Today, on Father’s Day, the RedState Department of History celebrates the birth of one of filmdom’s great early stars.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born on this date in 1890, in Ulverston, England. While still a young boy, his family moved to Glasgow, where the youngster began to tread the stage, making his first appearance at age sixteen.
At that time, he acted as understudy to another fine young talent named Charlie Chaplin, and it wasn’t long before both men found their way to the United States to break into the new medium of motion picture entertainment.
His first appearance on screen came in 1917, in a film called “Nuts in May”. He played a mental patient who thought he was Napoleon. The film did well enough for Jefferson to earn parts in nine more movies the following year. By that time, though, he had changed his stage name to the one many of us know today — Stan Laurel.
After 13 film parts, the 31-year old Laurel then appeared in a 1921 movie with a 29-year old actor named Norvell “Babe” Hardy, called “The Lucky Dog“. The two shared scenes in the film but didn’t act as a team. Five years later they both appeared in a film called “45 Minutes from Hollywood,” though again, not together.
In 1927, the duo of was finally combined — though still not called Laurel and Hardy — in a picture called “Duck Soup“. No, this wasn’t the Rufus T. Firefly movie of the same name made famous by the Marx Brothers six years later — this was based on a sketch written by Laurel’s father.
It was the first of 107 films in which the pair would appear together. Three years later, “Duck Soup” was remade into a new film called “Another Fine Mess“, which was soon to become a trademark line in the duo’s features.
The 1930s saw the peak of the pairing’s popularity. It took until 1931 for Hal Roach Studios to start billing the team as “Laurel and Hardy” in the movie “Pardon Us.”
In 1932 the studio released “The Music Box,” featuring the duo as a pair of movers. The famous “piano-moving scene” from that picture helped win them an Academy Award for best live action short film.
That sent Laurel and Hardy on their way. Before long, they were a part of Americana, placed in all manner of situations which soon became classics.
Their 1937 picture “Way Out West”, produced by Laurel, is my personal favorite, if you’ll allow me a bit of opinion, containing two of my very favorite scenes, both involving music.
The first is the quietly famous dance scene accompanied by The Avalon Boys as the pair hoofs a softshoe to “At the Ball, That’s All,” followed shortly afterward by “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” in which Laurel lip-synchs verses by Chill Wills and Rosina Lawrence.
By the mid-1940s, though, the duo was a spent force, even though they made movies together until 1951. Their final film together was called Atoll K , and was not a pleasant experience.
Laurel’s widow Ida, the last of his five spouses, noted that the film took twelve months to shoot and both men were taken ill during the production. Laurel’s weight dropped to 114 pounds and he was hospitalized for colitis, dysentery and a prostate ulcer. Hardy, meanwhile, ballooned to 330 pounds and was hospitalized for cardiac fibrillation and the flu. Laurel could only work for 20 minutes at a time by the end of production and both men appeared as ill as they were on screen.
Fittingly, though, Atoll K ends with Hardy’s last words to Laurel on screen: “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”
Recovering their strength, the duo went to Britain for a series of stage reviews, where they were wildly popular with post-war audiences who hadn’t seen their earlier work. Both men, though, suffered strokes in the mid 1950s with Hardy passing away in 1957.
Laurel refused to work onscreen without his longtime friend, and went into retirement. Despite his stroke, Laurel continued to smoke until about 1960 when he finally quit, but within five years passed away from cancer.
Until the end, though, Laurel maintained a listed number in the Los Angeles telephone directory — and fans could, and did, simply call him up. One of those fans was a young actor named Dick Van Dyke, who read “The Clown’s Prayer” at Laurel’s funeral:
As I stumble through this life,
help me to create more laughter than tears,
dispense more happiness than gloom,
spread more cheer than despair.
Never let me become so indifferent,
that I will fail to see the wonders in the eyes of a child,
or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged.
Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people,
make them happy, and forget momentarily,
all the unpleasantness in their lives.
And in my final moment,
may I hear You whisper:
“When you made My people smile,
you made Me smile.”
Laurel, though, never took himself too seriously. He quipped shortly before his death in 1965 that “if anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again.”
Enjoy today’s open thread!