How to Survive Your Own Stupidity

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy by Simon Louvish
    Faber, 518 pp, £8.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 571 21590 4

If you watch The Simpsons or South Park – cartoon serials where gangs of doodles get to demonstrate the wisdom in modern stupidity – you come to feel that the characters are really doing something quite old-fashioned. They may be media savvy and product-articulate, these yellow-faced goons, but in essence they go in for the kind of stuff that used to have people rolling in the aisles of the music halls.

Homer Simpson is a kind of Grimaldi, an air-guitar-playing, nacho-chomping version of Dan Leno: he does songs, he falls on his arse, he has trouble with machines, with self-worth, and he goes in for disguises, catchphrases, patter and multiple personalities. The old comics were human, of course, but the startling thing about the newer television cartoon characters is that they often appear more human than real people, more alive than anybody you’ve ever met. It doesn’t happen so much in the cinema nowadays, though. Modern movie actors are much like ourselves, only better-looking, with faster cars; people like Tom Hanks or Helen Hunt derive the major part of their appeal from what we might call their apparent ordinariness, and only occasionally, as with Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, does an actor come along who seems to have the superhuman plasticity of a cartoon. These movie actors, whatever else they happen to be, are works of animation: they can make their faces, and their emotions, do anything, and they live their on-screen lives in stark defiance of death.

Early cinema was full of people like that, people who could live a life much larger than anybody watching, so large, indeed, that the flouting of death was just a part of daily business. At his height (or heights), the building-scaling Harold Lloyd dropped to his non-death every other minute in his movies; Buster Keaton jumped over danger, or stood deadpanning the camera while death squeezed past him. Charlie Chaplin, a little man too big for the real world, smiled at every manner of threat, ducked it, ran from it, cheating death with a welter of small human surprises and tendernesses, and always, in the end, walking away bandy-legged from the worst the world has to offer, the screen shrinking to the size of a full-stop.

These clowns were loners: they sometimes tried to make friends with girls, kids and dogs, but essentially they went through the world on their own, and we pity them and swoon at their efforts to do the best they can. The important thing about Laurel and Hardy is their friendship: every one of their films is really about the way their friendship works and fails to work, the way pride and civility are bent out of shape by the actions of these two child-men. There may be less poetry in Laurel and Hardy, but there are bigger laughs; Stan’s absurdity and his sleepiness, his tears and stubbornness, seem to sit so perfectly with Ollie’s plausible rotundness, his irritation, ambition and wide-eyed panic. I have loved the two of them all my life, and Simon Louvish’s spirited account, itself both stubborn and plausible, won’t hinder the growth of that affection.

In 1890, Stan Laurel was born in Yorkshire to a girl from the North Riding and a man who made his own greasepaints. But Stan’s father, Arthur Jefferson, did more than that: he was a theatrical entrepreneur and a writer of plays and sketches. Stan grew up in the theatre, making his first stage appearance at the Glasgow Britannia Theatre in 1906. Jefferson later spoke about what happened:

Stan’s number, billed as an ‘extra turn’, went up. On he came wearing a pair of baggy patched trousers (new trousers of mine, cut down, patches added) and also my best frock coat and silk hat . . . He did his act, the details of which I cannot now remember, and he got a very good reception and scored a genuine success, finishing up to loud laughter and applause and even shouts of ‘Encore!’ The shouts brought him back, and he beamed the now popular Laurel smile, but, in bowing his acknowledgments, he spotted me!

‘According to A.J.’s account,’ Louvish tells us, ‘Stan then rushed to escape, catching his father’s frock coat on a steel hook and tearing it and losing the top hat to a member of the orchestra, who stepped on it, a necessary slapstick move.’

By the time Arthur Jefferson was giving interviews about his son, the ‘popular Laurel smile’ he spoke of was no laughing matter. When Laurel and Hardy visited Glasgow in 1932, eight thousand people turned up to meet them off the train; in Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours (1993), one of their fans, A.J. Marriot, writes of the great surge of people that filled Central Station:

It was then that, owing to the pressure of numbers, the stone balustrade skirting the wall of the hotel collapsed onto the pavement. The falling masonry bowled over several onlookers but, luckily, formed in a heap which then prevented others from falling into the basement below . . . The incident created a wild stampede for safety, and in this a number of persons were hurt. Fifteen minutes after Laurel and Hardy’s arrival, the scene was one of devastation. Scores of people were looking around for shoes, hats or coats which had been lost in the mad crush, ambulances and police reinforcements had been rushed to the area, and eight men suffering from leg injuries were taken to the Royal Infirmary . . . Stan was dismayed to find his 50-guinea wristwatch missing.

Oliver Hardy was from a Southern family of slave-owners and Confederates; his father died when Oliver was young, and the boy grew up in the lobby of his mother’s hotel in Madison, Georgia. Conventional wisdom has always supported the view that Stan Laurel was the genius of the two, that Hardy was just a jobbing actor who turned up on time and spoke his lines. (It is a view promoted by some of the facts: Laurel was the writer and often the producer of their work, more of a thinker altogether, and during the whole of their careers he was paid a lot more than Hardy.) Louvish makes this central to our understanding of the pair, but he sometimes goes too far in presenting an Oliver Hardy who is riddled with resentments and covered in self-loathing.

We may also deduce something about Oliver’s actual isolation – the sense he had, and that continued all his life, of being imprisoned in a body that required him to set up a mask to deal with the world around him; the yearning for companionship beyond the family circle that could offer him only an anchor at a familiar harbour and from which he wished to sail on to new and unknown horizons. In other words, we should never underestimate the desperation of the fat . . . Although Oliver Hardy insisted, to the end of his life, that he adored and worshipped his mother, they rarely met again, and the maverick son of the old politician of Harlem, who had departed the scene almost as soon as his son entered it, began to construct a new life, and a new identity, both on screen and off.

In other words, we should never underestimate the desperation of the biographer. Movie fans who write books tend to improve when they get to discussing the movies; it is doubly right and good that this should be true in the case of Stan and Ollie, because, despite Louvish’s best efforts, Laurel and Hardy’s own lives were pretty unremarkable. They had OK childhoods, they got into acting, they went to work for Hal Roach, they got put in a picture together, and all the fun and all the magic begins at this point.

The duo developed their act at great speed: you see it coming together over a few two-reeler silent shorts directed by Fred Guiol in 1927. In Why Girls Love Sailors, Hardy first does the ‘tie twiddle’, a nervous tick that would serve him well in situations both anxious and amorous; in Do Detectives Think? they first do their routine of exchanging bowler hats accidentally, ‘always resulting on the wrong hat on the wrong head’, as their filmographer William Everson puts it. Laurel and Hardy are always at their best in the short film; the feature films would be padded out with silly plotlines, elaborate songs and screeching flappers, but the shorts are sometimes perfect, the comedy based on situations rather than big plots, on repetition within the scene, and Laurel early got into the habit of working on his gags even after he’d used them.

What happens to friendship when everything goes wrong all the time? Laurel and Hardy perpetually get in each other’s way, they get on each other’s nerves, and while the general battle is against humiliation, they are always busy with the effort to extricate themselves from the fine mess they bring about in one another’s lives. ‘Precision, as all the great clowns knew, is everything when dealing with chaos,’ Louvish writes, and this is true in Laurel and Hardy’s case not only in terms of the staging of physical gags, but in the choreography of affection and exasperation that describes their friendship. In one way the wonder of Laurel and Hardy lies in their capacity for animating and increasing their friendship through disaster: even when they have a really trying time together, they seem bigger people, and better friends, in the end, as if they’ve just offered a splendid and exhausting lesson in the gentle art of mucking about. Disaster and hopelessness don’t cost anything with Stan and Ollie – the fat one would never walk out on the thin one, any more than Marge would walk out on Homer.

Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is a figment of the sentimental imagination: in those films, it’s always the world around the tramp that seems absurd, and the brilliant, haphazard little man’s specialness is what appears to put the crazy world to rights. In Oliver the Eighth (1934), Stan and Ollie are a couple of struggling barbers. Ollie reads an advertisement in the newspaper about a rich widow who is looking for a husband. The duo go to the woman’s house, she is clearly weird, and so is her butler, who serves invisible drinks and an invisible supper. Ollie is most put out with the situation, he gulps and fiddles, while Stan, for whom there is nothing in the world too absurd, lifts his spoon and starts eating his dinner as if there was no problem, even stopping at one point to sprinkle imaginary salt on his imaginary soup. Stan has negative capability – he can become anything – and the big laugh lies in Ollie’s exasperation and in his terrific fear of absurdity. Stan won’t set out to put the world to rights; he’ll fit himself up to any old madness. Ollie’s rolling eyes tell us how he can’t believe Stan is going along with this spooky charade; Stan is mucking about and innocent when faced with irrational stuff, and when things take a turn for the worse his best response will be to burst into tears. When children watch Laurel and Hardy they always say how stupid the pair are, but they never say that watching Chaplin. Chaplin’s character is heartening in showing you how an unfortunate but intelligent man can overcome the rigours and the brutality of the world: Laurel and Hardy are heartening for different reasons – they show you how to survive your own stupidity, and how to make your friendships survive it.

Laurel and Hardy’s best performances persuade you that humiliation is not all it’s cracked up to be. They often laugh at each other, and knock each other on the head, as if temporary laughter and corporal punishment were the perfect corrective to the worst humiliation. Nothing very grave or sad ever comes out of their trials and it may be that the balance of their friendship is maintained and restored by their mutual ability to accept humiliation on their own and their partner’s behalf and move on. ‘We may deplore humiliation, or claim to,’ Adam Phillips writes in his new book Equals,

but we cannot help but enjoy what we cheerfully call making fun of people. We are always reassured when people can, as we say, laugh at themselves. There is a violence we do to ourselves and others that is both enlivening and strangely consoling. There is the good mockery of everyday life that regulates our self-importance, and so relieves us of too much responsibility for the world. And there is the bad mockery that foists something upon us that we would rather, if we could choose, protect ourselves from.

Laurel and Hardy are masters of good mockery. In their best film, The Music Box (1932), the pair are trying to deliver a piano to a house which sits at the top of a steep flight of steps. The film has only one gag: every time they get the piano up to the summit it slips and goes crashing right back down to the street. Little things happen in between their repeated attempts to deliver the piano: halfway up the steps, Ollie moves it to one side to allow a nanny to come down with a baby’s pram. As usual, the piano slips, and Ollie is pulled all the way down to the street again. The nanny complains, Ollie answers back, and she carefully takes his hat off and smacks him over the head with the baby’s bottle. The cycle of frustration is deeply hilarious. The Music Box is a perfect distillation of comic character, and it contains wheels within wheels of humiliation for our heroes. There may, as I suggested, be less poetry in Laurel and Hardy than in Chaplin or Keaton, but in this situation comedy, the repeated journey up the long steps is a perfectly compacted, perfectly artful, little commentary on the absurdity of human perseverance and the power of accident. The duo’s terrible task with the piano seems to serve as a motif not just for their relationship but for their entire lives. They are hopeless, and when they finally get the piano into the house, well, of course, the owner says it’s come to the wrong house, and proceeds to smash it to bits. But it’s the repetition that stays in the mind: as if the endless journey with the piano is the perfect story about these two men, Stan and Ollie. The Music Box is itself a repetition: a remake of the silent short Hats Off (1927), in which the duo are trying to deliver a washing-machine to a house at the top of a long flight of steps. The second and more famous movie was filmed in the same street in Los Angeles as the original.

‘One of cinema’s discoveries,’ Paul Keegan writes in his introduction to a new edition of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, ‘was that everyday life is repetition – as if our actions are constantly trying to remember something – and it turned this to account in the figure of the accident-prone hero. Mayakovsky noted that Chaplin characteristically repeats a gag three times, and he called these passages “analytical sequences”.’

Laurel and Hardy not only repeated within movies, they repeated from one movie to another, forever returning to the same central problems about themselves and their relationship. All the roles they took on – escaped convicts, delivery men, waiters, musicians, sailors on leave, builders, husbands, tramps, visitors to the dentist, imaginary heirs, salesmen, business associates, Foreign Legionnaires – were repeated and copied and plagiarised by themselves, as if there was a persistent, cartoon-like need to return to the scene of their psychic crimes, trying one more time to make good and act sensible.

Take a particular strand of their comedy: a situation where they are forced to be the guardians of a stray animal or person. We first see this in Angora Love (1929), where they find themselves in charge of a goat, then in Come Clean (1931), where they rescue a woman from suicide. ‘Now you’ve saved me, you have to take care of me!’ she says, and so for two reels we watch Stan and Ollie trying to smuggle the woman into their house and hide her from their wives. They had a similar problem the following year in The Chimp, where the boys are paid off from their jobs at a circus by being given a chimp, which they must now smuggle into their rented room, where the animal of course takes the best bed, and also happens to have the same name as the landlord’s wife. Then there’s Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), in which they have temporary custody of an orphan child, and Their First Mistake (1932), where they have to work out what to with a baby who falls into their charge.

Of that last film, Louvish quotes, with some dismay, the comments of the cultural critic Jonathan Sanders, who called it ‘a subtle utopian fantasy of personal relationships, in which Ollie’s desire for a male friend/lover, a wife and a child are all satisfied by one person – Stan’. Louvish would prefer not to see these films in a ‘cross-gender reversal’ kind of way, and although he, too, looks for things in Laurel and Hardy’s lives that would explain their interests and unmask their style, his approach is much more light-hearted. Naturally, the duo had a great deal less fun mucking about in their own lives than they did playing Stan and Ollie, and Louvish grows excitable as he sniffs for significance.

In an age in which male friendships cannot be seen without their sexual aspect . . . sex looms everywhere. But what remains erect, for Oliver Hardy, is not his penis, but his dignity. The echoes of the Old Southern gentleman do not fade. In a society in which one has lost everything, in which the old cause is – perhaps even rightly – despised, the man of refined sensibility retains not only an idea, perhaps absurd, of the proper form but, more than that, a fiery sense of loyalty. As we have quoted him for the cut scenes in Laughing Gravy: ‘Once a friend, always a friend. It’s fifty-fifty with a Hardy.’

Initially at least, time was better to Laurel and Hardy than it was to many of the other silent cinema greats. Their best work in any case has sound, though after the 1930s their comedy was thought coarse and unsophisticated next to the gentle social touches of Lubitsch or Wilder. Cartoons are seldom considered subtle, and neither are folk tales: the best of Laurel and Hardy has something of both, and their greatest films address the viewer with images that last like perfect daydreams.

In the world of Laurel and Hardy, mistakes are made in order to be repeated, and humiliation endured so that it can be endured again. No other cinema couple – not Abbott and Costello, not Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or Tom and Jerry – is as satisfyingly co-dependent, and no other couple gives such a vivid sense of the fun to be had in failure, or, indeed, such hilarious insight into the way a human friendship can be elevated rather than consumed by its own faults.