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).

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Scott MacGillivray’s book LAUREL & HARDY: FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD, and an interview with the author

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The following is another entry in this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. Didn’t know there was one? Click on the above to read the origins of our newly minted tradition!

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Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward (2009, second edition, iUniverse) is an extremely well-written and –researched book which turns on its head the consensus, well-spread among L&H buffs, that the duo’s post-Hal Roach films were not worth the viewing. MacGillivray saw his first L&H movie, a 20th Century-Fox film, when he was eight years old, and went on to become “Grand Sheik” of a Tent (local chapter of the L&H “appreciation society” Sons of the Desert) in Boston. He provides ample evidence that, though the L&H “big studio” films of the 1940’s aren’t their finest work, their level of comedic quality is worthy of a buff’s attention.

MacGillivray also does an excellent job of documenting L&H’s post-Hollywood career, which consisted primarily of sketches written by Stan and performed live in European theaters. And MacGillivray unearths information about some proposed (and quite unusual) L&H projects that never came to fruition, including a Fox musical titled By Jupiter that would have pitted L&H against Martha Raye, and a never-done radio series titled Laurel & Hardy Go to the Moon. Finally, MacGillivray documents the Film Classics prints of L&H films that were shown on TV (and are best remembered for L&H’s “shield” credit at the start of each film), and the heretofore unsung work of L&H documentarian Robert Youngson, whose film compilations introduced Stan and Ollie to a new generation of moviegoers.

There is much to savor here, written in an easygoing style that belies the obviously thorough research that went into it. Unless or until some hard-digging film historian uncovers more L&H gems, Randy Skretvedt’s L&H biography and this fine book appear to be the final word on Laurel & Hardy’s prolific comedy careers.

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Forties Forward author Scott MacGillivray (shown above) graciously submitted to this E-mail interview in March, 2000 (shortly after the book’s first version was printed).

Movie Movie Blog Blog: How long have you been a Laurel & Hardy “buff”?

Scott MacGillivray: Since I was eight years old. I was having a boring Saturday afternoon, and my mother suggested that I watch a Laurel & Hardy movie on television. I was skeptical, because I knew vaguely of “Laurel & Hardy” as a bygone show-business name from way before my time, but I watched the movie and was immediately hooked.

MMBB: How would you summarize Laurel & Hardy’s appeal?

SM: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the most lovable screen personalities in movie history. The “Stan and Ollie” characters are innocent children in a grown-up world and, unlike The Three Stooges or Abbott & Costello for example, Laurel & Hardy have more depth. They behave like human beings instead of cartoon characters. Audiences sense and appreciate the close friendship of “Stan and Ollie.” Most people who see them become fans, and they start collecting books and movies so they can enjoy visits with Stan and Ollie again and again.

MMBB: What motivated you to write this book?

SM: I love old movies, and I enjoy reading about new discoveries — an old film being restored, or some new information about an old favorite. But whenever a new book would appear about Laurel & Hardy, I always found that the author didn’t have anything new to say about the team’s later films, produced after 1940. Everything was always borrowed from some other book. I thought there had to be more to the story.

I tried to put the later Laurel & Hardy pictures into their proper context, after so many authors just dismissed them without further ado. The “forties films” are not in the same league as the team’s earlier films, but they aren’t the total disasters they’re supposed to be. The book has stirred up some interest in the forgotten Laurel & Hardy movies, and brought back some pleasant memories for people who’ve seen them and enjoyed them.

MMBB: How long did it take you to research and write the book? Did you talk to any of L&H’s contemporaries while preparing the book? How much of the material in your book was previously uncovered in other L&H biographies?

SM: There isn’t a lot of material in print about Laurel & Hardy’s later work. For example, one book devoted almost 400 pages to Laurel & Hardy’s earlier works, but only seven pages to the 1940s material. And there has never been anything about theatrical reissues, home movies, or Robert Youngson’s compilation films. So Forties Forward came from original research over a period of about six years. I conducted several interviews with Stan Laurel’s daughter, Lois Laurel Hawes, and her husband Tony Hawes, who knew Laurel & Hardy professionally. Lois and Tony allowed me to publish dozens of photographs from Stan Laurel’s personal collection, and no author has been given that privilege before.

Also, I interviewed some of the actors who worked with Laurel & Hardy, I visited the 20th Century-Fox archives in Hollywood, I went through old trade papers and exhibitors’ journals. For the Robert Youngson chapter, I interviewed Mrs. Youngson, who gave me her insights about her husband’s work, and I spoke with the late William K. Everson, who was probably the number-one silent-film expert in the world. And old movies have always been a hobby with me, so I’ve picked up a lot of miscellaneous information and memorabilia over the years.

MMBB: Why do you think L&H’s post-Roach films have been so ignored?

SM: The rights to the vintage Laurel & Hardy movies keep changing, so there have been long periods when the older films are not available to the public. In many areas, the “forties films” were all one could find on television, so many fans like myself share early, fond memories of films like The Dancing Masters and The Big Noise.

But so many authors have slammed the 1940s Laurel & Hardy movies that it became unfashionable to look at them, let alone express any fondness for them. Fans weren’t supposed to like them, even if they hadn’t seen them. Forties Forward has sent many readers back to the films themselves, so they can form their own opinions — and enjoy their “guilty pleasures” out in the open!

MMBB: You printed a letter that Fox producer Sol Wurtzel wrote to Stan regarding their first Fox film, Great Guns. Wurtzel told Stan that his (Stan’s) concerns about the film were unwarranted, that the movie was “a credit to the company.” Any comments on the irony of that statement?

SM: That isn’t strictly true; the letter from Wurtzel was a thank-you note that did not reflect any concerns Stan may have expressed. Wurtzel was a no-nonsense businessman, not given to displays of warmth or cordiality, and the letter to Laurel & Hardy demonstrates how genuinely pleased he was to be associated with them.

Wurtzel correctly pointed out that the movie was a credit to the company. It was going to make a lot of money and a lot of friends among audiences and exhibitors. Laurel & Hardy were still very popular in the 1940s, and could be depended upon to generate revenues for the studio. Wurtzel’s film became a huge hit, and Laurel & Hardy were signed for ten more movies. The series stopped only when the studio’s “B” department actually shut down permanently.

MMBB: Why do you think the Fox writers’ material for L&H was so foreign to their established style of comedy?

SM: Laurel & Hardy were accustomed to experimenting with a funny idea, and seeing how much mileage could be gotten out of a comic situation. A formal script was of secondary importance. In the 1920s and 1930s, they worked for a small studio that worked in a casual, impromptu manner. But in the 1940s they worked for big movie companies, where the atmosphere was more corporate: You made this movie with this script, on this budget in this many days. The sudden “culture shock” is what Stan Laurel ruefully recalled in later years, but it didn’t apply to the team’s entire wartime output. As Forties Forward points out, Laurel & Hardy did manage to improve their working conditions to an extent, and the studios became more accommodating.

MMBB: If you had to choose a favorite of the post-Roach films, what would it be, and why?

SM: That’s a tough one. The Bullfighters, in which I documented Stan Laurel’s creative participation, is fun to watch, and I get a kick out of The Dancing Masters and The Big Noise. But my favorite is probably Jitterbugs, because Laurel & Hardy are obviously having a good time onscreen, and they have a chance to demonstrate their acting abilities by masquerading as other characters.

MMBB: You list several L&H movie projects that never made it to film. What’s your biggest regret about the unrealized projects?

SM: I would like to have seen how much farther Laurel & Hardy might have gone with 20th Century-Fox after The Bullfighters. They finally had more artistic input, more control over their work, and more indulgent bosses. The conventional wisdom is that the films steadily went from bad to worse, but the truth is that the downward slide was only temporary, and the team was gradually on the upswing and gaining ground. It’s too bad that the momentum had to be halted.

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MMBB: As poor as the Film Classics prints are, does their famous “shield” (shown above) inspire any nostalgia for you? If you’re like me, you started watching L&H via these prints.

SM: Yes, indeed! I actually prefer the Film Classics plaque to the original titles for that very reason. The plaque is even pictured in the book!

MMBB: Yours was the first L&H book to detail the contributions of compiler Robert Youngson. How instrumental do you think his movies were in reviving interest in L&H?

SM: Robert Youngson was a real showman. His first comedy compilation was a monster success, and it exposed a whole new generation to silent-screen comedy. The Laurel & Hardy clips came as a pleasant surprise, because people who knew Stan and Ollie from TV probably weren’t aware that they had made silent pictures. The silents were also widely circulated in home-movie form (the DVD of the ’50s and ’60s). So Youngson really gave the silent films a showcase, and made them relevant and palatable to modern audiences.

MMBB: Do you think the onset of video and DVD have helped people get or maintain interest in L&H? Do you see any disadvantages to these formats?

SM: The disadvantage is not the technical format, but the absence of the films from store shelves. This can’t really be helped because the rights have constantly shifted for years. The demand for Laurel & Hardy is there, and video dealers are trying to meet that demand, but there isn’t much material in circulation right now. In Europe, however, the rights question doesn’t prevail, so most of Laurel & Hardy’s 106 films are readily available for home viewing. And I’m happy to report that the European market offers not one, but two boxed collector’s sets of Laurel & Hardy’s wartime films.

MMBB: Do you think L&H will continue to win new fans, and why?

SM: It only takes one movie to make someone a fan, and the films will definitely continue to entertain people. An “average” Laurel & Hardy comedy is better than the best efforts of many other comedians. A lot of parents are showing Laurel & Hardy to their kids, so there is a certain amount of exposure that doesn’t depend on the video marketplace. But the absence of Laurel & Hardy’s vintage films on American television is very unfortunate, because people aren’t seeing the team’s best work. Once again, the “forties films” are filling the void and keeping Laurel & Hardy before the public. (And so are the Sons of the Desert, but that’s another story!)

Happy birthday, Oliver Hardy (1892-1957)

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The following is our latest entry in this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. Don’t know what we mean? Click on the above image so that you can grasp the situation!

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Today is the 127th natal anniversary of Oliver Hardy. Only instead of us singing “Happy Birthday” to him, we’ll better honor this day by letting him sing to us! Here is a compilation of Hardy’s wonderful singing scenes from Laurel & Hardy movies.

From Brats. (I forgot this one initially — thanks to the blog Dr. Grob’s Animation Review for the heads-up.)

From Pardon Us. (The singing is wonderful — the blackface, not so much.)

From Beau Hunks. (I couldn’t find the song by itself, so here’s the complete movie. Ollie’s singing begins at the 0:30 mark.)

From Way Out West.

From Swiss Miss.

From The Flying Deuces.

And last but not least, from Them Thar Hills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Marx Brothers in ROOM SERVICE (1938) – Mid-level Marxes, but still fairly funny

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The following is my entry in the Made in 1938 Blogathon, being hosted by, respectively, Crystal and Robin at their blogs In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Pop Culture Reverie from Jan. 16-19, 2019. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on movies that were released in the year 1938!

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After ten minutes of watching Room Service, it’s perfectly obvious that the movie (a) has been adapted from a stage play and (b) was not originally written for the Marx Brothers. But if you can get past those barriers, it turns out to be one of their funnier late-’30s movies.

Its story is that Gordon Miller (Groucho), producer of a premiering play titled “Hail and Farewell,” is holing himself and his cast up in a hotel that is none too pleased about his non-payments. Gordon’s plan is to stall hotel boss Wagner (Donald McBride) until 10:30 of the night of the play’s debut, at which time it will be a solid hit and he can pay his debts.

Let’s get the movie’s contrivances out of the way first. For a movie that the Marxes did “on loan” (at RKO), its script looks like it came right out of the M-G-M Formula Book. The billing and cooing between the play’s author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), and an ingenue (Ann Miller) plays just like the sappy romantic subplots that stopped the Marxes’ M-G-M movies dead in their tracks. And the role of one-note villain Wagner wouldn’t have been at all out of line for Douglas Dumbrille or Sig Rumann to play. (History has noted that screenwriter Morrie Ryskind had to tone down the original play’s adult language for the screen. Still, you have to wonder about the managerial skills of a manager who constantly jumps up and down and yells, “Jumping butterballs!”)

But Jackie Gleason once said that there are three stages in a comic’s career. Stage One is when the act is fresh and surprising; Stage Two is when the act is familiar but the audience looks forward to the familiar gestures; Stage Three is when the act is stale and the audience couldn’t care less. Happily, Room Service finds the Marxes in Stage Two. (We’ll get to Stage Three when we discuss the later M-G-M movies.)

Groucho remains the fast-talking con man, Chico still has a one-track mind of non-sequitors (for no good reason, he wants to hang on to a prized, stuffed moose head), and Harpo remains startlingly resourceful. (When Groucho and Chico temporarily put on every piece of clothing they can in order to desert the hotel, Harpo makes his first entrance shirtless.)

And there are plenty of big laughs. Harpo’s insistence on chasing a live turkey to catch him for dinner, even after they’ve already eaten, is typical of his id-powered brain. And the eating scene itself is one of the Marxes’ funniest bits. (One great shot shows Harpo from a food’s-eye view, as though the camera is just one more thing waiting to be stuffed into Harpo’s mouth.)

This is a movie where the Marxes’ personalities have to carry the load, and unlike their later M-G-M efforts, they mostly succeed here. Lucille Ball, in one of her pre-“I Love Lucy” roles, also serves as an excellent foil to Groucho.

Room Service shows the Marx Brothers at a satisfactory mid-level — they’ll never hit the heights of their first M-G-M movies again, but it’s far better than their later M-G-M movies.