On March 25 1929 two comedians arrived on set to begin work on their first sound picture. The atmosphere, usually so happy and carefree (the nickname for the Hal Roach studio was the 'Lot of Fun') was peculiarly tense. Strange signs had appeared on walls and on the door leading into the studio: Do Not Enter When Red Light is On. Four film cameras - all encased in huge soundproof boxes - stood on the sound stage, obscuring the set.
No one was more anxious than Stan Laurel. Concerned about his voice, Laurel's demeanour that day was more than usually agitated, as Randy Skretvedt related in his book Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies. 'Stan was worried sick before sound came in,' recalled Roach Studio construction chief Thomas Benton Roberts. 'He was afraid he wouldn't be able to talk. And every take we'd make, he wanted to hear a playback on it.'
He needn't have worried. As events are planned up and down the country to mark the 50th year since his death, and a major new BBC biopic goes into pre-production, the immortality of Laurel's films is assured. But what is the key to the longevity of this music-hall comedian born in the nineteenth century?
If Chaplin was the comedian of late Victorian England, Laurel & Hardy were the supreme comics of the Great Depression. Like Chaplin they are victims - they are arrested as vagrants, thrown into prison, reduced to begging from door to door, or busking. We know they are never going to make it in life - and deep down they know it too. Sometimes it's all too much for them, and they attempt suicide. But something always pulls them through. They struggle to make a go of it, in particular the Hardy character. They marry, they join the Freemasons, set up their own businesses. They're desperate to join in the normal social world. There is almost a chronological path one can trace in their movies - in the early shorts they are young and thrusting go-getters: they woo girls in soda cafés, try to sell Christmas trees to the citizens of Los Angles in midsummer. But they are dogged by failure. As the years pass, the doom that constantly hovers over their endeavours crashes down with tragic regularity. We find them living in dingy rented rooms owned by psychotic landlords. They busk in the frozen streets for pennies.
If the entire canon of Laurel & Hardy films were a novel then it would constitute a Russian epic of the lower orders, akin to the work of Gogol or Dostoyevsky. Despite their jobs (when they have them) being traditionally working-class and manual, they continually aspire - or more accurately the Hardy character does - to become middle class. But despite Ollie's constant optimism, they keep descending into a twilight, violent world of hardship - back-street bars, dosshouses, rough hotel kitchens where they are forced to do the washing up, prisons.
The Stan character is so far removed from normality that we know he will never make it on his own. He faithfully follows in Ollie's optimistic wake, clinging to his coat-tails both literally and metaphorically. It is for this reason that Ollie, ultimately, is the more tragic of the two: for it is Ollie who persists in retaining one foot in the normal social world. He is surely the most generous character in the history of comedy, for he alone has taken Stan under his wing and is carrying him for what he knows in his heart will be his whole life. In the opening scene of one of their finest features, Sons of the Desert, they sit listening to a speech by the Grand Master of their Masonic Lodge, and when he reaches the dictum 'The strong shall look after the weak,' Ollie casts a stoic look at Stan that sums up their entire relationship. Ollie is the Jesus Christ of slapstick.
Stan has no such self-knowledge - he is beyond redemption: he doesn't even know that he's failed, for he has nothing but minimal awareness of the concepts of success or failure. He is the Holy Fool who wanders with his human companion through thick and thin, occasionally creating what Laurel later described as 'white magic' - fire with his hands, the manipulation of shadows. When, in Their Purple Moment, Ollie declares that 'We are completely broke,' Stan replies 'Yeah. It sure is going to be a hard winter.' The reply comes without despair, without anxiety, for he seems to dwell in a virtual spiritual realm beyond physical survival - a Buddhist nirvana divested of all attachments.
Laurel's ability to perform 'white magic' - produce fire from his thumb, manipulate shadows at will, eat bowler hats - stems from the performer's theory of comedy that roots it in youthful imagination: 'Slapstick closely approximates the daydreams of childhood,' Laurel told a reporter for the East Anglian Times in 1932. Picasso asserted that it had 'taken him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child,' and it took twenty years in the film industry before Stan Jefferson discovered the Talmudic Holy Innocent within him.
The key to Laurel's success, then, was his embrace of the truth of failure. And the world - fraught with the tedious pretension of success and the struggle for accomplishment - loved him for it, still loves him for it. By the time the boys were famous and were fleeing adulatory mobs in London in 1932 Stan gave an interview to the East Anglian Times, which neatly summarised his philosophy of the comic:
'The slapstick of today is more refined than the slapstick of twenty years ago. Its wit is sharper and its capers are more extravagant. Slapstick more closely approximates to the daydreams of childhood than any other form of screen entertainment. The antics of the funny men in the custard-pie comedies are an exaggeration of those which keep children in the heights of laughter. You may not see the similarity at first, but on thinking it over the resemblance is very definitely there. The comedian who knocks down the policeman is the small child rebelling against authority. The custard pie is the symbol of revolt - revolt against an ignorant world of grown-ups which cannot appreciate that the dirty puddle at the end of the garden path is really the most romantic of lakes, on which there are boats to be sailed, bridges to be built.'
Stan Laurel, June 16th 1890 - Feb 23rd 1965
Julian Dutton is the co-creator and co-writer of Matt Lucas' forthcoming BBC2 series 'Pompidou,' starting on Sunday March 1st at 6.30pm.
The above article is an extract from Julian Dutton's forthcoming book 'Keeping Quiet - Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound,' ('A brilliant history of modern slapstick' - Harry Hill) published by Chaplin Books on April 23rd.
The illustration is a screenshot taken by the author for the purpose of analysis.
The photo of Laurel is in the public domain.