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Biopics tend to be either really good or really bad. Either way, they usually make me cry for various reasons.
In 2007, when I first watched Not Only But Always, Channel 4’s 2004 film about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, I cried a lot. Double acts have always made me emotional, and when you combine one of my favorite double acts ever with high-quality British television, you get a tearjerker.
The BBC’s going to make me cry a lot more in 2014 because they’ve got a biopic coming up about a double act with a really good relationship that tells a story from later in their lives about their friendship.
BBC One has commissioned Stan And Ollie, a biopic focused on the later years of Laurel and Hardy, the double act who became famous worldwide for their slapstick comedy films.
The 90-minute show, which is being overseen the corporation’s in-house comedy department, aims to tell the tale of the duo’s 1953 UK tour.
The one-off TV episode has been written by Jeff Pope, who recently worked on the movie Philomena, and prior to that the TV comedies The Security Men and The Fattest Man In Britain.
Stan Laurel was an Englishman, whilst Oliver Hardy was American. Laurel entered the world of theatre aged 16, and set sail for America a few years later on the same ship as Charlie Chaplin with the aim of appearing in films.
He forged a successful solo career in Hollywood, however after starring in the silent short film Putting Pants in 1927 with the heavyset Harlem-born Oliver Hardy, the duo soon became a double-act. As a team, they went on to perform in 107 films, including the likes of Big Business, and became an inspiration to generations of comics, including Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.
Speaking about the new production, the BBC say: “It tells the story of the duo’s 1953 UK tour. Their shtick – Stan the wide-eyed ingénue, Ollie the pompous fool, their meticulously rehearsed physical routines and their charming musical numbers had made them superstars all over Europe, South America and beyond. However, a split from their controlling mentor, the vagaries of studio politics and a run of poorly received films had resulted in their star falling. A series of acrimonious divorces, alimony battles and Oliver Hardy’s failing health didn’t help.
“The British tour was supposed to relieve some of the gloom and, despite numerous glitches, the public loved them. Audiences grew and grew as word spread that Laurel and Hardy were back and as funny as ever and, as audiences swelled, so did morale. But as their careers and friendship blossomed, disaster struck as Ollie suffered a heart attack. He tried to carry on performing on the tour, but it became clear that he was too ill. Replacement performers were found to fill in but, without Stan and Ollie’s charm and warmth, the shows simply weren’t the same.
“Eventually, with it clear that Hardy’s health problems were serious, Stan was offered the chance to perform alone, but refused. He realised that neither worked without the other, that they were so much more together than they were apart. Appreciating the sacrifice made by his friend, Ollie roused himself from his sickbed for a few last, triumphant performances, the very last of their extraordinary career.
“Ollie died not long afterwards and Stan never performed again, but their films endure and are still popular all over the world half a century later.”
Charlotte Moore, the Controller of BBC One, says: “Stan And Ollie demonstrates the fabulous range of comedy on BBC One. Written by Jeff Pope, this is a poignant single film about one of Britain’s best loved double-acts.”
BBC Comedy Commissioner Shane Allen adds: “Stan And Ollie is Jeff’s love letter to two pioneers and enduring giants of screen comedy. It beautifully captures the deep emotional bond forged over a lifelong partnership as they reflect on their rollercoaster careers through the prism of this final UK farewell tour. An epic story about the world’s most famous comedy double-act to date, told with great insight and heart.”
The programme will be filmed and broadcast in 2014. Casting details are expected to be announced early next year.
This was, indeed, their last overseas tour, as Babe Hardy passed in 1957, just four years after they were abroad. By this point, both of them were aging and not in the best health, but they had also become extremely close after touring together and essentially being next-door neighbors since the 1940s. At this point in their career, they really were the best of friends, and that makes this even more emotional than it is already.
Basically, I’m ready to sit there and sob for 90 minutes.
I’ve taken Stan and Babe more places now. You think a 24-year-old graduate student wouldn’t take plushies all sorts of places to pose them and whatnot, but I do. Quite a lot, actually.
For their previous adventures, you can read part 1 here.
The boys have become good friends with my cat (the famous Murphy). He likes sniffing their hair.
I take NJ Transit into the city for my commute to grad school…and now so do they. Sometimes.
Just to prove we were in Manhattan, here’s a commemorative photo.
One of my classmates who’s friends with me on Tumblr posed with the boys, too.
A few weeks later, I took the 6 train up to 96th to walk over to the Jewish Museum for the Chagall exhibit. My co-workers and I were headed over there for a work field trip because we work at a historic site that has some Chagall stained glass windows. Guess who came with me so they could see the Pelham 123 train.
That was followed up by me actually having class, so they were very tired by the end of the day. So, frankly, was I.
Sometimes they also come to work with me and keep me company when I get bored because nobody’s visiting. It’s nice to have pals around.
I’m also learning to sew properly so that I can eventually make them some friends, so we’ll see how that goes. It’s been an interesting learning process, but now that I’ve been taking sewing stuffed toys a little more seriously than I did on my previous attempts as an undergraduate I’m actually learning a thing or two about how it’s done, which means I’m improving slowly but steadily. Fingers crossed!
I was perusing Tumblr the other night (which I do pretty much every night) and I came across a photo on my dashboard of two very familiar-looking young ladies.
When they appeared on my dash, though, I recognized them instantly as Anita Garvin and Marion Byron.
Hal Roach attempted several times to create all-female double acts to duplicate the success that Laurel and Hardy were having, and they actually worked pretty well but they’re mostly lost to history today. Garvin (best known as Stan’s wife in Blotto) and Byron (Buster Keaton’s love interest in Steamboat Bill, Jr.) were his first attempt, and although they only made three shorts together they were a hit, leading Hal Roach to team up Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts later on.
The photo here of the two girls is reportedly from 1928, which is around the time Hal Roach decided to team them up – and indeed, I was able to find a screencap from the most famous of their shorts together, A Pair of Tights (released 1929), in which they’re wearing these outfits:
So there you are, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron made the big time on Tumblr without being recognized. I think it’s time we changed that and gave them the credit they deserve for being as funny as they were!
Here’s a clip from A Pair of Tights – ignore the irritating voiceover from the documentary that this clip was included in and enjoy Marion and her ice cream.
(You can pick up the DVD set including two of their shorts here – from Germany. Thanks again, Germany, you’re killing it!)
Back in July, I got it into my head that I needed plushies of Laurel and Hardy, and so being the adult I am I went and commissioned them (from Kaxen, who makes great plushies if you want plushies of anyone too!), and on Monday they finally arrived at my house.
So there are lots of pictures already.
She actually draws on the packaging she ships her plushies in, so it’s even cuter!
I made sure they were cozy during their first night in my house…
…and when I ran off to class the next day, because my bedroom can get pretty chilly.
They’re about nine inches or so tall.
I was suffering from writer’s block on a grad school paper this week, so I made Stannie help and gave him some fudge. Except he doesn’t have a mouth, so I had to eat it for him.
The other night we watched a Vincent Price marathon on TCM, but we were doing so after midnight so it got pretty scary.
And now they’re at work with me right now – they were all buckled up during the commute! (Babe may have bed head, though. Whoops.)
They’re all snug in my saddle bag at the moment since I’m at work, but I just felt like having some extra company on the car ride today because having them around has actually reduced my stress by a ton and they’re just so, so cute.
Basically, everyone should have plushies of comedians in their lives. Go commission away!
A few nights ago, I watched Lou Costello’s turn on This Is Your Life. I’ve previously watched the episodes featuring Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton, and as usual the show did its level best to be traumatizing by bringing up memories that nobody wants to remember. In these two cases, they mentioned Ollie’s brother drowning when they were kids and Buster’s struggles during the middle years of his life, and in Lou Costello’s case, they went and did an entire section of the show about the drowning of his son, Butch. I really hate how insensitive this show could be; they also featured a Hiroshima survivor and a Holocaust survivor at one point. “You survived a really traumatic experience? Let’s relieve it on national TV for everyone’s amusement!”
The rest of Lou’s episode, however, is charming, and it’s nice to see him and Bud Abbott on good terms since they had periods wherein they didn’t get along too well over the course of their careers together. It’s also especially relevant to me as a resident of New Jersey who lives within half an hour of Paterson, Lou’s hometown – I love learning about my own state’s history, and the little tidbits about life in Paterson that can be gleamed from watching this are really neat.
Here’s the video! If you don’t want to hear about Butch, as I’m sure Lou and his wife didn’t, you can skip over that part and nobody will blame you.
Apparently when I’m really worried about things I cope by making .gifs now.
In all seriousness, my grandfather had a stroke this morning and we haven’t gotten too much good news yet (recovery takes a long time), so I’ve been watching clips of these two to keep me stable. They’re miraculous that way.
This scene is from Way Out West, of course. (It’s my favorite feature of theirs.)
I was going through some of my comedy research and reread an article by Peter Cook’s biographer, the biologically unrelated William Cook, on Bedazzled, Peter’s most successful film appearance by far. It got me thinking – the article highlights, amongst other things, why Peter Cook and Dudley Moore succeeded as a double act until the balance between the two of them began to go off-kilter, and I decided that now is as good a time as any to write about the two of them.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore mean a lot to me, as anyone who’s charted the development of my this-will-never-be-finished novel Londinium knows. I used their comedic rapport as the basis for the main characters that I write for, and I can pretty much confirm that they were the double act that made me realize I loved double acts and had loved them for a long time beforehand without knowing it. They also taught me a thing or two about how a double act has to have the perfect balance between the two performers to work well.
Let’s start with a little background: Peter and Dudley were brought together by Beyond the Fringe. They’d never worked together prior to that. Peter was a tall, upper middle class fellow from Torquay, a seaside paradise in Devon, whilst all 5’2″ of Dudley hailed from Dagenham, a working class suburb of London. Peter found himself at Cambridge, and Dudley was a Magdalen College Organ Scholar at Oxford. Through the work of John Bassett (a jazz musician whose group Dud played piano for), they were brought together with two other performers, Alan Bennett (of Oxford) and Dr. Jonathan Miller (of Cambridge), and Beyond the Fringe was born. To make a long story short, Peter and Dudley clicked and ended up working together after their BTF days were over – Dud was offered a show by the BBC, and to make sure things went smoothly he invited Peter to be a guest on episode one. Peter stayed.
The show known as Not Only…But Also (and which I frequently shorthand as NOBA) was a smashing success even as the satire boom caused by Beyond the Fringe in the early 1960s was settling back down – namely because Peter and Dudley were just funny no matter what they were doing. Peter was a fantastic wordsmith, and something about him often seemed to be otherworldly when he went into monologue-delivering mode. Dudley, who did less of the writing unless it was writing music, was the superior actor – indeed, it was his acting skills that made him stand out to the BBC during Beyond the Fringe and prompted them to offer him a television show.
And that is really the important part – Peter needed Dudley’s acting and rapport with the audience, and Dudley needed Peter’s writing and bizarre-yet-hilarious ideas. That was their formula for success, and as long as they kept it in balance, they worked brilliantly together. I personally think things were at their best during this period because they were having fun – their ongoing attempts to corpse one another (which Peter generally won, although Dud would occasionally give him a good run for his money) make them just feel so approachable and so much fun to watch:
It was such a big part of NOBA’s appeal that nowadays Peter and Dudley are the quote on the TV Tropes page for corpsing.
In all seriousness, though, the corpsing reveals to me something that I personally believe is a key point in a double act’s success – both halves of the act find each other funny. If you don’t make each other laugh, things often go sour pretty quickly. The best double acts will frequently tell the public, when asked about it, how funny they find their other halves to be. If you watch harmonious double acts closely, you can catch moments when they can’t make eye contact because they know they’ll laugh and ruin the take. (Catching these moments is a favorite hobby of mine, as people who know me well know. I have my reasons.)
The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post pegs Bedazzled (1967) as the moment that everything began to fall apart. And to be fair, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment. The film was directed by Stanley Donen, who gave both performers ample room to breathe and be themselves, and it works brilliantly – it’s a great film and I regularly list it amongst my favorites. (All of my favorite films are comedies, which should shock nobody given that I write this blog.) What William Cook asserts is true, though – Peter does, in fact, feel somewhat distant, and Dudley provides the warmth (and the soundtrack, which I listen to frequently). It’s again Dudley’s rapport with the audience that carries the film – he makes charmingly adorable facial expressions, shows emotions ranging from confusion to frustration, and, in the end, breaks off and goes his own way instead of relying on Peter (playing George Spiggott a.k.a. Satan) to help him win the woman of his dreams at the cost of his soul.
It’s that ending that always gets to me. This movie, at least to me, is a mirror of their relationship behind the scenes – Peter uses his mastery of the English language to keep Dudley under his control (he did the bulk of the writing in their partnership and more frequently went out of his way to corpse Dudley), but in the end, Dud ends up rejecting him and going on alone. And in real life, that’s what happened. Peter slowly declined into alcoholism, so Dudley ended up with more writing influence (as well as a job as a sort of babysitter when they were on tour). They began recording Derek and Clive in the 1970s (which is a bizarre story itself), but when you watch the filming of the third album, released as a sort of documentary called Derek and Clive Get the Horn, you can see the relationship has completely shifted. By this time, Dudley was having considerable success in Hollywood, and Peter actually took out his frustrations verbally during the recording. Dudley actually walked out on Peter and didn’t show up for the third day, and the double act was more or less over. They reconciled later in life and occasionally got together for interviews and one-off performances and the like, but their careers went separate ways after that.
The thing that gets me, though, is that whenever Peter Cook worked with other people, that spark that he had with Dudley was missing. The two of them had a chemistry that just worked out brilliantly, and I’m fairly sure they both knew it. On Parkinson, they referred to their double act relationship as a marriage:
Ironically, when asked why it’s like a marriage, they say they’re getting divorced, which happened only a few years after this was shot. Years later, they again referred to the double act as a sort of failed marriage:
That, amongst other things, tells me that there was an underlying affection there – the two of them were genuinely great friends, and it shows – even though their friendship shifted into a love-hate relationship during the tough years in the 1970s. The double act never officially ‘broke up,’ but they went their separate ways career-wise and reconciled their relationship after things were stable for both of them. They remained associates and became friends again later on. When Peter died, Dudley called his answering machine to hear his voice for the next three weeks or so as a coping method. They genuinely did like each other an awful lot, and the fact that they managed to reconcile and get back on good terms with one another later on is a testament to that.
After all, there’s no point in being in a comedy marriage with somebody that you flat-out hate.