Since yesterday, 23 February, was Stan Laurel’s 55th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), here’s a review of The Comedy World of Stan Laurel, which I wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2003–04. Surprisingly, it needed very little editing.
This delightful out of print book by John McCabe isn’t a biography so much as a collection of Stan’s comedy sketches and transcripts of comedy bits he did with Oliver Hardy on tours across America and England. He also goes into detail about Stan’s early silent films, and his early years as a vaudeville performer in England and America.
The majority of the non-skit text consists of long quoted passages from those who knew him best, like friends, ex-wives, and his widow Ida. [2020 note: Like Charles Chaplin, Stan too found the great love of his life and most brilliantly successful relationship in his final wife. Ollie also found his greatest match in his final wife. Soulmates are worth waiting for.]
McCabe wrote two others books on Laurel and Hardy, including a full biography, so he didn’t want to do a lot of repeating. He was a personal friend of theirs, so he really knew his subject from the inside, not as a casual outsider doing secondhand research.
The previously undiscovered comedy sketches brought a smile to my face at a time when I was still newly getting over my heartbreak from “Max.” They also demonstrate Stan was the opposite of his onscreen personality. Everybody who knew him pointed this out; he may have written his character as a dimwitted simpleton and buffoon, but in real life he was extremely sharp, serious, and intelligent.
Oliver Hardy was also the opposite of his character—in real life he was the sweet, innocent one, not the high and mighty, smart and capable man always getting his great ideas foiled by his best friend’s utter idiocy.
Stan managed to come up with all of these great skits for radio plays, road tours, vaudeville, and movie shorts, with only a few that didn’t work well. The later movies he made with Hardy are said to supposedly suck because he had little or no creative output. [2020 note: The post-Hal Roach films are a mixed bag, but not nearly as across the board dreadful as popular wisdom has long insisted.]
It’s the reason he demanded to be paid twice the amount as Hardy, and succeeded; not because he felt he was twice as funny, but because he did twice the work while Hardy was off playing golf.
In the midst of this busy schedule, even to the end of his life, Stan always found time to do good for others. He was like his onscreen persona in that he had a really kind heart and loving spirit in real life. He never understood racial prejudice, kept his number in the phonebook so fans could talk to him, let people come to tour his house, gave a lot of money to friends or people who did him favours (the reason he didn’t have a lot of money when he died in 1965), and answered practically every single fan letter personally.
Stan felt that if someone took the time to write to him, he should respect him or her by taking time in return to write back. That is so rare in today’s world, someone who spends hours each day personally reading and answering fan mail, letting strangers walk through his or her house, and being willing to talk on the phone with any fan who might call. He was only made to curtail these activities towards the very end of his life when he got sick.
As great as the book is, it is a bit dated in some ways. Obviously, some of the sources in the bibliography are now quite out of date and/or out of print, and some of the celebrities he refers to I’ve never heard of. However, on the whole, this is a really fun book.