Today is June 16th, Stan Laurel’s birthday. Let’s toast one of the greatest comedic geniuses of all time!
Born in England on June 16, 1890, Stan Laurel’s birth name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Since both parents were theatre professionals, the family willingly moved to Glasgow where Laurel’s father became the manager of the Metropole Theatre.
The young Laurel had an affinity for performing and was a big fan of Music Hall comedy. It’s no wonder that, at 16, Laurel started performing at Glasgow’s Panopticon, working in pantomimes and comedy sketches under the name Stan Jefferson.
In 1910, he joined Fred Karno’s acting troupe working, at least in part, as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy. When Karno took his troupe to the US in 1917, Laurel went along. He traveled the US as part of Karno’s company for several years. In 1921, while still traveling with Karno, he became friends with Australian actress Mae Dahlberg who though the name Stan Jefferson was unlucky because it contained 13 letters. At her suggestion he changed his name to Stan Laurel.
Laurel followed the path of colleagues and friends, choosing movies over stage. In 1917, he made his first film, “Nuts In May.” Chaplin attended the premiere as did producer Carl Laemmle, both of whom were impressed with Laurel’s abilities. IN 1921, Laurel was teamed with a newcomer named Babe Hardy for the film “The Lucky Dog.” The film didn’t make a huge splash and the two performers went their separate ways.
By 1924, Laurel worked exclusively in the film industry and signed a contract with producer Joe Rock to make a dozen two-reel comedies. Though Laurel and Dahlberg had originally billed themselves as a team, Rock felt that Laurel was the star and that Dahlberg’s difficult temperament would hold him back. Rock offered her a large cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to Australia, which she accepted. Laurel was available to either work alone or to find a new partner.
Laurel didn’t work exclusively as an actor, he also wrote and directed. In truth, after he signed with Hal Roach, he thought his career would exclude acting. In 1925, he wrote and directed a couple well-received films, “Yes, Yes Nanette” and “Wandering Papas”, both of which featured his partner from “The Lucky Dog,” who was now working under the name Oliver Hardy.
A couple years later, Oliver Hardy was injured while shooting a film and Stan Laurel was asked to move in front of the camera as Hardy’s replacement so the film could stay on schedule. Director Leo McCarthy saw real potential in putting the two men together and did just that in 1927. Their first films together at Roach, “Slipping Wives,” “Duck Soup” and “With Love and Hisses,” demonstrated a wonderful chemistry both with each other and with the audience. Soon they were the stars of a series of films.
Unlike so many silent stars, Laurel and Hardy smoothly transitioned to talkies. Their first sound film, was “Unaccustomed As We Are” in 1929. A few years later, they made a three-reeler called “The Music Box,” which featured the comedic duo trying, with great difficulty, to move an upright piano up a very steep set of steps. The film won the Academy Award for best short subject. The two worked for Hal Roach until 1935, making both short- and feature films.
In 1941, the team signed with 20th Century Fox to make ten films over five years. During that time, Laurel developed diabetes with complications. He became ill enough that he encouraged Hardy to make two films without him in order to meet their contractual obligations.
Just after WWII, in 1947, Laurel and Hardy went on a 6-week tour of England. They were mobbed by adoring fans at every turn. They even did a command performance for King George VI and his family, which included the future Queen Elizabeth II. The tour was such a success that the team did several tours of the UK and Europe over the next 7 years until when, in 1954, Hardy had a heart attack and the tour had to be canceled.
In 1955, Laurel and Hardy developed a TV series to be called “Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables.” In April of that year, Laurel had a stroke, so production was postponed. He seemed on the mend when, in September, Hardy suffered a massive stroke, ending his career. It ended both careers as Laurel couldn’t imagine ever performing without his partner who he called Babe – the name Hardy was using when they first met.
Oliver Hardy died in 1957. Laurel, who was a heavy smoker in addition to being diabetic, was too ill to attend the funeral. Though he never performed again, Laurel enjoyed interacting with fans. He appreciated fans so much that his phone number was listed in the public directory. He frequently answered the phone and chatted with surprised, thrilled callers.
In 1965, Stan Laurel died. At his funeral, Buster Keaton was overheard saying, “ Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.”