Chaplin’s most famous “creation” was his little tramp – but Stan Laurel did it first, as Chaplin knew all too well.
One of the most troubling aspects of Stan Laurel’s life was his relationship with Charlie Chaplin. It’s a question of almost schizophrenic ambiguity. Laurel was fully conscious of having been defrauded, obstructed, victimized, “plagiarized,” probably ridiculed, and certainly never helped by Chaplin. Yet he never stopped thinking that Chaplin was “the greatest of them all.”
But that’s the way Laurel was, a man who never expected too much from life and subsequently let life take its course without yielding to rancor.
Nevertheless, reevaluating Laurel a hundred years after his birth in 1890, one particular that detracts from Chaplin’s greatness can’t go unmentioned. In 1910, both men made their first American tour with Fred Karno’s Company of Clowns. The comedians had similar theatrical origins – the sketch and the pantomime of the music hall, in which both made debuts at a tender age. Also, they were almost contemporaries; both had parental disasters (sick mother and wastrel father); and if Chaplin came from a miserably poor childhood and Laurel hid his early prosperity, both exhibited a ravenous hunger for life.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born on June 16, 1890 at Ulverston, Lancashire, England. In 1917, the actress Mae Dahlberg, inspired by the laurels earned by Scipio Africanus (the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War), chose the name “Stan Laurel” for him because Laurel was annoyed by his thirteen-letter familiar name: Stan Jefferson.
Laurel’s father, an actor-director-impresario of a second-rank theatrical company, had no doubt that his son would prove himself a worthy successor. In Stan (1980), the best biography of the actor, Fred Lawrence Guiles reveals that “from the beginning, Stanley tranquilly resigned himself to the role that life seemed to have assigned him.”
But we shouldn’t imagine him being passive, not even when he came to New York as Chaplin’s stand-in. Chaplin’s iron constitution kept Laurel from replacing him even once.
T. S. Eliot wrote in 1923: “In the music hall, comedians found the expression and dignity of their life.” Chaplin sought money most of all. On the stage, landlords and wives were his enemies, but in life he made them laugh. Laurel, on the contrary, modeling himself on one of vaudeville’s “greats,” Dan Leno, tried to “mime in beggars’ clothes the pain that was life.” He did it mainly in the modest lodging that he and Chaplin rented near Times Square, working out sketches, turning out one after the other, as if he were on stage.
Chaplin watched him, taking note, then used the sketches on stage. When Laurel turned out “Jimmy, the Intrepid,” which he’d prepared in secret, in the theater, Chaplin also did it – the day after Laurel was fired.
Laurel confided all this to his wives, mostly to Virginia Ruth, whom he married three times, and from whom Guiles got most of the story. But in public, in his autobiography, Chaplin does not mention Stan Laurel even once.
When Mack Sennett got wind of “Jimmy” (the true precursor of “Charlie”), he invited “the man named Chaffin” [sic] to Hollywood. That was Chaplin, who left Karno and his clowns and was launched at once on a fabulous career. Laurel stayed in vaudeville, whose days were numbered, in New York.
There he remained, happy to be making it, until 1917 when he too found his way to the cinema, to people disposed to let him indulge his fancy, especially producer Hal Roach. There he found success – and the way to “bungle” his life.
Chaplin had by then established himself. For reasons that we can intuit, Laurel’s arrival troubled him. He saw Laurel, greeted him coldly, then encouraged him and promised him work – a promise he naturally did not keep. He didn’t know that Laurel would join Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, and Harold Lloyd in the gallery of comic greats. Nor did Laurel, who from 1917 to 1926 acted in dozens of films. Almost of them were shorts but notable for their inventiveness, originality, and creative writing. Typically, one could never guess the paternity of those films nor attribute their direction to Laurel, although he had in fact directed many of them. Laurel scattered his largesse freely. He parodied the “great dictator” at least two years before Chaplin did.
Then the most fortunate couple in American cinema was born, Stan and Ollie – the Thin One and the Fat One, as the Europeans called them. Added to the plaintive, confused, and defenseless humor of the English ex-clown was the American Oliver Hardy, “Babe,” with his bossy but just as catastrophic, know-it-all, constitutionally clumsy character. That coupling of stupidity and ingenuousness excited the tenderest sentiment and a vague sense of superiority in audiences.
Then Chaplin sought art as well as money. “We,” said Laurel, “tried for a little comedy.”
The popular favor Stan and Ollie enjoyed until 1940 is unique. Their decline began when they separated from Roach. (Probably when Roach’s son took over from his father.) Their last film was in 1945 (or in 1952 if you include the isolated and insipid “Atoll K,” a French-Italian coproduction). After a triumphant tour of England, they were counting on reviving their career, but Hardy died in 1957, and Laurel, inconsolable over the loss of his friend, stopped acting.
He continued to write until he died, in 1965. It was the period, he said, “in which a man looks back.” He was often married – six times – and he spent everything he earned, having made millions of spectators laugh. He was a legend, like Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth, almost without knowing it.
Shortly before dying in the hospital, he said to his nurse, “I would rather be skiing than having to do this.” The nurse asked him, “Do you ski, Mr. Laurel?” “No, but I’d rather be doing it anyway.”
Note: Reprinted from la Repubblica, June 19, 1990. Translation copyright © A. K. Bierman