I have a Laurel & Hardy podcast, y’all!

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I have been a Laurel & Hardy enthusiast since I was a kid, and I finally decided to share my passion in a podcast. Below is a link to the first episode of my very first podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts – A Laurel & Hardy Podcast. Listen (at iTunes) and enjoy (I hope!).

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/steve-bailey/id1371780163

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The smoking gun

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Like everyone else, I have some definite opinions regarding the ever-raging debate on U.S. gun control. But I’m not about to share them here, because this is not a political blog and I don’t want to get into a Phil Donahue-like discussion where nobody ever wins.

Instead, I only want to reflect on how this gun debate has made me long for a time when America was just plain less mean. Yes, I know I’m venturing into Old Fogey-Land, but please hear me out.

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Two days ago, Feb. 23, was the 53rd anniversary of the death of a wonderful comedian, Stan Laurel. Did you know that he kept his name in the public phone book?

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Laurel lived out his last few years in Santa Monica, CA, and his name, address, and phone number were printed in Santa Monica’s White Pages. He felt that any fan who wanted to talk to him or meet him had a right to do so. Many famous people, including Dick Van Dyke and Peter Sellers, met Laurel for the first time in this way. But Laurel was quite willing to meet non-celebrities as well.

People would phone Laurel to speak to him, and he would often invite these people to his apartment to regale them with stories related to his life and career. At these times, Laurel’s wife Ida (pronounced “EE-da”) would retire to another room, as she realized that this was Laurel’s way of entertaining people since he no longer made movies.

My point is this: What celebrity would dare to have their public phone number known these days? (I don’t even think there were any other in Laurel’s era who did it.) And these days, it’s not at all a stretch to imagine some crazed fan holding a gun on Laurel and taking him and his wife hostage.

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Or take “The Carol Burnett Show.” Burnett began nearly every episode of her TV variety show by “bumping up the lights” and taking questions from the audience. Sometimes, she even did more than simply answer questions. One elderly audience member asked Burnett where the restroom was, and (probably for a laugh) Burnett ushered the lady up to the stage and pointed out exactly which direction she should go to find it. On another occasion, an audience member asked for an opportunity to sing. The man was invited on stage and, accompanied by Burnett’s in-house orchestra, the man proceeded to belt out “What I Did for Love,” from the musical A Chorus Line.

(Of course, the most famous recipient of Burnett’s generosity to fans is Vicki Lawrence, who first met Burnett after writing her a letter stating how the two of them looked alike. As it happened, Burnett was looking for an actress to play her younger sister on a recurring sketch of her then-new variety show. The rest is TV history.)

Of course, TV variety shows are now dead, but if they weren’t, again imagine a celebrity inviting an unknown audience member up on stage. And imagine if said fan had a loaded pistol and an agenda. (The opening scene of the 2004 black-comedy remake of The Stepford Wives tried to play just such a scenario for dark humor.)

I’m hardly the first person to note that, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a bit of America’s innocence died as well. And like a glacier suffering from climate change, shards of that innocence have been dropping off piece by piece ever since.

LAUREL & HARDY’S LAUGHING 20’s (1965) – Nice compilation of L&H silent comedies

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Although Laurel & Hardy’s “talkie” short subjects finally got their due on a lavish American DVD set in 2011, their silent shorts aren’t as readily available in the U.S. (because they are owned by different hands). So if you have trouble obtaining L&H’s terrific silent shorts as a set, your best bet is to check out Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, one of the many silent-comedy compilations lovingly put together by film historian Robert Youngson in the 1950’s and ’60s.

Youngson’s efforts, well-chronicled in the L&H biography Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward, were instrumental in rekindling interest in silent-film comedy in general and L&H in particular. Though Youngson’s narration tends to be a bit verbose, his affection for Laurel & Hardy’s peerless comedy is obvious and infectious. And this compilation, especially, presents most of its subjects virtually complete (except for subtitles) and, with modest but effective musical scoring, nearly as lovingly as the originals.

Among the L&H gems presented here are: Liberty (1929), one of my personal L&H faves, with Stan and Ollie doing a “Harold Lloyd” stunt number atop an unfinished skyscraper; From Soup to Nuts (1928), with Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc as waiters at a dinner party; and The Finishing Touch (1928), with the duo building (or, more exactly, not building) a house. The film’s closer features climaxes (and only the climaxes, unfortunately) from L&H gems such as The Battle of the Century (with its famous pie-throwing melee) and Two Tars (a hilarious traffic jam that inspired much in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend).

(Also included are very funny excerpts from short subjects of L&H’s contemporaries  at the Hal Roach Studios, Charlie Chase and Max Davidson.)

To a film generation acquainted only with color, sound, and fury, the methodical pace of Laurel & Hardy’s silent work is almost like a foreign language to be learned. But the beauty inherent in a second language is on ample display here, especially as an anecdote to latter-day bodily-function comedies.

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.

My 5 favorite movie actors

Five Stars Blogathon

The following is my contribution to the third annual Five Stars Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ rapturous reviews of their five all-time favorite movie stars!

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Jodie Foster. Whenever I see Jodie Foster on the screen, I see a fiery woman who is very smart and who is frequently frustrated at having to deal with the less intelligent people in life. Since I often have that same viewpoint of suffering fools non-gladly, I cherish its portrayal on the screen.

Furthermore, she’s so intense that (a) you can’t take your eyes off of her, and (b) you believe every role she plays — whether it’s an underage hooker in over her head in Taxi Driver, the single mother of a brilliant but socially inept child in Little Man Tate, or a starry-eyed astronomer in Contact. In short, Foster makes intelligence sexy.

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Jane Russell. Jane Russell’s brash persona was of its time. She’d have never become a star in our sexually-explicit-yet-politically-correct era, where actresses can show off all the skin they want and then punch out any guy who looks at them as a sex object. Jane was what she was — built, brassy, and non-apologetic about all of it.

(One story goes that, on the set of the movie His Kind of Woman [1951], Russell, Vincent Price, and Robert Mitchum were being interviewed by a sob-sister reporter. As it happened, the trio were all sitting inside a room on the ledge of a second-story window, trying to catch a breeze. When the reporter asked how Russell could reconcile her Christianity with her worldly movie roles, Jane countered with, “Can’t I be a Christian and still have big tits?” Mitchum laughed so hard that Price had to grab hold of him to keep him from falling out the window.)

These days, any guy who deigns to admit that anything turns him on is branded a pervert. But I’ll be glad to say it — Russell’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude, combined with her fulsome physique, get me roiled up every time. Try watching the very first shot of her big number in the Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface (1952) — with the camera panning up her long, glorious legs as va-va-voom music plays on the soundtrack — and see how nonchalant you remain.

Russell was also a decent actress, and even a good comedienne, when given the opportunity in gems such as SOP and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At the risk of sounding completely sexist, they don’t make ‘em like Russell anymore — so let’s be grateful that some people had a camera pointed at her when they did.

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John Goodman. I first saw John Goodman in David Byrne’s offbeat comedy True Stories (1986). Goodman played Louis Fyne, a shy, overweight cleanroom technician who does a video advertising for a mate. The first thing that struck me was how stereotypical the role seemed. The second thing to strike me was how Goodman quietly transcended the role’s hoariness and really made you feel for this poor schmuck.

Right after that movie, Goodman went balls-out as a nutso escaped convict in the Coen Bros.’ comedy Raising Arizona (1987), and that cemented my love for the guy. After that, he had a huge string of roles where he could seemingly do no wrong — a former high-school quarterback in Everybody’s All-American, a cop who partnered with Al Pacino in Sea of Love, and of course, lovable working-class stiff Dan Connor on the sitcom “Roseanne.” It seemed as though Goodman began all of these roles by planting a tiny seed of truth within his character — so that, no matter how outrageous the situation got, you really believed in and felt for this guy.

Unfortunately, Goodman’s turn from mild-mannered character actor to major star resulted in him starring in some really embarrassing movies — King Ralph, The Babe, and the truly painful The Flintstones. But still, when Goodman is really into a worthy role, he still feels like someone you want to give a big bear-hug and buy him a beer.

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Charles Durning. In his earlier movies, Durning seemed intent on playing the man you love to hate — whether he was a corrupt cop in The Sting (1973), or the owner of a frog-leg fast-food chain who set his sights on Kermit the Frog as his chain’s spokesperson in The Muppet Movie (1979).

Then, in the 1980’s, it was as though a weight lifted off Durning’s shoulders, and he was suddenly doing roles that couldn’t help but endear him to you — the wily senator in the “Sidestep” number of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), the widower won over by Dustin Hoffman’s man-disguised-as-a-woman in Tootsie (1982), and the laconic small-town doctor in Burt Reynolds’ late-80’s sitcom “Evening Shade.” He seemed to bask in his own charm, and the joy spread to his audience. I smiled every time he came on the screen.

But his biggest role, because it was real life, was as a deservedly decorated World War II veteran. For many years, he served as a spokesman on PBS’ Memorial Day concerts, recounting stories of fellow soldiers who never made it back home. With each passing year, you could see the toll it took on Durning to perform this task, but he carried on with it grandly. This culminated in what I think was his finest hour — his Emmy-nominated guest turn on “CSI,” where he played a WWII veteran who was, after several decades, still wracked with guilt over the death of a fellow soldier.

Like John Goodman at his best, Durning had such an authentic Everyman quality that you couldn’t help but be won over by him.

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Stan Laurel. I am a classic-comedy buff, and I mulled over this final choice for ages. There are many comedians from that era who transcended their low-comedy origins and became larger than life — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx, and W.C. Fields, to name a few. I picked Stan Laurel out of this group because he developed such an endearing characterization in partnership with Oliver Hardy, you felt you could believe in simple-but-charming Stanley even if Ollie wasn’t there with him.

(Witness the minute or so at the end of the Laurel & Hardy comedy The Flying Deuces [1939], where Stanley is a lonely vagabond traversing the countryside. It’s just enough of a solo turn that you wish he could have done an entire movie of that character by himself.)

Laurel started out in vaudeville with Charlie Chaplin, and his early movie work consisted of Chaplin-like gags minus Chaplin’s plausibility or heart. When Laurel was first teamed with Hardy, he was hesitant about it, because he had established himself as a writer-director and preferred to work behind the camera. But then he created the character that endeared him to generations of movie fans.

Stanley’s likable dumbness is probably his saving grace as well. When Ollie lords it over him, he seems to convince himself that it’s his friend’s way of looking out for him. And if you doubt Laurel’s depth of performance, watch the final 10 minutes of the L&H comedy A Chump at Oxford (1940), where he becomes a completely different person: a condescending British genius who turns the tables on Ollie and makes him feel like the dummy for a change.

Laurel & Hardy buffs will tell you there’s a reason they continue watching those movies long after they’ve memorized the gags. It’s that extra touch of movie magic, much of it provided by Laurel as the uncredited writer-director-editor of those movies. What’s not to love?

NUTS IN MAY: A LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON (WITH PRIZES!) is here!

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I’m still waiting on one final entry before I announce the prize winners. In the meantime, I encourage you to read the other blog entries that have been posted. All of them capture the spirit of their respective Laurel & Hardy movies quite nicely!

Serendipitous Anachronisms – Liberty (1929)

CaftanWoman – Me and My Pal (1933)

thoughtsallsorts – The Live Ghost (1934)

Realweegiemidget Reviews – A Chump at Oxford (1940)