A fan’s gleeful, if excessive, double-take on the beloved bumblers of silent and talking picture fame, seeing their prodigious pile of slapstick misadventures as high art.
Novelist and London International Film School teacher Louvish continues his biographical exploration of the kings of American film comedy (Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields, 1997, etc.) with a sprightly, sympathetic dual biography of the rotund, fastidious Georgia-born Oliver Norvell Hardy and his thin, feckless British sidekick, Arthur Stanley Jefferson, who legally adopted his vaudeville stage name of Stanley Laurel in 1931 after the duo’s two-reelers made for Hal Roach’s Culver City studio gathered world-wide fame. Louvish sees the pair’s comedy as bright flotsam in a historical gush starting with ancient Greece and coming up to Chaplin mentor Fred Karno (Laurel understudied for Chaplin) and to Laurel’s father, English theater owner and sketch writer Arthur Jefferson. Eager fan clubs that have named themselves after the duo’s spoof of the Sons of Desert masonic, have generated a stack of scholarly volumes that Louvish eagerly credits while offering some deathless revelations: Hardy offended his mother by marrying a Jew; Laurel’s comic inventiveness was rooted in older music-hall and vaudeville routines; the off-screen Hardy wasn’t quite the passive foil of Laurel’s fussy genius; and the outsize harridans wielding rolling-pins in the films were based on the pair’s exploitative studio bosses and on a string of mostly unhappy marriages (Hardy had three wives, Laurel five). Louvish lets his spotlight wander, as he did with Margaret Dumont in his Marx Brothers biography, Monkey Business (2000), by detailing the mostly unfulfilled lives of supporting actors, such as the bald and manically antagonistic Jimmy Finlayson.
If you skip the preaching to the choir and the film-school analysis, Louvish’s wide-eyed love for his subjects’ simple, forthright, and hardworking desire to please will bring down the house. (Filmography and 52 b&w photos)