Bright Lights Film Journal

Ollie’s Somersault: Thoughts on Oliver Hardy (and Stan Laurel)

(from Triste, Solitario y final (Sad, Alone, Final), a novel by Osvaldo Soriano, Einaudi Editore

“Roll it!”

Makeup had changed the fat man’s face into a clownish mask. He’s in an enormous restaurant kitchen with dozens of saucepans; the steam rising from them envelopes him and makes him sweat.

Waiters come in one group after the other carrying their orders and grabbing stews and soups. The floor is a mess of lamb trotters, potatoes, and vegetables on which the fat man and the waiters frequently slip, slide, and fall down in arcs of spectacular somersaults.

Suddenly, the action is interrupted. A thin man runs here and there, giving orders; he talks with the fat man and explains the next scene to him.

He’s satisfied with the preliminary rehearsals. Stan thinks the fat man is talented and will get a lot of laughs. He’s happy, because Hal Roach has given him the chance to direct a film. It’s 14 years since he came to the United States and, although he’s managed to get to Hollywood, he hasn’t had much success as a comedian.

Ollie weighs 310 pounds, but carries it easily. He wanted to be an actor, against his father’s wishes, ever since he left his Georgia home. In his first film, audiences saw him as an oversized kid and were certain unspeakable things had happened to him. However, he wasn’t to be easily defeated. This was when Chaplin was mesmerizing the public and the press, and was the comedian everybody was constantly talking about.

But now Ollie is content. He thinks Laurel is intelligent, that his scripts are rich and precise, that his observations are accurate; he thinks Laurel will be a great director. The fat man lets the assistants freshen his makeup while listening to the orders of the skinny man who comes over to check on the cosmetic effects of the makeup artists.

Everything is ready for filming the next scene. In a neighboring studio, someone is playing a tango. Ollie smiles…

“Roll it!”

The action begins at the exact place where Stan interrupted it earlier. Ollie has to go head over heels once more; he has to hate the waiters who make him fall with his flourished tray held high. The somersault is perfect and the grace of his movements provoke a strange, grotesque poetry. The long slide and its culminating fall are like a cataclysm. Stan breaks into a satisfied smile. The fat man did it.

Ollie screams. The set is shattered. Stan stops the filming. He runs toward the set. When the fat man fell, he’d knocked over a pot of boiling water. His right arm is red and is starting to wrinkle up. Ollie is still screaming. Somebody runs in search of salve for the burns. Stan holds his head in his hands. He wants to cry but can’t. His whole plan crumbles before him; he won’t have his first directed film. Furious, while kicking frying pans and punching the air, he slips on a lettuce leaf, skids, crashes against the still screaming fat man’s legs, and falls on his face.

Hal Roach bellows his pleasure, raises and waves his arms madly, excitedly chewing on his cigar.

“I’ve found them!” he shouts. “They’re it!” All around him, everyone can’t help but laugh. The fat man’s fall, the thin man’s fury – he’s now flat on the floor, beating it with his fists – is one of the funniest things that ever happened in the studio. Roach howls with laughter until an assistant comes up to him.

“Put ’em under contract!” he orders in a choking voice. “They’re the funniest pair I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Laurel gets up and walks over to Roach. There is a hint of a whimper on his face, which only prompts pain. “My God, what shit!” says Stan as he rubs his head. Roach, smiling, looks at him.

“Don’t you want to remake it?” Roach asks of, orders, Stan. “There’s lots of directors, Stan.”

The lean man doesn’t understand. Yonder, a nurse daubs Ollie’s arm and wraps it in an enormous bandage. The fat man ekes out a slim smile. The assistants’ laughter has made him mad. He still hasn’t grasped when Laurel was doing there on the floor beside him. But now he approaches the producer and Stan, and tells them that in another week he’ll be able to start work again.

The two men look at Ollie. Roach is delighted. “You’ll leave ’em laughing,” he says.

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