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The Moderate Voice occasionally runs Guest Voice columns and Guest Voice reviews. Here’s a review by one of our best-received guest posters, Dan Schneider about a book about one of the greatest comedy teams in movie history.

Stan And Ollie, The Roots Of Comedy, The Double Life Of Laurel And Hardy
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Schneider

The one thing I’ve always wanted to know about the comedy team of Laurel And Hardy was, who was the straight man? If one thinks of all the other great comedy teams of the Twentieth Century, the answer is obvious. Moe Howard was the straight man for Curly Howard and Larry Fine in The Three Stooges, Zeppo Marx was the straight man for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico in The Marx Brothers, and Bud Abbott was the straight man for Lou Costello in Abbott And Costello (for my money the best comedy team of all time, because while their slapstick was the equal of any other team, their verbal repartee was nonpareil).

Even in television, the roles are always clearly defined. Tony Randall was the straight man for Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple, and Desi Arnaz was Lucille Ball’s straight man in I Love Lucy. Perhaps the only other comedy team where the straight man role was not clearly defined was The Honeymooners’ pairing of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.

My query is a relevant one, because after reading Simon Louvish’s nearly five hundred page biography of Laurel and Hardy, it’s about the only question of mine, about the duo, that is still unanswered. Anything else- such as where Laurel had an erotic birthmark, is answered. Ok, not that; I’m kidding, but just about anything beside that is answered. The book, Stan And Ollie, The Roots Of Comedy, The Double Life Of Laurel And Hardy, printed by Thomas Dunne Books, was published in 2001, and relegated to almost immediate obscurity by a spate of mediocre to bad reviews, by both professional critics and Amazon.com wannabes. The basic charge against the book is that it is poorly written.

The reason claimed is usually that Louvish’s writing is turgid, or turbid. The reviewers cannot make up their minds, which tells me that they really do not even know what the terms mean, save that they sound hoidy toidy enough for a ‘literary review.’ The reviewers usually point to phrases or sentences like, ‘To Stan, of course, art was not the issue so much as work and the remuneration thereof,’ or, ‘This fact alone should provide a vital clue for the constant conundrum- the disentangling of the claims of authorship to Laurel and Hardy, the characters, the lines, the movies, the plots.’ These are perfectly fine and grammatically parsable sentences, and reflect only the reviewers’ level of reading: i.e- sub-third grade. What separates Louvish’s book from many other accounts of the duo, however, as well as other celebrity biographies, is not his sterling prose, but the technique the book uses, of painting portraits and scenes of the two individual men, and slowly tying them together. It is a technique I have only seen used in the novelistic nonfiction works of the great historian Daniel J. Boorstin.

The book is uniformly fine in its research into the duo’s pasts, before their teaming up, and Louvish never goes too deeply into the sordid and irrelevant messes of the two men’s personal lives, be it their marriages- Hardy married a Jewish woman in 1913- the year of the infamous Leo Frank lynching in Georgia, and Laurel was a serial husband, nor their finances nor political positions. The book sticks to their art and craft, as it should- and it debunks many myths of the two men’s work. There is an almost perfect dose of flippancy for the pair, as Louvish does realize that, as great as they were, they were not serious filmmakers of depth, in the Stanley Kubrick of Ingmar Bergman vein. Nor does he shy away from defining the duo’s filmic successes and clunkers.

Although I would agree with his positive conclusions regarding classic films like Sons Of The Desert or The Music Box, and his linking the duo with Samuel Beckett’s later protagonists in Waiting For Godot, Louvish does sometimes reveal an odd bias and distaste for some films without any reasonable justification. As example, the duo’s 1940s B film work is tossed aside as virtually worthless, and Louvish totally dismisses the team’s greatest film, Babes In Toyland, seemingly because he sees racism in the portrayal of the monstrous Bogeymen, although his linkage to black stereotypes seems to be based upon the monsters’ wearing grass skirts. This alone bizarrely seems to signify African stereotype to him.

The book does such a good job of painting the men’s portraits that the very oddity of the famous comedians as real people soon dissipates. After all, few people- outside of fans, would guess that Laurel, born Stanley Jefferson, was an Englishman who toured with Charlie Chaplin in Fred Karno’s music hall revues (the British equivalent of Vaudeville), and that his father was a famed theater manager and lowbrow playwright. Louvish does a good job of contrasting Laurel’s selfless written accounts of his days abroad with Karno with Chaplin’s self-aggrandizing accounts. Nor would they know that Hardy was a Southerner, from Georgia, whose father (whom he never knew, due to early death), was a Civil War hero in his local town, wounded in the Battle Of Antietam. Louvish also notes that, like Judy Garland, the duo have been hailed, since their deaths (Hardy in 1957, Laurel in 1965) as gay heroes for what is seen as thinly veiled homosexual references throughout their work.

Louvish details the two men’s friendship, even as Hardy was almost always making far less than Laurel, due in part to their signing separate contracts. The pair made about 440 films between them (together and separately), with Hardy making far more films alone than Laurel; yet most have not survived. He also debunks some myths about the men, most notably Hardy’s claims about his past, such as the fact that he never starred in a traveling minstrel show across Dixie. Yet, along with who was the straight man, Louvish, like many other biographers, cannot pin down when and why Stanley Jefferson ever became Stan Laurel, and resorts to merely reiterating disproven prior claims.

Louvish does, importantly distinguish between several of the ‘firsts’ in the duo’s history, aside from the manifest first pairing of the team, as a team, in the 1926 Hal Roach silent film, 45 Minutes From Hollywood. However, the first officially billed film, with ‘Laurel And Hardy’ as a team was 1927’s The Second Hundred Years.

To show how well researched the book is, though, Louvish goes even further, and nails the first film that both men ever appeared in, although not as a team, was 1921’s The Lucky Dog. Louvish also pins the fortuitous comic pairing on director Leo McCarey, not Roach, as widely believed. He also is wise to discern that Oliver Hardy’s filmic persona in the duo took longer to develop than Stan Laurel’s. While Laurel went through phases as a Chaplin imitator- ala Billy West, and a pale echo of Harold Lloyd’s go-getter persona, once he was paired with Hardy, his sob-happy schlemiel was pretty well set. Hardy, on the other hand, went from being the bullying villain to West, ala Chaplin’s early tormentor Eric Campbell, through a series of bumbling fat men personae that never quite meshed. Even after pairing with Laurel, it took a dozen or more films for the iconic ‘This is another fine mess’ slow boil Hardy to appear.

Yet, the minuses in this book are far outweighed by the major pluses, and Stan And Ollie, The Roots Of Comedy, The Double Life Of Laurel And Hardy is- if not the definitive work on the pair, certainly the best yet. And, as for who was the straight man, my money says it was Laurel, since Hardy seemed to suffer far more physical abuse, even though the laugh quotient was split equally. If you disagree, read the book, and you just may be right. Sort of like Laurel, or Hardy, always were about each other.

JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief
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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Marlowecan

    This was a fascinating review, as I had never considered the variation in the “straight man/funny man” in double acts presented by Laurel and Hardy…likewise by Gleason and Carney.

    Is the comic tension between these two figures always marked by power, with the funny man knocked about invariably by the straight man?

    Yet, it is often the funny man that people identify with? In other circumstances, one would expect people to want to identify with the empowered one rather than the powerless, woudn’t one?

    I think, for example, of Seinfeld where the tendency seems to be for people to want to identify with the successful stud Jerry than with the schlep George. Or is this an example of how comedy standards have changed over time, and people no longer want to identify with the put-upon funny man?

    I suppose the issues raised here have been discussed at length in books on comedy. I had just never considered them before.

    A thought provoking review.

  • I don’t know about the straight man issue being delved into. Even though Seinfeld claims an allegiance and influence by A&C, that show more resembled the Three Stooges. Jerry was definitely the straight man to George & Kramer. But, Elaine was somewhere in between. I saw so much ripoff of A&C, though, that I could not honestly rank them up with those mentioned in my review.
    Americans root for the underdog, thus Costello was more beloved than Abbott, but the fact that L&H were both beloved indicates I’m not alone in not being sure who was straight & funny.

  • “Tony Randall was the straight man for Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple”

    What? Dan seems to be under a gross misunderstanding of the term ‘straight man’! According to wiki, “the straight man is portrayed as reasonable and serious, and the other one, the funny man or stooge, is portrayed as funny, unintelligent, or simply unorthodox”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_foil

    So, Krugman obviously is the straight man, exhibiting a normal, maybe somewhat exaggerated male behaviour, while Randall with his extreme cleanliness and imaginary illnesses is the odd part. Regarding Stand and Ollie, Stan is the odd guy who regularly has strange ideas or does outrageous things. Ollie’s role is to react on Stan’s actions like any reasonable, albeit short fused guy would do. I really can’t see how someone can see this the other way round.

  • Marlowecan

    Gray said: “So, Krugman obviously is the straight man, exhibiting a normal, maybe somewhat exaggerated male behaviour, while Randall with his extreme cleanliness and imaginary illnesses is the odd part.”

    Nice point.
    Yah, Krugman would definitely fit the normal guy more than Randall, who played the obsessively neat, vaguely gay character. Hmmm, sort of like the Seinfeld character like that.

    “I really can’t see how someone can see this the other way round.”

    So, Gray, does this mean you’re the funny man?

    Cosmoetica…I can see why you reference the Stooges – “Moe” being your middle name after all. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk…

    Speaking of the Stooges…
    I have often wondered why Stooge humor is so gendered? I have never known a woman to respond to the Three Stooges with other than a blank stare.

  • Speaking of Judy Garland, there is an exciting and popular new group on Yahoo called THE JUDY GARLAND EXPERIENCE. The group features hours of ultra rare and unreleased downloadable audio files by Judy, great photo’s, lively discussion, and more! The membership is the most ecletic gathering of Garland fans anywhere and includes Judy’s family members, friends, people who worked with her and saw her perform, directors and producers of Garland related projects, authors of Judy biographies, historians, and more! The only thing missing is you. Please stop by our little Judyville, and check it out, you may never want to leave!
    http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/g…landexperience/

  • Gray, first- to quote Wikipedia is not a good thing, for it’s a VERy bad source of info, as many colleges and high schools are now banning it as a primary research tool. Second, you selctively quote even from Wiki, leaving out the word often. Felix, or Randall, is obviously the cultured, opera loving, generally humorless, all around go getter, while it is Klugman- l not r- who is the comic foil. Go back to the stage and film versions, and Oscar is clearly the laugh-getter. It is he, who sleeps in a toxic waste zone, constantly spills things on himself- vintage slapstick, and most of whose antics are the source of that great and underrated show’s humor.
    That said, there are degrees. While Abbott was straightman perhaps 95% or more of the time, Randall may have been only 75% of the time, etc. There are no hard and fast rules, but every TOC fan I’ve met has told me that it is Oscar-Klugman, who makes them laugh the most.
    The Wiki article is strange, as it lists Newhart & Pleshette, w Pleshette as the comic foil. Hello? Pleshette was the ‘straight man’ there, but that was an ensemble comedy, and the pair were not really in a league with even second tier teams like Hope-Crosby or Martin & Lewis.
    As for gendered Stooge humor: testosterone!
    Go Judy, go!

  • “to quote Wikipedia is not a good thing, for it’s a VERy bad source of info, as many colleges and high schools are now banning it as a primary research tool.”

    Were not doing research here, Cosmo, and wiki is great for checking what the general consensus on a certain topic is (of course, you have to check the ‘history’ page for recent signs of vandalism).

    “Second, you selctively quote even from Wiki, leaving out the word often.”
    ‘Often one of them’ relates to the topic of the article, comedy duos. Omitting it doesn’t change anything of the meaning of the describtion of ‘straight man’ and ‘odd man’.

    “Go back to the stage and film versions, and Oscar is clearly the laugh-getter.”

    Sure, but firstly, this isn’t about laugh-getters, but about who’s the staight man, and second, Klugman and Randall starred in the TV series, not in the movie (Mathau and Lemon, right?) or in the stage version.

    “every TOC fan I’ve met has told me that it is Oscar-Klugman, who makes them laugh the most. ”

    Agreed. And why? Because Oscar’s reaction on the weird ideas of Felix are the really funny part.

  • Gray,
    First, Wiki routinely removes info w/p traceability, second, ven the article quoted claims Suzanne Pleshette as a member of a comedy team. She was not. It’s a stretch to evem consider Peter Bonerz or Bill Daily as a team w Newhart in that show, so even in what you quote, the cred is lacking.

    If you cannot even distinguish that the omission refers to one of the partners in the duo, and how it relates to the claim stated after, deciphering a straight and funny man is the leaast of your worries.

    Oscar draws laughs because of his sloppiness, his interactions w other characters- Murray, Howard Cosell, etc. Look at the ep. w the football star Deacon Jones. Oscar is clearly the driving force for the show, and the laughs Felix gets are in reactions to Oscar- the most famous catch line in the series, in fact, is Felix’s ‘ Oh, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!’ By every criteria, Klugman/Oscar is the funny man, even yours.

  • Cosmo, the problems seems to be that you think the ‘funny’ or the ‘odd’ man is the one tht daws the most laughter from the audience. Imho, and the wiki quote supports this, this isn’t necessarily the case. The general idea behind ‘straight man vs. odd guy’ really is that there’s one guy who is more like the average Joe and one who’s the weirdo. This doesn’t say anything about who the public is laughing about.

  • Gray: ‘there’s one guy who is more like the average Joe and one who’s the weirdo’

    Using that rationale, there are clearly more Felixes than Oscars.

    Gray: you admit that Klugman gets the laughs. That’s two strikes.

    Also, Oscar/Klugman, clearly gets into more slapsticky situations than Felix. That’s three for three.

    The comedy mostly stems from Felix’s exasperations over Oscar’s uncouthness, sloppiness, lack of manners, bad taste, etc. that is classic straight man stuff; despite what that manifestly flawed entry says.

    And, as a final comparison, if one were to compare the personalities of Felix and Oscar, Felix clearly lines up with the Abbotts, Crosbys, and Martins, as the suaver, more sophisticated partner, whereas Oscar clearly is the outre partner, like Costello, Hope, Lewis, etc.

    It simply is not even arguable as to which role is ioccupied by which character. Of course, in a given scene, Felix could be the cause of the laughter, as could Crosby or Abbott, but by and large, Oscar, and all funny men, are the laugh getters.

    This is what makes L&H so uniqye, and prompted my opening q- cuz th elaughs are more evenly split with them than any other team, sabe Gleason-Carney; who incidentally portrayed Felix Unger onstage originally!

  • “Using that rationale, there are clearly more Felixes than Oscars.”

    ??? This begs the question: Where did you grow up, Cosmo, in a gay community?
    😀

  • Now seriously: Felix has a pathological drive towards cleanliness, he has many cultural interests and is very sensitive towards his bidily functions, always afraid of being ill. That’s not like any straight male guy I know. But some gays are that way (sry, peeps, I would always defend you against discrimination, but some of your group are acting a lil bit, uh, feminine). Now, ‘straight guy’ doesn’t necessarily mean heterosexual, but it sure means mainstream. And a guy who loves sports, an evening with his poker buddies and doesn’t care much about keeping his quarters tidy is more mainstream than that hipochonder Felix.

  • Now seriously: Felix has a pathological drive towards cleanliness, he has many cultural interests and is very sensitive towards his bidily functions, always afraid of being ill. That’s not like any straight male guy I know. But some gays are that way (sry, peeps, I would always defend you against discrimination, but some of your group are acting a lil bit, uh, feminine). Now, ‘straight guy’ doesn’t necessarily mean heterosexual, but it sure means mainstream. And a guy who loves sports, an evening with his poker buddies and doesn’t care much about keeping his quarters tidy is more mainstream than that hypochondriac Felix.

  • Hmm, Cosmo, I guess we won’t reach a conclusion here, but our different viewpoints sure say a lot about what we are like and who we see as a peer…

  • Gray: I gre up in America- aka Anal Retentive Nation. If Felix is not a precursor to ADD and assorted other newe maladies, no one is.

    Felix is not the straight man because he’s faux gay. And Oscar’s sloppiness is far more pathological, and pathogenetic, than anything wrong w Felix. And because most guys wd sooner hang w Oscar than Felix is irrelevant to their status as a comedy team.

    Your final conclusion is not based in fact. I am far more like Oscar than Felix, but my affinity, or yours, has zero to do with what a straight man is.

  • Lamont Palmer

    Cosmo’s question of who is the straight man and who is the comic in L&H is a valid on, but oddly I’ve never felt confused by that. I’d say that Hardy is, essentially, the straightman, for despite his comic bluster and arrogance and pratfalls, Ollie has the most serious intentions and fits more comfortably and believably in society than Stan does. Ollie regularly does his best to conform and clearly feels a certain responsibility for Stan, nearly a paternalistic type of caring for him, it seems – an adult element in him. If L&H, (the characters in the films) had ever gone their separate ways, Ollie would’ve fared far better making his way through life than the bumbling, child-like Stan, who in the films is largely the cause of their comic troubles. I see all of this as making Hardy the straightman, albeit, a funny straightman, like Gleason was to Carney.

  • Lamont Palmer

    I thought I’d follow-up with, yes, I see Gleason as, largely, (no pun intended) the straightman to Carney on the old ‘Honeymooners’ show. Why? Though Gleason (or I should say Ralph) is funny, his humor is darker and of the existential sort, whereas Norton is funny but in a far sillier, clownish way. Ralph is the more serious of the two, the more controlling, and in my opinion, that makes him the straightman, or perhaps, the ‘straighterman’.