Stan & Ollie & Leo

The mystery of who teamed Laurel & Hardy is probably insoluble. Leo McCarey claimed credit. Hal Roach claimed credit but allowed Leo some, too. And there are a couple of other names that should be mentioned.

McCarey deserves his place at the table because he supervised most of the silent collaborations and directed a couple and contributed lots of the best story ideas. And he was capable of modesty, insisting that he learned everything he knew from Tod Browning, whom he assisted, and Charley Chase, whom he directed. McCarey said CHASE was the real director on those films. That kind of giving away of credit is rare, so when McCarey says “I teamed them,” he has some credibility.

Roach seems to lie a lot, or at any rate say things that don’t make sense. He presided over the studio where Stan & Ollie appeared in numerous films together without anybody noticing the chemistry between them. I think he lucked into the greatest comedy team of all time and his splendid contribution was to mainly leave them alone to get on with it. Some of the films he has a director credit on are good, but the director is not that important a figure in these films, where there’s a highly creative star/writer, and also a supervisor charged with overseeing the whole process.

A Roach studio employee recalled that when Roach pitched an idea, nobody could ever understand it. And the ideas Roach describes in Randy Skretvedt’s book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies conform to that pattern, especially his nonsensical storyline proposal for BABES IN TOYLAND which makes me tired and ill just thinking about it.

I just watched HURDY GURDY, which was Edgar Kennedy’s first talkie, to see if he has “a voice like a sissy” as Roach alleged. Roach claims he got Kennedy to talk deeper after seeing this movie. But Kennedy in HG is the same bellicose sea-lion he ever was. MAYBE the fault was corrected before the film was finished, but there are plenty of other Roach statements that seem questionable. So I’d say Roach is an unreliable narrator who happened to outlive everyone else and got to repeat his lies more often and more recently than his competitors. He always insisted that Stan couldn’t think up gags, he just remembered them from the music hall, and had no sense of story, allegations denied by absolutely everyone who ever knew Stan.

The other trouble with Roach is that he wasn’t satisfied with having sort of presided over L&H’s union, or giving them the freedom to make their magic. He wanted to get involved and prove that his ideas were as good as anyone else’s. This was fatal.

Stan, of course, was the primary creative force in the film-making, and as long as he had authority the films were good, though he obviously needed collaborators, gag men, a director, and Babe Hardy. But Stan didn’t want to form a double-act and was planning to head behind the camera when the team-up was more or less imposed on him, so the actual idea of Laurel & Hardy can’t go to him.

But the other name deserving of mention is Fred Guiol. He directed DO DETECTIVES THINK?, which is the first film pairing Stan & Ollie in their trademark hats with their trademark personalities. Skretvedt has seen his original draft of WHY GIRLS LOVE SAILORS, an earlier short, in which Guiol proposed casting the boys as inseparable partners. And he directed THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, which plants the boys in the same cell, providing one of the few practical reasons ever provided for their sticking together.

It’s notable that Leo McCarey’s first story credit on an L&H film is PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, in which the boys do not have their traditional costumes and personalities.

So Guiol — a talented gag man, moderate director, and for decades after a producing partner to George Stevens, was right there on three key occasions where the boys developed their act. He wouldn’t have had the authority to declare them a team and make other directors use them as such — Roach and McCarey were surely involved in that decision.

Incidentally, lost bits of Stan’s solo movie DETAINED have just been found, and we can see Stan trying out gags that recur in THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS.

One thing we can safely conclude Leo contributed to the team-up was the escalating tit-for-tat gag, which seems to have multiple antecedents in his own life, from his father’s staged riots in the boxing ring, where all the local newsboys would throw in their shoes and fight to retrieve a matching pair, to an incident with a bow tie started by Mabel Normand, escalating into a clothes-ripping frenzy that destroyed the collective evening dress of an entire New York night club. Even if the slow-burn comedy of retaliation were McCarey’s sole contribution to L&H, that would be enough to earn him immortality.

4 Responses to “Stan & Ollie & Leo”

  1. Have you written anything on the role of “supervisor” and how supervisors have interacted with “directors”? (Implied in this question: you’re doing great work!)

  2. Thanks, Dan!

    I haven’t written anything specific about the supervisor’s role. McCarey makes it sound all-encompassing: agreeing the story (often coming up with it), approving casting, overseeing edit and reshoots (a lot of reshooting went on). Often the director wouldn’t be available for reshoots and the supervisor would handle that. It’s not certain that otherwise he’d be on set much.

    Meanwhile, Leo was also directing lots of Charley Chase films and a couple Laurel & Hardys, and certainly came up with a supply of stories they were still working their way through after he’d graduated to directing features.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    I think it’s the guys on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection” who assert that Langdon likely contributed to Stan Laurel’s new persona well before he was an official writer for the team. Harry’s “childlike” character was certainly different than the boys’, but there’s a common root. Also, Langdon was pushing slow-paced comedy to extremes before L&H precision-tooled it with slow burns, patient milking of a single gag, and making us wait for the last brick.

    They also take huge issue with the Capra-spawned tale of Langdon not comprehending his own comedy. A lot of that assumes he was trying for Chaplin pathos, when in fact he’s clearly after something much stranger. Walter Kerr assumes that’s what Langdon is going for in “The Chaser”, when it’s really a straightforward man-versus-scary-modern-woman farce.

  4. Yes, Capra did a lot of damage to Langdon’s reputation with his score-settling. There’s plenty of evidence thtat Langdon knew his own comic character and was succesful with it before Capra came along. Maybe Capra “got” him in a way that others at the studio didn’t, but that’s all.

    Laurel certainly admired Langdon, and I see quite a lot in common in their characters’ sexless innocence.

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