Arthur Stanley Jefferson, aka Stan Laurel
(June 16, 1890 - February 23, 1965)
STAN LAUREL by John Larrabee
"What's funny? How do I know? Can you analyze it? Can anybody? All I know is how to make people laugh." ---Stan Laurel
"Ask Stan." ---Oliver Hardy
In an era where movie stars routinely command eight-figure salaries for six weeks' worth of work, where top comedians travel with an entourage of bodyguards and sycophants, and where rock stars employ logistics managers and toadies to sort their M&M's by color, it is perhaps difficult to envision a time in which two genuinely nice and humble gentlemen labored for forty-eight weeks out of the year, expecting nothing but a reasonably comfortable salary and a bit of laughter in return. To say that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, both onscreen and off, represented human character at its best is no understatement. As men, they may have had their flaws, but an examination of their lives, either close or cursory, reveals them as kind and gentle souls. As screen characters, this kindness and gentleness is evident in even the roughest of their comedies. On film and in life, they were utterly incapable of pretense, and demanded from the world only what they had rightfully earned. On screen, if they received an occasional scrap of warmth and kindness, they were sincerely grateful for it. In life, they were loved the world over and were overwhelmed by it.
It would be over-simplifying matters, however, to say that the onscreen Stan and Ollie were merely dumber versions of the real-life Stan and Babe. And yet, it would not be over-exaggeration to say that their art imitated their (and our) lives. Both men were beset by real-life problems (marital difficulties, legal wranglings, bouts of depression) which their screen selves wouldn't have even comprehended. Still, it was their ability to lampoon life's difficulties that was one of their basic ingredients for success, and one reason why they endure today. The numerous examples of marital strife in their films may have been farcical, cartoonish and absurd, but if they didn't manage to tap something all-too-real in those plate-throwing melees with their shrewish spouses, it wouldn't be funny in the first place. As such, their comedy appeals on many levels. Simple and direct enough to send small children into gales of laughter, yet with enough genuine human truth at its core to warrant study by scholars and egghead-types.
If today's comics thrive on inflicting irreverence and cynicism on whatever fragments remain of our collective decency, Laurel and Hardy, conversely, thrived on maintaining their decency in a world which inflicted its irreverence and cynicism on them. There may be plenty of edginess in Laurel and Hardy comedies, but it exists in their gags and situations, rather than being borne of their characters. Their sweet innocence may insure that they finish last, but it also insures that they will enduringly last. For each defeat they suffer at the cruel hand of fate, a new-found reason for optimism lurks just around the next corner. The song lyric "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again" may well have been written by a Laurel and Hardy fan.
Nobody but Laurel and Hardy could have created the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. Close friends in life, they needed one another for survival in film. Close friends on film, they needed one another for survival in life. This, then, is the story of who they were, where they came from, and their extraordinary and elusive magic.
Pickard's Panopticon in Glasgow, Scotland was a quaint and unique house of entertainment, even for 1906. Within its walls, one could find a museum, a side show, a nickelodeon (or "penny-winders," as they were known in Scotland), and a small room that served as an excuse for a theatre. With no seats, patrons stood to watch a brief programme of second and third-rate music-hall style entertainment, while a three-piece women's band pounded out musical accompaniment. It was in these auspicious surroundings that 16-year-old Arthur Stanley Jefferson made his performing debut. As he bounded onstage with the naive confidence that comes from youthful exuberance, his heart sank as he looked to the wings and glimpsed the unexpected and shadowy presence of his father, A.J. Jefferson. Though close as a father and son could be, young Stanley was not ready to be subjected to his father's critical eye. After all, the senior Jefferson was one of the most succesful men of the theatre in all of Great Britain (as a theatre-owner, producer, director, writer, and comedic performer), while Stan could boast only a rough, unpolished act of borrowed jokes and derivative routines. Nevertheless, the boy went gamely on with his act, slow and faltering at first, but firmly convinced he had wowed them with a big finish when he exited to hearty applause. "I didn't realize that this was because the audience felt sorry for me. I figured that out for myself later on," said Stan in later years.
Returning home that night, Stan nervously approached his father's study, prepared for the worst. Rather than berate the boy for bringing shame upon the family name, however, a sympathetic A.J. offered the boy a whiskey and soda and engaged him in a long conversation about a career in performing. "As long as your you're sure it's what you want, Stan. As long as you're really sure," he said.
A.J. Jefferson was probably relieved that his son had finally shown an interest in something. As the theatrical Jefferson family moved from town to town during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Stan had been a miserable failure at one boarding school after another. Though schooling interested him little, he was nevertheless a great favorite with his teachers due to his ability to make them laugh. He was a polite and pleasant kid who didn't cause trouble, but neither did he expend any effort towards scholarship. When he dropped out of school for good at the age of fifteen, his father put him to work in the theatre box office, where his skills in accounting were about on par with his skills as a student. The fact that the boy now had a definite goal in life earned him the support of his father, and served as a source of bonding between them.
The Jefferson family had always been close-knit, regardless of the fact that its members were rarely under the same roof at one time. One of four siblings (three boys, one girl), Arthur Stanley was born on June 16, 1890 in Ulvertson, Lancashire, England. Both parents were important names in the world of English theatre and music-hall (his mother was a prominent stage actress), which insured that Stanley recieved in-house training in his chosen vocation from the day he was born. His father seems to have struck just the right blend between strictness and indulgence, and rarely had to raise his voice in the household. Stan, in turn, loved his father greatly and often brought him to America for year-long visits during Stan's years of success in Hollywood. Despite the fact that it took several failed attempts before Stan found happiness in marriage, the family was an institution which he treasured.
Following Stanley's somewhat embarrassing stage debut, he landed his first professional acting job in 1907 -- that of a "golliwog" (a stuffed doll) in a touring production of Sleeping Beauty. During the next three years, he honed his skills as a comic and slowly worked his way up through the ranks of the English music-halls. By 1910, he was proficient enough as a performer to join Fred Karno's traveling comedy troupe as both a featured performer and understudy to its star attraction, a young fellow comic by the name of Charles Spencer Chaplin. The company set sail that year (aboard a cattle boat) for America to try their luck in the New World. It would, however, be several years before Stan was to find anything that remotely resembled luck or success in the States.
The experience was not atypical for burlesque and vaudeville-type companies in those days. A seemingly endless stream of fleabag hotels and boarding houses, near-empty theatres, and penniless performers stranded in nameless small towns were the norm. Only this delightfully eccentric and egotistical Chaplin fellow attracted any attention at all; by 1913, he had made enough of a name for himself to become a near-overnight sensation in films. Without its star attraction, the Karno company soon folded.
Though Stan returned to England briefly during this time, the years 1914 - 1917 found him toiling in American vaudeville, often performing as part of "The Stan Jefferson Trio." It was also around this time that he determined a name with thirteen letters in it was decidedly unlucky for a performer. "I don't know why I decided on Laurel," he said in the late 50's, "Honestly can't remember. Just liked the sound of it, I guess." Stan's memory may be a bit rose-colored here. He had performed in vaudeville with a number of partners; one of them, Mae Cuthbert, was to become his common-law wife (and was to cause Stan many legal headaches when she resurfaced in the mid-1930's, demanding money for all the "help" she had given Stan in his early career). Evidence now suggests that it was Mae who gave Stan his new name, after seeing a picture of a Roman general with a laurel wreath 'round his head. Stan and Mae Laurel were to appear together on stage and in films until 1925, though theirs was a stormy relationship. It was determined during that year that Stan, now under contract to Hal Roach Studios, would suffer unfavorable publicity were it to be discoved that he was living with a woman he had not legally married. Stan had had enough of Mae's violent temper, anyway, and it is rumored that the studio paid her off and sent her quietly back to her native Australia.
From the late teens through the early twenties, Stan continuted to pursue a semi-successful career in vaudeville, while dabbling in the occasional film during those occasions when his work brought him to southern California. He was perhaps a bit unsure of himself during these years as a performer. His early solo films showcase an obviously talented young comic, but one who was also obviously in need of a consistent character. He could run the gamut from simpleton to brash wisecracker in the course of a single performance. This may have been, in part, due to the fact that he was honing his skills as a writer and gagman at the time. The creation of comedy itself interested him more than the creation of an identifiable personality.
In all, Stan appeared in over sixty films prior to his partnership with Oliver Hardy. He enjoyed a fair amount of success, had his own series of comedy shorts (his Mud and Sand, a burlesque of Rudolph Valentino's Blood and Sand, was particulary well-received), but never really made the impression in the business he felt his talent warranted. He began to question his own skills as a performer and believed that he would find more success as a writer or director. The series of shorts he made for Hal Roach in 1923 only served to firm this idea. They emerged, for the most part, as fine, clever comedies, but it was the comedy itself that overshadowed his performances. The fact that Stan had such a large hand in the creation of the comedy convinced him that his future lay behind the cameras. He was eventually released from his first Roach contract with two years remaining on it. When he was rehired by Roach in 1925, it was understood that his primary duties would be that of writer, director, gagman - and only occasionally, when they needed to fill a part, performer.
It is a bit ironic, therefore, that once Stan Laurel decided to devote his energies to behind-the-camera work, he finally seemed to come into his own as a performer. Whether as bit player or leading man, Stan could always be counted on for sure-fire laughs during this period with Roach. Along with Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Charlie Chase, Max Davidson and Edna Marion, an in-house company of comedy players was formed known as The Hal Roach All-Stars. Slowly (in retrospect, perhaps too slowly), it was noticed that some extra comic sparks flew whenever Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in the same scene. Director Leo McCarey is the man most often credited for urging Roach to make Laurel and Hardy an official team.
In 1927, the team of Laurel and Hardy was officially 'born' on film with the release of Duck Soup (no relation to the Marx Brothers' movie of the same name). The film is based on a sketch written by Stan Laurel's father, called 'Home from the Honeymoon.' Another birth happened in Stan's life on December 10th, 1927 -- his daughter Lois. Unlike Oliver ("Babe" to his friends), Stan was immersed in every facet of moving making, from writing to directing to editing to the final cut. When Stan was away from the studio he adored his daughter, he had a special bond with her. Lois spent many days at the studio with her father. Next door to Stan's set was the Our Gang/Little Rascals cast. As a child, Lois, would play with the children of Our Gang.
At first, Stan was reluctant to become part of a team -- not because his ego prevented him from wanting to share billing with another player; quite the opposite in fact. He was still convinced that his best future was as a gagman and writer and didn't want to embark on another dead-end foray into acting. This soon changed. The team of Laurel and Hardy had caught on so well with the public, there was no turning back. Besides, Stan was happy in that he was able to continue to write, contribute gags, and more or less take charge of the making of the films. Despite the fact that his name never appeared on the credits as such, history now reveals that he was, in fact, the de facto director and head writer for virtually every film Laurel and Hardy made at the Hal Roach Studio.
Stan was indeed fortunate to have a boss such as Hal Roach. Free from the assembly-line methods of the big studios, the Roach lot produced comedies at a relaxed pace. Roach himself had a keen insight into comedy, and allowed his people the time and freedom to get things just right. Because of this, Laurel and Roach enjoyed a close professional and personal relationship throughout the late twenties and early thirties. Things were to change in 1934 when the two of them locked horns over the script to the feature BABES IN TOYLAND, and their relationship was distant and strictly business from then on. Nevertheless, Laurel and Hardy continued to make films for Roach for another six years, where Stan enjoyed a degree of freedom he would not have found elsewhere.
In all, Laurel and Hardy appeared in over seventy films for Roach between the years 1926 and 1940 (as well as a few appearances in films made by others). A small studio such as Roach's was the ideal working environment for Stan. Free from decision-makers watching over his shoulder (save for Roach who usually, though certainly not always, let Stan have his way), he was able to call the shots on virtually every aspect of production. Directing, writing, lighting, sound, music, costumes, makeup, editing -- Stan had control and/or veto power over everything. He was a tireless worker who often spent 16 - 20 hour days at the studio, watching dailies, collaborating with writers, supervising the editing, whatever. As he was to endure a number of personal and marital problems throughout the 1930's, Stan found his main source of joy and solace in his work.
But all good things must end, as they did for Laurel and Hardy in 1940. The movie industry was changing rapidly, and no longer could a studio like Roach's afford to make "little" films like the Laurel and Hardys. It had been five years since their last short subject, and economics demanded that the studio assert more control over the features they were now making on a once or twice a year basis. After carefully considering their options, Laurel and Hardy signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox studios, a move which more or less heralded the beginning of the end.
They were to make six features for Fox and two for MGM during the years 1941 - 1945. "Dismal failures" is the kindest compliment one can bestow on most of these films. No longer in control, Stan now had to tow the line and answer to the big studio bosses. From the onscreen results, one wonders if anyone involved but Laurel and Hardy knew the slightest thing about making a comedy. They are weary, unfunny, juvenille efforts in which Stan and Ollie are reduced to bumbling simpletons, rather than the sweet innocents they had so carefully perfected during the Roach years. It is little wonder that Stan walked away from the experience in 1945 an embittered man.
But the closing of one door always opens another. During the years 1947 - 1954, Laurel and Hardy enjoyed great success on the live stage, particularly in Great Britain. Returning to his music hall roots, Stan wrote sketches for the team which never failed to delight the sellout crowds. Rejuvinated, they returned to the States in 1954 with big plans to appear in a series of comedy specials for television. Sadly, these plans were never to transpire.
The health of both men was the issue. Babe suffered a mild heart attack in the spring of 1954; when he was fully recovered, Stan suffered a paralyzing stroke in early 1955. For a few months, the only thing intact was Stan's sense of humor. "Tell them I'm available," he said, "but I can only play statues." He went on to make a near-complete recovery, though his left side was to remain a bit weakened for the rest of his life. Still, he hadn't given up on the idea of Laurel and Hardy on TV, and posed for a series of publicity photos with his partner in 1956. Unfortunately, on September 14 of that year, Babe Hardy suffered a massive stroke from which he was not to recover. Almost completely paralyzed and incapacitated, he wasted away to 150 pounds (down from a high of 350 only a few years before) and had to rely on his wife Lucille for nearly all his needs. Finally, on August 7, 1957, Oliver Norvell Hardy went to sleep and did not awaken again in this world.
Enormously saddened by the loss of his old friend and partner, Stan Laurel vowed never to perform again. Absurd rumors of unknown origin have circulated throughout the years that Laurel and Hardy were not close in real life, some even going to the extent that they were bitter enemies. Nothing could be further, light-years in fact, from the truth. They were close friends during their filmmaking years, and spent many hours golfing (Babe's favorite pastime) and fishing (Stan's favorite) together. Stan's daughter, Lois, remarked in later years that "It was like having two fathers. Nearly all of their spare time was spent with one another. We'd even have two Christmases each year; one at our house, another at Uncle Babe's." When the team toured in the late 40's and early 50's, they became even closer. "Closer than brothers," as Lois put it. Stan knew that, in the eyes of the public, Laurel without Hardy was but half of an equation. He felt the best way to honor the memory of his beloved friend was not to capitalize on the fame they had found together.
Stan's final years were, for the most part, happy ones. He was no longer a wealthy man, due in part to the alimony he paid to his ex-wives. He was married four times, his middle two marriages being particularly tempestous ones. Fortunately, he found happiness in 1947 with his marriage to Ida Raphael -- "The one I was waiting for," according to Stan. It was a blissfully happy union that was to last until Stan's death. Ida doted on Stan, helped him through his health crises, and organized his affairs. They maintained a modest but comfortable apartment in Santa Monica.
Stan spent most of his time during those years answering fan mail on his portable typewriter, watching Laurel and Hardy films on TV (the TV editing and commercial interruptions frustrated him no end), and continued to write new gags for Laurel and Hardy to keep his comic mind active and fertile. He had a genuine respect for his fans and felt he owed them a debt of gratitude. As such, he made an effort to personally answer all fan mail, even though he must have known he could never answer it all. He kept his phone number listed in the Santa Monica directory, and gladly talked with fans who would call, sometimes even inviting them up for a spot of tea and chat. Celebrities, too, would come to pay their respects. Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Dick Cavett, Marcel Marceau, Peter Sellers and Danny Kaye were among those who visited often.
Stan was honored with an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1960. Though he deeply regretted that Babe was not around to share it, he proudly displayed it in his home and dubbed the little bald man of gold "Mr. Clean." But his greatest satisfaction in later years must have come from the widespread, near-fanatical revival of interest in Laurel and Hardy. Books on the team appeared in stores, TV and revival houses ran their films regularly, compilation films of their best silent work were produced by Robert Youngson, and Stan himself helped co-found the Sons of the Desert, the international fan organization for Laurel and Hardy.
A heart attack took him from this world on February 23, 1965. The world mourned and, after years of neglect and rejection, the entertainment industry hailed him as an artist. As Buster Keaton was heard to say after Stan's funeral, "Forget Chaplin. Stan was the greatest."