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).

 

 

 

 

 

A brief history of Sons of the Desert (a/k/a The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society)

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The following article is part of this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. If you’re not sure what the heck we’re talking about, click on the above image to find out!

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Sons of the Desert is a worldwide group also known as “The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society.” It is named after Laurel & Hardy’s 1933 feature film of the same name, in which “The Boys” lie to their wives in order to attend their lodge’s annual convention in Chicago.

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Origins. A Michigan professor named John McCabe (shown above) first met Stan and “Babe” (the off-screen nickname for Oliver Hardy) when they were on tour in British music halls in the 1950’s. From there, McCabe began a friendship with Stan Laurel that lasted until Laurel’s death in 1965. McCabe also wrote a biography in 1961, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, that was seminal in the “renaissance” of Laurel & Hardy’s film work.

Shortly before Stan’s death, McCabe proposed to Laurel the creation of a small group of Laurel & Hardy “buffs.” (Until his own death in 2005, McCabe was persistent in distinguishing Laurel & Hardy enthusiasts as “buffs,” as opposed to being a “fan,” which word McCabe felt was short for “fanatic.”)

Laurel was delighted with the idea of the Society, and McCabe — with the help of actor Orson Bean (later of TV’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”), kid-show host and Ollie impersonator Chuck McCann, and L&H buff John Municino — formed Sons of the Desert. From a group of about a dozen members who met in a New York lounge in 1965, the Society has grown to hundreds of local chapters located in the U.S. and fourteen other countries.

Tents. Each of the Society’s regional chapters is known as a “Tent” and is named after a Laurel & Hardy film. (The only exception to the film-title rule is a South Florida Tent known as “Boobs in the Woods,” named by Laurel himself as a description of his and Babe’s screen characters.)

The manner of Tent meetings and presentations vary from Tent to Tent, though most Tents try to have meetings at least once a month. Many people have found life-long friends and spouses via their association with the Sons. Most notably, it was through Sons of the Desert that the widowed John McCabe met Rosina Lawrence (L&H’s co-star in Way Out West), to whom he was married from 1987 until her death ten years later.

In 1978, the Sons began holding biennial international conventions, where L&H buffs gather from around the world to share movie screenings, trivia contests, and their love of Stan and Ollie.

Constitution. Following is the Sons of the Desert’s “official” constitution, written by John McCabe and approved by Stan Laurel, who added two minor details to it (as noted within).

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Article I

The Sons of the Desert is an organization with scholarly overtones and heavily social undertones devoted to the loving study of the persons and films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Article II

The founding members are Orson Bean, Al Kilgore, John McCabe, Chuck McCann, and John Municino.

Article III

The Sons of the Desert shall have the following officers and board members who will be elected at an annual meeting:

* Grand Sheik

* Vice-Sheik (Sheik in charge of vice)

* Sub-Vice-Vizier (Sheik-Treasurer, and in charge of sub-vice)

* Grand Vizier (Corresponding Secretary)

* Board Members-at-Large (This number should not exceed 812)

Article IV

All officers and Board Members-at-Large shall sit at an exalted place at the annual banquet table.

Article V

The officers and Board Members-at-Large shall have absolutely no authority whatever.

Article VI

Despite his absolute lack of authority, the Grand Sheik or his deputy shall act as chairman at all meetings, and will follow the standard parliamentary procedure in conducting same. At the meetings, it is hoped that the innate dignity, sensitivity, and good taste of the members assembled will permit activities to be conducted with a lively sense of deportment and good order.

Article VII

Article VI is ridiculous.

Article VIII

The Annual Meeting shall be conducted in the following sequence:

  1. Cocktails.
  2. Business meeting and cocktails.
  3. Dinner (with cocktails).
  4. After-dinner speeches and cocktails.
  5. Cocktails.
  6. Coffee and cocktails.
  7. Showing of Laurel & Hardy film.
  8. After-film critique and cocktails.
  9. After-after-film critique and cocktails.
  10. Stan has suggested this period. In his words: “All members are requested to park their camels and hire a taxi; then return for ‘One for the desert’!”

Article IX

Section “d” above shall consist in part of the following toasts:

* “To Stan”

* “To Babe”

* “To Fin”

* “To Mae Busch and Charley Hall — who are eternally ever-popular.”

Article X

Section “h” above shall include the reading of scholarly papers on Laurel and Hardy. Any member going over an 8-1/2 minute time limit will have his cocktails limited to fourteen.

Article XI

Hopefully, and seriously, The Sons of the Desert, in the strong desire to perpetuate the spirit and genius of Laurel and Hardy, will conduct activities ultimately and always devoted to the preservation of their films and the encouragement of their showing everywhere.

Article XII

There shall be member societies in other cities called “Tents,” each of which shall derive its name from one of the films.

Article XIII

Stan has suggested that members might wear a fez or blazer patch with an appropriate motto. He says: “I hope that the motto can be blue and gray, showing two derbies with these words superimposed: ‘Two minds without a single thought’.” These words have duly been set into the delightful escutcheon created for The Sons of the Desert by Al Kilgore. [The “escutcheon” is shown at the top of this post.] They have been rendered into Latin in the spirit of Stan’s dictum that our organization should have, to use his words, “a half-assed dignity” about it. We shall strive to maintain precisely that kind of dignity at all costs — at all times.

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Theme song. The Sons of the Desert group’s theme song is, again, taken from the film. It was written by the movie’s co-writer, Frank Terry, and is a pastiche of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” Here it is as sung in the movie (starting at the 0:48 mark).

Lastly, on a personal note, for those who do not have a Tent in their area or who cannot attend live meetings, there are online Tents as well — including mine (which used to be live but whose meetings were discontinued due to low attendance). Feel free to visit my Tent on Facebook — Tent #263, Laurel & Hardy’s Leave ‘em Laughing Tent.

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For more information about Sons of the Desert or Laurel & Hardy in general, visit the Sons of the Desert website at www.sotd.org.

Sources:

Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies, by Randy Skretvedt (Moonstone Press, 1987).

Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward, by Scott MacGillivray (Vestal Press, 1998).

John McCabe’s MR. LAUREL & MR. HARDY (1961) – Beautiful tribute to Stan and Ollie

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Prof. John McCabe befriended Stan and Babe after meeting them at one of their British-hall performances in the 1950’s, and one of the byproducts was this wonderful book. At the time of its first publication, biographies and histories of movie comedians were scarce, and their filmed work, while broadcast frequently on TV, was at the mercy of programmers who would butcher these comedy classics to get commercials in. Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy, along with Robert Youngson’s movie compilations of silent-era comics, helped to renew fervent interest in the duo’s movies and assured them of their rightful place in film history.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long while, but recently on the podcast “Maltin on Movies,” film historian Leonard Maltin and show-biz gadfly Mark Evanier reminisced about their favorite Laurel & Hardy moments, and they highlighted this book in particular. So I re-read my dog-eared copy of the book for the umpteenth time, and it made me realize that, just as Stan and Ollie’s love for each other shown through in their movies, so McCabe’s affection for the duo shines through in his book.

It must be noted that elements of the book have dated somewhat. Years after its publication, Laurel & Hardy movies that had been regarded as long-lost have turned up over the years, so the book must regarded as of-its-time as far as completeness is concerned.

Another dated part of the book is its entries on the movies that Laurel & Hardy made for Twentieth Century-Fox in the confines of the big Studio System. While rightfully depicted as lesser than their work for Hal Roach, McCabe posits that the quality of the films got worse and worse in order to “freeze out” Laurel & Hardy, as though Fox, the studio that hired them in the first place, wanted to use its corporate clout only to put a great comedy team in their place. In fact, some of the later Fox films have their champions (see Scott MacGillivray’s terrific book on this subject); it’s more likely that Fox had not a clue what to do with comedians who wanted to do things their own way.

But these are minor debits in regard to the overall quality of the book. McCabe otherwise documents the duo’s history succinctly and lovingly. One of its most charming parts is Chapter 2, which begins with some correspondence between McCabe and Hardy’s widow Lucille. McCabe did an interview with “Babe” (as Hardy was affectionately known off-screen) in the 1950’s, and McCabe asked Lucille for permission to print it in his book. At first she declined. But after some introspection, she wrote McCabe back and said that McCabe’s printed interview had triggered personal memories of Babe, and she realized she was being selfish not to allow the interview to be printed. This correspondence is followed by the interview itself. Thus, the entirety of Chapter 2 shows how much Hardy’s work with Laurel deeply affected everyone, from fans to his widow.

This lovely book is long out of print but is well worth seeking out. It’s a perfect introduction to Laurel & Hardy for those who are unfamiliar with their work, and a great look back for those who have enjoyed L&H for years.