Friday 31 July 2015

Stan Laurel the quiet comedy pioneer

Way out in front

One of the best moments in journalism, is when you discover someone you admire is even more wonderful than you thought

On February 23, 1965, Stan Laurel told his last joke, telling his nurse that he would rather be skiing. "Are you a skier, Mr Laurel?" He replied, "I'm not, but I'd rather be doing that than having these needles stuck in me." Moments later he passed away from a heart attack aged 74, eight years after Oliver Hardy died.

He’s earlier warned friends, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I'll never speak to him again.”

Part of the most lauded comedy act, a global star, Laurel made 80 solo films, but is known and loved for his work with Oliver Hardy, a partnership that made 35 silent and 72 sound films. But what do people know about him today?

Philip Hutchinson is not just a passionate fan and student of their lives and work; he’s also played Hardy onstage, shows that have won appreciation from fans and old friends of the duo.

“The most important thing about Stan,” Hutchinson says, “is that he was a gentleman.” While others at the time had reputations for arrogance, even cruelty, Laurel was concerned about treating people well, especially the fans.
“Stan knew that they wouldn’t be anywhere without their fans, so they always made time for them, inviting them to tea, always making time to chat.” This kindly nature lasted even through retirement. He was listed in the public phone book and fans could call and make an appointment to visit or even just chat. One of those who called was Dick Van Dyke, who became a close friend.

Hutchinson says that Laurel was the creative genius in the partnership. Hardy had talent enough for both, “But Stan wrote and directed everything.” He adds, “Some scripts would just be a single piece of paper with the title and the pair would improvise and practise until they had their finished product. And they would often shoot in one take.” Laurel didn’t stop there. He’s attend screenings with a stopwatch, occasionally taking off a second, adding half a second to get the timing just how he wanted it.

He also was an innovator. They were the first in comedy to ‘break the fourth wall’ introducing the turn and stare into the camera to express bemusement, shock or resignation to whatever indignation was occurring in front of them. It’s so common that it has been forgotten who devised the look.

After sound began to be part of film making, Laurel also devised the trick of comedians reacting to off screen events, such as an accident happening just out of sight, but being heard.

As a gentleman, it was natural that Laurel was humorous, a prankster but never crude. There are no double entendres, nor any of the course humour of their music hall origins. Laurel had modesty when asked about his art, “A friend once asked me what comedy was. That floored me. What is comedy? I don't know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that's all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at; then proceed accordingly.”

On another occasion he said, “Humour is the truth; wit is an exaggeration of the truth.”

So if we’ve only vague memories or kids who don’t know Laurel and Hardy, why should we still watch them? “It doesn’t matter than many of their films are old, black and white or silent, they are timeless,” says Hutchinson, “and they’re funnier than you think.”

To learn more about Philip Hutchinson's tribute to the comedians: Lucky Dog Theatre Productions

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