Review of Simon Louvish’s book STAN AND OLLIE: THE ROOTS OF COMEDY, and an interview with the author

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The following is yet another entry in this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. Wondering what that’s all about? Click on the above image to learn more!

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Simon Louvish’s epic-length biography Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) plays like one of those Laurel & Hardy comedies that were padded to feature-length by the inclusion of romantic leads nobody cares about. Like those movies, one has to wade through a lot of guff to get to the really good stuff.

Louvish has done his research (as he is all too eager to convince the reader), and it pays off most admirably when debunking previous tales of the Laurel & Hardy history. The most compelling example is the chapter detailing Oliver Hardy’s first marriage. Hardy and film historians have long maintained that he moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to pursue a film career, and there was where he met and married first wife Madelyn. Louvish detailingly reveals that Madelyn was in fact Jewish, that Hardy met her in Georgia at the time of an infamous Jewish lynching, and that Hardy and his wife exited Georgia as a result, never to return.

Such dramatic payoffs are alone worth the price of the book. Louvish also often gleans much enlightened insight into Laurel & Hardy’s film work (as well he should–Louvish in a part-time film teacher). To cite just one example, his analysis of the finale of L&H’s penultimate Hal Roach film A Chump at Oxford is as insightful and moving as the finale itself.

Along the way, though, the reader must endure the obstacle courses that plagued Louvish’s previous bios of W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers (both of which tomes are shamelessly plugged throughout this book). For one thing, Louvish lards his writing with enough precious verbosity to make biographer John McCabe look like an illiterate slacker by comparison. (Prime example: “Babe’s inner life has always been a…mystery wrapped in an enigma, hidden behind those folds of flesh.”)

Also, at one point Louvish decries critics who have read too much subtext into L&H’s simplistic plots. Yet he goes hog-wild (pardon the L&H pun) on phallic imagery, suggesting that Mae Busch’s constant widow of L&H’s short Oliver the Eighth wants to chop off an organ considerably below Ollie’s neck, and even shamelessly stating later (in his take on Their First Mistake), “What remains erect for Oliver Hardy is not his penis, but his dignity.” Eeew!!

My final complaint with the book is that when it gets into Laurel & Hardy at their prime, it quotes other, far superior sources (most notably Randy Skretvedt’s) to the point of plagiarism. And even then, accuracy is not Louvish’s strong suit. Louvish quotes a Skretvedt interview with Hal Roach in which Roach, by way of contrasting L&H with other comedy teams, states that “Abbott and Costello worked at our studio, and they used to fight like hell. But with Laurel and Hardy, when I fired Hardy, Laurel cried.” Sounds touching, except that Roach never fired Hardy (Roach had Stan and Babe on concurrent, separate contracts and often suspended Laurel or let his contract lapse during certain disputes).

For all of its faults, Louvish’s genuine appreciation for Laurel and Hardy’s comic artistry makes a considerable amount of Stan and Ollie worthwhile writing for the fervent L&H buff. Just make to sure to avoid Louvish’s verbal landmines in order to reach the real meat of the book.

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Stan and Ollie author Simon Louvish (shown above) was kind enough to answer some of my questions in a 2001 e-mail “interview.”

Movie Movie Blog Blog: Do you consider yourself an L&H “buff”? Is there anything in particular you like about their style?

Simon Louvish: I’m a fan of most of the early movie comedians, from Max Linder and Ben Turpin through Fields, Mae West and the Marxes. I tail off by the 40’s, with the Three Stooges, Abbott and the other guy and all that late jazz. Somebody also told me the Ritz Brothers are funny, but I’m not convinced. So I’m not a “collect it all” fan of any of them, though Stan and Ollie were definitely the first comedians I can remember seeing on screen. What remains most affecting in their style, and substance, I think, is exemplified by the quote from Spike Milligan: “As soon as they walked out on the screen I knew they were my friends.” In an inversion of the Christian idea of a person who dies for your sins – they fail for your laughs: We know that their failures stand in for ours, and there they are, picking themselves up and ready to fail once again. Now that’s a class act.

MMBB: Do you have a favorite L&H movie?

SL: Favourite Stan and Ollie movie remains The Music Box, which can’t be bettered – though I missed out on one thing, it’s actually a remake, not just of [L&H’s silent comedy] Hats Off, but of a Keystone Charlie Chaplin movie, His Musical Career (1914), where Charlie and Mack Swain move a piano. Reason for favourite rating: perfection. Favourite feature: Sons of the Desert – the perfect expression of marriage.

MMBB: You have indicated that your biography subjects owe a lot to their stage experience. What do you think stage and vaudeville work brought to their comedy that modern-day comics don’t have?

SL: The issue of the stage background is paramount: Of the 1930’s Talkie comics, only Oliver Hardy bypassed the stage as a formative experience. (I know he sang a bit, but not that much.) The result is that the comics honed their acts with a live audience, knew what worked and what didn’t, and they had a heritage they were working in, something people tend to forget. They knew their craft inside out. Modern comics can be victims of the instant fashions of TV stand-up – you make jokes about what was on last week’s TV. There was also an issue of hardship – it wasn’t easy to be an overnight success in 1899 or 1906. You had to learn by failing. Stan Laurel certainly did.

MMBB: Which modern-day comedians do you think show the influence of L&H?

SL: The point of the great comedians is that no one matches them. They might have imitators but not proper pupils. They are what they are. I know Dick Van Dyke thought himself very Stan-like. Well, it’s a comforting thought. Where are the contemporary comedians?

MMBB: Did you come across any surprises in your research?

SL: The main surprise in the search is Oliver Hardy. Not just the meaning of his first marriage to Madelyn, but the deep melancholy that I believe lies at the root of his character. The sense in which I’m convinced that the character he eventually created as “Ollie” was basically his father, whom he never knew, except from stories his mother told him. There is a depth to the characterization that shines through. But his feeling of being trapped in his “fatness” never quite went away.

MMBB: You are generous in attribution, but just the same, you elaborate on a lot of source material from Randy Skretvedt. Were you given special access to Skretvedt’s material?

SL: In all three books on the comedians, W.C. Fields, the Marx Bros., and Stan and Ollie, I’ve followed the principle of acknowledging the work that’s gone before. There’s nothing more annoying than a biographer who picks up other people’s work and uses it without access or attribution to original sources. In the case of Stan and Ollie, three scholars – John McCabe, Randy Skretvedt and Dick Bann – have looked at the lives and movies. McCabe presented his own rounded narratives, Dick Bann has put out copious facts and figures about the individual films, and Randy’s book stands for itself. I made two visits to Randy Skretvedt in L.A., and spent time with parts of his archive. He also sent me copies of the complete versions of interviews with Hal Roach, Joe Rock, and tape recordings with Lucille Hardy, of which I used excerpts, all attributed, and fully acknowledged, in Notes on Sources. It is a fact that, unless you’re going to drown in trivia, there is not that much new information to convey on the Laurel and Hardy films – as individual products – once they got into their stride, and I find Skretvedt’s work on them highly reliable. The new information is at the “front end” of their lives, and their solo careers – those solo films, too, have been copiously researched, by Rob Stone and David Wyatt, but not assimilated before into their story. Stan and Ollie is the first full narrative biography of both Laurel and Hardy “from soup to nuts,” certainly since McCabe’s pioneering (but pretty short) Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy just about 40 years ago. (There is also new archival information from MGM files on some of the 1940’s films.)

MMBB: Re the Hal Roach quote in your book where Roach compares Laurel & Hardy to Abbott & Costello: Roach never fired Hardy (the records show him having more trouble with Laurel). Do you think this quote was worthy of dispute?

SL: In the case of Hal Roach interviews, I noted clearly that he remembers things as he wants, with scant regard for accuracy, as befitting a grandee who lived so long that he survived everyone else. I don’t need to say after every single quote “as Roach inaccurately says.” It’s significant that Roach wants to emphasize his control over Stan and Ollie’s output, and take more credit than he deserves. But he deserves enough credit anyway. Without him they would both have starved.

MMBB: Your analysis of L&H’s movies often tends toward the phallic side, while paradoxically you chastise some of the more pretentious attempts to analyze their work. Do you think that “reading too much” into L&H’s work might be a bit of a trap?

SL: Phallic analysis? Gedoutahere! I have to tackle the endless attempts to re-interpret Stan and Ollie in a “modern” light, and deal with the old “gay theme” issue. As I point out, cross-dressing and “gender-bending” are an old vaudeville staple. Stan was particularly fond of dressing up, which is an old British music-hall fad, but even Ollie cross-dressed in some of his solo films. Of course, Their First Mistake makes the game quite clear – Stan knew very well where his jokes were coming from. More than the “gay” theme, it’s a consistent obsession Stan has with split identities, as in Brats or Our Relations. You should always read as much as you want into movies, they are after all fantasies!

MMBB: What would you say to a jaded L&H buff to convince him to read your book when he’s read all the others?

SL: There’s always more to find. I’m not the last word. There is always another angle. What interested me in particular on Stan and Ollie was the fact that they had come from such different backgrounds, and countries, and yet only found their place as a team – as two parts of a coherent whole, that cannot be thereafter parted. This is pretty unique – after all, the Marx Brothers were brothers. I know that fans who’ve learned every movie by heart might complain at descriptions of plots, but, at a minimum, a writer has to write for a general audience also. Another one of my pet hates is biographies of artists that only deal with gossip, and leave out their art. But the only reason to biography artists is their art, and so the relationship between the life and the art is my subject. Another annoying habit I have, which seems to infuriate some American fans, is that when I don’t know something, I say I don’t know, rather than make up something to fill the gap. Past lives are like a jigsaw puzzle in which you can never find all the pieces. Like an endless Me and My Pal [where Stan and Ollie labor over a jigsaw puzzle] – you can never quite fit it together. But try, try, try again: Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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