By Fred Muenz
Would the great movie comedy teams, such as the Marx Brothers, Ritz Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis been as successful had it not been for an earlier team, and perhaps the greatest comedy team of all, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy?
Arthur Stanley Jefferson (aka Stan Laurel) was born in his grandparents’ house in Ulverston, Lancashire, England in June, 1890. One of five children, his father was a theater manager and his mother an actress. While he spent his early years living with his grandmother, he eventually moved to Glasgow with his parents and made his first professional stage appearance at age 16. In 1910, after a couple of years of polishing his skills and developing his stage persona, he joined Fred Karno’s vaudeville company where he took the stage name Stan Jefferson and served as understudy to a young Charlie Chaplin. In 1914, during one of several trips to the U.S., the troupe broke up and Stan decided to stay. After several years of performing with several vaudeville acts, he was cast in his first two-reel comedy, NUTS IN MAY (1917), and offered a contract at Universal Studios. When the studio canceledhis contract during a reorganization, he changed his stage name to Stan Laurel and signed with an independent producer to star in 12 two-reel comedies, after which he joined the Hal Roach studio, primarily as a writer and director. In 1926, when one of the Hal Roach players, “Babe” Hardy, was injured in a kitchen accident and hospitalized, Stan was asked to return to acting and fill in. Beginning in 1927, Laurel and Hardy appeared together in a number of short films and soon became close friends. Audiences soon took note of the comic chemistry between the pair, and a classic comedy team was born.
Norvell Hardy (aka Oliver Hardy) was born in January, 1892 on a failing family cotton plantation in Harlem, Georgia. His father, Oliver, was a confederate veteran who had been wounded at the battle of Antietam. His mother, Emily, was descended from early 17th century Virginia colonists. Oliver had been married twice before, and Emily was a widow when the pair married in 1890. His father had three children from his previous marriages and his mother had one. Norvell was only 10 months old when his father died, leaving his mother a widow again, now with five children. A difficult child, young Norvell was sent to military school as a youngster. He had little interest in schoolwork but took an early interest in music and theater. To make ends meet, his mother managed a hotel and, when not at school, young Norvell would parade around town wearing sandwich boards advertising the meals his mother served at the hotel. At school, Norvell developed a routine of jokes, stories, and songs, and was picked to take the lead role in the school play. He finally left school to sing with a theater group in Atlanta, now calling himself Oliver Norvell Hardy, as a tribute to his father. Recognizing his talent, his mother sent him for professional singing and voice lessons. However, he preferred to sing at a local theater for $3.50 a week. In 1910, when a movie theater opened in his hometown, he became projectionist, ticket taker, manager, and janitor. He soon decided that he could do a better job than the actors he was seeing on the screen and in 1913, moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where many movies were being made. In 1917, he moved to California, finding acting work in movies for various studios, usually playing the “heavy”. In 1921, he was cast in the role of a robber in THE LUCKY DOG (1921), trying to hold up the film’s star, played by Stan Laurel. In 1924, he signed on with the Hal Roach Studio and appeared in several films directed by Stan Laurel. In 1926, he was scheduled to appear in GET ‘EM YOUNG, but was hospitalized when he was burned by a hot leg of lamb. The accident resulted in Stan Laurel returning to acting and the rest is history.
Once teamed up, the pair quickly developed the characters they would use for the next thirty years. Although the studio employed teams of writers and directors, Stan would rewrite entire scenes or scripts. He would have the cast and crew improvise during filming and then spend hours reviewing the footage. He took charge of the editing process. Within a short time, he became the team’s head writer, directing a staff of three or four writers. Ollie was more than happy to leave all the work in his partner’s hands. In 1930, the team appeared in MGM’s first all-talking, all-color (Technicolor) film, THE ROGUE SONG (1930). Over the years, the team of Laurel and Hardy starred on a total of 107 films: 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films and 35 full length features. In 1951, both Stan and Ollie became seriously ill while completing their last film for a French-Italian company. In 1954, they made their only American television appearance when they were surprised by Ralph Edwards for his popular TV show, This Is Your Life. Ollie suffered a mild heart attack later in 1954, after which he lost 150 pound over the course of the next few months. In letters he wrote to Stan, he indicated that he had been diagnosed with cancer. In September, 1956, he suffered a major stroke and was left unable to speak. In August, 1957, he died after suffering two more strokes. Oliver Hardy was 65. Stan was devastated by his friend’s death but was too ill to attend the funeral. He refused all offers to appear on stage or film without his friend and lived out his final years in a small apartment in Santa Monica, answering mail and phone calls from fans. A heavy smoker for most of his life, Stan suffered a heart attack in February, 1965. In the hospital, he told a nurse that he wouldn’t mind going skiing. When she replied that she didn’t know he was a skier, he replied, “I’m not, but I’d rather be doing that than this”. A few minutes later, he quietly died. Stan Laurel was 74.
ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.