Reviewed by Rod McLary
There is a strong tradition of double acts in comedy – Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Hale and Pace, even Kennedy and Newton. But one stands above the others – Laurel and Hardy. Oliver Hardy died 60 years ago and Stan Laurel died over 50 years ago, but they are remembered still. Stan Laurel has been described as ‘one of the greatest screen comedians the world has ever known’.
John Connolly – an Irish author perhaps better known for his series of crime books featuring former policeman Charlie Parker – has written a re-imagining of the life of Stan Laurel. Referring to Laurel in the novel as only ‘he’, John Connolly delivers an imaginative recreation of the golden age of Hollywood and Laurel’s [and Hardy’s] place in it.
The book opens in England where Laurel lived and first performed on the vaudeville stage with his father, ‘he’ describes the circumstances leading to his move to the United States and his early appearances on stage with Charlie Chaplin. But backstage when Laurel tries to learn as much as he can, Chaplin is already the star of the company. Laurel leaves the company and returns to England where he experiences further failures. As ‘he’ puts it – ‘failure: failure in America, then Britain, and finally Europe’. Fortuitously, he receives an offer to return to America to understudy Chaplin. It is 1912 and Laurel is 22 years old. In later years, Laurel feels betrayed by Chaplin’s failure to acknowledge their earlier closer relationship.
Running parallel to Laurel’s early history is Oliver Hardy’s. Hardy – referred to in the novel as ‘Babe’ a name he was first given by his barber and under which he was billed in his earlier films – began acting in film in 1914 and appeared in about 250 films – or shorts as they are more accurately called as they were fewer than 40 minutes in length.
Hardy and Laurel were brought together by Hal Roach who owned Hal Roach Studios and for whom Laurel and Hardy worked for over 20 years. In 1927, Laurel and Hardy were paired for the first time in a film called Putting Pants on Philip and together they went on to make more than 100 films between 1927 and 1950. They achieved great fame – especially in Britain where they toured – although their fame was tainted by artistic and emotional turmoil.
The novel is written in the form of a reminiscence. ‘He’ is now retired and living with his fourth wife in the Oceana Apartments where, as he nears the end of his life, he thinks back over the years before, with and after Babe. The chapters alternate between the parallel stories of ‘he’ and ‘Babe’ with connecting chapters describing Laurel’s current circumstances.
As should be expected in a novel about actors, there is considerable information about the making of films, the tensions, jealousies and conflicts regarding scripts, directors, co-stars, contracts and off-screen relationships. Many actors of the silent era and of the first of the ‘talkies’ are name-checked. Charlie Chaplin is just one of the many names referenced in the novel. Others include Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, Douglas Fairbanks, Max Sennett and Jerry Lewis. Not only are these actors referred to by name but, in many cases, we learn something of their promiscuity and peccadilloes – and, in one or two particular cases, we learn more than we would want to know. With some, the author makes sharp and succinct character assessments which add to the enjoyment of the novel.
There is much to enjoy in this novel – not only is it well written but it provides an insightful and intelligent examination of the creative process of acting and especially comedic acting. At one point, the author describes comedy as ‘the disintegration of order into chaos’. If the reader is familiar with any of the Laurel and Hardy films, this seems to be as perfect a description of them as anyone could offer.
Dialogue does not play a significant role in the novel but, when it does appear, it is not within inverted commas, but introduced by a dash. Why? Perhaps to create a more impressionistic feeling and to remind the readers of the artifice of the novel. Impressionists seek to capture a feeling or experience and, as we know, memory is unreliable so what we have is the recollections of a famous screen comedian at the end of his life. He recalls not only the adoration he received but also the losses he experienced, the heartache he lived through – and caused – and the betrayals.
Most of all though, the novel is about the great friendship between Laurel and Hardy which extends beyond the simple working relationship. There is a level of affection and respect between them which requires few words but is deep and honest. By the use of the impressionistic style, the author allows the reader to share much of this. The heart of the novel is the love ‘he’ has for Babe – his co-star and great friend. As ‘he’ says – he knows he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.
By John Connolly
Hodder and Stoughton /Hachette Aust
ISBN 978 1 473 66363 3