On and Off the Studio Sets : By Stan Laurel
An Article from the magazine Ideas and Town Talk, August 27th 1932, reproduced in Bowler Desert 54; Summer 1998
The original punctuation used in the text has been retained and there are one or two items that the magazine didn’t quite get correct, perhaps needs clarification or where additional information relevant to what we know now would be useful. The anomalies in the text might have even come from Stan, but the timeframe under discussion here would suggest otherwise.
One of my first memories of the professional world is of acting with Wee Georgie Wood. This was when I was with the famous English troupe known as Levi and Cardwell’s Juvenile Pantomimes. The first time I actually appeared with Georgie Wood was, if I remember rightly, in The Sleeping Beauty. I was a golliwog.(1)
It was soon after this that I joined the world-famous Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds and it was with them that I went to America first of all, understudying Charlie Chaplin who was also a member of the troupe.
After that I played in vaudeville for several years taking-off the man I had understudied.
I rarely see Chaplin these days. Sometimes we pass each other on the Hollywood boulevards. Or perhaps see each other in a restaurant. But that’s all
It is untrue to say that I owe my Hollywood success to him. He once suggested to me that I should try films; but it was several years before I did so.
Memories of Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin, as I remember him in the old days was even then very, very quiet. His brother Syd, looked after him in a paternal manner, guarding his money and keeping him out of mischief. But though I understudied him. I had very little do to do with him.
Many different versions of the way Oliver Hardy and I teamed up have appeared in print. The truth is neither of us can tell you today exactly how it was that we came to join forces. I was a ‘gag’ man in a Hollywood studio for some time; then I went into the scenario department. After this I played small parts and directed short comedies.
Babe, (that’s Oliver) came to the same studio where he began working as a ‘heavy’ in ‘shorts’. And it was inevitable that, sooner or later, we should come in to contact. When we first actually did so I’m sure I don’t know. We often found ourselves playing small parts in the same pictures.
The first actual event which brought him consciously to my mind was when I was assigned to direct a picture in which he was to play prominent part. I received an urgent phone call from him the night before the ‘shooting’ was due to start. “I can’t turn up” he exclaimed “I’ve burnt my hand and I’ll be laid up for several days. I’m sorry”.
The film was due to begin and we were without a leading member of the cast. for the moment I wondered what on earth to do. It was too late to find anyone else unless we hold up the film for a little while which would have meant extra expense. So I played Babes part myself and directed the film as well.(2)
We found ourselves in pictures together several times after this – always ‘shorts’. One day Hal Roach put us together in the leading roles.
We were not the ‘stars’ of the picture it was sent out as a picture with an ‘all star cast’ which, in filmland, means generally that there are no stars in the film. Other pictures of this kind followed. One which we made in 1927 proved a great success and since then we have always appeared together in our films.
We have had to alter our characterisation a trifle; otherwise we have not changed in the least. Babe Hardy always combs his hair down into that absurd little curl.
An Amusing story
The story of how I got my queer ‘thatch’ is an amusing one. One of our first pictures was a prison comedy and for this we have to have our heads shaved, convict fashion.(3) When the film was finished we both took a short holiday, and when I was holiday was over we returned to Hollywood
Babe’s hair was alright again, but mine wasn’t. It stood up like a brush. Everyone howled with laughter when I took my hat off, and since everyone in the studio laughed we decided that my hair should remain like this for my next picture. It looked so effective that I have always carefully arranged my hair in that fashion ever since.
My cry-baby expression is the result of many years’ hard work. I have stood in front of mirrors for hours at a time twisting my features into the most weird and wonderful expressions that I can think of. One day, after I had been rehearsing before a mirror for hours on end my jaws were aching so much that I have to rub liniment into them before I could eat any dinner.
I have watched hundreds of babies crying their heart out, and have tried to copy the extraordinary effects that they get. My own daughter has also given me several lessons – unwelcome ones, sometimes. I would rather get away from thought of work in the middle of the night.
A lot of people have asked me where we obtained our theme song – that queer little tune which you here at the beginning and the end of nearly all our pictures. We call it The Cuckoo Song. I don’t think it boasts a name really!(4)
Babe Hardy heard it first. He used to switch on his radio at a certain time every morning. And this time happened to be the hour selected, day after day, by a firm which ran what it termed “A Cuckoo Hour”
This Cuckoo Song was their introductory and fading-out signal. It so appealed to Babe that he found himself humming it and whistling it where ever he went.
Then he got the idea that it would make a good theme melody for us; so he got in touch with the radio people and asked them how much they wanted for the exclusive rights on it. They let him have it for twenty-five dollars.
There is generally plenty of fun where Babe Hardy is concerned. He doesn’t go about so exuberantly as William Haynes – who is one of the breeziest of all Hollywood stars – always pulling people’s legs. Nor does he behave in the alarmingly fantastic version so beloved by the Marx brothers, who delight in acting in real life precisely as if they were on the screen. Nevertheless, he is often gagging.
A Garbo ‘Story’
Once he took me in completely with a story about Greta Garbo. Although we work very close to her studio, we have never seen her off screen. Not, at least, so far as we are aware.
But Garbo is unknown personally to nearly everyone in Hollywood and everyone is always greatly excited at the prospect of obtaining even a brief glimpse of her. One day, Babe came rushing onto the set excitedly when I was rehearsing a scene on my own.
“Quick!” he gasped. “Garbo’s coming!”
I dashed off the set after him. He stopped suddenly and pulled me aside into a doorway. “Look – there she is’ quiet.”
I held my breath. Footsteps were coming along the passage. A slender figure came into view.
Babe nudged me. “Look! La Garbo|!”
He was wrong. It wasn’t. It was Polly Moran.(5)
We don’t have the same leading ladies in all our films and in most pictures there are no womenfolk at all. We always keep the size of our casts down to a minimum and in many of our films Babe Hardy and I have only one, or perhaps two other people in them.
Talking of leading ladies reminds me that few people seem to realise that Jean Harlow made what I believe to be her first film appearance with us.(6) It was before her name was well known; and I understand at the time that she had never played a featured role before. The picture was called Double Whoopee.(7)
Some time afterwards we once again made a film in which the heroine’s part was simply made for Jean Harlow. But by this time she was famous. We couldn’t possibly afford to pay a high enough salary to have her in our picture. And we played a joke on her. We decided that we should have her in the picture, after all, but without her knowing anything about it.
The film was Beau Chumps. And if you have seen it you will probably remember that the whole theme of it centred around the heroine. Yet she didn’t appear in the film at all. We so arranged the script that it was unnecessary for her to be seen personally. By a little careful writing of the dialogue we worked it so that it was only necessary for photograph to be seen.
Ben Turpin is another well known figure who has been seen in one or two of our talkies in very small parts.(8) Many people have taken this to mean that Ben is down on his luck and only too glad to get small parts whenever he can. But it means nothing of the sort. Ben Turpin is one of the few people in Hollywood who has succeeded in saving money. He has, officially, retired now and he’s fairly well off.
But the lure of the studios is strong. Every now and then he will look in at one or other of the studios and because he still loves acting he will amuse himself by taking small parts here and there.
Hollywood is not such a terrible place. One can be happy there. And those who try to make the world laugh seem to be the happiest of the lot.
1: Stan appeared with Benny Barron, a Sunderland native and future landlord of what became the Beau Chumps MKII original meeting venue, The Boars Head Inn. Stan always kept in touch with Benny (of whom he always referred to as ‘Bennie’) and met with him with Babe during their engagement at the Sunderland Empire in February 1954.
2: The film was thought to be Get ‘Em Young.
3: This film was The Second Hundred Years.
4: The Cuckoo Song was written by Roach musical director T Marvin Hatley.
5: Pauline Theresa Moran (1883 – 1952) billed as Polly Moran, was an American actress of vaudeville, stage and screen and comedian.
6: By then, Harlow had already had bit parts in 9 films, one of which was Laurel and Hardy’s Liberty. (1929) She would go on to appear in Bacon Grabbers (1929) and to feature in Beau Chumps (1931) as noted.
7: Randy Skredvedt: Miss Harlow’s brief scene is a highlight of Double Whoopee. It was a memorable scene in real life, too. In the first take of her stroll to the hotel desk, she wore even less than she does in the film, as Rolfe Sedan [playing the desk clerk] recalled: “We weren’t told she was going to come in naked. It was a shock for all of us…when she came up to the desk, for a moment I almost didn’t say my words. Even though I’d been in burlesque they didn’t walk around like that. It’s bound to throw you when you don’t expect it…”
8: Ben Turpin would by then have already appeared in Our Wife (1931). He would only appear once more with the boys, coincidentally in his final film which was Saps at Sea (1940)
Thanks again to Willie McIntyre and we hope you enjoyed reading this almost 90 year-old article. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below; we’d love to hear from you.