Today, 18 January, would’ve been the 120th birthday of the great Oliver Norvell Hardy and is the 60th Jahrzeit of the great Jerome Lester Horwitz, better-known as Curly Howard. There’s probably some kind of Divine explanation for why two of the great comedians of the classic film era share this date, albeit for such different reasons.
I know no one called him Ollie off-camera and that his real nickname was Babe, but I can’t help thinking of Oliver Hardy as Ollie. It’s his character’s name, and he and Stan just melded so naturally into their characters, one has a tendency to forget they were playing roles. (Compare that to certain other comedians, like Abbott and Costello, whom I had a much harder time getting into because they come across more as actors playing specific roles and reciting lines, not so much of a blurring between their onscreen personae and who they were in real life.) Should I be honored enough to meet him in the next life, of course I’d call him Babe, but for now, I have a hard time thinking of him by any other name than Ollie.
Stan has always been my favorite of the two, but as time has gone on, I’ve come to agree with people who say that Ollie’s part in the act is rather underrated. Stan is the hook who draws you in, but Ollie is the glue who makes you stay and be a lifelong fan. He had so many patented mannerisms, lines, and reactions, like nervously twiddling his tie when talking to a woman (even on the phone!), waving goodbye at the end of a phonecall, stepping into a puddle and immediately being eight feet underwater, and saying things like “Why don’t you do something to help me!”
Ollie was a proud Georgia boy, the son of Emily and Oliver Hardy. When his Civil War vet dad died when he was just a baby, his mother stepped up and began working in hotels, eventually becoming the manager of a very important hotel. That was a really amazing thing for a woman to do in an era when the average single mom lived with relatives or existed on charity instead of going into business to support her own family. When he was an adult, he adopted the name Oliver in honor of his dad.
And even though he was a proud Southerner, the type of person who completely rebuffs all the negative stereotypes and confirms all the positive stereotypes about Southern warmth and hospitality, he left the South in protest after the lynching of Leo Frank. He didn’t want to be associated with a region that would do something so vile. From the other world, he’s probably very happy to know that today’s South is no longer the type of place it was 100 years ago. He and Stan were left-wing Democrats and genuinely couldn’t understand racial prejudice. And in addition to being a Southern gentleman, Ollie also had a very beautiful singing voice.
Some years back, I heard a really sad story about Curly after his major stroke and forced retirement. He was talking with Jules White, one of the Stooges’ most-used directors, having a nice conversation, and then all of a sudden looked really sad. “I’ll never be able to make children laugh again, will I, Jules?” he asked. Thank God for the advent of television, VHS, and DVDs, because now Curly is making children laugh for eternity. And unlike many modern-day comedians, he was in it to make other people happy, and didn’t need to use vulgarity or cheap shots to get laughs.
I used to be one of those people who only wanted to watch Stooges shorts with Curly, but then I grew up and realized how great Shemp was. Shemp quickly became my second-favorite Stooge after I started watching his stuff. And honestly, even if you really prefer Curly best, do you really think he’d be pleased to hear some of his so-called fans trashing one of his belovèd big brothers? It’s as immature and mean-spirited as Who freaks who refuse to listen to anything with Kenney Jones, just because he wasn’t Keith. Having a different style doesn’t mean someone’s inferior. Sometimes a different style is needed when a band or comedy team matures, and their old ways of doing things don’t really fit with the direction they’re headed in.
I suppose I always liked Curly best because I always go for the man-child character in the classic comedy teams—Curly, Stan Laurel, Lou Costello, Harpo Marx. Sagittarians are said to be the eternal children of the Zodiac, since we’re children at heart and never really grow up. For this reason, we’re said to make great parents, stepparents, and grandparents. It also brings out a mothering, protective instinct in me. And in real life, he was said to be rather naïve and easily taken advantage of.
Finding out Curly had a real-life limp (which he exaggerated for comedic effect, so people would think he was just doing a funny walk instead of limping) made me feel so much better about my own limp. I was run over by a car in August of 2003 and couldn’t walk for 11 months. I had a very heavy limp when I finally was able to walk again. (Both legs were pinned under the back driver’s side wheel, but only the right broke. I think the right leg rolled on top of my left leg to protect it, so I was left with the side of my body I have most of my strength and dexterity in.) I felt pretty badly about having a limp until I found out one of the most belovèd physical comedians of all time had a limp too. It was like a huge shot of pride, knowing I wasn’t alone and that I was in very esteemed company.
Oh, and contrary to the sexist myth that keeps being perpetuated, there are tons of female Stooge fans, and many female Laurel and Hardy fans. I hate this sexist lie that says women hate physical comedy and only like stuff that’s pink, lacy, and fuzzy. But then again, my parents raised me as a person, not a set of stereotypes erroneously based on biological sex. I’m definitely not going to be one of those parents who steers a boy away from dolls and teaparties, or who throws a fit if a girl plays with toy cars and Legos. Thank God I was a child of the Eighties, before this modern-day Disney princess saturation and so many toys, games, and everything under the Sun based on tv shows and movies instead of encouraging creative play!