A comedy genius with a giant heart

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.

4.5 stars

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.

Stan Laurel holds Academy Awards Oscar presented to him for his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy on July 11, 1961. (AP Photo/Don Brinn)

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XII (Final thoughts)

Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”

Fifty of my favorite words

(This post was originally published on my old Angelfire page, possibly between 2004 and 2007.)

I love words one doesn’t get a chance to use very often, many of them beginning with X and Q. God love the Greeks for having given us so many interesting words.

1. Juxtaposition

2. Transmogrify

3. Ameliorate and amelioration

4. Dichotomy

5. Paradigm. I learnt both “pagadigm” and “dichotomy” from my awesome tenth grade European History AP teacher, and I’ve never neglected a chance to use them since. I also still remember so many of the fun stories he told us, and the line “Baroque [art], think butts in seats.”

6. Portmanteau. Portmanteau words themselves are frickin’ awesome, never mind the name for them!

7. Xyloid (relating to wood)

8. Xanthrochroid. This is my favorite synonym for blonde.

9. Xylograph (engraving in wood)

10. Uncouth

11. Manifestation

12. Hydrophosphates! (This comes from the 1932 Laurel and Hardy short Helpmates.)

13. Horsefeathers (1920s slang for “nonsense”)

14. Xanthene (a yellow crystalline compound used as a fungicide) and xanthine (a crystalline compound found in blood and urine)

15. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniosis. I learnt this 45-letter word in my third grade advanced reading class.

16. Xanthocomic (yellow-haired)

17. Xenagogue (kind of like a tour guide to foreigners)

18. Zoroastrianism

19. Xenodocheionology (love of hotels)

20. Xenodochium (a building for the reception of strangers)

21. Xenoglossy (Knowledge of a language one otherwise doesn’t know fluently, often experienced in past life regressions and past life dreams. I myself have experienced this many times during my past life dreams.)

22. Xenolalia (same as xenoglossy)

23. Echolalia (repeating back the words someone just said)

24. Corprolalia (involuntary cursing)

25. Xylomancy (divination through wood)

26. Xenomenia (menstruation from abnormal orifices)

27. Zouave (a light infantry regiment of the French Army from 1830–1962)

28. Hemidemisemi-quaver (a 64th note in music)

29. Unbirthday

30. Foul

31. Hideous

32. Mind-revolting

33. Mind-sickening

34. Quadragintesimal (forty-fold, or having forty parts)

35. Quadragesimal (lasting 40 days, or something similar to or pertaining to Lent)

36. Quadragesimarian (one who observes Lent)

37. Quantophrenia (one obsessively relying upon statistics and mathematical results)

38. Quaquadrate (a sixteenth power)

39. Quaquaversal (bending or facing all ways)

40. Quadquicentennial (125th anniversary)

41. Quaternitarian (one who believes the Divine consists of four parts)

42. Transubstantiation

43. Consubstantiation

44. Quintessence and quintessential

45. Ingest

46. Masticate (In spite of how it sounds very similar to “masturbate,” it really means “to chew.”

47. Proboscis

48. Obliterate

49. Ucalegon (neighbour whose house is on fire, after a character from The Iliad)

50. Heterochromia (two different coloured eyes)

Celebrating A Chump at Oxford at 75

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Released on 16 February 1940, A Chump at Oxford was Laurel and Hardy’s penultimate film at Hal Roach Studios, and remains one of their all-time classics. It also contains some scenes hearkening back to their silent shorts.

Stan and Ollie are down on their luck as always, with only $6 left. A truck from the city water department pretends to offer them a ride to a job agency, but instead sprays them with hoses. The boys look miserable when they finally arrive, in an equally terrible car.

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Their first job offer is as a maid and butler at a party, and Stan is the one pressed into drag yet again. This dinner party is essentially a sound remake of their 1928 short From Soup to Nuts. It also ends just as their 1927 short Slipping Wives did. Those who know the boys’ filmography well will appreciate how Ollie announces “there is everything from soup to nuts.” Obviously, nothing goes right, and they’re fired.

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After the disastrous dinner party, the boys become street-sweepers. This too proves a failure, and they resolve to get an education for better job prospects. As they’re discussing this, they’re eating lunch outside a bank, and inadvertently foil a robbery with Stan’s carelessly-tossed banana peel. The bank manager offers them a job, and when Ollie explains they don’t have an education, the manager pays for them to attend Oxford.

The boys endure a lot of hazing when they arrive, and they’re too sweet and innocent to understand what’s really going on. One of these pranks involves getting lost in a maze at night. Some folks complain it’s ridiculous to believe in two grown men scared by an obviously fake ghost, but you have to remember their innocent characters. They’re not playing characters like Groucho Marx or Bud Abbott, but rather man-children like Curly Howard and Lou Costello.

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In the morning, another prank is played on them, and they’re told the Dean’s quarters are theirs. They make themselves at home and tear up the place, and the real Dean walks in on them. Not realizing who he is, the boys have some fun with him. He’s furious, until he discovers what really happened. Johnson, the student who impersonated the Dean, is slated for expulsion.

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Johnson’s friends are determined to save him from expulsion by getting Stan and Ollie thrown out first. Before this can happen, though, the boys go to their true quarters and meet Meredith, a valet who thinks Stan is someone named Lord Paddington. Paddington lost his memory when a window fell on his head, and wandered away from Oxford. Ollie thinks this story is preposterous, since Stan is the dumbest fellow he’s ever known.

The other students come in to carry out their nefarious plans, and Stan and Ollie try to escape through the window. Wouldn’t you know it, the window falls on Stan’s head, and he transforms into Lord Paddington. He becomes very angry at the students, and his ears wiggle, just as Paddington’s did when he got angry. All the students are thrown out the window, onto a net intended for Stan and Ollie.

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Stan no longer recognizes Ollie, and begins treating him quite shabbily. He even throws him out the window as well, furious at the suggestion he once had a much different life. Ollie rankles at being made into a valet, ordered around, and called Fatty. Stan’s performance as Lord Paddington is frequently cited as one of his all-time best, particularly because he’s playing a straight character and using his normal voice.

Ollie is so angry, he up and quits. After this happens, Stan hears students cheering for him outside, and goes to the window. For the second time, the window falls on his head, and he reverts back to his old self. Ollie then storms in, not having finished his tirade against Stan for daring to treat him so shabbily. He even says he’s going back to the U.S. without Stan.

Stan is quite upset Ollie is speaking like this and saying he’s leaving alone, and thus starts possibly my favoritest ending of a Laurel and Hardy movie. It’s so sweet and heartwarming, knowing they were closer than brothers in real life and not really acting.

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This is a really sweet, fun, cute movie, and a really good choice for someone just getting into the boys. I’ve loved these two dear, sweet clown prince angels since July of ’96, when I was 16 years old. They meant everything to me my junior year of high school, loving arms around my weeping heart during one of the darkest nights of my soul. In eternal gratitude, the third part of my Hebrew name is Dafna, which means Laurel.

Superman Then and Now (and lackluster L&H material)

Then and Now

Armchair SquidSuze of Subliminal Coffee, Nicki Elson, and Nancy Mock are hosting a Then and Now blogfest, posing the following questions:

The greatest films stand the test of time, speaking to us in different ways at various life stages.  Is there a movie that was a part of your life when you were younger that you see differently now? Like fine wine, has it improved with age or did it die in the bottle? Has maturity brought you new insights you missed in your youth? We want to know all about it!

I’m sure this confession will make most people cringe, but I used to love Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. It was seriously my favorite Superman movie when I was a kid, and I never understood why so many people bashed it and held it up as the worst Superman movie.

When I saw it again when I was older (can’t remember if I were a twentysomething or just in my very late teens), after not having seen it in awhile, I was absolutely horrified and appalled at just how awful it was. I couldn’t even believe I’d loved it so much, and for so long.  I finally understood why so many people hated it so much. As a kid, I loved how it was about world peace, and thought it was awesome how Superman threw all the weapons into the Sun. As an adult, it just struck me as a bad storyline, bad acting, bad lines, bad special effects, you name it.

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My regular readers may remember how much I adore Laurel and Hardy, and how much they’ve meant to me since my difficult junior year of high school. However…

A couple of Laurel and Hardy shorts I loved as a teenager didn’t do anything for me when I revisited them after getting the awesome boxed set from England (back when Hallmark was holding all their sound-era stuff from Hal Roach Studios hostage). I suddenly no longer found Times Two or The Laurel and Hardy Murder Mystery too funny at all, and The Chimp was no longer that side-splittingly hilarious. (I’m so glad Hollywood stopped having actors dressing in primate costumes, while everyone acts so scared of what’s so obviously a person in a gorilla or chimp suit.) I now understand why these shorts aren’t rated so highly.

Their 1944 film Nothing But Trouble likewise no longer amuses me. I loved it when I first saw it, but now I agree it’s pretty awful. Their post-Hal Roach films are really hit and miss, and in general much lower quality overall (for reasons too long to get into here). This is one of those misses. It’s just sad and embarrassing to watch. At least they had far more hits than misses over their entire career, and recouped their popularity in the Fifties with successful tours of English dancehalls.

I still love them in spite of some missteps, though, and I’m proud to have taken part of my Hebrew name as a tribute to Stan. I’d planned to only have the name Chana Esther, but ended up taking the triple name Chana Esther Dafna. Dafna is Hebrew for “laurel,” and one of the reasons I chose that name was because of Stan.