Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Laurel and Hardy's insights into "life"
Stan Laurel was the brilliant slapstick comedian, silent screen actor, writer and director of most of their films: he created "dumb Stan" as counterpart for Hardy's foil. He later said that there was no straight man in their team and that they were both comedians. Hardy was delightful with his large grace and dainty gestures but the fact remains that Laurel, the gag writer, director and actor was the comic genius of the 20th century.
Stan, in real life, was a humble, joking and ever-smiling Hollywood 'man of business', several times married and divorced due to hardly ever being at home but at the film studios, working 16 hour days. He ended his life in Santa Monica with a strong American accent, impoverished in his old age by divorce payments. He was assiduous in writing personal thank you letters to fans and even had them to tea (his phone number was the telephone book). Peter Sellers, Danny Kaye and Marcel Marceau paid court. He went on writing scripts for the duo which would never be played, because "Ollie" Hardy (known as "Babe") had died - holding his hand.
Stan Laurel was very English in type. He was like everyone's great uncle. But his background was not ordinary. He came from a leading northern theatrical family. His comedian father got him into his friend, Fred Carno's circus and he became Charlie Chaplin's understudy. Born in 1890, it was through comedy that he thankfully missed fighting in the the First World War. Oliver Hardy, born in 1892, was American and "self-made", a large, winsome, bit part actor, who filled in once in a film with Stan, then a Hollywood director. Without Hardy, Stan could not make it on his own. He needed a perfect foil - "comedy history" was made.
If anyone would ask me, what apart from God, is good for the soul I would say it is these films. Why? Partly because of the sheer joy and laughter of them all, but also because there is real truth in them.
Laurel and Hardy are rather dim but joyous innocents, eternally optimistic, completely overwhelmed by 'things', but not without a touch of revenge, and even the mildest cunning. In wonderful "Swiss Miss", Stan finally thinks of a way of duping a highly trained St Bernard dog into giving him his brandy, by creating a snowstorm, with chicken fathers, and lying on the ground crying for help so that the dog thinks he is a man in distress in a snowstorm and allows him to take his life-preserving "barrel" of alcohol.
This is a deception that Stan is never able to achieve in the world of human beings. He can only be cunning with something more innocent and less intelligent than himself : with a cuddly dog. He is at odds with uncuddly human beings, in whose world he walks with discomfort but to whom he expresses goodwill. But he finds them and complex things completely bewildering and expresses this in his famous "hair fiddle". How true of the righteous, innocent and good, too.
Stan cries like a child, while Ollie blusters like a vain Billy Bunter. Ollie never seems to learn that the outcome of Stan's kind offers of 'help' is complete disaster. In the midst of disaster, Ollie looks into the camera with his deep, patient, soft eyes and they still silently say to you: "How did God make a man as dumb as Stan?". The humour is that he knows (and you know) that once Ollie had met Stan, wild horses would never tear him from him, even if it meant his complete ruin.
Stan and Ollie, inspite of their goodwill and men doing evil to them, are not without a touch of misogyny for their sometimes terrifying wives, and in that sense are not "politically correct". We forgive them, because we are like them too: children at heart, inwardly not up to the challenge of modern, complex and ever more alien "life". We are all of us seeking a real friend who will put up with us and our shortcomings, offering the warmth of Ollie, and the sweetness of Stan, in a cold technological world. It is a kind of unconditional love, found in God himself.
Theirs is a terrible version of the 1930s world, characterised by crime, impatience, materialism, greed and anger. There are convicts on the loose, angry landlords focusing on money, but without feelings for these accident-prone, hapless men one of whom clearly has a disability (Stan). There are vindictive next-door neighbours who will not accept "that accidents happen". One only needs to think about "road rage" today.... They remind me of the couple in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men". Perhaps this is how disabled people survived the Depression in the USA?
Their world, and in a sense "the world", is full of hard nosed, bad tempered people without a soul, who lack the love of Stan and Ollie. As a result of their community of two, they sail through unscathed, dancing to the end. Love is their reason and their saving grace. In their cold world of complex "things", human sin and utter cruelty, nothing, including total poverty, can overwhelm the power of their insoluble friendship. For this reason, for me they are the "ministering angels of comedy", loudly proclaiming the power of relationships over lack of society and even family, as well as the power of forgiveness.
Perhaps Stan Laurel was saying to his own time, and to future generations:
Stay in love and community and bear with each others' disabilities, idiocies, lack of judgment and shortcomings. You will win out in the end, in this hard, complex world. Maintain your innocence. Let laughter, love, loyal friendship and forgiveness be your prime values, and like us you will have, and give, joy.
His extant letters seemed to demonstrate these qualities and insights.
The series of DVD films we watched (now in colour):