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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

ALAN FRISWELL: A WORD ABOUT STAN AND OLLIE

I’m grateful to Oll for pointing out the anniversary of Stan Laurel’s death the other day. I’m a great admirer of many comedians; from the Carry-ons, to the Pythons, The Goodies, John Cleese, Dave Allen, The Two Ronnies, The League of Gentlemen and many others. But the absolute masters, in my opinion anyway, were Laurel and Hardy.

I’m sure you all know that Stan was born in England--Ulverston, Lancashire to be specific; but Ollie also claimed English ancestry, and believed that he was descended from the famous Hardy, from whom Lord Nelson requested a kiss.

The magic of their films is that, unlike many of their peers who we mostly appreciate in a ‘nostalgic’ way, Laurel and Hardy’s comedy is still fresh and contemporary, and just as relevant today as it was back in the 1930s. As Oll says, many of their films contained Fortean themes and material, and a surprising amount of horror and creepiness.

The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930), in which Stan, believing that he is the beneficiary to a late relative’s will, turns up with Ollie at a ghoulish house, only to discover that someone is methodically killing off all the other contenders for the fortune. The episode is fully as frightening and grim in its darker moments as any of the Universal horror films that were being made at the time.

The Live Ghost (1934), which features the boys on board a ‘haunted’ ship, carries a real sense of mystery and ghostliness, while in Oliver The Eighth (1934), Ollie--unbelievably in a comedy--almost becomes the victim of a female serial killer who, after being jilted by an Oliver on her wedding day, has sworn to take revenge on any Oliver that crosses her path. It might be the first time that a female serial killer had ever been put into a film, and the scenes where the madwoman--played brilliantly by Mae Busch--prepares to cut Ollie’s throat with a huge butcher knife takes the film completely into the realm of horror.

Stan and Ollie’s films were innovative in other ways too. In Dirty Work (1933) they play chimney sweeps and turn up at the house of a mad scientist who has developed a technique for rejuvenating living things. In a mix of science fiction and Darwinism, Ollie falls into a vat of the rejuvenating liquid and reverts to a monkey while still wearing his hat.

In Brats (1930) Stan and Ollie play not only themselves but their small children and in some amazingly realistic scenes utilising split- screens, perspective photography and huge prop furniture, predate more famous films that used the same FX tricks, such as The Devil Doll and Dr Cyclops, by six and ten years respectively.

There are even certain crypto-zoo elements that appear in some of their films. In both The Chimp (1932) and Swiss Miss (1938) the boys encounter apes with almost human intelligence, and on both occasions the monkey suit was worn by Charles Gemora, Hollywood’s premier ape-man who for years had reputedly used a gorilla suit to create the original King Kong before the film’s stop-motion techniques were made public. Gemora died in 1961 and so could not have possibly been involved in the Patterson/Gimlin film but it has been suggested that his methods for building ape-suits, which included using condoms filled with water to simulate the inertia and displacement of muscle-mass, had been passeddown to latter-day make-up FX artists, who might have implemented them in the faking of the 1967 Bigfoot film (always assuming that it is fake, of course; the jury‘s still out, as far as I‘m concerned).

There is a creepily intelligent horse in The Music Box (1932),which, while pulling a cart upon which is loaded a heavy piano, waits for Ollie to get his back underneath it, before deliberately pulling it away, landing the piano directly onto Ollie.

And perhaps weirdest of all, in Flying Elephants (1927), a kind of precursor to One Million Years BC, Stan and Ollie, both caveman, comment on the elephants migrating for the winter, and we see a shot of a flock of (cartoon-animated) elephants with wings heading south.

The capacity for humour and the ability to laugh is surely one of the greatest gifts that nature, God, or whoever’s running the store has bestowed upon us. Those blessed with the genius to create laughter must be counted among our most precious people, and Stan and Ollie were arguably the best of all time.

Long live them both.

2 comments:

Richard Freeman said...

Well said Alan. Let's hear it for Stan and Ollie!

Oll Lewis said...

Reincarnation was used to comic effect by them too (SPOILER AHEAD) in "The Flying Deuces" after Ollie dies in a plane crash he is reincarnated as a horse complete with 'tash and hat.