Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Stan's road to Ollie

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, almost certainly the best comedy team ever in movies, appear so right together that it is a little hard to imagine one on the screen without the other, or even one of them living off-screen without the other. Yet pairing the two of them actually took several years and a lot of movies, in some of which they both appeared, before it dawned on anybody that Stan and Ollie would make a great comedy team.

Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur explore this long road to cinema success in their new book Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927 (McFarland & Company). As a solo performer, Laurel was liked, but not loved, by audiences. As an inventor of gags he was among the best in Hollywood at that time, but his performances fell short of the mark set by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He was good, but not great.

Okuda and Neibaur dissect each film Laurel made, or at least each one that still exists. They explain what's good and what's not so good about each movie. They repeat some of their points endlessly, but saying something different about each of dozens of films must be as difficult as making each of those films original and funny. But just as Laurel did make some quality solo comedies, so Okuda and Neibaur do make some excellent points.

Among these is to explain the influence Mae Dahlberg had on his career. She is often credited with suggesting the young Vaudeville comedian change his name to Stan Laurel, and she changed her own name to Mae Laurel, even though she and Laurel were never married. After the name change, however, her influence on his career became mostly negative. Women, then as now, needed looks and/or talent to succeed in movies, and Mae Laurel had neither. What she did have was her connection with Stan, who managed to get her parts, sometimes major parts, in a number of his early films. Directors hated working with her, however, and she eventually even became a threat to his career until Laurel managed to separate himself from her.

Okuda and Neibaur also have much to say about James Finlayson, who was featured in many of Laurel's solo movies, as well as in a number of Laurel and Hardy films. There was even a brief attempt to form a Laurel and Finlayson comedy team, but that didn't work. Finlayson was always better as the comic villain.

Eventually Oliver Hardy began appearing in Stan Laurel movies, often playing the butler or the heavy or whatever. They made several films together before they were actually teamed together. The rest is movie history, but there are other books that tell that story.

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