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Stan Laurel, The Comedy Genius Behind Laurel and Hardy

Updated on October 16, 2014

"Ask Stan"

Stan Laurel's partner was Oliver Hardy, the easy-going, golf playing member of the duo. Whenever he was asked about the secret behind the success of Laurel and Hardy, he always gave the same reply, "Ask Stan."

The legend of Laurel and Hardy seems to grow every year. They are as popular, if not more popular now over sixty years after their last movie, than they ever were in their pomp, and they are still genuinely funny. Their movies still make us laugh out loud.

Both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were brilliant performers as solo actors and each had been successful in their early careers in silent movie comedies. Once they began acting as a partnership a spark was ignited and they became more than the sum of their parts, they forged an uncanny bond between themselves and with their audience and developed into the funniest double act the world has ever seen.

Normally behind such success stories lies a genius. The genius and driving force behind Laurel and Hardy was Stan Laurel. He was a man of many parts - a brilliant actor, an immensely skilful comic writer and a great movie director and editor. This is his story.

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Stan aged 5

Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson on 16th of June, 1890, in Ulverston, Cumbria in north-west England into a theatrical family.

Both his parents were well known touring stage actors and Stan and his sister and two brothers were educated in various schools around the north-east of England until his family moved to Glasgow when his father became the manager of the Metropole Theater.

Stan showed no inclination to extend his schooling and his ambition from an early age was to be a music hall comedian. He often missed school in order to visit the theaters of Glasgow to study the comedians and then practice at home. He gave his first performance at the Britannia Pantopticon theater when he was 16 and became a professional comedian soon after, spending several years touring the music halls of Britain.

The experience he gained was invaluable and in 1910 he achieved the rare honour of being invited to join theater impresario Fred Karno's famous traveling comedy troupe. As well as performing he acted as understudy to the star of the troupe, Charles Chaplin.

To America

He traveled with the troupe to America in 1910 in a well regarded production called 'A Night in an English Music Hall' and then returned to England. When the Fred Karno troupe returned to the United States in 1912 for a repeat tour, Stan came with them and this time he stayed. Chaplin left the company when he was offered a motion picture contract.with Mack Sennet and without its star turn the Karno troupe soon folded. Stan began touring the American vaudeville circuit much as he had done the English music halls a few years earlier.

For part of this period he formed one third of the 'Keystone Trio' and then the 'Stan Jefferson Trio' and in around 1917 when he became interested in the fast growing new medium of movies, he decided to change his name to get away from the unlucky thirteen letters of his birth name. His current girlfriend, Mae Dahlberg, supplied the name 'Laurel' , supposedly after seeing a bust of a Roman Emperor, complete with a laurel wreath, and for the rest of his career Stan was known as Stan Laurel.

Laurel and Hardy Movies

Some of the Many Collections of Laurel and Hardy Movies

Hollywood

Stan entered the movie business fairly inauspiciously, as an extra with a few walk-on, non-speaking roles and although his roles gradually improved he continued to work in vaudeville as well as movies until 1924. In 1921 he made 'The Lucky Dog' alongside another up and coming young comic actor called Oliver Hardy. An important friendship was forged although the two did not meet again for another two years.

The Young Hollywood Hopeful

In 1924 after performing in several well received short comedies Stan decided to leave vaudeville to concentrate solely on movies and he signed a contract with producer Joe Rock to make 12 comedy shorts. Many of them were parodies of major Hollywood films and included successes such as 'Mandarin Mix-Up' and 'West of Hot Dog' which showed Stan's comic talent and timing and brought him to the attention of Hollywood star producer, Hal Roach. At the end of his contract with Rock Stan was hired by Roach basically as a director and writer and as an actor only when needed on a part-time basis. He met Oliver Hardy again and directed him in 'Yes, Yes, Nanette' in 1925, and for 2 years he directed and wrote and occasionally appeared in a large number of movies. In all, prior to teaming up with Hardy, he appeared in over sixty movies.

By 1926 Stan found himself given more acting roles by Hal Roach and he became a cornerstone of the group known as The Hal Roach All-Stars, working with a number of other talented performers including Oliver Hardy. There was no plan initially to team them up but it gradually became obvious that whenever they appeared in a scene together, they were an ideal match, both brilliant actors, each one a foil for the other.

The Brilliant 'Babe' Hardy

Oliver Hardy
Oliver Hardy

Laurel and Hardy

The idea of making Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy a screen partnership was suggested by Leo McCarey who was the supervising director for Hal Roach between 1927 and 1930. The stock characters which were to become so familiar were devised jointly by McCarey and Stan and remained basically unchanged for the remainder of their careers.

After 'Putting Pants on Philip' in 1927 they were a true comedy team and as a team they began producing a large number of brilliant two reeler comic films such as 'You're Darn Tootin' ' and 'Two Tars' in 1928 and the classic 'Big Business' in 1929.

The arrival of sound films caused the boys no trouble at all as they continued to rely primarily on visual humor.Their first sound film was 'Unaccustomed As We Are' in 1929 after which all their movies were Talkies and used the new medium cleverly. The voices of Stan and Ollie fitted their screen personas perfectly and they were careful not to copy the slow, deliberately over-emphasised speech adopted by many other actors at this time, even spoofing it in some of their movies.

Golden Comedy

The partnership continued successfully through the 1930s with more classic shorts such as 'The Music Box' (above) which won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy in 1932 and which is one of the more instantly memorable of the Boys' films with them pushing a piano up a seemingly endless staircase. They took the natural step forward into feature length films in the early 1930s starting with 'Pardon us' in 1932, and produced more comedy classic features such as 'Babes in Toyland' in 1934, and 'Way Out West' in 1937.

The Skill of Stan Laurel

Stan really came into his own during these early Hal Roach years. He was an indefatigable worker and enjoyed staying on at the studio after filming had finished, unlike Ollie who would invariably head for the golf course. Roach had the good sense to give Stan his head and Stan was able to virtually direct all their movies, no matter who was the actual director. Stan would also be the head writer in charge of a team of highly creative gag writers, and would also get the other performers to improvise during filming. He would then happily spend hours reviewing footage, cutting and editing.

He also had control and final say in the lighting, sound, music, costumes, and makeup departments. A Laurel and Hardy film was very much a Laurel creation. For this reason Stan was always paid considerably more than Ollie - not because he was funnier or a better actor, but because he did far more work. The easy-going Ollie understood this completely and never objected to the arrangement.

More Reading Matter on Laurel and Hardy

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Comedy Less Golden

In 1940 the Boys severed their connection with Hal Roach. Stan in particular had had an uneasy time with Roach after serious disagreements over 'Babes in Toyland' and it seemed a logical step to move to one of the major studios. And so in 1940 Stan and Ollie signed up with Twentieth Century Fox to make six feature length films with a further two at MGM, but the move proved to be a big mistake.

Instead of a glorious enrichment of their artistic vision, the move trapped the pair in a low grade, 'B' movie status with no influence over the finished article. Stan, in particular, felt cheated and imprisoned by the move. After fulfilling their legal obligations by making eight generally disappointing movies between 1941 and 1945 the two men retired from moviemaking and began a new life touring Great Britain and mainland Europe. to great public acclaim.

Personal

Stan Laurel was married four times to three different women. He seemed to be attracted to just the sort of woman who would cause him distress. He lived with the actress Mae Dahlberg for about eight years from 1916 but did not marry as she already had a husband in Australia.

Her insistence on appearing in all his films during this time was a major drag on his early career and it was only with the help of producer and friend Joe Rock who basically bribed her to return to Australia, that Stan was able to extricate himself from the relationship in 1924. Almost immediately he met an married another actress, Lois Neilson with whom he had two children, a son who tragically died after 9 days and a daughter, Lois jun.

Stan, Lois and baby Lois

In 1934 Stan and Lois divorced and in the same year he married Virginia Ruth Rogers.

Stan and Ruth

The marriage lasted until New Years Eve 1937 and on New Years Day 1938 he married Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, a Russian singer and dancer. That marriage ended 2 years later and in 1941 Stan and Virginia remarried. After 5 years they divorced for the second time and Stan married in 1946 for the final time to Ida Kitaeva, a Russian opera singer. The marriage was a happy one and ended with Stan's death nineteen years later.

Stan and Ida, Happy at Last

Both Stan and Ollie had been heavy smokers all their lives and both suffered ill health in later life. Ollie suffered a debilitating stroke in 1956 which left him partially paralysed and unable to talk and he died in August, 1957. Stan was devastated by his death and never publicly performed again. He spent his remaining days quietly answering fan mail and writing for other performers.

He died eight years after Ollie, on February 23, 1965, in his apartment in Santa Monica, of a heart attack. He was 75.

Stan Laurel left a rich legacy of movies for us all to enjoy. He was one of the greatest comedy writers in history, and a movie-making genius..

Stan Laurel, Comedy Genius

To Laurel and Hardy. Thanks for the Laughter

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      Vantis 3 years ago

      They are my favorite comedians alongside the Marx brothers, they are just as good.

    • PhoenixV profile image

      PhoenixV 2 years ago from USA

      This is an excellent article on the history or Laurel and Hardy. A friend of mine just bought a DVD collection of their videos at the State Fair the other day. We both crack up and laugh so hard at this comedy duo. They are truly timeless.

    • datahut profile image

      Datahut 11 months ago from Kerala

      Good post!! I like it.

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      Comic Al 8 months ago

      I used to love watching Laurel and Hardy repeats when I was a kid on BBC2. To a child, the slapstick humour was hilarious, but the surrealness of some of the things Stan said was lost on me - it's only recently that I've been made aware of it, and I think it only added to the quality of their performances. "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led"... "what on earth are you talking about, a pencil must be led?"

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