<<< Stan #1 – a.k.a. Now I Know Where I Get It From…
My last posting on Stanley, featured a lot about Stan’s early years, in connections with Mae Dahlberg and largely, Charlie Chaplin. After some reflection on Fred Lawrence Guiles’ book ‘Stan‘, I can see how heavily he relates and leans towards stories about Chaplin. Having finished reading John McCabe’s ‘Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy‘, and just a month ago, ‘The Comedy World of Stan Laurel‘ – I can see how differently these biographies have been written.
Over the next, following postings relating to Laurel & Hardy, I hope to stick purely to our fellow boys.
These next few selections of text, come from that book, ‘Stan‘ and some pieces from John McCabe’s first 2 L&H biographies, to which I look forward to sharing many fragments with you all (I think Mr. McCabe would have enjoyed it).
The first notation I found so very interesting, not only for its significance as a part of history (imagine if Stan had never had the chance to act and contribute to the world with his comedy) but because of the history of film stock itself (“Orthochromatic” film sensitive to violet light – rendering blue eyes nearly white).
Hal Roach did not tell Stan that he had hopes for him beyond acting, as a writer and gag-man; he felt that his private difficulties made him too grave a risk. As for the comedies themselves, he said that Stan’s eyes were too blue to photograph properly and that this was a handicap that no cameraman could surmount. “He looked like he was blind, and therefore people (audiences) felt sorry for him.”
The double chinned menace who threatened to part Stan’s hair with lead was also a harbinger of the future. His name was Oliver Norvell Hardy.
Stan brought many of the movements, gestures and look of his screen character with him from the stages of variety houses and music-halls. There was a great deal of Dan Leno, something of Chaplin, and much else picked up along the way. Very early on in his stage career Stan had made an interesting discovery: he found that audiences laughed at him before he ever said or did anything. It had something to do with the good intentions that were inherent in his smile, a trap to catch everyone off guard. It had even more to do with the way he looked at people. There was no eyeball contact. He could have been looking at a herd of seals or a cage of primates. His blink was slow, in some dim hope that comprehension might be there when he opened his eyes again, but it was forever beyond him.
Babe Hardy was quite different. He saw what he was looking at with clear, unblinking vision. It was only later he would discover that his miscomprehension was, if anything, even greater than Stan’s.
There was another essential difference. Not having any stage experience, it would be expected that, like so many screen actors, he would pretend that he was recreating something close to everyday life and his gaze would ignore “the fourth wall” of the camera or audience. But at least as early as the first Laurel and Hardy comedy supervised by Leo McCarey, Putting Pants on Philip, Babe used the camera (and thus the audience) as confidante.
Philip was our first clear view of the pair as a film team – Stan the innocent with a curious slow-wittedness, and Ollie his stout and inept guide through the perils of life. Ollie, as Stan’s “Uncle Piedmont”, takes charge of him during his trip to America from his native Scotland. Stan as “Philip” naturally wears kilts and tam-o’-shanter, and Ollie is so embarrassed by this that he orders Stan to walk behind him rather than beside. Ollie’s small town conservatism – and its vulnerability – sparks much of the plot of this delightful film.
Later Stan expanded on his feelings about The Kid and said, “You know really the kid was Charlie, and Charlie was a kid all his life. Jackie Coogan was really Charlie Chaplin when he was a little guy.” Commenting on a scene where Jackie throws rocks at the windows and then Charlie comes by, Stan remembered that that had been an incident in Karno’s own life. Fred Karno had broken windows when he was a very young man hoboing around England. Someone had taught him the art of the glazier; he had then broken windows surreptitiously and knocked on doors to ask if the owners wanted their windows repaired. So Stan knew that much of The Kid was drawn from real life. “To be able to get all of that humanity packed in”, Stan said, “is just marvelous.”
Disaster was also hounding Stan’s old producer, Fred Karno. In January 1930, when Karno’s numerous misjudgements, frivolities – including a huge pleasure-dome on the Thames called Karsino, into which the public could wander for a generous admission charge – and personal indulgences had driven him into bankruptcy, he caught the next boat to America. He had been told that the Marx Brothers could use his comedy ideas and if that didn’t work out, he felt sure he could make a deal with a former colleague Jesse Lasky, who was then a major figure in motion picture production. But Karno’s troubles, like his fame two decades earlier, had preceded him and, without a proper agent, there was no way he could get in touch with the Marx Brothers; Lasky was always “out”.
Karno bought a second-hand car and drove to California where he looked up the supreme creation of his music hall days Charlie Chaplin. Charlie was tactfully gracious and played an organ concert for him for two hours, then took his discoverer (Chaplin in a dinner jacket, Karno in a brown business suit) to a very late dinner at Marion Davies’s beach palace in Santa Monica. But Charlie was evasive all evening about a place for Karno at his studio. In desperation, after exhausting every other possibility, Karno turned to Stan, who really owed him no favours. Stan persuaded Hal Roach to hire Karno for a few months “to see what he comes up with and learn the ropes”.
Having failed to come up with a single idea that Roach could use, Fred Karno was released from his contract in June (he lasted seven months). Stan felt pity for the man whom he had once considered omnipotent. It gave him pause for thought. As they shook hands upon Karno’s departure, Stan saw as distinctly as ever he would how fickle Dame Fame could be – but there was no time to brood.
The following brings me back to a memory I have when I first stayed in The Roosevelt Hotel, in November of 2006. My Dad and I stayed in Hollywood Blvd not only for the 75th Christmas Parade, but for all the local attractions to be found. One bright sunny morning, I wanted to open the window in our room so I could take a photo of the outside view, so high up. To my surprise, the window was locked and what seemed to be, completely sealed. One year later, in the same hotel a few floors above, the windows again, were locked. Maybe now I can see why windows in tall buildings, like hotels, have locked or restricted windows (the windows in the Paradise Pier Hotel only opened a few inches). On Page 142 in the book ‘Stan‘, Stanley receives, finally, his divorce papers from Lois. From what I read, he obviously still loved her, but also, now, loved Ruth. It must have been a frustrating time for Stan – being a wedge, creating his own obstacles and challenges before himself. It must have been a very strange experience there, that day in the Roosevelt Hotel.
As might be expected, idleness was never a state that Stan could handle with any profit. His anger would subside and he would then fret over the finality of it all, saying that he really loved Ruth, but he still loved Lois too. This agonizing indecision rent him for days, reaching a climax one afternoon when Ruth received a phone call from Shipman, who asked her to rush over to the Roosevelt Hotel. It is the only known instance when Ben Shipman asked a favour of Ruth. Relations between the two were always strained. She was busy with her designers and told Ben that she would have to know just why it was so urgent. Ben told her that Stan had just got his divorce papers and he was trying to jump out of the window.
“I’ve got a doctor here,” Ben said anxiously, “and one of his buddies from vaudeville, and I wish you’d come out here and see if we can calm him down.”
Ruth got into her Willys coupé and dashed across town to the Roosevelt on Hollywood Boulevard. When she walked into the room, Stan was standing with his hands in his pockets and his shirt-tail hanging out. Baldy Cooke was there, Dr Parkins and Ben Shipman.
“Well, Baby Ruth,” Stan said, “how did you know I was here?” Ruth was too upset to answer, but Stan seemed to bounce back to normal almost immediately, and he asked Ben, the doctor and Baldy to leave them alone. Ben, whose investment in Stan was considerable and who was now one of his closest friends, was reluctant to leave. Ruth felt that Ben didn’t trust her with such a sensitive assignment. She was convinced that he was a misogynist even though he was married at the time. John McCabe, who got to know Ben well through Stan for a period of more than twenty years, agreed that Ben disliked Ruth, but not women generally and cited his long vigil beside his invalid wife, followed by a happy marriage to his secretary.
Baldy knew that there was no love lost between Ruth and Ben, saw what was happening and resolved the matter by telling Shipman and Dr Parkins that he would see them outside, that he had something to say to Ruth. After the two men had gone, he told her: “It’s the most remarkable thing! We were grabbing him by the shirt-tail and pulling him away from the window…”
Ruth recalled that Stan had never been “sweeter” to her. “He ordered dinner,” she said. “And then we played all kinds of silly games. He had just made Fra Diavolo and there were hand games in it – nosies, earsies, kneesies, and you’d pat your knees and touch your ears and pinch your nose.”
Stan never fully recovered from Babe’s death. Even though it had been expected for months, his final departure was a body blow. They had become so close over the years as performers, much like those breathtakingly skilful trapeze artists who do triple somersaults and catch each other’s wrists; they had blended, or as Stan said later, “We seemed to sense each other.Funny, we never really got to know each other personally until we took the tours together… I loved editing and cutting the pictures, something he wasn’t interested in. But whatever I did was tops with him. There was never any argument between us, ever…”.
Stan gave a quiet impression of being in on the arcane spirit behind comedy – he didn’t mean to, but it was clearly part of what drew other comedians there to the Oceana. Few could get to Chaplin in exile in Switzerland; Harold Lloyd did not encourage strangers to drop by Green Acres; there was a desperation yet in Keaton for whom a cult was just then in the making. But Stan was there, in the phone book and with the front door open. With these people off the street, comedians or otherwise, he was not noticeably witty. He listened carefully to them and told them what they wanted to hear. An oracle. And he laughed from his belly, often. He was warm and human. Perhaps this was the Stan he had always wanted to be, but the demands of performing had got in the way.
All through his life, he had one reason for existing and that was to provoke laughter. He had seen that pursuit so often thrown off course and unrecognized that he had often felt he was clowning to an empty house, but this was proof positive that his peers knew what he had been doing all along.
The years rolled by like the waves visible below, washing over the same sands again and again. Stan never ceased enjoying the narcotic appeal of the ocean. He rarely went out, but every day there was a stream of callers. On one occasion, forgetting the Andy Wade home movie incident, he agreed to walk and caper just a bit before the movie camera of Robert Board because he liked the young actor and trusted him. He spent four or five years saying goodbye to his fans. And there was always the same little speech about he and Babe had got together on screen; how the church bells played the Coo Koo Song on their your of the British Isles, ad nauseam; a thousand, two thousand times or more, and always with the same animation, as though he were telling this perfect stranger the story for the first time. But that was Stan’s “act” with Babe gone.
The death of Babe and then Stan, registers the reality and sadness that waits among all us, living. It is the saddest part of all stories – Death. Stan would probably want a story to end with laughter – so in due respect, I want to leave this posting with an act Laurel & Hardy used while they toured Army and Navy bases as far away as the Caribbean, in 1941 (found on page 201 – A sketch that Stan had created for a Red Cross benefit performance at the 1939 San Francisco World Fair). The full, extended Drivers License sketch, can be found on page 102 in ‘The Comedy World Of Stan Laurel‘.
…In this routine, the boys wander into a police station to get Ollie’s license – which turns out to have been handed down to him by his grandfather – renewed. The cop on duty is so confused by their buffoonery that they manage to consume his packed lunch while he is questioning Ollie. The cop poses a hypothetical driving crisis: “You’re on top of a hill and you’re coming down that hill at sixty miles an hour.”
STAN: “What? In his grandfather’s car?”
COP: “Yes, in his grandfather’s car.”
STAN: “But we’ve got no brakes.”
COP: “Nevertheless, you’re coming down the hill at sixty miles an hour. (STAN, getting very interested, sits down in the cop’s chair at the desk.) Now you throw it into second gear – and it won’t work. Finally, you throw it into third gear, and still it won’t work. (Cop takes off hat in the excitement.)
STAN: “Why don’t you throw in his grandfather? He won’t work either!”
The boys manage to give all the wrong answers and the license is refused. The cop chases them out and Ollie hands him an apple core from his lunch, provoking the cop to take pot shots at them as they run out.