Comic duo Laurel and Hardy’s moments to remember: Tales of Hollywood stranger than fiction

Laurel and Hardy were two of my favourite comedians. Every year on Thanksgiving, a US TV network played one of their old films. We laughed at their jokes and slapstick, with perfect timing and the sheepish face of Stan Laurel and the exasperated reactions of Oliver Hardy providing moments to remember.
What brought back that memory? A brilliant new novel by John Connolly, a former Irish journalist who’s written 15 books about a fictional American detective, Charlie Parker, a crime series that started with a plane crash in the state of Maine and has branched out into an epic story about Hollow Men, the Brotherhood, a Monstrous Mother and a criminal empire. I’ve read most of them and noticed on Connolly’s website that he was publishing a novel reimagining the life of Stan Laurel, one of the great screen comics, with his jolly, overweight partner, Oliver Hardy. He is a work of fiction, but it’s based on an enormous amount of research, outlined in the Author’s Note, including four seminal Laurel and Hardy biographers and the letters of Stan Laurel, a prodigious correspondent whose missives can be found in Stan’s Correspondence Archive Project, along with a brief biography. Connolly loved Laurel and Hardy because they were part of his childhood. My childhood.
The novel begins in the Oceana Apartments by the sea in Santa Monica, California where Stan “chases butterfly memories” in the last days of his life. He remembers Oliver (Babe) Hardy: “Babe is always with him … But now Babe is gone, and he is alone.” We get to read more of Stan’s memories throughout the book (and this post). It’s a short first section, like the 202 remaining chapters, but it encompasses the life of the comic duo from Stan’s childhood in northern England where his father, Arthur Jefferson, aka AJ, managed theatres and was also an actor and director to Babe’s upbringing in Georgia carrying a sandwich board advertising specials at the Baldwin Hotel run by his mother. Along the way, Connolly tells tales of Hollywood and its stars (imagining what Stan would say): Chaplin for one, who has sex with 15-year-old girls; who takes actress Paulette Goddard to bed, believing she is 17, and ‘is disappointed when she reveals that she is twenty-two;” who is the greatest comedian Laurel has ever seen; and, last but not least, according to Stan, “Chaplin is a monster.” Harvey Weinstein comes to mind.
Stan Laurel had a Chaplin complex. He was Chaplin’s understudy at Fred Karno’s comedy company when he was only 19. Stan travelled with Karno to the US in 1910 and 1912. The company split when Charlie moved on to become a star in motion pictures in Hollywood. When Stan’s common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg, told him he was as good as Chaplin, he replied Charlie was the best that has ever been. Babe Hardy was working with movie producer Larry Semon, who wanted to make pictures like Chaplin’s and didn’t care who the Little Tramp was screwing. Babe believed Chaplin should be in jail. But Chaplin is Chaplin (often repeated in the novel). Semon had no vision and his company collapsed. It led Babe to sign a contract with Hal Roach, one of Hollywood’s most famous and successful movie magnates, and the partnership of a lifetime with Stan Laurel that began in 1926.

While Stan and Babe had a great partnership, it didn’t mean they always chose the right partners in marriage – not to mention their affairs. When Mae returned to Melbourne, Stan married Lois Neilsen in 1926. They had two children, a daughter Lois, and a son who died tragically nine days after his birth. They were divorced eight years later and Stan married Ruth Rogers. But Stan continued to pine for Lois, who refused to remarry. The marriage to Ruth lasted three years, who told Stan: “You’re just a child. You have no idea what you really want at all.” His next partner was a mad Russian actress and singer, Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, accompanied by Countess Sonia, and Roy Randolph, the Dancing Master. Stan and Vera had three wedding ceremonies. Connolly writes: “He (Stan) will spend most of 1938 drinking, for reasons not unconnected to their marriage.” Years later at the Oceana Apartments, Stan remembers Vera: “He remembers that Vera was a drunk. He remembers that Vera couldn’t sing … He remembers that Countess Sonia’s perfume smelled like cat piss … He remembers driving the wrong way down Reseda Boulevard, intoxicated and crying and only (his lawyer) Ben Shipman’s bamboozling of the jury keeping him out of jail.” There’s more. He remarries Ruth in 1941. That lasted until the end of the war, when he met and fell in love with Ida Kitaeva Raphael. When Ben Shipman read about their wedding in a newspaper on May 6, 1946, he screamed: “Jesus Christ, he’s married another Russian.” But this marriage endured until death did them part nearly 20 years later.
Babe Hardy had a similar chequered marital record, starting with Madelyn Saloshin, who played the piano at a theatre where he was singing in a quartet. They had a dog and a monkey. Babe said it wasn’t a marriage. It was a zoo. It was short, followed by a longer, but not much happier union, as his second wife, Myrtle Reeves, was a drunk. He had a lover, Viola Morse, but he continued to look after Myrtle, who did things like escaping from a sanitarium, sneaking out of her sister’s house and trying to drink herself to oblivion in a hotel. A policewoman talked her out of jumping out the hotel window, and Myrtle was arrested. Every newspaper in the country had the story. Still Babe found it hard to leave her, although he spent a lot of time at the races in Santa Anita. He sought comfort from Myrtle with other women, but eventually got a divorce and paid hefty alimony bills. Although he’d been with Viola Morse longer than Myrtle, Babe finally met his true love, Lucille Jones. Despite Viola’s pain, Babe and Lucille married … and she cared for her husband until he died in 1957.
Somehow Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy managed brilliant careers in spite of their marital problems and family tragedies. They made short films for Hal Roach, released through MGM, during the silent era in the late 1920s and took to audio like ducks to water. Their first sound movie was a success: Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. With their traditional bowler hats, suits and ties, mixing sight and sound gags (mostly written by Stan), the Pom from Ulverstone and the Yank from Georgia enthralled American audiences during the Great Depression. Laurel and Hardy won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy, in 1932 for The Music Box, a revision of their silent film, Hats Off.

Later that year, Laurel and Hardy decided to take a vacation and made a deal with MGM: ten days of publicity, the rest of the time to themselves. They travelled by train to New York via Chicago and took what they thought would be a leisurely cruise on the RMS Aquitania to Southampton. Stan and Ollie were amazed by the thousands of people who waited for them in Chicago, just wanting to touch them, shake their hands. It was worse, and scarier, in New York when the Broadway multitudes did not let them pass. They had to hide in Minsky’s Music Hall and were smuggled aboard the Aquitania. Much to their surprise, Stan and Babe had become two of the most famous men in the world. In Britain, thousands greeted them from London to Leeds and Birmingham, to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stan spent time with his father, AJ, who wondered why his son changed his last name from (Arthur Stanley) Jefferson to Laurel. Stan had no satisfactory explanation; it was Mae Dahlberg’s suggestion.
Laurel and Hardy made 105 films between 1926 and 1951, when they retired from movies. Laurel met Charlie Chaplin at his house in Beverly Hills, and they reminisced. Chaplin said: “Who else like us is left”? Stan “cannot help but admire Chaplin, even as he wishes him more capable of truth, and more worthy of affection.” He never saw or spoke with Chaplin again. For Babe, his moment in the sun was taking part in a John Ford touring production of What Price Glory, a fundraiser for the Order of the Purple Heart. Among the cast were John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr and Jimmy Cagney, who told Babe he was so good that if someone hadn’t held him upright, he would have fallen on the floor laughing. Hardy sat in the club car of the train on the way to San Francisco, regaling the famous actors with tales of old Hollywood, with Duke Wayne’s eyes and ears wide open. Connolly writes: “They were listening to me, Babe says. Can you believe that? All those great men were listening. To me.”
Stan and Ollie toured England in the early 1950s, to dwindling audiences, until May 18, 1954 when Babe had a heart attack. The tour was cancelled, and they returned to the US where Stan worked on scripts for television. In 1955, he had a stroke, from which he recovered, but Babe had another heart attack and a stroke, was paralysed and lost his voice. He died on August 7, 1957. At the Oceana Apartments, Stan pays tribute to his partner: “Babe is with him and of him … he knows that he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.”
Stan continued to write jokes and sketches for fellow comedians, and was recognised with a special Oscar for his creative pioneering work in cinema comedy in 1961 (Photo above from LettersFromStan.com). The actor Alec Guinness wrote Stan a letter which had a prominent place on his desk, congratulating him on his Academy Award: “For me you have always been and will always be one of the greats.”
In his Author’s Note, John Connolly says Stan Laurel “kept his telephone number in the Malibu directory because he enjoyed being visited and had no fear of those who might make their way to his door.” Among those visitors were Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke. Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965 and Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at the funeral: “The halls of heaven must be ringing with divine laughter.”
John Connolly admits his novel and his depiction of Stan Laurel might not meet with unanimous approval: “All I can say is this: by the end of the writing of this book, I loved Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy more than ever, with all their flaws, in all their humanity, and my admiration for their artistry had only increased.”
As a reader, I felt the same way.
He, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, 453 pages
PS: If you’re interested in watching some of the old clips of Laurel & Hardy films, you can find them on their official website: http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/ The BBC has produced a biopic of Laurel and Hardy’s final tour of the UK in 1953, titled Stan and Ollie, starring John C. Reilly as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan. No release date has yet been announced, but fans of the famous comedy duo won’t want to miss it. A preview by indiewire.com and photos of the film have been released on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Comic duo Laurel and Hardy’s moments to remember: Tales of Hollywood stranger than fiction

  1. What a great ride down memory lane. Love you, B

    PS: Tom loves that you remember his BDay. Every year you are the 1st to send him greetings

    PPS: Lois Egan is regaining use of her left leg and hand, is walking and still very funny. She has a long way to go because she will need more recovery time and surgery in April to replace the part of her skull that had been removed to relieve pressure.

    • Hi Betty,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. Memory lane is a good place to take a drive!
      I think I’m the first to wish Tom a happy birthday because we are 16 hours ahead of the US East Coast. But I do enjoy sending Tom greetings!
      Good news about Lois Egan, although she still has a long way to go. Fingers crossed.
      Love, Tom
      PS You are always the first to send a lovely comment on my blog post! xx

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