The following is yet another entry in this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. Click on the above image to see why we’re making all this fuss about Stan and Ollie!
(READERS: This is one of the most obscure Laurel & Hardy tomes, mostly because it has been out of print for several decades. But it was the first L&H-related book I ever read and it holds a special place in my heart for that, so please indulge me. Used copies of the book are available at Amazon.com, and it is well worth the trouble of seeking out.)
This book contains exactly the sort of dry analysis that usually kills comedy, but author Charles Barr’s love of his subject shows through enough to transcend his sense of faux symbolism. (Example: According to Barr, in Sons of the Desert, Stan’s eating a wax apple represents him trying to eat from Eden’s garden of knowledge but getting only a “dummy” knowledge since the apple is fake.) If you can get past that collegiate kind of stuff, you’ll be rewarded with lengthy and satisfying analyses of some of L&H’s most wonderful comedies.
Barr gives very short shrift to L&H’s post-Hal Roach work (deservedly so, but it makes for bad film history), and my personal peeve with the book is that he calls Helpmates “an irreducible masterpiece” and yet denies it the same sort of lengthy treatment he gives to a lesser movie like Early to Bed. But if that’s a complaint, it’s only because Barr is so on-target about most of the movies he critiques, one wishes for more instead of less. Overall, it’s a very satisfying study of L&H.
My modest introduction to Laurel and Hardy occurred when I was 10 years old and came across a funny-looking book in the local library. So my eternal blossoming love for L&H can be traced to a long-out-of-print but lovingly written analysis by British film professor Charles Barr, simply titled Laurel and Hardy.
Barr (pictured above) has since moved on to other endeavors, among them serving as film professor at the University of East Anglia and recently publishing a study of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. However, in 2002, Barr kindly agreed to submit to an E-mail interview about his L&H book, God bless him.
MMBB: What prompted you to write a book about Laurel and Hardy?
Charles Barr: I was young, and just starting to discover the full range and delights of their films; and the opportunity was there. The mid-’60s in England was a time of sudden expansion in film-book publishing, with a range of new paperback series. The most attractive of them was Movie Paperbacks, a spinoff from Movie magazine, for whom I wrote occasionally – both it and the books were edited and designed by Ian Cameron, who is still going strong in 2002. He was asking around for book suggestions, and accepted my L+H one with enthusiasm. He loved their films; they fitted well into a series that was designed to embrace unpretentious popular cinema as well as art cinema; and they offered such good scope for pictorial illustration, which was one of the great strengths of the series. One of the things that works best in the book, I think, is the layout of gag sequences.
MMBB: Do you still receive much response to the book?
Barr: To be honest, no. It’s been hard to obtain for a long time, and, as you well know, other and more thoroughly researched books have come out since. Occasionally, though, people tell me it should be reprinted, but I haven’t done anything about this.
MMBB: What about L&H appeals to you the most?
Barr: I need, again, to be honest: that should really be in the past tense, ‘appealed’. It is not that I have gone off Laurel and Hardy, I simply don’t now find myself watching their films much, or buying them on video. In doing the book, I had a total and joyful immersion in the films for a few months, seeing virtually all of them (the pre-1940 ones) several times, and then writing my notes up quickly and eagerly; and in a sense I was satiated. Maybe I am waiting till I have almost forgotten them, so that I can come back to them afresh in old age. I think what most appealed was, or is, the beautiful ‘logic’ of their humour, the way they played out the same kinds of exchange or adventure in endlessly varied ways, like musical variations, or a series of mathematical equations. I’ve always liked the line that is spoken in Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 novel about the film industry, Prater Violet: ‘the movies aren’t literature, they aren’t drama, they are pure mathematics’, and L+H’s best short films seem to bear that out, as some of the still-sequences suggest. I hardly need add, as an answer to this and to Q1, that I also laughed a lot at them.
MMBB: Do you have a favorite L&H movie? If so, why is it your favorite?
Barr: I guess The Music Box, because, as I see I say in the book (pp 135-6), ‘it seems to have in it everything that there is of Laurel and Hardy’, compressed into one short. But one could say that of other films: Perfect Day, Helpmates…
MMBB: You gave short shrift to L&H’s post-1940 movies. While most L&H buffs agree that they’re inferior, in retrospect, does it bother you that you didn’t give a more complete view of the final phase of their film career?
Barr: No, it didn’t and doesn’t bother me, because it was not aiming to be that kind of comprehensive survey. I hadn’t even seen tried to see all of the post-1940 films. I defer to the more conscientious scholarship of later chroniclers of L+H, even though I find some of thr writing a bit stodgy.
MMBB: Stan Laurel used to complain about how American television butchered the editing of his movies. Do you think the movies are better served by British television?
Barr: Yes, they have been, though I don’t think terrestrial TV has run their films as a series for many years now. Instead, they keep repeating other kinds of classic series, TV sitcoms (and the L+H shorts are surely pioneers of sitcom) like “Sgt Bilko” and “Dad’s Army” and “Fawlty Towers.” Incidentally, Basil and Sibyl Fawlty often make me think of L+H, though they lack their deep-down affection: the same frustrations and point-scoring and sudden violence, the same polished professional craft, the same inexorably mathematical logic with which stories and sequences develop…. perhaps TV should run some double-bills?
It is nice to know that Charles Barr is still around, and I am glad that you interviewed him. I did check his book out from the library a couple of times, back when I was about 15, and liked it. It had a nice visual design, with photos complimenting the text.
Instead of simply reprinting the book, I think that it would be great if he started re-watching L&H films again. Maybe not exactly an immersion, like he described it, but just to watch one short per day, and a feature per week, or however much he would like. Then he could write down some fresh thoughts and impressions of the films, and then have a new book published with the new text added to whatever he would like to keep of the original commentary. Just a thought, that’s all.
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