Laurel & Hardy biographies – The John McCabe Collection

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This is yet another entry in this blog’s self-anointed declaration of Laurel & Hardy Month. Tell me that again, you say? Click on the above image for a full explanation!

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As noted elsewhere on this blog, Prof. John McCabe (shown above) met Laurel & Hardy during one of their British music-hall tours, began a friendship with Laurel that lasted the rest of Laurel’s life, and wrote the first full-fledged biography of the team, Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy (1961), which helped to re-establish worldwide interest in L&H’s careers and filmography. That book has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog (click on the book’s title to link to the review), but happily, McCabe’s interest in chronicling Laurel & Hardy did not end there. Here are three other such books that McCabe wrote or co-wrote; as I have become far too used to stating, most of these books are long out of print but are well worth seeking out.

The Comedy World of Stan Laurel (1974)

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Though it is McCabe’s famed 1961 book that regained attention for the duo, I find Comedy World even more intimate and satisfying. It’s as exhaustive a history of Stan Laurel and his comedy methods as you could wish for, filled with detailed descriptions of his early work, priceless scripts of L&H stage and radio sketches, lovely photos, and reminiscences by many of Stan’s acquaintances and cohorts, including his widow Ida. If you (rightfully) share McCabe’s view of Stan Laurel as a comedy genius, this book will only reaffirm your faith.

Laurel & Hardy (1975; co-written with Al Kilgore and Richard W. Bann)

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This book was invaluable in the pre-video age, when L&H movies were readily available only at the behest of UHF-TV-station programmers. Video and DVD supplies of The Boys’ movies have rendered the book somewhat dated, but it’s still invaluable for its many priceless stills of The Boys, in character and in casual and publicity shots. It also has a preface containing numerous tributes to Stan and Ollie from many celebrities. Its only other debit (a minor one) is John McCabe’s precious verbose vocabulary. Otherwise, if you don’t have instant access to their movies, it’s a quite enjoyable introduction to them.

Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy (1989)

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John McCabe’s very first words in the book read, “At last, at long last, Oliver Hardy.” And while this is not McCabe’s best Laurel & Hardy biography, McCabe’s sense of satisfaction in giving tribute to Hardy as a superb actor and the comedic equal of Stan Laurel are momentum enough to keep the book’s energy flowing, even through the less inspired sections.

Those lesser parts mostly consist of yet more McCabe synopses of L&H films, a modus operandi far better executed in the 1975 opus referenced above. Granted, nearly 20 years after the book’s first printing, perhaps McCabe felt these synopses were justified. Still, such plot re-hashings have been done far better in previous publications.

Far more satisfying are the book’s in-depth looks at seemingly familiar chapters of “Babe” Hardy’s off-screen life: his Southern upbringing, his early show-business and movie turns, and most touchingly, his third, final, and happiest marriage to Lucille, the woman he met, wooed, and then proposed to on a movie soundstage before they’d ever had a single date. Lucille’s tacit understanding of Babe’s shyness and sensitivity, amply illustrated in excerpts from McCabe’s interviews with her, provide an emotional underpinning not often found in L&H biographies.

The book is also nicely rounded out with observations by celebrities such as James Cagney and Dick Cavett, who voice their belief that Babe’s comic acting was often superior to Stan’s (an opinion abetted by Stan himself in the book). While there is no need to denigrate either comedian in order to build up the other — it reminds one of the many pointless academic debates, held for decades, as to whether Chaplin or Keaton is the funnier film-maker — such observations do much to turn the tide for Oliver Hardy, who has indeed been oft-overlooked through the years in favor of his more creative partner. This book finally, rightfully, and gracefully gives Mr. Hardy his overdue due.

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Bonus photo: A pic that McCabe took of Babe when he met him backstage (McCabe can be seen in the mirror’s reflection).

 

 

 

 

 

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