A little over a month ago, Dad gave me a few books from his grand collection, for me to read. One of these books, was Stan. Fred Lawrence Guiles, a biography author, is the writer of what is argued as “the best biography on the actor”, Stan Laurel. It is mentioned in the introduction – the many friends and family of Stan, contributing to the compilation of stories told in this book. One kind person in particular, Virginia Ruth Laurel – this book would not exist if Ruth had been less thorough and co-operative. Getting all this down was the thing that held her to life long after her health collapsed. Unhappily, Ruth Laurel died in 1976 before the final manuscript was completed. This book was not intended as a tribute; it is the truth about a man of decent instincts to whom a number of devastating and amusing things happened, including fame. Here then is a man who, off camera, was too involved with living to whimper.
Growing up, I lived off Laurel & Hardy; or as I would call them, Lauren and Hardy. For a long as I can remember, i’d laugh and lap up every minute of entertainment displayed on the many VHS tapes we owned. As I eventually discovered, some of these early tapes (one’s that weren’t bought, like todays dvd’s) were created back when my Dad was in school. He once said to me that he would come home from school at lunch to record Laurel and Hardy on TV. Dad had begun creating a collection of these tapes. He would record as many ‘showings’ of the duo, as much as possible.
Having just recently finished reading a really good biography on Ichiji Eiji, Dad asked me what kind of books I liked to read. I said “true stories and biographies”. That night, Dad brought to me some books. When Dad gave me ‘Stan’, I asked him what the “number in the front meant?” (a yellow card stuck on the first page). On a yellow card, that Dad had designed and mass printed back around the 70s/80s, detailed a cataloging number. No. 172. Dad then showed me another little book. This little book, once opened, revealed the two different “yellow cards”, glued on both pages. The next page shows a photograph; A portrait of Dad as a Magician, glued in, in the very same fashion I would have imagined in my head. This is something I would do….
The following page reads “Davo’s Catalogue of Vidio’s, Books ‘n’ Stuff. – Compiled by D.J. Hickey – Australia, Printed by Hand, 1984.” Inside are organized, a mass collection of hundreds of books and videotapes “and stuff”. Without even knowing about it, this is exactly what i’ve been up to for as long as I can remember. Now I Know Where I Get It From. Today (now), I have compiled a digital film and tv show database, currently containing 4230 entries. A video game database containing 200 entries. And a mass filing system for all the photography and digital clutter I gather and create. Since buying our very first computer 11 years ago, Dad has collected over 100,000 images from around the web (primarily eBay). Dad’s gene, obligating one to collect has given me many valuable characteristics in my own ways of being. Having been exposed to my Dad’s idols and interests from birth, I have inherited a love for people and characters such as the likings of Laurel and Hardy – something others of my age, probably don’t and won’t appreciate, like I do.
There are many stories to tell relating to Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. The following are mostly excerpts from the book Stan, that I feel deserve and have a value worth sharing (without going so far as to reciting the entire book – of which I would have loved to have done).
I’d like to start with a word, “rarity” – the introduction to this book, which follows, brought this word to mind.
Stan lived to see a turn-about. Before his death in 1965, nearly all of their films played somewhere, the good and the indifferent, in theatres, on television, in the private collections of film buffs and an astonishing number of world leaders, and even in banks to amuse those waiting in line. Stan thought they were popular because people would see “how much love we put into them”. Perhaps he was right. It is man’s custom to prize most what is rarest, and in our time, the consumption of all remotely possible story material by television is so ravenous, that there is no time for a little soul to creep into the fare, only expertise and technical craftsmanship.
These words written, remind me of some films I have been lucky enough to see, such as David Lynch’s product of years of financial struggle – Eraserhead – Among many rarities that exist in the world.
Stan’s life story is so very interesting. I hadn’t known much before reading this book about Stan and Charlie Chaplin’s connections with one-another, and being a fan of both these men I had to include the early stories between the two, from their early years. Here in Chapter Two (pages 36, 37), we get a glimpse into the life of their roles on stage.
Charlie Chaplin was already in the Karno Company – he had been scouted in the halls by the producer a couple of years earlier while touring as the boy in William Gillette’s version of Sherlock Holmes and was hired when Karno saw him in a juvenile sketch entitled Casey’s Court. For that last job, Charlie had been paid five shillings a week and his board. Surprisingly, Karno paid him in guineas and quickly gave him lead in Mumming Birds, destined to become the most enduring and popular revue Karno ever created.
Mumming Birds was a burlesque of sorts. It was composed of a series of noisome routines mercilessly panned by an “audience” (actually members of the Karno troupe sitting in a box on the stage). One of the “audience” members was an “inebriated swell” played by Chaplin and understudied by Stan. Although Stan was to play nearly every part in the sketch at least once, the plum role of the drunk was not one of them since Chaplin never missed a performance. Even though the slight lad from the Lambeth slums had suffered from poor nutrition throughout his boyhood and skipped countless meals, he was virtually indestructible as an adult and outlived Stan by twelve years.
The opening of Mumming Birds was a rousing tune in fortissimo: “Let’s All Go to the Music-hall,” which gave way to a waltz. An usherette showed a boy and his uncle into a box, then brought the drunk into another. Girls entered, dancing on stage in a dreadful, out-of-step way. They were followed by two comics with song, dance and patter, interrupted by cat-calls from both the boy and the drunk. A pompous actor then recited “The Trail of the Yukon”, slogging stubbornly through a barrage of insults from the drunk and the boy. When Karno first described his idea for the revue to his actors, he told them that they had all suffered rudeness and abuse from audiences, no matter how fine their performances, “so we’re going to give them the kind of performance such audiences deserve.” And he did. As the evening unravelled, the drunk got out of his box frequently to chase an off-key quartette from the stage, and to take on an obese and inept wrestler, Marconi Ali, and win the bout. There were numerous falls on stage by the drunk, and when Stan took over the role after Chaplin was summoned to Hollywood, he claimed he injured his head in falling. He was to become very wary of comic falls and was constantly worried about a hazard common to boxing but not usually associated with the theatre, the possibility of “bruising his brain”. He mistakenly believed that had caused the mental collapse of Dan Leno.
A major influence on young Jefferson – Dan Leno was born thirty years ahead of Stan – exactly a generation separated them. Very early in Stan’s stage career, once he had discarded the boy comic routines, he began borrowing from Leno. They had identical physiques except that Stan was a little taller; both of them were slight, slender, with double lines around the mouth and surprised eyebrows. M. Willson Disher in a charming study of the nineteenth-century halls, Winkles and Champagne, describes Leno in performances as having “a perpetually startled look in his bright, merrily gleaming eyes, framed in semi-circular brows, and in his jerky movements; there is eagerness in every part of him from the disconcerting legs to the straight, strained mouth set in the curious double-rim formed by the lines of the cheeks… he pauses with his fingers over his mouth…”
Anyone familiar with Stan’s screen image will recognize the borrowings – retained them to the end of his long career. There were also other, more disquieting resemblances. Leno never relaxed. He had to be joking even off the stage. Gags abounded. No one felt really safe around him. Stan’s behaviour off-stage and off-camera was remarkably similar.
Leno had sudden bursts of anger and would rage at his friends, then abjectly beg their forgiveness within hours. His behavioural history reads very much like the charges against Stan in the three divorce proceedings in which he was involved.
Dan Leno did not “lose his mind on stage”, as Stan frequently stated, but began giving away money and valuables to strangers. He set in motion a long-cherished ambition (shared by most comics) to play Shakespeare, pulling a company together and starting rehearsals. He begged Constance Collier to be his leading lady. Naturally enough, she declined, and went to pieces, unable to perform again for months. When he did return to the stage of the Drury Lane, audiences were too fascinated by his recent instability to laugh. Instead, they stared uneasily at him. So Leno retired that year and died soon afterward.
If one believes in spiritualism, a strong case could be made for the influence of Dan Leno beyond the grave. He died in 1904, shortly before Stan’s initial appearance on the professional stage in a panto revue. According to show business rumor, comedian Peter Sellers believes that Leno has also been orchestrating his career, and Sellers’ international success followed by Stan’s by only a slight interval. There seems no doubt that Dan Leno’s spirit is not at rest: his image has been seen in his old dressing-room mirror at the Drury Lane by a number of noted performers, including Noel Coward, Stan would have laughed at such phenomena and speculation. He was never a church-goer, although he was nominally a member of the Church of England, and he considered spiritualism a harmless pursuit of crackpots.
The following relates to Chaplin’s Autobiography and speaks of the time after the journey Stan and Chaplin had, cruising to America together – During the voyage Stan spent a great deal of time with Whimsical Walker Who had been a close friend of Dan Leno’s.
Within seven years, Alf Reeves was to be hired by Chaplin as his studio manager. Charlie had become close with Reeves and his wife Amy during the crossing. The comedian maintained a certain distance from his understudy Stan, but for several reasons, the most important one financial, he joined Stan in seeking out a cheap back room in a West 43rd Street brown-stone house just off Times Square. Chaplin wrote, “It was dismal and dirty and made me homesick for London and our little flat. In the basement was a cleaning and pressing establishment, and during the week the fetid odour of clothes being pressed and steamed wafted up and added to my discomfort.” Chaplin’s description was graphic but slightly careless. He neglected to mention that he was sharing the room with Stan, and there is no discussion of Stan Laurel, however brief, in Chaplin’s entire autobiography, an omission that suggests that Charlie really considered Stan as an equal and even as a possible threat to his eventual title as the supreme clown of all time. He had two ways of dealing with such threats; he would either ignore them or destroy them. The saddest most terrible instance of the latter was brought to light after Chaplin’s death.
In 1924, Chaplin had hired director Josef von Sternberg to direct his principal leading lady Edna Purviance in a follow-up to her critically-acclaimed A Woman of Paris (1923). It was left to von Sternberg to find a vehicle, so he wrote a screenplay from an old story of his about some fisherman on the California coast and their waiting women. Under the title A Woman of the Sea, the film was previewed once at a cinema near Hollywood, then returned to Chaplin’s film vault. In February 1978, two months after Chaplin’s death on Christmas Day, his actress daughter Geraldine revealed that the Purviance/von Sternberg movie had been burned, negative and all, by Chaplin “because it was too good”. His daughter knew him well and sensed that he could not bear the possibility of the von Sternberg production being discovered after his death and hailed as a greater masterpiece than A Woman of Paris. Chaplin protected his genius in every possible way from his very early successes onward.Poor Miss Purviance, who was on the Chaplin pay-roll until her death in 1958, maintained a discreet silence for nearly thirty-five years. A Woman of Paris was to be her only bid for real stardom, and von Sternberg’s name, like Stan’s, was omitted from Chaplin’s Autobiography. While Chaplin’s misdeed might seem nearly unforgivable, it is highly unlikely that the Von Sternberg film would have surpassed the vital, graceful and delicate charm of A Woman of Paris. Von Sternberg never became famous for his subtlety.
41/42 Chaplin as a critic for Stan… – The vaudevillian was a breed apart. His loneliness was often acute and after hours, there was the constant search for companionship, usually in some bar. Although Chaplin has recalled those days with a stately melancholy in his prose, a mood quite appropriate to the vaudevillian’s sense of alienation, he continued sharing cheap boarding-house rooms with Stan while on tour. They sought out cheap restaurants together and Stan remembered many a meal cooked on a gas-ring, an art Chaplin had learned from his mother. Since Stan did not cease refining his craft in his room at night, Chaplin proved to be a brilliant critic, for which Stan was lastingly grateful. But Stan was reluctant to get too close to Chaplin, and there is no evidence that Chaplin would have allowed it. Stan never told interviewers of their experiences together on the road; he told his wives. There was a fierce ambition in Chaplin, greatly exceeding Stan’s own, that coloured all of his relationships with others.
Before they left England, Chaplin had turned down the title role in a Karno production entitled Jimmy, the Fearless, and the part had gone to Stan. Chaplin then sat out front for a week watching Stan’s performance and liked what he saw. On the following Saturday, he informed Karno that he had changed his mind and would accept the role. Stan was fired from the production that weekend, although he was kept on as a regular member of the company. He never forgot the incident. It made him keep his guard up for a while after their arrival in America, but Chaplin was simply too gifted to be anything but admired.
When the Karno company reached Los Angeles, only the sight of the Pacific Ocean afforded any excitement. The roads leading to the beaches were nearly all unpaved. Hollywood as a movie centre did not yet exist, although some scattered film-making was going on in the area and D. W. Griffith had established a custom of going there to continue with his one-and two-reelers for Biograph every winter. Stan fell in love with the hills and open countryside at once. By the time that he settled in as a permanent Californian some years later, when he was making his comedies with Oliver Hardy, there were many more houses and most of the streets were paved, but it was still essentially pastoral, and much of the charm of those early films of Laurel and Hardy lies in the fact that they were photographed in what appears to be a country village.
Here at the bottom of the last paragraph on pg44 and top of pg45 (46, 47 following), I am reminded of my favourite crew of comedy, jackass. The popular modern day slapstick team. “Check your dignity at the door”…
As the twentieth century moved into its second decade, the arrival of trade unionism and some paralyzing strikes had taken the working classes a long way out of bondage. But the lid was still on tightly, suppressing any real violence against the ruling industrialists. The prize ring, where the Irishman, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, had been the hero at the turn of the century, and the music-halls were rivals in giving their patrons the release they craved in gory exhibitions of the punishment of human flesh. It was Fred Karno’s foundation for humour and, through him, it became Stan’s. When asked, both men would say that humour was basically cruel. Indignities, extending from plain humiliation to bodily assault, underlie many of their gag ideas. Survival as a comic in the halls and variety houses houses required an ability to “take it”.
A tale of hard-work, Stan receiving a gig with a troupe, internationally (I remember a greatly detailed version of this story in John McCabe’s first biography, Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy, 1961) – They were to open on a Sunday in Rotterdam, which had a reputation for being a great town for comedy. Then the rains began. That wouldn’t have mattered anywhere else but in Rotterdam at the Circus Variété, where the tattoo on the wooden roof muffled all sound within. Performances had to be cancelled during a downpour. Unfortunately, as the rain continued into the week, credit at Pilcher and Dekker’s saloon dried up. On the following Sunday, sunshine finally broke through a mackerel sky and Fun on the Tyrol made its debut. The Dutch found its coarse humour to their liking, and a decent run seemed assured. On Tuesday, however, the rains began lashing that roof again and by mid-week, the booking was cancelled. Stan, as close to starvation as he would ever would be, actually stole a loaf of bread from a delivery man, who carried baked goods on his head. But this was consumed at once and when the Fun company moved on to Liége, Stan was so weak from hunger on the opening night that he collapsed during a stilt-walk routine, knocking down all the other walkers in the company like so many dominoes.
Somehow he got back to London, where his brother Gordon was managing Prince’s Theatre (now the Shaftesbury) and living in a handsome flat in Holborn. Stan had to walk from Waterloo Station to High Holborn, a distance of perhaps two miles, because he lacked even a penny for the tram. Finding Gordon out of his apartment, he walked the few blocks to the theatre , where Gordon was standing out front in evening clothes. Stan, in soiled, shabby harments, his face smudged by travel and gaunt from hunger, waited several minutes till Gordon was alone to spare him the embarrassment of acknowledging such a scapegrace brother.
Gordon studied Stan for a moment, then took him up to his office for a lecture, which he concluded by predicting that Stan would never make it in the theatre as a comic. Stan was so convinced that the very next day he accepted a job from Gordon as a walk-on in the current production, Dion Boucicault’s Ben Machree.
As Stan saw it, an actor’s fate was in the hands of a diabolical headsman. One would achieve some stature and then be cut down, time and again – it was at moments like this that he began to lose his belief in justice. It made him into a stoic, which he remained until very nearly the end of his life.
Then luck changed again. Alf Reeves ran into Leicester Square, told him that A Night in an English Music-hall (formally titled Mumming Birds) was returning to the States for a second tour, and offered him his old role as understudy to Chaplin. Much to Gordon Jefferson’s astonishment, Stan would be getting four times what his brother was paying as Fred Karno had met Stan’s demand for a raise this time around. It was very nearly a decent salary – six pounds a week or more than thirty American dollars.
There was a week of frantic clothes-buying and rehearsals, and then the company was off, but this time aboard the faster S.S. Olympic, which sailed direct from Liverpool to New York. Stan did not know it, but he was not to see England again for twenty years, not until he returned there in triumph with Oliver Hardy in 1932.
Something I question myself about sharing, is the fact that I believe I have family ties with Stan’s first female partner, the Australian Mae Dahlberg. There are rumors within the family that somewhere down along the line, I am related to Mae. It is scary to know what kind of pain she put Stan through, but it is also a comfort to know that my family have at least one connection to a dear idol of mine, Stan Laurel. The following story I think is something very significant to the legacy.
As they became better known, Stan began leaving Mae’s name out of the billing and the annunciator (the lighted billing-card holder on one side of the proscenium arch) would read “Stan Jefferson” only. Before long, however, that name began to worry him because it had thirteen letters in it. Actors have always been extremely superstitious.
Almost unconsciously, Mae began searching everywhere for a new name – on billboards, in magazines and newspapers, and even in telephone directories. Finally, as she recalled shortly before her death in 1969: I was in the dressing-room… looking at an old history book that someone in the previous week’s show must have left…. I opened it up casual like, and I came to an etching or a drawing of a famous old Roman general, Scipio Africanus Major…. Around his head he wore a laurel, a wreath of laurel. I learned later that laurel leaves are really bay leaves…. That word stayed with me. I said it out loud, Laurel. Laurel. Stan Laurel. Stan looked up from what he was doing and he said, “What?”…. “How about that for a name?” He repeated it out aloud, too. “Stan Laurel. Sounds very good.”
Ramish asked Robin E. Williamson, a comic star in his own right and director for Kalem Studios, a film company recently headquartered in Florida, to prepare a story for Stan and Mae to be filmed in Los Angeles. The finished one-reeler, a slap-dash affair about a mental patient who escapes from an asylum wearing a business suit and a Napoleon hat, went out as a Nestor release entitled Nuts in May (1917).
The comedy was previewed at the Hippodrome in Los Angeles, a huge cinema centre featuring vaudeville, and Ramish rounded up some key film men for the screening, including Charlie Chaplin and Carl Laemmle, the dimminutive head of Universal Pictures. There was much discussion in the lobby afterwards; Laemmle spoke approvingly of Stan’s ease before the camera and asked about his availability. Chaplin also seemed interested. He said to Stan, “”Come and see me.” Stan waited several days for a word, thinking that Charlie would call him and set up an appointment. Finally, he decided that Chaplin’s casual suggestion called for some action on his part, so he went to Levy’s, a deli in the heart of Hollywood where actors congregated. Stan sent a message through the waiter, “May I see you now?” But Chaplin sent back word saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m tied up at the moment. But we’ll get together.” Stan didn’t have the aggressiveness necessary to pursue the matter further.
Understandably, Chaplin was not eager to bring a comedian with a background identical to his own into his newly formed company, then under contract to Mutual. This wariness may explain why he never once offered to assist Stan’s film career in any fashion or suggested that the team of Laurel and Hardy should come into United Artists with their own production unit, a move that would have made both men millionaires, added to the Chaplin coffers, and probably slowed down the eventual decline of the team. Chaplin was never known for his generosity in dealing with rivals. Since boyhood, he had learned to beat down all competition.
Would Stan have been as tough-minded had their roles been reversed? The record indicates that he would certainly have taken the risk and helped Chaplin. Stan was an egocentric, unconsciously so, but never ungenerous. Alice and Baldy Cooke, Harry Langdon and Fred Karno all benefited from their friendship with Stan at one time or another. As the years rolled on, the only thing that set a limit to Stan’s reckless open-handedness was the financial chasm beneath him that became a little deeper with each divorce.
This is where I will separate and segment this long posting into a small series of more reasonable posts about Stan Laurel and what other fun things I feel I should share, here. Please stay tuned for future postings about the incredible duo, Laurel & Hardy. These beautiful people, in my eyes, need to be remembered for many reasons – this is where I shall try and do that.
The one part of this story, that I am not eager to reach, is the end of the story as, of course, “the sad part of the story is that they die”… So lets prolong these moments of reflection on the great life of Stanley Arthur Jefferson.
Tells the story of the legendary comic’s struggle to make it in the worlds of vaudeville and movies.