Bright Lights Film Journal

Eternal Child: The Many Meanings of a Mask (on Stan Laurel)

Laurel’s mask – the goofy, sweet-natured grown-up child – had its roots in the classic commedia dell’arte.

The reasons why Stan Laurel is always entered in film annals as an indivisible unit with Oliver Hardy seem mysterious and inscrutable. Whatever biographical or filmic resource you consult – Katz’s International Film Encyclopedia or Di Giammatteo’s Dizionario universale – you discover that there is no entry for “Hardy” under the letter “H.” You are referred to the “Laurel” entry, almost as if “Laurel” and “Hardy” were synonymous or as if the two characters were monozygote twins.

Certainly, Arthur Stanley Jefferson, born under the sign of the twins, and Oliver Norvell Hardy were one of the extraordinary examples of symbiosis and perfect assimilation of two bodies of quite different specific weight into a single atomic nucleus of the highest powers. But this is no reason to confuse their respective identities nor to hinder recognizing Laurel as the leader in the pair’s artistic and professional adventures.

During his life, Laurel never had a critic who was able to reach past his vacant look, beyond his amnesiac and catatonic to the blazing light of his intelligence and creative genius.

With time, honors and critical celebrations came, but they were almost all posthumous. True recognition of the partners’ respective merits, Laurel’s cultural ennoblement, and a serious search for an adequate genealogical tree where Laurel could take his definitive place in the register of the 20th century’s great clowns began with the publication of the 1967 British monograph by Charles Barr.

Barr opened the road to a psychoanalytic and psychological interpretation of Laurel’s work. Using Freud, Jung, and Piaget, he analyzed and distinguished Stan and Ollie’s gestures, their broken, defective projects, the tics, the aggressiveness, the compulsions. He rejected the idea that you could infer homosexual ties from their refusal to grow up and from their “perverse polymorphic” childish friendship, as Freud would have described it. He showed how Stan was a standard example of the inability to deal with the principle of reality and of an arrested mental and emotional development. Even so, Barr tied Stan to wide-ranging cultural landmarks, citing Plautus, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Griffith, and compared his innocence to that of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s classic.

Taking this course would not have been difficult for other interpreters – appealing to Hillman, Bateson, Louise von Franze, and Bettelheim – going so far as to gather analogies with the Hansel and Gretel fable, or recognizing in Stan obvious syndromes of autism, or calling attention to his primitive mind, which rendered him incapable of carrying any logical or manual operation to its conclusion, and citing the magical powers that enabled him to light things with his finger instead of resorting to a match, or inhaling tobacco smoke he’d compressed in his hand, and eating a hat as if it were fruit.

But today, if you had to choose a single book as the main resource on Stan Laurel’s personality, you would no doubt pick Martin Green and John Swan’s essay The Triumph of Pierrot (Macmillan, 1986). In this book, the authors maintain that commedia dell’arte hasn’t disappeared, but has gone through uninterrupted processes of metamorphoses and reincarnations. Arlecchino and Puclcinella, Pierrot and Captain Fracassa, Pantalone and Colombina live on and enrich the entire artistic landscape of the last two centuries. This includes 19th-century interpretations by the actor Gaspard Deburau and the pages on Pierrot by Flaubert and Gaulthier, paintings by Picasso and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Eliot’s poetry and Stravinsky and Schoenberg’s music, Hofmannstal and Kafka, Ferruccio Busoni and David Hockney. All of them filter the exploding atmosphere of modernity through the masks of commedia dell’arte, furbishing a myriad of phenomena in our artistic and cultural habitat. Some masks vivify troubling demons in charge of our anxieties, and others represent angelic creatures who announce fresh new epochs.

Above all, the artistic manifestations of commedia dell’arte were most evident on the silver screen where, between the 1920s and 1930s, comedians again found a privileged, celebrated place. There an army of Pierrots resuscitated their triumphs.

Stan Laurel, according to Green and Swan, dons more than one mask. Sometimes we recognize him, together with Hardy, in the guise of the Zanni – a kind of simple and clumsy servant of Bergamesque origins in commedia dell’arte. At other times we rediscover in his face Pierrot’s state of pure innocence. But, mostly, he floats in an intermediate space.

Laurel took his first stage steps along with Charlie Chaplin in Fred Karno’s Fun Factory, and in 1910 both donned the clothes of “Jimmy, the Intrepid,” a poor boy who confronts every kind of danger in his dreams and emerges triumphant. Laurel was very proud of having played the part first and of having, for once in his life, created a model for Chaplin. [Note: See “Stealing the Clown’s Clothes” elsewhere in Bright Lights.] He remarked, “I think the memory of that role and that show may have followed Chaplin his whole life. You could recognize the traces of Jimmy in all his films, in the sequence of dreams, for example. Seriously, I would say that Jimmy, the poor, courageous dreamer, grew up and Jimmy became the tramp.”

Unlike Chaplin, Laurel didn’t ever try to grow up. His energy went wholly into the construction of an autistic child personality for whom time stopped and who paid no mind to social rules. Even from a career standpoint, he was in no rush and didn’t want to emulate anyone. For a decade he swung back and forth between vaudeville and Hal Roach’s films, which, however, enabled him to fully master his craft and develop his capacities.

“You have to learn what the public laughs at and get in tune with it,” he said in an interview. “A young comic has to know the repertory very well, change parts, assume several roles. You can get a lot of ideas studying the reactions of different audiences. Some people will laugh at a scene and others won’t. When you understand why, you’ve earned your diploma.”

His immediate rapport with Oliver – both were no longer young, Stan being 37 and Oliver 35 – freed up the energy he’d repressed in 15 apprentice years with Karno, Sennett, and Roach, all under the shadow of Chaplin, Larry Semon, and Harold Lloyd.

Laurel and Hardy’s contract called for him to think up and write the gags. He thought the best way to begin was to stage a pie fight without equal in the history of film. For the epic fight, The Battle of the Century, he bought the entire daily production of the most important bakery in Los Angeles. Within a few minutes of the film’s opening, every corner of the screen was filled with the uninterrupted launching of 4,000 pies that obscured the sun’s light, as happened in great battles in the ancient world. “The idea,” Laurel will say then, “is that, after this sequence, no one will ever dream of throwing only one pie in a film.”

Almost unique in the history of slapstick comedy, Laurel adjusted, cut, and invented scenes in the most rigorous succession, immediately verifying the effects by the reactions of the technicians and people on the set. The final editing kept count of the laughs on the set, using them as a metronome to either extend or shorten a scene’s length.

The comics’ immediate success in 1927 freed Laurel’s unsuspected latent energy, permitting him to invent and create some of the most exhilarating sequences of all time in comic films.

Anticipating cold fusion by many decades, Laurel experimented and patented a type of destruction and programmed catastrophe that left nothing to chance and allowed two characters with the most respectable, friendly demeanors to, in a few minutes, produce the same devastating effects as an armored division or a natural calamity.

In Laurel and Hardy’s world, Jesus Christ’s invitation to turn the other cheek to whomever strikes you is ignored on principle. While fully respecting the bon ton and ceremonial formalities, they don’t hesitate to take open revenge, reprisals, and retaliations, always far out of proportion to the offense suffered. The escalation of furious destruction doesn’t placate Laurel until everything is totally razed to the ground; only then does Stan betray his self-satisfaction with a toss of his head just as tennis players do when they’ve punished an opponent with a crushing return.

Although Stan’s kicking gifts are exceptional, as one can see in The Finishing Touch when he kicks his comrade at least a dozen times with the flat and the toe of his shoe, in body-to-body fights, Stan can also absorb an infinite number of blows without betraying any external reaction. Normally, he cries only when he’s confused, is unable to make a decision, or when the people around him – wives, cops, professors – make hostile, monstrous witch and ogre faces that keep him from having fun with Ollie. “If you had a baby,” he suggests to Oliver in Their First Mistake, it would occupy your wife’s mind . . . and you could go out with me at night . . . and she wouldn’t worry about it. All our troubles would be over.”

Throughout their partnership, despite all their angelic plans, they continue to attract trouble like magnets. They inevitably manage to conduct the world, which they seemingly want to fit into, toward a progressive and irreversible disorder and destruction, as if they were giving a perfect demonstration of the Second Principle of Thermodynamics.

On the centenary of Laurel’s birth (1990), it is fitting to remember Stan and give him his due. And it’s just as fitting to do as Cahiers du Cinema did in 1957, when Hardy died, not to separate him from his double: “Oliverardi est mort! Vive Oliverardi!”

Note: Reprinted from la Repubblica, June 19, 1990. Translation copyright © A. K. Bierman.