- Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy; The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy
A renowned scholar of silent film comedy and the genre's early forays into the sound era, Simon Louvish has written voluminous, well-researched biographies that range in subject from W. C. Fields to the Marx Brothers and, in the case of this commendable project, two characters suggestive of the yin and yang of comedy. Louvish's work is rich in anecdote as we follow the career paths of Laurel and Hardy, "our heroes," as Louvish refers to them. Throughout, the tone is one of a travelogue, of a journey that begins in England and the American South as we glimpse the struggles of the young actors—Stan Laurel, eclipsed by his impresario father and later by Charlie Chaplin, and Oliver "Babe" Hardy, the moon-faced, obese outcast, operating the projector in an early Georgia movie house.
Some 140 pages in, after Louvish has detailed all manner of hardship and toil in the pair's separate theatrical lives—poverty, frustration, empty halls, tired routines—"the boys" are united. It is not yet the partnership that will before too long become an indelible aspect of twentieth-cen-tury pop culture, but it is at least a shared scene. "Put 'em both up, insect, before I comb your hair with lead," Hardy, in a scaly cap, declares to Laurel, in a straw hat—via title card, of course.
Stan and Ollie is definitive on the Laurel and Hardy phenomenon, which [End Page 195] may not seem like much until one considers how many books, articles and dissertations have been published on the duo, not to mention the websites, fan conventions and fan "tents"—Laurel and Hardy societies that gather to celebrate the various films of their heroes—all over the world. Drawing from this litera-ture, Louvish's book is a synthesis of the best bits of the Laurel and Hardy canon (of which John McCabe's Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, with its Dick Van Dyke introduction, is a personal favorite) as well as a study of how Laurel and Hardy fit into a comedic history that has roots in the times of the earliest Harlequin clowns.
The "double life" of the subtitle has to do with marital troubles, which were manifold for both men. Louvish has perhaps an overly fond propensity to "read" Laurel and Hardy, private citizens, into the eponymous characters they played on the screen, but who is to say where life leaves off and art begins? And as for the notion that Hardy was scarcely able to do more than get himself to the studio, fix his bow tie and glance hopelessly, sagaciously into the camera, Louvish confirms what is evident in films ranging from the classic short The Music Box to Sons of the Desert: there was a deft, agile, almost physically nimble clown inside that bulky frame, an ideal foil for the slim Stan Laurel's character.
A rare book, this joint biography. Even if you have never seen one Laurel and Hardy film, you will come away with an appreciation of two clowns you'll never be a stranger to again.