The Making of Stan Laurel: Echoes of a British Boyhood author Danny Lawrence reminds us of Stan’s contribution to film comedy and lasting influence on this, the 50th anniversary of his death
Millions of people around the world remember, or at least know the names, Laurel and Hardy. They are also familiar with Oliver’s famous complaint to Stan: “That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” It may not be everyone who can tell you which one is Laurel and which one is Hardy, but any reference to them so conjure up images of a well-meaning but inadequate couple creating chaos all around them that likening public figures to them requires no explanation.
Laurel and Hardy’s films are still so popular, 65 years after the last one was made, that Showcase cinemas recently hosted a national Laurel and Hardy Road Show. It was so successful it is going to be repeated, and taken to other countries, this autumn. But Laurel and Hardy’s work is not only enjoyed by the public, it is also highly valued by the professionals. In a 2005 poll conducted amongst 300 comedians, comedy writers, directors and producers for the UK’s Channel 4, Laurel and Hardy were ranked seventh overall, as well as the top double act. The poll’s origins skewed the results towards recent UK comedians, but Laurel and Hardy were still placed far ahead of the currently popular Ricky Gervais, who often cites them as a huge influence on him. The only other former silent comic actor on the list was Charlie Chaplin – and Laurel and Hardy ranked 11 places ahead of him.
What the professionals know, which the public may not, is that although Laurel and Hardy were both wonderful comic actors, it was Stan Laurel who was the creative force behind the partnership. The late great Peter Sellers so admired Stan Laurel that he took a poster-sized autographed photo of his hero with him wherever he went. Dick Van Dyke maintained that Stan was the greatest of all ﬁlm comedians. “Not even Chaplin gets as much laughter, pure laughter, as Stan does. Chaplin is great – a genius – but with Chaplin I can always see the technique showing. Lord knows it’s great technique, and I admire it very much – but with Stan the technique never shows. Never. And that to me is proof that he is a better craftsman than Chaplin—an inﬁnitely better craftsman.” Jerry Lewis described Stan as his idol, “a comic genius and an authority on what makes people laugh.” He “worked hard to create comedy but he didn’t feel he always had to be the one who delivered the gag. … That’s why he gave some of the best material to Ollie or someone else. … That generosity of spirit is what made him special.” It was not by coincidence that in the first film he directed Lewis gave his main character the name Stanley.
Remembering Stan Laurel
Stan Laurel left us 50 years ago, aged 74, in 1965. At his funeral the great Buster Keaton said, “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest. I wasn’t the funniest. Stan Laurel was the funniest.”
Ironically, Stan had already made an appropriate riposte to the man with the trademark deadpan expression. “If anyone has a long face at my funeral, I’ll never speak to him again!” Sadly, within a year, Buster Keaton too had been laid to rest in the same Forest Lawn Memorial Park as Stan Laurel. He died aged 70 on 1st February 1966. He was still active until just before, albeit in cameo roles. His last performance was in Due marines e un generale, aka War Italian Style, released just two months earlier.
Coming from Keaton, the assertion that Stan had been funnier than either himself or Chaplin was quite a compliment. After all, Keaton’s own film The General (1926) had been described by no less a person than Orson Welles as “the greatest comedy ever made… and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” Of course, there is little to be gained by comparing Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. In their different ways, they were both masters of film comedy. Buster Keaton scaled the heights as a solo artist. It took Stan Laurel’s partnership with Oliver Hardy to transform him into the great comic actor we remember today. Keaton’s genius was virtually limited to the art of silent comedy. When he moved to MGM in 1928 he lost his creative freedom and though his sound films were moderately successful they did not match those made in the silent era. That cannot be said of Laurel and Hardy. They accomplished the transition from the silent era to the sound era with ease and made some of their best films during the 1930s. However, they made the same mistake as Keaton when they moved studios, in their case from Hal Roach to Twentieth Century Fox and MGM. They lost virtually all their creative freedom and, although their 1940s films remained popular at the box office, they were not of the same quality as those made earlier.
Both Keaton and Stan had been born into theatrical families but on different sides of the Atlantic and on different sides of the theatrical divide. Keaton’s parents were American vaudeville entertainers. Stan’s parents were English dramatic actors. His father Arthur was not above playing comedy roles in otherwise serious plays but regarded music hall entertainment with disdain. He toured for a time with the great George Arliss, who went on to find fame and fortune in the USA and become the first British actor to win an Academy Award. In discussing his son Stan’s long-held wish to become a comic Arthur remarked in 1932, “What would George Arliss think of a dramatic actor’s son who had no ambitions above playing the comic? No, George would not be pleased.”
Another obvious difference in Stan Laurel and Keaton’s backgrounds is that Stan spent the first five years of his life apart from his parents, living with his maternal grandparents. His parents were on tour for almost the whole of his first five years and he had very little contact with them. Keaton not only appears to have toured with his parents but began performing at the age of three as part of The Three Keatons. He even developed his trademark deadpan face in those early years. Stan had to wait until he was 16 before he made his professional debut and was 37 before he established his on-screen relationship with Oliver Hardy.
2015 is not only the 50th anniversary of Stan’s death. It is also the 125th anniversary of his birth (in the small town of Ulverston) and the 120th anniversary of the start of a crucial phase in his personal development. By 1895 his father had leased two theatres in the north-east of England and the Jefferson family (his father Arthur, mother Madge, older brother Gordon and younger sister Beatrice) moved to North Shields, a port at the entrance to the River Tyne. It was the first time they had lived together as a family. North Shields was to be the Jefferson family home for the next ten years and it was during that time that Stan developed a passion for all things theatrical and made up his mind to spend the rest of his life trying to make people laugh. Yet, with the one notable exception of A. J. Marriot, Stan’s period in North Shields has been all but ignored by his several other biographers. One of them was so ignorant that he described the sea port of North Shields as a mill town! My own book, The Making of Stan Laurel. Echoes of a British Boyhood, is an attempt to fill that conspicuous gap in our understanding of Stan Laurel’s life. It is what I like to call a focused biography. It is unique in that, in addition to telling Stan’s life story, it describes his family background in detail; the nature of his boyhood; and the influence of his boyhood experiences on the films he made with Oliver Hardy.
Stan and the Hal Roach Studio
Stan was fortunate when he signed with Hal Roach. His was not a conventional film studio. In most other studios, directors expected actors to stick to the script and follow their directions during the filming of each sequence. Typically, many takes would be made of each scene until the director was satisﬁed. To compensate for this time-consuming process, economies were achieved by shooting the ﬁlm out of sequence, with all the scenes at a given location shot at the same time. At Roach, actors were not obliged to follow the credited writer’s script, and the credited director often did not provide ﬁrm guidelines for actors and technicians. Often the credited writers and directors did not actually play a particularly active role in the production of a ﬁlm. That latitude was very important to Stan Laurel and a key factor in what made the Laurel and Hardy films so hugely successful even though they were often made with small budgets and at an astonishing speed.
During the shooting of the Laurel and Hardy films at Roach, the key creative figure was always Stan Laurel. In the studio and on the set he was the very opposite of the fumbling incompetent he played on screen. Stan – and Ollie – routinely deviated from the script, even when Stan had already been involved in writing it. Instead of the director being in charge, it was usually Stan who directed the actors and technicians: even the credited director. Crucially, in order to try to achieve spontaneity, there was usually only one take of each scene. Whenever possible, scenes were ﬁlmed in the order in which they would appear in the ﬁnal ﬁlm, not least because no one could know in advance how much Laurel and Hardy’s ad-libbing would change the scripted story.
For the same reason Stan demanded bright, even lighting so that if he and Ollie began improvising, and moved to another part of the set while the cameras were running, they would still be lit consistently. Based on his long experience with theatre audiences, Stan allowed for how long a cinema audience would laugh at a gag by introducing pauses into the action. If, during a preview of a ﬁlm, he found that the pauses had been judged incorrectly, Stan would decide what to cut. As Bert Jordan, a long-time Roach editor said, “Nobody interfered with what he wanted”.
Stan explained, in a 1960 interview with Larry Goldstein, that the credited director was merely an overseer who kept the production under a modicum of control.
We just shot the ﬁlm with a mere outline of the story and gags. As the ﬁlm progressed, the director would suggest a new line which we might try out and then either keep or reject. There was a constant emphasis upon spontaneity in the ﬁlming—the director or stars would ask each other, “Is this funny?” or “How would this look?” and propose a stunt they thought could be incorporated into the action.
Anita Garvin, who appeared in 11 Laurel and Hardy ﬁlms, explained that Stan’s relationship with the credited director on the ﬁlm would often be a subtle one, which almost invariably resulted in things being done his way.
A lot of directors thought that they were directing Stan but believe me, Stan was the one who was directing. And the director was never cognizant of the fact. Stan was clever; he had a brain, in spite of that look. He would make suggestions in such a clever way. He’d say, “You started to say …” and the director thought it was his own idea. He’d suggest different things to actors too. He’d say, “How do you think this would work?” He wouldn’t tell you what to do but he’d ask your opinion. And 99 per cent of the time you’d say “Great!” because he had a comedy mind like no one I have ever known before or since.
Leo McCarey (a three times Academy Award winning director, screenwriter and producer) was also fulsome in his praise for Stan’s talents as a comedy ideas man and insisted that “Stan had one of the best and most inventive comedy minds in history.” The full extent of Stan’s creative contribution to the Laurel and Hardy ﬁlms was summed up by Hal Roach when discussing the credits that appeared on the screen. “If you had everything on the screen that Laurel does, his name would be on there about ten times.”
The significance of Stan’s Boyhood
Given this degree of creative freedom, Stan had ample opportunity to influence the content of the Laurel and Hardy films. As I began to re-watch them in my retirement, I was soon struck by what I dub the ‘echoes’ of North Shields which can be found in them. As a result, I set aside my project on the history of North Shields and began work on The Making of Stan Laurel. I need to explain that I was born in North Shields in 1940, when it was still very much as it had been when Stan lived there. I was born and raised in a house just a few hundred yards from where Stan had lived. During my boyhood I walked past what had been his home innumerable times and I wandered around and played in the same streets and along the same riverside that he had done so many times before me. It was because of that fortunate coincidence that I was able to explore the significance of his time in the town in a way that his previous biographers were unable to do.
Conscious that my years from 5–15 had been formative years, I was keen to explore the possibility that they might have been comparably formative years for Stan. In his poem The Rainbow, William Wordsworth introduced the phrase, “The child is father of the man”, which is now used to signify that what we experience when we are young has a lasting inﬂuence, albeit in often complex ways, on what we value and appreciate for the rest of our lives. Applied in the speciﬁc case of Stan Laurel, the more I watched the Laurel and Hardy films the more I became aware of how his boyhood in North Shields had influenced the content of many Laurel and Hardy films. The more I found out about the Jefferson family and Stan’s boyhood, the more ‘echoes’ I discovered – and I’m still continuing to uncover them. I’m convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that Stan’s time in North Shields was absolutely crucial to his development as a creative artist.
This is not the place to describe those many ‘echoes’ of Stan’s boyhood in his films but here is an example of one of the echoes you will find in my book. The photo below was taken in North Shields. The stairs are just yards from where Stan lived. They are strikingly similar to the steep stairs in the Laurel and Hardy award winning film The Music Box (1932).
The photo below actually relates to something that is not in my book. Its potential significance dawned on me only after the book went to print. The photo was taken in Tynemouth just a short distance from where Stan went to school and where he used to play on the beach below the huge Tynemouth Palace building that can be seen in the background. Does the setting remind you of another popular Laurel and Hardy film? No? Think sailors – who were thick on the ground in the sea port of North Shields when Stan lived there.
When Stan returned to North Shields, as he did several times over the years, he was greeted like the conquering hero he surely was. This is the scene during his 1932 visit, just a few yards from where I was born eight years later.
In this second 1932 photo, Stan is standing on the steps of his former home. He is surrounded by members of the several families then living in what in Stan’s day had been a single-family dwelling.
The best possible time to buy a copy of The Making of Stan Laurel
I hope you’ve found these snippets of information interesting. If you want to know more, you’ll forgive me for suggesting that the best way to learn about Stan’s life in general and the echoes of his boyhood in the Laurel and Hardy films in particular, is to buy a copy of my 200 page book.
Currently, the UK Amazon price is £30.50 + £2.80 p&p. That high price is a typical example of what Amazon does: demand a huge discount from publishers but still sell books to you and me at or near the full price. That is why bookshops find it difficult to compete with Amazon. So, in this special year, I’ve decided to take a leaf out of Stan Laurel’s garbled suggestion to Oliver Hardy in their popular film Towed in a Hole, which Oliver summed up as “Eliminate the Middle Man!” I’ve purchased copies of my book from the publisher and, in deference to Stan, will pass on my author discount to those who order directly from me. The cost will be £15 (rather than £30.50) plus the usual £2.80 p&p. If you live outside the UK, I will have to check on the cost of postage.