By John Larrabee
"What's funny? How do I know? Can you analyze it? Can anybody?
All I know is how to make people laugh." ---Stan Laurel
"Ask Stan." ---Oliver Hardy
In an era where movie stars routinely command eight-figure salaries for six weeks' worth of work, where top comedians travel with an entourage of bodyguards and sycophants, and where rock stars employ logistics managers and toadies to sort their M&M's by color, it is perhaps difficult to envision a time in which two genuinely nice and humble gentlemen labored for forty-eight weeks out of the year, expecting nothing but a reasonably comfortable salary and a bit of laughter in return. To say that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, both onscreen and off, represented human character at its best is no understatement. As men, they may have had their flaws, but an examination of their lives, either close or cursory, reveals them as kind and gentle souls. As screen characters, this kindness and gentleness is evident in even the roughest of their comedies. On film and in life, they were utterly incapable of pretense, and demanded from the world only what they had rightfully earned. On screen, if they received an occasional scrap of warmth and kindness, they were sincerely grateful for it. In life, they were loved the world over and were overwhelmed by it.
It would be over-simplifying matters, however, to say that the onscreen Stan and Ollie were merely dumber versions of the real-life Stan and Babe. And yet, it would not be over-exaggeration to say that their art imitated their (and our) lives. Both men were beset by real-life problems (marital difficulties, legal wranglings, bouts of depression) which their screen selves wouldn't have even comprehended. Still, it was their ability to lampoon life's difficulties that was one of their basic ingredients for success, and one reason why they endure today. The numerous examples of marital strife in their films may have been farcical, cartoonish and absurd, but if they didn't manage to tap something all-too-real in those plate-throwing melees with their shrewish spouses, it wouldn't be funny in the first place. As such, their comedy appeals on many levels. Simple and direct enough to send small children into gales of laughter, yet with enough genuine human truth at its core to warrant study by scholars and egghead-types.
If today's comics thrive on inflicting irreverence and cynicism on whatever fragments remain of our collective decency, Laurel and Hardy, conversely, thrived on maintaining their decency in a world which inflicted its irreverence and cynicism on them. There may be plenty of edginess in Laurel and Hardy comedies, but it exists in their gags and situations, rather than being borne of their characters. Their sweet innocence may insure that they finish last, but it also insures that they will enduringly last. For each defeat they suffer at the cruel hand of fate, a new-found reason for optimism lurks just around the next corner. The song lyric "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again" may well have been written by a Laurel and Hardy fan.
Nobody but Laurel and Hardy could have created the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. Close friends in life, they needed one another for survival in film. Close friends on film, they needed one another for survival in life. This, then, is the story of who they were, where they came from, and their extraordinary and elusive magic.
Panopticon in Glasgow, Scotland was a quaint and unique house of
entertainment, even for 1906. Within its walls, one could find a
museum, a side show, a nickelodeon (or "penny-winders," as they were
known in Scotland), and a small room that served as an excuse for a
theatre. With no seats, patrons stood to watch a brief programme of
second and third-rate music-hall style entertainment, while a
three-piece women's band pounded out musical accompaniment. It was in
these auspicious surroundings that 16-year-old Arthur Stanley Jefferson
made his performing debut. As he bounded onstage with the naive
confidence that comes from youthful exuberance, his heart sank as he
looked to the wings and glimpsed the unexpected and shadowy presence of
his father, A.J. Jefferson. Though close as a father and son could be,
young Stanley was not ready to be subjected to his father's critical
eye. After all, the senior Jefferson was one of the most succesful men
of the theatre in all of Great Britain (as a theatre-owner, producer,
director, writer, and comedic performer), while Stan could boast only a
rough, unpolished act of borrowed jokes and derivative routines.
Nevertheless, the boy went gamely on with his act, slow and faltering
at first, but firmly convinced he had wowed them with a big finish when
he exited to hearty applause. "I didn't realize that this was because
the audience felt sorry for me. I figured that out for myself later
on," said Stan in later years.
Returning home that night, Stan nervously approached his father's study, prepared for the worst. Rather than berate the boy for bringing shame upon the family name, however, a sympathetic A.J. offered the boy a whiskey and soda and engaged him in a long conversation about a career in performing. "As long as your you're sure it's what you want, Stan. As long as you're really sure," he said.
A.J. Jefferson was probably relieved that his son had finally shown an interest in something. As the theatrical Jefferson family moved from town to town during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Stan had been a miserable failure at one boarding school after another. Though schooling interested him little, he was nevertheless a great favorite with his teachers due to his ability to make them laugh. He was a polite and pleasant kid who didn't cause trouble, but neither did he expend any effort towards scholarship. When he dropped out of school for good at the age of fifteen, his father put him to work in the theatre box office, where his skills in accounting were about on par with his skills as a student. The fact that the boy now had a definite goal in life earned him the support of his father, and served as a source of bonding between them.
The Jefferson family had always been close-knit, regardless of the fact that its members were rarely under the same roof at one time. One of four siblings (three boys, one girl), Arthur Stanley was born on June 16, 1890 in Ulvertson, Lancashire, England. Both parents were important names in the world of English theatre and music-hall (his mother was a prominent stage actress), which insured that Stanley recieved in-house training in his chosen vocation from the day he was born. His father seems to have struck just the right blend between strictness and indulgence, and rarely had to raise his voice in the household. Stan, in turn, loved his father greatly and often brought him to America for year-long visits during Stan's years of success in Hollywood. Despite the fact that it took several failed attempts before Stan found happiness in marriage, the family was an institution which he treasured.
Following Stanley's somewhat embarrassing stage debut, he landed his first professional acting job in 1907 -- that of a "golliwog" (a stuffed doll) in a touring production of Sleeping Beauty. During the next three years, he honed his skills as a comic and slowly worked his way up through the ranks of the English music-halls. By 1910, he was proficient enough as a performer to join Fred Karno's traveling comedy troupe as both a featured performer and understudy to its star attraction, a young fellow comic by the name of Charles Spencer Chaplin. The company set sail that year (aboard a cattle boat) for America to try their luck in the New World. It would, however, be several years before Stan was to find anything that remotely resembled luck or success in the States.
The experience was not atypical for burlesque and vaudeville-type companies in those days. A seemingly endless stream of fleabag hotels and boarding houses, near-empty theatres, and penniless performers stranded in nameless small towns were the norm. Only this delightfully eccentric and egotistical Chaplin fellow attracted any attention at all; by 1913, he had made enough of a name for himself to become a near-overnight sensation in films. Without its star attraction, the Karno company soon folded.
Though Stan returned to England briefly during this time, the years 1914 - 1917 found him toiling in American vaudeville, often performing as part of "The Stan Jefferson Trio." It was also around this time that he determined a name with thirteen letters in it was decidedly unlucky for a performer. "I don't know why I decided on Laurel," he said in the late 50's, "Honestly can't remember. Just liked the sound of it, I guess." Stan's memory may be a bit rose-colored here. He had performed in vaudeville with a number of partners; one of them, Mae Cuthbert, was to become his common-law wife (and was to cause Stan many legal headaches when she resurfaced in the mid-1930's, demanding money for all the "help" she had given Stan in his early career). Evidence now suggests that it was Mae who gave Stan his new name, after seeing a picture of a Roman general with a laurel wreath 'round his head. Stan and Mae Laurel were to appear together on stage and in films until 1925, though theirs was a stormy relationship. It was determined during that year that Stan, now under contract to Hal Roach Studios, would suffer unfavorable publicity were it to be discoved that he was living with a woman he had not legally married. Stan had had enough of Mae's violent temper, anyway, and it is rumored that the studio paid her off and sent her quietly back to her native Australia.
From the late teens through the early twenties, Stan continuted to pursue a semi-successful career in vaudeville, while dabbling in the occasional film during those occasions when his work brought him to southern California. He was perhaps a bit unsure of himself during these years as a performer. His early solo films showcase an obviously talented young comic, but one who was also obviously in need of a consistent character. He could run the gamut from simpleton to brash wisecracker in the course of a single performance. This may have been, in part, due to the fact that he was honing his skills as a writer and gagman at the time. The creation of comedy itself interested him more than the creation of an identifiable personality.
In all, Stan appeared in over sixty films prior to his partnership with Oliver Hardy. He enjoyed a fair amount of success, had his own series of comedy shorts (his Mud and Sand, a burlesque of Rudolph Valentino's Blood and Sand, was particulary well-received), but never really made the impression in the business he felt his talent warranted. He began to question his own skills as a performer and believed that he would find more success as a writer or director. The series of shorts he made for Hal Roach in 1923 only served to firm this idea. They emerged, for the most part, as fine, clever comedies, but it was the comedy itself that overshadowed his performances. The fact that Stan had such a large hand in the creation of the comedy convinced him that his future lay behind the cameras. He was eventually released from his first Roach contract with two years remaining on it. When he was rehired by Roach in 1925, it was understood that his primary duties would be that of writer, director, gagman - and only occasionally, when they needed to fill a part, performer.
It is a bit ironic, therefore, that once Stan Laurel decided to devote his energies to behind-the-camera work, he finally seemed to come into his own as a performer. Whether as bit player or leading man, Stan could always be counted on for sure-fire laughs during this period with Roach. Along with Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Charlie Chase, Max Davidson and Edna Marion, an in-house company of comedy players was formed known as The Hal Roach All-Stars. Slowly (in retrospect, perhaps too slowly), it was noticed that some extra comic sparks flew whenever Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in the same scene. Director Leo McCarey is the man most often credited for urging Roach to make Laurel and Hardy an official team.
At first, Stan was reluctant to become part of a team -- not because his ego prevented him from wanting to share billing with another player; quite the opposite in fact. He was still convinced that his best future was as a gagman and writer and didn't want to embark on another dead-end foray into acting. This soon changed. By the end of 1927, the team of Laurel and Hardy had caught on so well with the public, there was no turning back. Besides, Stan was happy in that he was able to continue to write, contribute gags, and more or less take charge of the making of the films. Despite the fact that his name never appeared on the credits as such, history now reveals that he was, in fact, the de facto director and head writer for virtually every film Laurel and Hardy made at the Hal Roach Studio.
Stan was indeed fortunate to have a boss such as Hal Roach. Free from the assembly-line methods of the big studios, the Roach lot produced comedies at a relaxed pace. Roach himself had a keen insight into comedy, and allowed his people the time and freedom to get things just right. Because of this, Laurel and Roach enjoyed a close professional and personal relationship throughout the late twenties and early thirties. Things were to change in 1934 when the two of them locked horns over the script to the feature BABES IN TOYLAND, and their relationship was distant and strictly business from then on. Nevertheless, Laurel and Hardy continued to make films for Roach for another six years, where Stan enjoyed a degree of freedom he would not have found elsewhere.
In all, Laurel and Hardy appeared in over seventy films for Roach between the years 1926 and 1940 (as well as a few appearances in films made by others). A small studio such as Roach's was the ideal working environment for Stan. Free from decision-makers watching over his shoulder (save for Roach who usually, though certainly not always, let Stan have his way), he was able to call the shots on virtually every aspect of production. Directing, writing, lighting, sound, music, costumes, makeup, editing -- Stan had control and/or veto power over everything. He was a tireless worker who often spent 16 - 20 hour days at the studio, watching dailies, collaborating with writers, supervising the editing, whatever. As he was to endure a number of personal and marital problems throughout the 1930's, Stan found his main source of joy and solace in his work.
But all good things must end, as they did for Laurel and Hardy in 1940. The movie industry was changing rapidly, and no longer could a studio like Roach's afford to make "little" films like the Laurel and Hardys. It had been five years since their last short subject, and economics demanded that the studio assert more control over the features they were now making on a once or twice a year basis. After carefully considering their options, Laurel and Hardy signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox studios, a move which more or less heralded the beginning of the end.
They were to make six features for Fox and two for MGM during the years 1941 - 1945. "Dismal failures" is the kindest compliment one can bestow on most of these films. No longer in control, Stan now had to tow the line and answer to the big studio bosses. From the onscreen results, one wonders if anyone involved but Laurel and Hardy knew the slightest thing about making a comedy. They are weary, unfunny, juvenille efforts in which Stan and Ollie are reduced to bumbling simpletons, rather than the sweet innocents they had so carefully perfected during the Roach years. It is little wonder that Stan walked away from the experience in 1945 an embittered man.
But the closing of one door always opens another. During the years 1947 - 1954, Laurel and Hardy enjoyed great success on the live stage, particularly in Great Britain. Returning to his music hall roots, Stan wrote sketches for the team which never failed to delight the sellout crowds. Rejuvinated, they returned to the States in 1954 with big plans to appear in a series of comedy specials for television. Sadly, these plans were never to transpire.
The health of both men was the issue. Babe suffered a mild heart attack in the spring of 1954; when he was fully recovered, Stan suffered a paralyzing stroke in early 1955. For a few months, the only thing intact was Stan's sense of humor. "Tell them I'm available," he said, "but I can only play statues." He went on to make a near-complete recovery, though his left side was to remain a bit weakened for the rest of his life. Still, he hadn't given up on the idea of Laurel and Hardy on TV, and posed for a series of publicity photos with his partner in 1956. Unfortunately, on September 14 of that year, Babe Hardy suffered a massive stroke from which he was not to recover. Almost completely paralyzed and incapacitated, he wasted away to 150 pounds (down from a high of 350 only a few years before) and had to rely on his wife Lucille for nearly all his needs. Finally, on August 7, 1957, Oliver Norvell Hardy went to sleep and did not awaken again in this world.
Enormously saddened by the loss of his old friend and partner, Stan Laurel vowed never to perform again. Absurd rumors of unknown origin have circulated throughout the years that Laurel and Hardy were not close in real life, some even going to the extent that they were bitter enemies. Nothing could be further, light-years in fact, from the truth. They were close friends during their filmmaking years, and spent many hours golfing (Babe's favorite pastime) and fishing (Stan's favorite) together. Stan's daughter, Lois, remarked in later years that "It was like having two fathers. Nearly all of their spare time was spent with one another. We'd even have two Christmases each year; one at our house, another at Uncle Babe's." When the team toured in the late 40's and early 50's, they became even closer. "Closer than brothers," as Lois put it. Stan knew that, in the eyes of the public, Laurel without Hardy was but half of an equation. He felt the best way to honor the memory of his beloved friend was not to capitalize on the fame they had found together.
Stan's final years were, for the most part, happy ones. He was no longer a wealthy man, due in part to the alimony he paid to his ex-wives. He was married four times, his middle two marriages being particularly tempestous ones. Fortunately, he found happiness in 1947 with his marriage to Ida Raphael -- "The one I was waiting for," according to Stan. It was a blissfully happy union that was to last until Stan's death. Ida doted on Stan, helped him through his health crises, and organized his affairs. They maintained a modest but comfortable apartment in Santa Monica.
Stan spent most of his time during those years answering fan mail on his portable typewriter, watching Laurel and Hardy films on TV (the TV editing and commercial interruptions frustrated him no end), and continued to write new gags for Laurel and Hardy to keep his comic mind active and fertile. He had a genuine respect for his fans and felt he owed them a debt of gratitude. As such, he made an effort to personally answer all fan mail, even though he must have known he could never answer it all. He kept his phone number listed in the Santa Monica directory, and gladly talked with fans who would call, sometimes even inviting them up for a spot of tea and chat. Celebrities, too, would come to pay their respects. Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Dick Cavett, Marcel Marceau, Peter Sellers and Danny Kaye were among those who visited often.
Stan was honored with an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1960. Though he deeply regretted that Babe was not around to share it, he proudly displayed it in his home and dubbed the little bald man of gold "Mr. Clean." But his greatest satisfaction in later years must have come from the widespread, near-fanatical revival of interest in Laurel and Hardy. Books on the team appeared in stores, TV and revival houses ran their films regularly, compilation films of their best silent work were produced by Robert Youngson, and Stan himself helped co-found the Sons of the Desert, the international fan organization which continutes to grow in numbers to this day.
A heart attack took him from this world on February 23, 1965. The world mourned and, after years of neglect and rejection, the entertainment industry hailed him as an artist. As Buster Keaton was heard to say after Stan's funeral, "Forget Chaplin. Stan was the greatest."
trait which comes in many forms. There's the modesty of a truly great
and talented man who, aware of his abilities, lets others do the
talking for him, considering it bad form to boast and brag. Such was
the the modesty of Stan Laurel. Then there's the sort of modesty borne
of shyness and insecurity, resulting in an unawareness of one's own
talents. Such was the modesty of Oliver Hardy. "As for my life," he
told writer John McCabe in 1954, "it wasn't very exciting and I didn't
do very much outside of doing a lot of gags before a camera and play
golf the rest of the time." Had Stan Laurel made such a statement
(substitute "fishing" for "golf" in Stan's case), one might chuckle a
bit at his self-conscious understatement. With Oliver Hardy comes the
painful realization that he really meant it.
Certainly, it is true that Hardy participated little in the creation of Laurel and Hardy films. He was more than content to let Stan be the brains of the team while he put in an honest day's work and promptly headed for the nearest golf course or race track. Such an approach to his craft may have resulted in his belief that he was little more than Stan's straight man, a journeyman actor who did what he was asked to do and got paid for it. When asked about the making of their films, his inevitable response was, "Ask Stan." He seems to have been oblivious to the fact that the fellow who merely "did what he was asked to do" just happened to be one of the great comic actors of all time.
Born Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia on January 18, 1892 he did not come from a show business background. His father, Oliver Hardy, a lawyer, died while his son was still an infant. In his honor, the boy adopted the name Oliver Norvell Hardy, a "double-barrel sounding name," as he put it, of which he was quite proud, using his full moniker often in Laurel and Hardy films. To support her young son and his four older half-siblings, Emily Hardy took to running a local hotel. It was in this setting that Oliver developed a lifelong habit, and one which was to influence his performances in films. As he told John McCabe in 1954:
"As a child I got into a habit that I still have. Lobby
sit in the lobby and I watch people. I like to watch people. Once in a
while someone will ask me where Stan and I dreamed up the characters we
play in the movies. They seem to think that those two fellows aren't
like anybody else, but there are plenty of Laurels and Hardys in the
world. Whenever I travel, I am still in the habit of sitting in the
lobby and watching the people walk by -- and I tell you, I see many
Laurels and Hardys. I used to see them in my mother's hotel when I was
a kid: the dumb, dumb guy who never has anything bad happen to him --
and the smart, smart guy who's dumber than the dumb guy only he doesn't
to this surreptitious
study of human behavior, Hardy also had his family to thank for another
important influence. The Hardy family loved music, and Oliver developed
a fondness for singing at an early age. As much of a success in school
as was Stan (that is to say, not at all), his mother sent him to the
Atlanta Conservatory of Music in hopes that her boy would at least show
a scholastic interest in something which he obviously loved. He
impressed his instructors and fellow students with his pure, bell-tone
tenor and his effortless attaining of those high "C's." Singing was to
remain a passion throughout his life, as evidenced by the many displays
of the Hardy vocal chords to be found in Laurel and Hardy films.
But his foray into show business came, as he put it, through "the real business end" of things. In 1910, at the age of 18, Oliver found himself as the manager of a movie theatre in Milledgeville, Georgia. Watching the early silent performers improvise their way through those quickly-made early silents convinced him that he could do better, or at least no worse, than what he saw onscreen. In the days before Hollywood established itself as the movie-making capitol of the world, many towns and cities throughout the country boasted primitive motion-picture production facilities. In 1913, Oliver Hardy took off to just such a facility in Jacksonville, Florida to try his luck in the "flickers."
Hardy worked primarily for two Jacksonville studios during the years 1914 -1917, the Lubin and Vim companies, and appeared in an amazing total of over one hundred films. He played everything from leading men to town bumpkins, but was usually cast as a villian, or "heavy" ("I guess my weight just automatically made me a heavy," he later joked). The Lubin and Vim companies were close-knit, friendly groups, and Hardy established friendships during this period which were to last him his entire life. More than once in later years, if Hardy happened to hear of an old Jacksonville pal who had fallen on hard times, he would lend a helping hand and find that individual some work on a Laurel and Hardy film.
It was also during this period that Hardy acquired the nickname he retained for the rest of his years. He regularly got his two-bit shave-and-a-haircut from a local Italian barber, "a boy who liked boys," in Hardy's words. This florid gent was fond of rubbing talcum powder into Oliver's rosy cheeks and cooing, "Nice-a baby, nice-a baby." Hardy found himself at the receiving end of much ribbing from his fellow actors, who at first called him "Baby," later shortened to "Babe." At first, Hardy didn't care for the moniker, but grew quite fond of it over time and was known to say "Please call me Babe" when introduced to someone. Offscreen, he became known to all as Babe Hardy, and even billed himself in this way in a few early silents. Only rarely would folks refer to him as Oliver, and never, ever "Ollie," which was reserved only for his onscreen character.
The formative years in Jacksonville helped train Babe as a screen actor par excellence. Unlike Stan, who had been stage-trained and whose work sometimes suffered slightly from a tendency to play everything "to the back row," Hardy acquired a subtlety and nuance to his performances which could have only come from perfecting the technique of "close-up" acting. It was these contrasting approaches to acting which may be a key ingredient to Laurel and Hardy's success. First-time viewers of Laurel and Hardy films will tend to gravitate towards Stan, finding him the more immediately funny of the two. Stan's character, however, was the more "acted" one, the one which he had spent years perfecting, and one which in no way resembled his real-life self. Hardy, on the other hand, adopted a more natural approach that was merely an extention and exaggeration of Babe. It is this very humanness to his performances which was the true heart and soul of the Laurel-Hardy partnership, and the element which gives the team its lasting appeal. Longtime fans of the team will usually say that it is Hardy's performances which are the more memorable and insure that L&H films hold up to repeated viewings. In other words, it's Stan who hooks you, but it's Ollie that keeps you coming back for more. Those years of lobby-watching paid off.
After his stint in Jacksonville, Hardy found himself in great demand as a character actor, and appeared in another hundred or so films made in New York and Hollywood. One of these was an obscure little comedy called Lucky Dog, probably filmed in late 1920 or early 1921, which just happened to feature a young comic by the name of Stan Laurel in the lead role. Though it was to be another six years or so before their official teaming at the Roach Studios, this chance encounter between two journeyman comics shows at least a few glimpses into what was to be.
Babe's free-lancing in Hollywood eventually landed him a contract with the Hal Roach Studio in 1926. A freak cooking accident that year was instrumental in bringing the team of Laurel and Hardy together. Babe was set to play a butler in a Mabel Normand film (to be directed by Stan Laurel), when a leg of lamb played its part in fate. Babe, highly skilled in all things culinary, was preparing a lamb dinner for his second wife, Myrtle, when a frying pan containing scalding grease slipped, spilling its contents over Babe's arm. He suffered second and third-degree burns, as well as a twisted ankle when he ran out of the house, yelping in pain. He was forced to remove himself from the upcoming film, and Stan was coaxed into taking over his role. Had it not been for this, it is likely that Stan Laurel would have continued contentedly as a writer and director, and that Leo McCarey would not have noticed those "extra comic sparks" which resulted from the chance pairings of Stan and Babe in those early Roach comedies.
Stan and Babe appeared together in eleven films for Roach before their official teaming in 1927. When the proposition of the team was floated, Babe was much more eager to accept than was Stan. While Stan desired to continue his career behind the cameras, Hardy was ready to reap the rewards from many years of paying his dues. He had toiled as a character actor in over two hundred films, and leapt at the chance to become a leading player. It took but a few films to convince Stan that the chemistry was more than right, and that, between the two of them, they were on the verge of creating something truly special. Once the partnership had been officially established, Roach instructed both men to make every effort to get along personally, as he foresaw they would be working together professionally for the rest of their lives.
During the team's peak years of success in the 1930's, Babe enjoyed the rewards of years of hard work. While Stan toiled in the studio, Babe indulged in golf (always his main passion), horse racing, hunting, poker games and cooking. This is not to suggest that his life was all play and no work, or that he ever let his leisure time activities interfere with the business at hand. He was extrememly conscientious, always studied his scripts carefully each night, was always on time for a call (not that the Roach studio was ever that strict about that sort of thing), and knew exactly what he had to do when he stepped in front of the cameras. He may have itched to get the day's filming out of the way so he could hit the golf links, but his preparedness in his work insured that there was little wasted time on the set and that things were done effeciently.
Like Stan, Babe was beset by marital problems. He had been briefly married in the late teens, but it was his marriage to his second wife, Myrtle, that was especially trying for him. Myrtle had severe alcohol problems and was institutionalized several times. Despite Babe's many attempts at reconciliation, they divorced in 1937. Fortunately, and again like Stan, he found the woman who was to bring him lasting happiness when he married Lucille Jones in 1940. Although this marriage happened to coincide with the beginning of the team's downfall years, his years with Lucille were undoubtedly his happiest, personally.
Unlike Stan, Babe performed in a few films and stage plays on his own. In 1939, during contract disputes with Roach which threatened to separate the team permanently, Hardy appeared opposite Harry Langdon in the feature Zenobia, an unremarkable film in which he nevertheless gave a fine, understated performance. He appeared in a few summer stock productions throughout California in the late 40's and early 50's, and was tapped for a bit part in Frank Capra's Riding High in 1949 (starring Babe's good friend and golfing buddy Bing Crosby). But it was his performance supporting John Wayne in 1949's The Fighting Kentuckian that shows us what a fine character actor he was, and offers living proof that he could have had a successful career on his own (not that he would have ever wanted such a thing). It is his only performance in a sound film which is totally unlike his "Ollie" character, and he pulls it off splendidly. Gabby Hayes, Edgar Buchanan and Walter Brennan had nothing on Oliver Hardy, save for a longer list of credits at doing that type of thing!
As has been pointed out, Babe's health problems in the mid-50's brought an end to the team of Laurel and Hardy. His doctors urged him to reduce when he tipped the scales at over 350 pounds in 1954, and a mild heart attack suffered in the spring of that year made him take those demands seriously. By 1956, he lost so much weight that he is barely recognizable in publicity photos and home movie footage taken of him and Stan that year. Apparently, however, his body could not tolerate the abuse that comes from such rapid and drastic weight loss, and he suffered a stroke in September of that year from which he was not to recover. When he passed away on August 7, 1957, tributes poured in from all over the world, and the press eulogized him and made pithy attempts at recalling the magic that was Laurel and Hardy. He was remembered by all who knew him as a gentleman and a gentle man. But words which probably would have brought a smile to his cherubic face were found in the London Times: "He was tall as well as fat, and he had a handicap of ten."
Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy
by John McCabe (all quotes in this article were taken from this book)
Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt
Laurel and Hardy by Charles Barr
The Films of Laurel and Hardy by William K. Everson
Laurel and Hardy by John McCabe, Al Kilgore and Richard W. Bann
Copyright © John Larrabee, 2013. All Rights Reserved.