'For me, it begins with a bowler hat' – Irish author John Connolly on his lifelong love of Laurel & Hardy and the real story behind the duo

For me, it begins with a hat: a bowler – or a derby, as the Americans call it.

In 1999, I was staying with a bookseller friend, Shelly, in California. Shelly was an amateur buyer and seller of antiques, and I asked if there was anything with which she would be reluctant to part, if only for sentimental reasons. She thought about it, and decided there wasn’t, before adding: “But the only thing I ever regret losing was a hat given to me by Stan Laurel.”

At that point, I probably needed to sit down. I had adored Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy since childhood. They were part of my television upbringing, propping up the daytime schedules. If the racing from Haydock Park was cancelled, and the programmer was a bit tired of westerns, the chances were that Laurel and Hardy might fill the gap. I sometimes prayed for racecourse rain.

But for me they had always existed in the distant past, one that drifted from silence into sound but remained forever black and white. The idea that someone I knew might actually have met either of them seemed improbable, yet Stan Laurel died only in 1965, just three years before I was born. Incredibly, he kept his name and number in the Santa Monica telephone directory so fans could call to chat, or make an appointment to visit – which is how Shelly came to acquire the hat, since Laurel would give away the odd derby to particularly deserving cases. He enjoyed being remembered, and never took this affection for granted, responding personally to every letter he received.

What had he been doing for all those years, I wondered, given that the final Laurel and Hardy film, the terrible Atoll K, appeared in 1951; their golden age had come to an end more than a decade earlier; and his partner had been dead since the 1950s? Remembering, I supposed, and that was the genesis of my novel he. It would take almost two decades to plan, write and research, and I begrudged not one moment of that time, because I got to spend it with them.

I’m still not entirely sure why my affection lay more with Laurel and Hardy than, say, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or even the other comic duos that appeared regularly on our screens, such as Abbott & Costello, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But then, love can never really be properly explained. Perhaps, looking back, my younger self simply responded to the loyalty of these two mismatched men, one that never faltered regardless of the frustrations, injuries, even poverty that resulted from their friendship.

And there is a truth to this, because they were loyal to each other – often intensely so, particularly as they grew older. Unlike similar pairings, they never had a serious falling out. Because of a clash of egos, Martin and Lewis remained estranged until Dean Martin’s death, and Bud Abbott ended up suing his partner over money. Laurel & Hardy were not alcoholics, like Buster Keaton, and although their love lives were complicated – they racked up eight marriages between them, along with assorted mistresses and one common-law wife – they had none of Chaplin’s darkness: no underage lovers, no demands for abortions to avoid scandal and imprisonment.

The new biopic Stan & Ollie suggests – a little unfairly, I think – that Laurel may have harboured resentment toward Hardy for making a film, Zenobia (1939), with Harry Langdon as his sidekick, during a period when Laurel had essentially been fired by Hal Roach for breach of contract. (Laurel was forever arguing with Roach, usually over money, and it was his actions that most frequently endangered the partnership, since he would sometimes threaten to return to the stage as a solo artist.)

Yet Hardy, still under contract, had little choice but to keep working and wait for this latest spat to blow over, like all those before it. Had he quit, Roach could have prevented both men from working elsewhere, and ended their careers. Laurel, I like to think, probably had enough self-knowledge to realise this. If he did have reason to be hurt, Hardy, on balance, had more.

In later years, when Hardy was given the opportunity to appear as a character actor in films – John Wayne adored him, and he was invited to become part of John Ford’s regular team of character actors with Ward Bond and Harry Carey Jr – he turned down the offers. On the one occasion that he agreed to star with Wayne, in 1949’s The Fighting Kentuckian, he divided his fee evenly with Laurel, who was ill at the time and unable to work. That was the kind of men they were.

Laurel was the creative genius of the duo. Not only did he act in their films, he also co-wrote, co-edited, and even co-directed most of them, often without credit and for only minimal extra payment. But Hardy was the better, subtler performer. Laurel was a product of the stage, and had worked his way into film from music halls and vaudeville. He learned to act for the back row of the theatre. Hardy, by contrast, was a singer, but had also worked as a cinema projectionist, and understood immediately what it took Laurel and a whole generation of stage actors much longer to grasp: that in films one is acting for the first row, because very small gestures will appear writ large on screen.

Hardy could have enjoyed another career outside the partnership. Had he and Laurel never met, he would probably have continued to make a good living as a supporting player. But until Roach paired him with Hardy, Laurel was the great nearly man of Hollywood. Unlike Keaton, Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd, he lacked a distinctive persona, a single character with which the audience could identify. With Hardy, he found that character, but it took him a while to accept that he was destined to be one of twin stars, and not a star alone.

Over the years, marriages failed, and Laurel lost a son in infancy (Hardy, to his sorrow, remained childless). Their careers peaked and slowly faded. They endured financial difficulties, and their private and professional humiliations were detailed in every newspaper, every scandal sheet. Yet they stuck together, returning to the stage to make ends meet, resulting in the final, near-fatal tour of Britain and Ireland in 1953-54 that is the subject of Stan & Ollie.

In the end, the longest, most enduring relationship either man enjoyed was with the other, and when Hardy died in 1957, Laurel was bereft. Nothing became Laurel more than his behaviour during his friend’s final weeks of life. Hardy, semi-paralysed by strokes, was unable to speak. The only way he could let his wife know that he needed her was by crying. Laurel recognised his frustration, and he, too, ceased to talk. When the two men were together, they communicated only through signs, expressions, and with their eyes. They had been together for so long that they needed nothing more.

Laurel never worked again after Hardy’s death, and refused all public appearances, but continued to write sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. In this way, I think, he was able to hear his partner’s voice again, and keep him in his life. Just as, almost a century after they first starred together, they remain in ours.

‘he: A Novel’ by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton. ‘Stan & Ollie’ is in Irish cinemas now

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