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!)
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.
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 , 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.
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).