This portrait of "Stan and Ollie" - Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy - seeks the elusive reality behind the masks of two of our greatest cinema clowns. But comprehensive and compulsive as the book is, the masks remain in place. Peel away one and another is revealed. So often with clowns, comedians and funny people, the mask conceals sorrow, tragedy, anxiety and insecurity; and the greater the fears, the funnier the comedy. Just look at the personal lives of W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Phil Silvers and Tony Hancock - or the recently deceased Spike Milligan - to name but a few. In Laurel and Hardy's films, it is hard to miss the fact that somebody, usually them, is experiencing pain, either mental or physical. Nobody is happily married or happy at home. As this book makes only too clear, often their personal problems were mirrored in their on-screen characters and situations. Their unhappiness was their inspiration.
The fate of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, better known as Stan Laurel, was sealed early, through the inspiration of his father, a producer and performer in music hall. Stan was born in 1890 in the northwest of England and his big break, along with his contemporary Chaplin, came when he joined Fred Karno's band of comedians. Karno, the "king of comedy", a man with his own fascinating and troubled story, introduced Laurel and Chaplin to music-hall audiences in England and the United States.
Oliver Norvel Hardy was born in 1892 on the other side of the Atlantic, in Harlem, Georgia. By the time he was 15, Hardy was already a "fat boy", weighing more than 200 pounds. Teased mercilessly by classmates, he grew up ashamed and unhappy; feelings that would never leave him. Nobody quite knew how he got to be nicknamed Babe, but the name stuck.
While Laurel was immersed in the world of theatre, Hardy became a cinema projectionist. Cinema in those days consisted mainly of two-reel (20-minute) westerns, comedies and snapshots of everyday life. D. W. Griffith was shooting westerns and comedies, and Mack Sennett was hard at work developing his particular brand of humour. Hardy soon gave up the projectionist job for vaudeville and there met his first wife, Madelyn Saloshin. She was Jewish, an actress and completely unacceptable to Hardy's family. It was her or them, and Hardy turned his back on the family to follow his heart. From vaudeville it was a short jump into films. For the next few years, he did at least one film a week.
Laurel and Chaplin came to New York with the Karno company, and Stan often worked as Chaplin's understudy. While Chaplin quickly became a star, Stan struggled from vaudeville engagement to the odd film role. Then he met the producer Hal Roach, who had started as a gambler in the wilds of Alaska but soon had his own film production company featuring Laurel and Hardy, though not yet as a duo. Roach was a clever and cunning producer, if notoriously cheap and dictatorial. He could spot talent and he knew how to use it, and claimed he was the first to use scripts for the two-reel comedies that were the staple of his time. The Roach studio launched Charlie Chase, Harold Lloyd and, in 1925, Laurel and Hardy in a film in which Stan was not only actor but also director. From now on he would often be the writer, too, using sketches originally written by his father for the theatre as his inspiration.
Over the years he would make substantial writing contributions without being credited, and his relationship with Roach was always difficult. So the team became Stan the multitalented actor/writer/director, and Ollie the consummate actor/comedian.
Laurel was married four times besides having several well-publicised liaisons. Hardy had three seemingly unhappy marriages. The rumour, never confirmed, was that he might be gay. Laurel and Hardy films were famous for cross-dressing, and the two often ended up in bed together, which served to fuel the rumours. But although the book refers to the speculation, nothing is really revealed, and we are left guessing. What is abundantly clear, though, is that the personal lives of Laurel and Hardy were anything but serene.
The pair made the transition to sound and feature-length films flawlessly when so many of their contemporaries floundered and disappeared. Their output was prodigious - 440 films together, a statistic that puts them at the top of the pile in Hollywood. Their success was, and still is, phenomenal. There are more active fan clubs for them than for almost any other screen personality, with worldwide annual conventions, fairs and jamborees attending to the preservation of their artistic heritage on film, video and now the internet.
In 19 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a new award for comedy short subject and awarded it to Laurel and Hardy for their short film The Music Box . More than three decades later, in 1961, Laurel was given an honorary Oscar for his life's work in film, but he was too ill to attend the ceremony. Both he and Hardy died in relative obscurity and unfortunate financial circumstances.
Stan and Ollie is a rich biography packed with information (including notes, references and pointers to further reading) that takes us back to the origins of screen comedy, in the music hall, variety and pantomime tradition. Stan said that "humour is the best tonic for depression". Who can deny him? Life is a struggle but at least we can laugh at it with them.
Sandy Lieberson is a film producer, formerly head of Twentieth Century Fox in the UK, and former agent for Peter Sellers.
Stan and Ollie: The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy
Author - Simon Louvish
ISBN - 0 571 20352 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 503