"Chaplin wasn't the funniest. I wasn't the funniest. Stan Laurel was the funniest." Buster Keaton
You overwhelmed me, dear reader, with your reaction(s) to the piece I did last time about Stan Laurel. I’m particularly moved by the number of you who were touched, using phrases like “I misted up,” “I shed a tear” and even “I wept.” I didn’t mean to upset anyone.
I feel a little funny about admitting that, rereading the piece days later, I did at least one of the above.
At the risk of anticlimax, I can add here a few things that swam back to mind in the interval. Things I had forgotten about my golden few visits with the great man. And an event that just recurred recently.
I was in Hollywood last week working on a TV project, a pilot idea concocted by the remarkably talented John Hodgman. I mentioned last time that on my first visit, Stan had told me that The Steps still existed — the daunting 131 concrete steps up which he and “Babe” Hardy back-breakingly struggled and heaved the crated piano, losing it a few times — in the Oscar-winning short “The Music Box.” A classic of team comedy that bears watching at least once a year. (Get “Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection.”)
Several commenters on the column had a favorite moment from that film: the one where the generally sweet Stan, moved to a rare display of rage when the fuming Billy Gilbert — the intended recipient of the piano — insists they get themselves and the giant crate out of his way as he descends the stairs from his house at the top of the hill.
Stan swats his top hat off. Gilbert steams and bellows as it bounces and tumbles its way to the very bottom of the steps and rolls into the street. A truck runs over it.
An iconic moment in film comedy.
So last week, in a break from the stuff I was shooting, as a treat for me, my dear wife arranged for a friend of ours to drive us on a pilgrimage. We found The Steps.
(The location is hardly a secret, but just for fun let’s pretend I’m giving you a bit of inside information. You can find the steps yourself at the corner of Vendome and Del Monte in the Silver Lake district, just south of Sunset. There’s a little grassy triangle nearby that’s been named Laurel and Hardy Park. The magic numbers: 923-937 North Vendome Street.)
At first the steps look wrong, somehow, and you wonder if you’ve been misled. In the 1930s, they stood virtually alone; now, houses and low apartment buildings and high shrubbery surround them. Much has changed, but worshippers are rewarded by the fact that the house across the street, where the hapless boys parked their horse-drawn wagon, survives. A plaque on the bottom step reading “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy ‘The Music Box’” reassures you you’re in the right place. I assumed it had been put there by the Laurel & Hardy-adoring organization Sons of the Desert, but in fact seems to have been placed by an impressive list of sponsors, including Hollywood Heritage Inc., The Society of Operating Cameramen, The Silent Society, The Hollywood Studio Museum and perhaps others.
It was like visiting a holy place.
For trivialists: there are exactly 131 steps. We climbed them as an act of homage.
Don’t be disappointed to learn that there is, in fact, no house of Billy Gilbert’s at the top. There never was. It was a studio set.
Another bit of arcana. The same steps were used by the boys for a 1927 film called “Hats Off!” Alas, the search for this lost gem goes on.
Stan recalled a favorite moment in “The Music Box”: “Remember the baby nurse lady who’s pushing the baby carriage who laughs at us? And how when she turns her back, I kick her in the butt? And she tells a cop and he says, ‘He kicked you?’ I asked for another take and added a line for her that might have been thought vaguely naughty, but I knew the kids wouldn’t get it but the sharper adults would. I had her say: ‘Yes, officer. He kicked me. Right in the middle of my daily duties.’”
How I could have temporarily forgotten a certain revelation by Stan I can’t imagine. He talked about the time when he and Hardy were suddenly surprised by the oleaginous Ralph Edwards and lured, live, on the spot, onto his “This Is Your Life” TV show. Rudely surprised by Edwards’s crew and suddenly flooded with light while peacefully chatting with their wives and a friend in a hotel lounge, they were to be spirited quickly to Edwards’s studio a few blocks away for the live show, but Hardy rebelled.
Stan: “Babe was livid. He was halfway into his car to go straight home, leaving poor Ralph sweating in the studio with half a guest list. Babe reluctantly relented.”
It’s their only live television appearance and should have been wonderful. It’s around, but it is infuriating to watch. The endlessly yakking Edwards — phony as his hairpiece — does all the talking. He raises a subject and, instead of saying to the pair, “Tell us about that” — he tells us.
You wish Stan would treat him like Billy Gilbert and swat his rug off.
You long to hear them talk. Edwards allows them each a few words while repeatedly attempting witless jokes about the llfe-threateningly obese Hardy’s girth. Babe plays along with faux pleasantry as surprise guests like Hal Roach, their former employer, and a few relatives are awkwardly trotted out. Eventually and mercifully the travesty ends.
It should be avoided as ardently as — and I apologize for this dirty word — the “colorized” version of “The Music Box,” which is still floating around. Miraculously, the cheesy colorizing practice — now junked — manages to extract all humor from the great film. A subject for an essay on the inferiority of color to black and white. (Sorry, young folks who boast of watching no movies not multihued. There really are a few good black-and-white ones.)
This is interesting: One reader pointed out the coincidence that when my first column ran, the BBC radio was airing a show about L&H. I listened to it online. Somehow I joined it in the middle and a man was talking. The voice was not familiar. He was talking about how Babe Hardy took no responsibility for the films, had no interest in the editing and wanted out as early as possible so he could escape to the golf course. And how he, the speaker, worked far into the night. It had to be a stranger reading a quote from Stan Laurel. But it was Stan Laurel.
Here again is something I’d forgotten. Stan’s real voice, in conversation, was not the voice of “Stan” in the movies. It was about 10 notes lower. While not falsetto, his character voice used in the films was at least an octave higher than his own. His real voice was nearer baritone. I’ve never seen this mentioned.
You can prove this for yourself by finding the BBC show and also in the only place I know of in the movies: the remarkable step out of character that Stan takes when a conk on the head reverts him, temporarily, to his former, forgotten life as an upper class English lord in “A Chump at Oxford.” He uses, in his faultless, Noël Coward-y accent, a voice nearly as low as his real voice. When re-conked and “Stan” speaks to the now re-recognized Ollie — who squeals with delight at having his friend back — he cranks his voice back upward to the voice we know and love.
I’ll close with a little gem from my all-too-skimpy, semi-legible and fading notes of my first meeting with Stan. We talked about what he liked and didn’t like on television. “There’s one television show, lad” — I was 24! — “that I just can’t abide. It’s the one with that panel of ultra-shi-shi folks. The one called ‘What’s My Line?’ It sends me straight up the wall. I call it ‘The Snob Family.’”
A man for the ages.