They remain, without doubt, two of the most famous British film comedians of all time, known worldwide for their hilarious slapstick antics. Londoner Charlie Chaplin and Lancastrian Stan Laurel not only sailed to America before the First World War in search of fame, but were close friends who roomed together for three years.
But while both found stardom, Chaplin with his Little Tramp persona and Laurel with his US comedy partner Oliver Hardy, the teenage friends fell out and never spoke again. So how and why did they fall out? The story of the two legendary comics has recently been examined on stage in a touring show, Laurel & Chaplin: The Feud.
It’s likely Chaplin’s meteoric rise to fame after meeting actor, director and studio boss Mack Sennett whose Keystone Studios in LA gave him his early break is to blame.
“They worked together and shared rooms but, after Chaplin joined Mack Sennett, that was it,” explains writer and producer of The Feud, Jon Conway. “There is no known record of them ever meeting again. So I wanted to find out more.”
Both Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin came from performing backgrounds.
Comedy duo Stan laurel and Oliver Hardy
Laurel’s father Arthur Jefferson was an actor and theatre-manager, while Chaplin’s parents were both on the stage. But their upbringings were very different.
Laurel’s family weren’t wealthy but comfortably off. Chaplin by contrast was brought up in extreme poverty. His early years were spent in and out of grim Victorian workhouses and institutes for destitute children.
This harsh Dickensian childhood gave Chaplin a sense of insecurity which he never lost. By the time he was 10 he was regularly performing on stage in a clog-dancing company. Chaplin and Laurel – then going under the name of Stanley Jefferson – joined theatre impresario Fred Karno’s pantomime troupe, performing comedy sketches in music halls up and down the country.
Laurel described himself as Chaplin’s understudy, but in fact everyone had to be able to cover for each other. In September 1910, the two friends set sail with the other Fred Karno players for a tour of North America, the converted cattle ship they were on first calling in Montreal, Canada. Chaplin in particular was determined to make his mark.
Laurel later recalled how, on sight of land, his friend dashed to the boat’s railings crying: “America! I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips! Charles Spencer Chaplin!”
Simon Louvish, author of Stan And Ollie: The Roots Of Comedy, says: “As he was addressing the shoreline of Quebec rather than the US, we can imagine young Stanley standing by, puzzled, perhaps scratching his head in what would become a world famous quirk.”