy’s success at being silent and talking film starts as due to “the audience, entranced, was just not willing to let them go.” The author believes audiences saw Laurel and Hardy as well matched for each other whose give and take dialogue were discussions with which people identified.

Model T Fords destroyed in their film were special made vehicles with no engines that would self-destruct when strings were pulled.

In 1928, MGM had assets of $1,856,895 and liabilities of $125,826.

The author observes that some of the humor audiences attribute to Laurel and Hardy is the unstated belief they are a gay couple. This directly related to vaudeville where effeminate and homosexual themed presentations were standard. Their films have no sexual themes, and the characters are presented with childlike innocence in situations audience laughter recognized as gay-themed.

Laurel and Hardy once filmed on a roof 150 feet high with a camera platform three stories above that and a safety platform 20 feet below that. Hardy jumped onto the safety platform to show it was safe, only it broke. Fortunately, a safety net worked.

The first talking Laurel and Hardy movie was “Unaccustomed As We Are”, released in 1929.

Laurel and Hardy dubbed their own voiced for Spanish, Italian, French, and German versions of their movies. Scenes were reshot to appeal more to these specific audiences, such as changing an American police chief with a Mexican customs officers. This was slow and difficult to shoot as Laurel and Hardy had to be helped with vocal coaches. Yet, Roach made money in many countries that adopted Laurel and Hardy as part of their own culture. They accidentally drew extra laughs when using a German saying they did not realize had a sexual connotation.

In one movie, the dialogue included Hardy’s real phone number Oxford 0164.

“The Music Box” was a Laurel and Hardy movie that resonated well with an audience during the Depression. They portrayed working class laborers who destroyed a piano, a wealthy good.

Their comedy often derived from their being people seemingly unaware of the dictates of society. They violated societal norms and were then bewildered by others’ reactions to what they perceived as being normal.

Laurel and Hardy movies began facing censorship. Pennsylvania required deleted a scene where women were hit. Quebec deleted a scene with dancing girls. A kissing scene was deleted in Japan, Norway, and Sweden. Morocco and Bohemia refused to allow showing a movie where they cross-dressed. Lithuania deleted a scene of Laurel sitting on Hardy’s lap. Even politics entered into the censorship as Nazi Germany banned “The Bohemian Girl” for being sympathetic towards Gypsies. “Pack Up Your Troubles” was banned in Germany and Spain for showing Laurel and Hardy capturing a German battalion. Their movies did not attract much dispute from the American film standard Hays Code, although there was some internal studio self-censorship over fears that Laurel shown wearing lacy underpants might violate the Code.

MGM survived the Depression with fewer monetary losses than other studios.

In 1935, Laurel refused to sign a contract with Roach. Roach announced they would be replaced with a new comedy team which included Spanky McFarland. Laurel then settled whatever “story trouble” he had with Roach and he signed a new contract.

Hal Roach made an agreement to produce Italian operas with Italian actors and American crew to be produced by Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito. Benito’s anti-Jewish positions and his leading Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia led to much outrage in America. Vittorio Mussolini was not well received in American and he returned to Italy without making any movies.

Critics thought some of the Laurel and Hardy movies in the late 1930s and early 1940s lost some of their old edge. They made money and strengthened their star status. MGM re-released some of their old shorts to capitalize on their success. During World War II, the war effort played into themes in their movies.

Laurel and Hardy films in 1943 and 1944 faced problems with script changes, a producer quitting, and delayed studio releases. Comedies did not fare as well during the post-World War II resettlement years. Laurel and Hardy made one movie in 1951 that was only initially released in Europe and was then re-cut for American showing in 1954.

Hardy suffered a heart attack in 1954. Their last U.S. public appearance was on the TV show “This Is our Life” which surprised them on live TV. The public saw a slow moving Hardy. They appeared on a British TV program in 1955. Hardy then suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. He went on a diet that reduced his weight from 350 to 210 pounds. Hardy died in 1957.

Laurel moved into a Santa Monica apartment with a listed phone number where admirers seeking to learn from him such as Dick Van Dyke as well as many contemporaries called and were welcomed. Laurel died in 1975.

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