Chaplin wasn’t the funniest. I wasn’t the funniest. Stan Laurel was the funniest.
So said the great Buster Keaton at Laurel’s funeral in 1965. And while Charlie Chaplin has often been called “The King of Comedy”, I would argue that although he is a fascinating figure, it is Stan Laurel’s comedy that remains fresher and funnier today. This is perhaps why some of his most famous films are currently being being re-shown on UK television and why the bestselling author John Connolly has decided to base his latest novel, he, on the comedian’s amazing life story.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in Ulverston in the Lake District in 1890 to a theatrical family. Like Chaplin, he joined the famous Fred Karno troupe and in 1910 he and Chaplin sailed for America. However, while Chaplin was amassing fame and fortune making films, Stan Jefferson (as he was billed at the time) was still plugging away on the Vaudeville circuit. It was around this time that he changed his name to Laurel – his then partner Mae Dahlberg pointed out that having 13 letters in his name was unlucky.
It wasn’t until 1917, when Chaplin was already earning unprecedented amounts of money, that Laurel made his cinematic debut in a film called Nuts In May. But it would be another 10 years before director Leo McCarey paired him with a comic from Georgia called Oliver “Babe” Hardy. They went on to make 107 films together – though not all survive. The survivors are, however, almost without exception, still as fresh and as funny as when they were made.
Chaplin was spotted by film producer Mack Sennett in 1913 and was lured away from his position with the Fred Karno troupe to start making films for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company. In 1915, he joined the Essanay Company where he was paid $1,250 a week and a $10,000 bonus – astronomical money at the time. It was at Essanay that Chaplin consolidated his Tramp character and when he left Essanay to join the Mutual Film Company in 1916 (where he was paid $10,000 a week with a $150,000 bonus) the 27-year-old Chaplin became the highest paid entertainer in the world.
The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske wrote an article entitled The Art of Charles Chaplin, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The article promoted the idea that Chaplin was no longer a mere low comedian but was creating works of art. This was an idea that Chaplin relished and he began to create films that, rather than simply cramming as many gags in as possible, began to introduce notes of sentimentality and pathos. The Kid opens with the title “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear” and despite some brilliant comic sequences, the film seems rather mawkishly sentimental today.
A comedy of friendship
Laurel and Hardy’s childlike innocence has fared rather better. Their attempt to shift that piano up the steps in The Music Box or their rendition of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Way Out West still make us laugh. There is an essential warmth to the characters that, to me at least, Chaplin’s Tramp lacks. Perhaps it is because we know that despite everything, the pair are inseparable. Even if they fight (which they often do), they always end up facing the capricious world together.
Asked in his later years about his philosophy of humour (a phrase he would have hated) Laurel said:
Never, for God’s sake, ask me what makes people laugh. I just don’t know. To get laughs you just have to work hard all the time and learn how to do it in your bones.
And work hard he did. While Babe was relaxing on the golf course, Laurel was at the studio editing or working out the next gag. He was also the de-facto director of their films made on the Hal Roach lot. But their move to 20th Century Fox in 1941 saw his creative role diminished and, consequently, the films after they left Roach are generally seen as rather second rate. Although their star waned somewhat in the 1940s, they toured the music halls of Britain and Europe in 1952 and 1953 to great acclaim.
After Hardy’s death in 1957, Laurel retired to an apartment in Santa Monica. Dick van Dyke, already a major star and admirer of Laurel and Hardy, found to his astonishment that Stan was listed in the phonebook and became a regular visitor. Laurel also painstakingly replied to his fan mail personally, typing out each reply despite his failing eyesight. Despite a rather chequered marital history (he was married a total of six times, including marrying and divorcing Virginia Rogers twice) he finally married Ida Raphael in 1946 – a marriage that lasted until his death in 1965.
Today’s comedians still look to Laurel and Hardy for inspiration. But the last words should go to the man himself. Music hall acts had what was known as “bill matter” – a small description of their act to go on the posters. Laurel’s bill matter from his professional debut aged 16 is perhaps his most fitting epitaph: “STAN JEFFERSON – HE OF THE FUNNY WAYS”.