Review of Norbert Aping’s book THE FINAL FILM OF LAUREL AND HARDY: A STUDY OF THE CHAOTIC MAKING AND MARKETING OF ATOLL K

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The following is the final entry in this blog’s self-anointed Laurel & Hardy Month. Wondering why we did this? Click on the above image for our explanation!

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(PREFACE: Atoll KLaurel & Hardy’s final theatrical film, seems to have undergone some revisionist viewing over the last few years. As a result, there are L&H fans who find enough in the movie to enjoy it, while others share the initial general consensus [including Stan’s] that the film is a painful disaster to watch; count me among the latter. [Full disclosure: I showed the movie at one of my Tent meetings a few years ago, and most of the attendees said they really enjoyed it.]

I state all of this to show that my review of this book is obviously colored by my take on the movie. Your mileage may vary.)

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I am of two minds after reading The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy (McFarland, 2009). On the one hand, the book is a meticulously researched and detailed history of L&H’s final movie. On the other hand, considering how mostly unbearable the book’s subject is to watch, the book is rather like using a state-of-the-art telescope to examine an anthill.

Author Norbert Aping obviously wrote this book with the best of intentions, and he probably did so at the right time. For decades, L&H legend maintained that (a) everything that needed to be said about L&H’s movies had been said by the late 1970’s; and (b), the quality of Laurel & Hardy’s movies went straight downhill after they left the Hal Roach Studios and were forced into the “studio system” manner of making movies. But Randy Skretvedt’s glorious L&H bio proved the first theory to be wrong, and Scott MacGillivray’s revisionist bio put the lie to the second theory. So Aping must have figured that the time was right to revisit Atoll K and show that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be.

The trouble is that Atoll K — or Utopia, as it is more commonly known from public-domain tapes and DVDs — speaks for itself, often quite bitterly. If you start watching an L&H/Fox film with the knowledge that The Boys were often hampered by the studio system, there are still moments — indeed, entire scenes — of the Fox films that you can enjoy. But you can make all the excuses in the world for Atoll K, and yet once you are assaulted with Stan’s sickly appearance, Ollie’s larger-than-usual obesity, horribly dubbed foreign actors, and subplots that come and go with the wind, the movie practically talks you out of laughing at it for long stretches of time.

Aping is so eager to plead a positive case for the movie, he ends up doing his own schizophrenic dance trying to cover his tracks. At one point, he’ll tell you that distributors who were several generations removed from the original film have tampered with it and ruined it with editorial omissions. Then later, he’ll say that excisions which were never called for by the movie’s original makers have considerably improved the story and tempo of the movie.

Aping also points out that different countries’ versions of Atoll K (in America, England, and Europe) are very different from each other, ostensibly concluding that if we could get only one, clearly realized version of the movie, we’d all realize what a masterpiece it could have been. But unlike film buffs who still search the world for a complete print of The Rogue Song or Hats Off, there’s never been a documented case of anyone (other than, perhaps, Aping) who has viewed Atoll K and determined that there’s a pile of gold buried somewhere beneath this drek.

Also, as detailed as Aping’s book is, it still leaves several questions unanswered. One is why Stan Laurel — who, at the Roach Studios, was famous for throwing aside a script in favor of improvising his comedy — was so unquestionably attached to the notion that a good script would have made this movie better, when all evidence along the way demonstrated otherwise.

Another anomaly is that Aping is inexplicably pleased about any script development that shows the supporting characters carrying the majority of the plotline and/or the comedy. For a movie that its European producers were eager to plug as Stan and Ollie’s return to the big screen, it’s very bizarre that nobody connected with the movie was bothered by L&H being removed from the storyline (by mostly inferior and irritating supporting characters) for long scenes at a time.

Aping’s obvious research and good intentions are to be commended, and any L&H buff would like very much to believe that the movie Aping describes is the movie as it stands. But considering that the movie inspires more nausea and sorrow than laughs from its viewers, one is very surprised that Aping maintains, in his final line of the book, that “These two comic gentlemen had no need to be ashamed of their final film together.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Laurel & Hardy biographies – Two more

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The following is the latest entry in this blog’s self-promulgated Laurel & Hardy Month. Why are we promulgating this? Click on the above image to learn more! (And by the way, go see Stan & Ollie — it’s wonderful!)

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Still cleaning out the ol’ bookshelf! Sorry if I have missed any of your favorite Laurel & Hardy biographies, but to paraphrase a line from Citizen Kane, they’ve been writing Laurel & Hardy books for nearly 60 years,  and I’ve only been reading them for 45!

I have three L&H books left to cover. One of them is a huge volume on Atoll K, which I will critique in my next blog entry. Today, I will cover two of the more acclaimed L&H tomes.

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The Films of Laurel & Hardy, by William K. Everson (1967)

[NOTE: Portions of this book are available for free online reading. Click here to go to the online link to this book.]

Let me begin by saying that I lapped up this book when I was first getting into Laurel & Hardy movies. (When I was in the sixth grade in school, I went so far as to write about it for a book report.) I must also say that I don’t think the book has aged very well.

For many years, The Films of Laurel and Hardy — later inexplicably and incorrectly re-titled The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy — was one of the few print sources for an evaluation of L&H’s movie teamwork. For this reason, it occupies a warm place in the hearts of many L&H buffs.

It is still worth a look, but certain elements of William K. Everson’s book have dated badly. The entry on Laurel and Hardy’s short Duck Soup (1927) was written (as a “lost” film) a few years before it was rediscovered. (Everson eventually wrote a critique of the film in another book, Laurel and Hardy [1975], sadly out of print but reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) And another “lost” L&H film, Now I’ll Tell One (1927), is for obvious reasons not listed in the book. It’s a pity that Everson didn’t do an update on his book before his death.

Even without the film rediscoveries, the book is lacking in many ways. Everson’s claim that Block-Heads (1938) is a “Stan Laurel Production” is in no way backed up by either film historians or even the movie’s credits. (Laurel’s production credit appears only in Our Relations and Way Out West.) In the entry on Beau Hunks (1931), Everson writes, “Four reels was a clumsy length for Laurel and Hardy, and they never repeated it.” But they actually did, when they made A Chump at Oxford (1940) as one of Hal Roach’s “featurettes” of the time; it was only when the movie proved to be a hit that L&H added an extended prologue to the movie.

The most annoying aspect of the book, though, is how condescending it is, particularly in reference to L&H’s “studio movie” years when 20th Century-Fox and M-G-M took Laurel’s control away from their movies. Everson suggests that Stan and Babe might have been “tired and played out” by this point, even though they went on to tour Europe for many years after their Hollywood stint. In light of the oft-repeated fact that the studios insisted on using typical make-up on L&H, thus “aging” their characters, particularly cruel is a 1944 photo of a made-up Stan, with Everson’s caption, “Laurel’s age was really beginning to show by now.” Even a cursory reading of John McCabe’s bio Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy could have told Everson about the studio-inflicted problems which he attributes to old age.

In terms of individual critiques, the book is still likable enough, and the generous helping of photos and publicity shots doesn’t hurt. But in the half-century since The Films of Laurel and Hardy was first published, many other L&H biographies have far surpassed it in terms of factual accuracy and empathy towards The Boys.

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The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell (orig. published, 1995)

When it comes to L&H biographies, The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia ranks up with the best recent bios and John McCabe’s many tomes. Just as he did with the careers of Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers, Glenn Mitchell has exhaustively researched every aspect of Laurel & Hardy’s screen and stage work and compiled it into one handy, dandy volume.

Just looking up the Encyclopedia’s entries is half the fun. Mitchell has, naturally, synopsized and critiqued all of L&H’s team movies (as well as other vaguely related entries, such as L&H co-star Anita Garvin’s two-reeler A Pair of Tights, co-starring Marion Byron in an attempt to create a female Laurel & Hardy). Mitchell also has individual entries related to theatrical matters (“Reissues,” “Titling”), as well as the team’s varied subject matter and gag inspirations (“Hats,” “Eggs,” “Rebellions – by Stanley”).

All of it is written in a breezy, charming style evocative of Laurel & Hardy’s finest film work. If you are watching L&H and want accessible, enjoyable access to what you’re watching, keep this book next to the TV.

(POSTSCRIPT: Although we cannot print them here for copyright reasons, we’d also like to recommend two excellent L&H-inspired short stories: Ray Bradbury’s “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” (1988; click on the story’s title to read it for free online), and Cynthia Rylant’s “A Crush,” printed in Rylant’s collection A Couple of Kooks and Other Stories About Love (1990; sadly, out of print).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Bringing two movie comedy legends to (real) life

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We proudly share the following movie review as part of this blog’s self-designated Laurel & Hardy Month. What in the world is that, you ask? Click on the above image to learn more!

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When a movie had good intentions but eventually went off the rails, the late film critic Roger Ebert used to say that the movie “knew the words but not the music.” In Stan & Ollie, the music is so lush and sweet, you can forgive the words being a little garbled sometimes.

What I mean by that is, if you go in expecting a 100% factual story about the later career of film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you will leave the theater grumbling to yourself and ticking off a checklist of everything the movie got wrong. But if you go to see a heartfelt story about two talented comics in the twilight of their careers, you will be richly rewarded, even if you’re not a Laurel & Hardy fan.

The film addresses the period where Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) took to touring European music halls in the early 1950’s after any chances of making new movies had mostly dried up. For dramatic purposes, the film condenses a lot of the true story. L&H actually made three separate tours of Europe that were mostly successful. Here, it’s a single tour that doesn’t really take off until L&H do publicity in local towns to promote the show. A subplot of the movie is Stan trying to get financing for a L&H movie comedy based on the Robin Hood legend. In real life, there was an attempted Robin Hood project, but that had mostly fallen through the cracks by the time L&H began their initial tour.

One could keep on nitpicking like this all day long, but in the end, what one is left with is the movie’s characterizations and situations, and happily, these shine like the midday sun. Let me add to the chorus of voices that have already declared Coogan’s and Reilly’s acting work remarkable, and this is another area that transcends nitpicking. Coogan gets Laurel’s voice, body language, and (seemingly) thought processes down pat. And yes, Reilly does have layers of prosthetics to help him show us the real “Babe” (Hardy’s lifelong nickname). But that only further demonstrates how Reilly managed to convey a vulnerable person breaking through those pounds of fake flesh.

The supporting actors deserve kudos as well. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson convey strength and humanity as The Boys’ wives, fiercely protecting their men from the world (and each other). Rufus Jones is a smirky delight as tour producer Bernard Delfont, trying to act as though he cares about Stan and Babe’s welfare while keeping one eye on the box-office take. And Danny Huston displays appropriate gruffness as L&H’s indulgent movie producer Hal Roach. (Well-meaning L&H historians have stated that Roach comes off as too harsh in this movie. The lawsuits that sailed back and forth between Laurel and Roach in 1939 [not depicted in this film] indicate that Roach was indulgent of Laurel’s creativity but never shy about asserting his authority when necessary.)

If you aren’t familiar with Laurel & Hardy’s movies, you’ll still appreciate Stan & Ollie’s subtle and layered portrayal of their real-life friendship. If you are a fan of L&H, you’ll be amazed at how their real-life story (at least in this instance) parallels their movie comedies. The overwhelming theme of all of their movies was of two naive friends trying to hold their own against a hostile world. In telling their late-life story, Stan & Ollie only deepens that theme.

(If, by chance, you want to hear more of what I have to say about this wonderful movie, click here to visit my Laurel & Hardy podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts.)

Laurel & Hardy biographies – Way out worst

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The following is this blog’s latest entry in its self-anointed Laurel & Hardy Month. Not sure what that means? Click on the above image to find out!

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Thus far this month, we have tried to showcase some of the best biographical books about Laurel & Hardy. But some authors, sadly, didn’t aim very high. We wanted to highlight these books as well in order to let the reader beware — and to, let’s face it, give you a derisive laugh or two!

Let’s start with a book that was at least initially well-intended…

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A Fine Mess!, by Richard J. Anobile (1975)

A Fine Mess! might be of limited value to those Laurel & Hardy buffs who literally want to study their heroes’ movies frame by frame. The book’s excerpts are taken from The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy (1967), a “clip” movie compiled by “Bullwinkle” creator Jay Ward. I’ve never seen this compilation but have often read that it is one of the weaker L&H compilation movies, and this book gives me no reason to think differently.

The weakest element of the book is the style of its “author,” Richard J. Anobile. In the early 1970’s, Anobile made his reputation by reproducing frame-by-frame printed books that compiled scenes from great ’30s comedians such as The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. It was inevitable that Anobile would eventually get around to dissecting L&H’s work.

This frame blow-up method was welcome in the pre-video age, but these days it’s hardly the best way to analyze movie comedy, and L&H’s work suffers most by this method. Fields and the Marxes, while they certainly have their visual element, relied heavily on verbiage, so this framing method communicates their comedy fairly well. In the case of L&H’s minimal dialogue, one is left to look mostly at individual sight gags. And unless Anobile could have printed the 24 frames that each second of sound film contains, his method couldn’t possibly illustrate the joy of an Ollie double-take or a Stan eye-blink of cognition.

One is left to turn the pages at a rapid rate a la an old “flip book” and try to imagine the movie as it really ought to be. Laurel and Hardy’s comedy isn’t completely obliterated by Anobile’s method, but still, one is better advised to look for the McCabe or Skretvedt biographies, which distill L&H’s comedy far less clinically and more lovingly.

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The Laurel & Hardy Scrapbook, by Jack Scagnetti (1976)

Virtually the only virtue of The Laurel & Hardy Scrapbook is that it has some very nice casual photos of Stan and Babe that I’ve not seen anywhere else. Otherwise, the book contains: the standard information on how the boys teamed; misinformation in some photo captions (for example, claiming that Stan’s finger-lighting trick from Way Out West was prefaced by Stan’s pouring gasoline on his fingers [kids, don’t try this at home!!]); and worst of all, “promotional” material for Larry Harmon’s abysmal L&H cartoons and a short-lived L&H pizza-restaurant chain. The best L&H books are a labor of love; this one is a labor to endure.

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Stan: The Life of Stan Laurel, by Fred Lawrence Guiles (1980)

This book is as far removed from a reverential, John McCabe-type biography as L&H’s Hal Roach films are from their Fox features. Guiles has achieved the dubious goal of painting Stan Laurel as the typical womanizing, alcoholic, cold-blooded Hollywood idol — much, in fact, like the silent-film-star stereotype whom Laurel fan Dick Van Dyke portrayed in Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969). Guiles admits in his introduction that he relied heavily upon the memories of Laurel’s ex-wife Ruth, and predictably, the ex doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

Guiles also takes great liberties in making some of his points. One example is his supposition that The Music Box came about because Stan’s ideas had dried up and one of his gagwriters suggested, “in desperation,” that L&H remake their silent hit Hats Off. (Considering that the movie went on to become their most celebrated, award- [their only Oscar] and otherwise, all artists should have such dry spells.)

The book is quite readable but finally ends up as another attempted debunking of a comedy great. Since Laurel was among the first to point out his own flaws, this attempt to display every one of them often comes off as strident. Though the author acknowledges John McCabe’s help in assembling his story, one imagines McCabe himself regretting the collaboration.

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The Boys: The Cinematic World of Laurel & Hardy, by Scott Allen Nollen (1989)

If Charles Barr’s book Laurel & Hardy is academic analysis that makes sense, The Boys is the antithesis. Despite the book’s dedication “to all people who have laughed at a Laurel and Hardy film,” and an attempt at legitimacy by sporting a foreward by seminal L&H biographer John McCabe, most of the book comes across as the same sort of literary pretentiousness that Laurel himself poo-poos in McCabe’s foreward. It offers a few interesting insights, but not enough to actively seek out the book. Far from reflecting the author’s admiration for L&H, the book seems mostly intent on showing its author in a bright academic light (Look, Ma! My own book!), and it mostly fails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Charles Barr’s book LAUREL & HARDY, 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. 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.)

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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.

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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 DayHelpmates

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?

 

 

 

 

 

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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simonlouvish

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.