With the publication of Randy Skretvedt’s epic “Ultimate Edition” of his book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies, it’s time for another of my shout-out, name-dropping, bragging-rights stories.
I lived in Los Angeles for about a year three decades ago. During that time, I was wandering through a bookshop when I came across a Laurel & Hardy biography I’d never even heard of before (Skretvedt’s, of course). I bought it and read it from cover to cover several times, until you’d have thought its information was getting sponged in through my fingertips.
At the time, I was also writing for a small monthly entertainment publication. I used that as an excuse to write to Skretvedt (remember letter-writing?) to ask for an interview. He graciously accepted, and I met up with him a total of three times before I left L.A. (On one occasion, he took me to a lavish meeting of Way Out West, the L.A. “Tent” [fan club] of The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society, a/k/a “Sons of the Desert.”)
From the time he attended junior college, Skretvedt has been documenting every bit of Laurel & Hardy history he can find, and we readers are the lucky recipients of his obsession (particularly with his “Ultimate Edition” — read my review of it here.) As you can tell in my interview with Skretvedt below, he’s one of the nicest people you could imagine, just as willing to share his generous knowledge of L&H’s work in person as he is on paper.
Steve Bailey: What is it you particularly like about Laurel and Hardy?
Randy Skretvedt: The two characters are so interesting, and they have much more depth than other film comedians. They said something about human relationships without making it explicit. They can’t live with each other, and they can’t live without each other. They’re two innocents in a hostile world, and they’re the only allies they’ve got.
I can also appreciate how well the films are structured. I like how carefully they’ve timed everything, and how they’ve set up the scene so your eye is led to exactly what it should be looking at. they have a limited bag of tricks, but they’re very inventive in the ways they use the same gags over and over. And the slow tempo of their films works well, because Stan and Ollie’s minds don’t work very fast.
SB: How long did it take you to compile and write the book, from the time you actually decided you were going to write it?
RS: Some of the interview material goes back to 1974. But when I finally said, “Nobody’s done it right, I’m gonna do a book,” that was in 1979, when I was in junior college.
SB: How did Laurel and Hardy’s contemporaries feel when this kid came to interview them?
RS: That’s a good question. I think a lot of them were surprised that I was so interested. It’s a little unusual for someone to be so crazy about something that went on in 1927. But if you do your homework before the interview, that helps break down barriers, rather than just asking, “Gee, were they really fun to work with?” But most of them loved the Hal Roach Studios [where Laurel and Hardy made films from 1927 to 1940] so much, they almost got misty-eyed when they talked about it.
SB: Why did it take Hal Roach and others so long to regard Laurel and Hardy as a team? As you point out in your book, they’d make one movie where they were a bonafide team, and then a movie where they both starred but never appeared together.
RS: Leo McCarey [a Roach director who went on to direct the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and Cary Grant’s An Affair to Remember, among many others] was the first one to say, “Laurel and Hardy, together. Great idea!” But even Stan Laurel wasn’t terribly receptive to the idea when McCarey first suggested it, because he preferred working behind the scenes.
SB: You quote Hal Roach many times as saying Stan was great on gags but terrible on story construction.
RS: Hal Roach was a creative filmmaker, and the one who insisted that more emphasis be placed on storyline and characters — a major contribution to film comedy. But I don’t think he was always the man to construct the story. [Frequent Laurel and Hardy director] George Marshall said, “We’d be in the writers’ sessions, and Roach would stop in from a business meeting to say, ‘Hey, fellas, I just got a great idea for a story. Laurel and Hardy are sailors. You know what I mean?'” Then he’d walk out, and the gag writers would stare at each other and say, “Do you know what he means?”
SB: Why didn’t Stan Laurel ever take screen credit for the writing, directing, and editing he did for their films?
RS: He wasn’t concerned about getting credit, but he did make certain he got control. And it was kind of an unwritten law on the lot, anyway, that Stan was the guy in charge. If Stan didn’t feel a certain bit of business was right, the director was not about to say, “I’m the director, so you do it anyway!”
In 1938, Hal Roach said, “When you create a picture, you want it to look like it has importance. And if you labeled everything that Stan Laurel did, his name would be on there about ten times.” But Laurel never considered himself the auteur of the films, even if he unconsciously was. And I think that hurt their careers later on, because it wasn’t trumpeted in the press that Stan was the primary shaper of the films.
SB: Why did Laurel and Hardy go to 20th Century-Fox and M-G-M in the 1940’s, where they were forced into bad movies over which they had no control?
RS: Stan had many story disagreements with Roach. When Fox hired them, they said, “We’ve got writers, we’ve got editors. We just want Laurel and Hardy for their box-office value.” I think Laurel and Hardy were naive in not realizing conditions were going to be so different at another studio. They were obviously not aware of how regimented the procedures had become.
SB: What do you think of the colorized versions of the Laurel and Hardy movies?
RS: I saw the colorized Music Box [Laurel and Hardy’s Oscar-winning 1932 short subject] the other night, and the color has gotten to the point where it’s not too bad, as long as they don’t leave huge chunks of black-and-white in it, as they often do.
But then they tamper with the films in other ways. They add music where there was none before, and they cut parts of them so they can get new copyrights. And I’m a purist — if there wasn’t any music in the original, don’t put music in there now. It’s not as if all the critics who saw The Music Box said, “I think the film would be ten times better with music in it.” And I think black-and-white fits Laurel and Hardy’s films better. They’re set in the Depression, they have a grimly realistic tone to them, and I think black-and-white helps to accommodate that.
SB: If you were talking to someone completely unfamiliar with Laurel and Hardy’s work, which movie would you tell them about?
RS: There’s a short they did called You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928). At the beginning of it, Laurel and Hardy have jobs and a home. Systematically throughout the film, they lose it all until, at the end, they’re standing on the street in their underwear. All they have left is their friendship, and they go off together. That’s their statement: The world will crumble around us and we will utterly fail at everything we try, but we’ll still have each other. That’s a pretty profound statement to come from a two-reeler that was shot in 10 days.