Today is the birthday (1890) of Stan Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson), an English comic actor, writer and film director, most famous for his role in the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. He appeared with his comedy partner Oliver Hardy in 107 short films, feature films, and cameo roles. He is one of my favorite comedy actors of all time. Buster Keaton said at his funeral: “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.” Amazing praise by a world famous comic. The main point is that Laurel, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, was able to make the transition from stage to silent movies to talkies and finally to color movies without missing a beat, constantly adapting yet keeping all the styles he accumulated along the way.
Laurel began his career in English music hall (like Chaplin), where he adopted a number of his standard comic devices: the bowler hat, the deep comic gravity, and the nonsensical understatement. His performances polished his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches. Laurel was a member of “Fred Karno’s Army,” where he was Charlie Chaplin’s understudy. With Chaplin, the two arrived in the United States on the same ship from the United Kingdom with the Karno troupe. Laurel began his film career in 1917 and made his final appearance in 1951. From 1928 onwards, he appeared exclusively with Oliver Hardy. Laurel officially retired from the screen following Hardy’s death in 1957. That fact in itself shows the character of the man.
Before you read on, here’s a sampling of his comedy to enjoy:
Laurel was born in his grandparents’ house at 3 Argyle Street, Ulverston in Lancashire. His parents, Margaret (neé Metcalfe) and Arthur Jefferson, were both active in the theater, and, in consequence, moved a great deal. In his early years, Laurel spent some time living with his maternal grandmother, Sarah Metcalfe. He attended school at King James I Grammar School, Bishop Auckland, County Durham and the King’s School, Tynemouth, Northumberland. He moved with his parents to Glasgow where he completed his education at Rutherglen Academy. His father managed Glasgow’s Metropole Theatre, where Laurel first began to work. His boyhood hero was Dan Leno, one of the greatest English music hall comedians. Laurel gave his first professional performance on stage at the Panopticon in Glasgow at the age of 16, where he polished his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches.
He joined Fred Karno’s troupe of actors in 1910 with the stage name of “Stan Jefferson” where he acted as Chaplin’s understudy for some time. Chaplin and Laurel toured the US with Karno before both went their separate ways. From 1916-18, he teamed up with Alice Cooke and Baldwin Cooke, who became lifelong friends. Amongst other performers, Laurel worked briefly alongside Oliver Hardy in a silent film short The Lucky Dog (1921). This was before the two were a duo.
It was around this time that Laurel met Mae Dahlberg. Around the same time, he adopted the stage name of Laurel at Dahlberg’s suggestion that his stage name Stan Jefferson was unlucky, due to it having thirteen letters. The pair were performing together when Laurel was offered $75 a week to star in two-reel comedies. After making his first film Nuts in May, Universal offered him a contract. The contract was soon cancelled during a reorganization at the studio. Among the films in which Dahlberg and Laurel appeared together was the 1922 parody Mud and Sand.
By 1924, Laurel had given up the stage for full-time film work, under contract with Joe Rock for 12 two-reel comedies. The contract had one unusual stipulation: that Dahlberg was not to appear in any of the films. Rock thought that her temperament was hindering Laurel’s career. In 1925, she started interfering with Laurel’s work, so Rock offered her a cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia, which she accepted.
Laurel next signed with the Hal Roach studio, where he began directing films, including a 1926 production called Yes, Yes, Nanette. He intended to work primarily as a writer and director. Oliver Hardy, another member of the Hal Roach Studios Comedy All Star players, was injured in a kitchen mishap in 1927, and Laurel was asked to return to acting. Laurel and Hardy began sharing the screen in Slipping Wives, Duck Soup (1927), and With Love and Hisses. The two became friends and their comic chemistry soon became obvious. Roach Studios’ supervising director Leo McCarey noticed the audience reaction to them and began teaming them, leading to the creation of the Laurel and Hardy series later that year.
Together, the two men began producing a huge body of short films, including The Battle of the Century, Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, Be Big!, Big Business, and many others. Laurel and Hardy successfully made the transition to talking films with the short Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. They also appeared in their first feature in one of the revue sequences of The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and the following year they appeared as the comic relief in the lavish all-color (Technicolor) musical feature The Rogue Song. Their first starring feature Pardon Us was released in 1931. They continued to make both features and shorts until 1935, including their 1932 three-reeler The Music Box, which won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.
During the 1930s, Laurel was involved in a dispute with Hal Roach which resulted in the termination of his contract. Roach maintained separate contracts for Laurel and Hardy that expired at different times, so Hardy remained at the studio and was teamed with Harry Langdon for the 1939 film Zenobia. The studio discussed a series of films co-starring Hardy with Patsy Kelly to be called “The Hardy Family.” But Laurel sued Roach over the contract dispute. Eventually, the case was dropped and Laurel returned to Roach. The first film that Laurel and Hardy made after Laurel returned was A Chump at Oxford. Subsequently, they made Saps at Sea, which was their last film for Roach.
In 1941, Laurel and Hardy signed a contract at 20th Century Fox to make ten films over five years. During the war years, their work became more formulaic and less successful, though The Bullfighters and Jitterbugs did receive some praise. In 1947, Laurel returned to England when he and Hardy went on a six-week tour of the United Kingdom, and the duo were mobbed wherever they went. Laurel’s homecoming to Ulverston took place in May, and the duo were greeted by thousands of fans outside the Coronation Hall. The Evening Mail noted: “Oliver Hardy remarked to our reporter that Stan had talked about Ulverston for the past 22 years and he thought he had to see it.” The tour included a Royal Command Performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London. The success of the tour led them to spend the next seven years touring the UK and Europe.
In 1950, Laurel and Hardy were invited to France to make a feature film. The film was a disaster, a Franco-Italian co-production titled Atoll K. (The film was entitled Utopia in the US and Robinson Crusoeland in the UK.) Both stars were noticeably ill during the filming. Upon returning to the United States, they spent most of their time recovering. In 1952, Laurel and Hardy toured Europe successfully, and they returned in 1953 for another tour of the continent. During this tour, Laurel fell ill and was unable to perform for several weeks.
In May 1954, Hardy had a heart attack and cancelled the tour. In 1955, they were planning to do a television series called Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables based on children’s stories. The plans were delayed after Laurel suffered a stroke on 25 April, from which he recovered. But as the team was planning to get back to work, his partner Hardy had a massive stroke on 14 September 1956, which resulted in his being unable to return to acting.
Oliver Hardy died on 7 August 1957. Laurel was too ill to attend his funeral and said, “Babe would understand.” People who knew Laurel said that he was devastated by Hardy’s death and never fully recovered from it. He refused to perform on stage or act in another film without his good friend, although he continued to socialize with his fans. Laurel was always gracious to fans and spent considerable time answering fan mail. His phone number (OXford-0614) was listed in the telephone directory, and fans were amazed that they could dial the number and speak to him directly.
Laurel was a heavy smoker until suddenly quitting around 1960. In January 1965, he underwent a series of x-rays for an infection on the roof of his mouth. He died on 23 February 1965, aged 74, four days after suffering a heart attack on 19 February. Just minutes away from death, Laurel told his nurse that he would not mind going skiing right at that very moment. Taken aback, the nurse replied that she was not aware that he was a skier. “I’m not,” said Laurel, “I’d rather be doing that than this!” A few minutes later, the nurse looked in on him again and found that he had died quietly in his armchair.
Laurel had said in hospital: “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again.” Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at Laurel’s funeral, as a friend, protégé, and occasional impressionist of Laurel during his later years. He read “The Clown’s Prayer” the last verse of which is:
And in my final moment,
may I hear You whisper:
“When you made My people smile,
you made Me smile.”
Can’t leave without this; one of my favorite scenes:
Laurel’s daughter Lois was once asked about Stan and Ollie’s favorite foods. She wrote, “My father’s favorite was prime rib. Second, it would be liver, bacon, and onions. Third, fish and chips.” Very English. Let’s go with liver, bacon, and onions. I’m quite fond of this dish too, but only if it is cooked right. Most cooks destroy it in any one of a dozen ways. The first important point is that you should use young calf’s liver, not old ox liver. Second, you should barely cook it. Most cooks like to fry liver until it is tough, grainy, and dry. A few minutes on high heat is all it takes. We can begin with Mrs Beeton since Laurel was born in the Victorian era and would certainly have had this dish as a boy:
CALF’S LIVER AND BACON.
- INGREDIENTS.—2 or 3 lbs. of liver, bacon, pepper and salt to taste, a small piece of butter, flour, 2 tablespoonfuls of lemon-juice, 1/4 pint of water.
Mode.—Cut the liver in thin slices, and cut as many slices of bacon as there are of liver; fry the bacon first, and put that on a hot dish before the fire. Fry the liver in the fat which comes from the bacon, after seasoning it with pepper and salt and dredging over it a very little flour. Turn the liver occasionally to prevent its burning, and when done, lay it round the dish with a piece of bacon between each. Pour away the bacon fat, put in a small piece of butter, dredge in a little flour, add the lemon-juice and water, give one boil, and pour it in the middle of the dish. It may be garnished with slices of cut lemon, or forcemeat balls.
Time.—According to the thickness of the slices, from 5 to 10 minutes.
Average cost, 10d. per lb. Sufficient for 6 or 7 persons.
Seasonable from March to October.
There are no onions here, however, so you are missing an important component. This is what I do:
Fry off the bacon over medium-low heat in a dry skillet until it is crisp and the fat has been rendered. Set aside the bacon in a warm (not hot) oven.
Slice the liver thinly and sauté over high heat very quickly (in batches) in the bacon fat. Certainly don’t overcook the liver. If anything leave them slightly underdone. As the liver pieces are cooked add them to the bacon in the oven to keep warm.
Add a whole onion thickly sliced to the skillet. Turn the heat down to medium and sauté until they take on some color. Add 1 tablespoon of flour to the skillet and stir it around with a wooden spoon to make a dark roux with the bacon fat. Add cold beef stock a little at a time, whisking vigorously, to make a dark gravy.
Serve the bacon, and liver with mashed potato and the onion gravy poured over.