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Biography of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy – I’m sorry, Ollie!

Biography of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, aka Stan Laurel (June 16, 1890 – February 23, 1965)

(Please check out our sister site, dedicated to the lives and work of Laurel and Hardy)

Stan Laurel, the tall, thin, “dumb” half of the team of  Laurel and Hardy, is an interesting individual in his own right. One of the pioneers of motion picture comedies, he and his partner  Oliver Hardy were two of the rare individuals who made the successful transition from silent movies to talking pictures. But he is much more than that. For instance, few people are aware that he had a successful film career before teaming with “Ollie.” He produced, directed, wrote and edited much of the work that “The Boys” created. In many ways, his life parallels that of another film comedy great,  Charlie Chaplin. Did you know that, unlike the southern Ollie, Stan was English? And did you know he was Chaplin’s understudy on the stage in their home country of England?

Early Years of  Stan Laurel, half of the famous team of Laurel and Hardy

Stan was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson on June 16, 1890 in North Lancashire, England. His parents, like  Chaplin’s, were both active in the theater, but unlike Chaplin’s, Stan’s home life was a happy one. In his early years, he spent much time living with his grandmother, as his father, A. J. Jefferson, managed a number of different theaters. Stan had a natural affinity for the theater, with his first professional performance on stage at the age of sixteen.

Stan Laurel‘s Early Stage Experience

In 1910,  Stan Laurel joined Fred Karno’s troupe of actors, including a young man named  Charlie Chaplin. For some time, Stan was Chaplin’s understudy. The Karno troupe toured America and brought both Chaplin and Stan to the United States for the first time. Unlike Chaplin, Stan left the Karno troupe and remained in the United States. From 1916 to 1918, Stan teamed up with Alice and Baldwin Cooke, who become lifelong friends. It was around this time that Stan met another person who would have a major impact on his life — Mae Dahlberg.

Beware the Ides of Mae –  Stan Laurel‘s first great love

Mae, another performer, was married to an estranged husband in her native Australia. Even so, she and  Stan Laurel soon became romantically involved. Like Chaplin, Stan would become involved time and again with a woman unsuited for him, normally to his detriment. Mae was temperamental, and abrasive, which caused no small damage to the couple both personally and professionally. It was at this time that Stan adopted the stage name of Laurel — at Mae’s suggestion. Stan and Mae were performing together when Stan was offered $75.00 per week to star in two-reel comedies.

After the making of Stan’s first film, Nuts in May (1917), Universal offered him a contract. Stan accepted and created his first screen persona, Hickory Hiram. The contract was short-lived, however, and was canceled during a reorganization at the studio. Stan and Mae returned to their vaudeville act, although he later worked for “Bronco” Billy Anderson. One of the films made with Anderson was  The Lucky Dog, where Stan was briefly on screen with a supporting actor —  Oliver Hardy. It would be many years, however, before the duo would act together again. When they did, they created the world-famous team of Laurel and Hardy.

Hello, Joe — Goodbye Mae –  Stan Laurel begins full-time film work

In 1924, Stan had forsaken his stage career to work full time in films, now under contract with Joe Rock. The contract called for Stan to make twelve two-reel comedies. The contract also had one unusual stipulation — that Mae was not to appear in any of the films. It had become obvious to everyone who knew Stan that Mae’s temperament was hindering his career. In 1925, when Mae started interfering with Stan’s work, Joe Rock offered her a cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia, which she accepted. Without any distractions, Stan finished the twelve films ahead of schedule, although he was still technically under contract to Joe Rock. Stan next joined the Hal Roach studio as a writer and director, but due to the contract with Joe, could not act in any of the films.

The Roach Years – Laurel and Hardy, not quite together

Stan began directing films at the Hal Roach Studio, including a 1926 production called  Yes, Yes, Nanette, starring another new addition to the Roach lot named  Oliver Hardy. However, Stan couldn’t stay away from the camera himself for long, and started acting again — this initiated a short-lived lawsuit. Eventually, Stan remained at Roach, and found himself working together more and more often with Oliver Hardy, though not yet as the team they became world-famous for — Laurel and Hardy; instead, Stan found himself “teamed” with another person, Lois Nielson, whom he wed at August 13, 1926.

The Boys – Laurel and Hardy form the great comedy team

In 1927, the team of Laurel and Hardy was officially ‘born’ on film with the release of  Duck Soup (no relation to the  Marx Brothers’ movie of the same name). The film is based on a sketch written by  Stan Laurel’s father, called ‘Home from the Honeymoon.’ Another birth happened in Stan’s life on December 10th, 1927 — his daughter Lois.

Unlike Oliver (“Babe” to his friends), Stan was immersed in every facet of moving making, from writing to directing to editing to the final cut.

A “Stan” is Born –  Stan Laurel‘s screen character becomes defined

Unlike  Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character,  Stan Laurel’s character of “Stan” developed slowly over time. In  Duck Soup, his character (named James Hives) is similar to “Stan”, though not quite finished. In their next few films, “Stan” (under various names) becomes more developed in the team of Laurel and Hardy. For example, his characteristic hair-scratching first occurred after filming  The Second Hundred Years in which Laurel and Hardy portrayed convicts, complete with shaven heads; as it grew back in, it itched, and he scratched it, getting laughs from the people on the set — so he added that to “Stan’s” repertoire.

Did You Hear That? Laurel and Hardy make the transition to talking films

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Laurel and Hardy were able to make the transition from silent movies to talking pictures smoothly. Their first ‘talkie’ picture was ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘. Other classic talking Laurel and Hardy features followed, including “Another Fine Mess,” a personal favorite. This feat is more amazing considering the hectic pace that they worked at in the Roach studio.

“After the picture was assembled, we previewed it and if no re-takes were needed, we started to prepare the next story. If Roach was anxious for us to get started, we’d go into production almost right away after finishing a picture, and complete the script as we went along. We would start out with an idea, go along working on it as we were shooting, and then we would frequently deviate from the original idea. We worked hard, but there was no real pressure. It was fun, particularly in the silent days.” — Stan Laurel

Laurel and Hardy at the Roach Studio

Although the pace was hectic, and  Stan Laurel did not have the creative control that he desired,  Laurel &  Hardy’s time at the Roach studio was prolific and profitable, both personally and professionally. Stan arranged for his longtime friends Alice and Baldwin Cooke to be hired at the studio — they appear in several of the boys’ most well-known films, such as A Perfect Day,  Be Big , The Bohemian Girl and  Babes in Toyland (also known as  The March of the Wooden Soldiers). In 1930, personal tragedy struck — Lois gave birth to a son, Stanley Robert, but the child was two months premature and died nine days later. Despite his grief, Stan began filming Pardon Us , Laurel and Hardy’s first feature film shortly afterward. In December 1931, Stan began filming  The Music Box. This was one of Laurel and Hardy’s finest films and one for which they deserved and won an Oscar, as well as filming the classic  County Hospital.

Bonnie Scotland, Oliver Hardy, June Lang, Stan Laurel on Window Card, 1935

Stan felt the need for a vacation.  He decided to visit his father in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1932. Ollie and his wife, Myrtle, joined them, and the vacation was turned into a working tour, with enormous crowds greeting them everywhere they went. Interestingly enough, it was on this tour that Stan’s friendship with Ollie blossomed. Although they previously had always maintained a very good working relationship, they spent little time together outside of the studio. This changed during the tour, and the two comedians became the best of friends.

“Babe was like a brother to me. We seemed to sense each other. Funny, we never really got to know each other personally until we took the tours together. When we made pictures it was all business even though it was fun. Between pictures we hardly saw each other. His life outside the studio was sports, and my life was practically all work, even after work was over. I loved editing and cutting the pictures, something he wasn’t interested in. But, whatever I did was tops with him. There was never any arguments between us, never.” — Stan Laurel

Personal Trouble for  Stan Laurel

Upon returning from the tour,  Stan Laurel resumed his hectic work schedule, filming some of their finest short films, including  Sons of the Desert and  Busy Bodies, among others. His marriage to Lois suffered, and in the spring of 1933, Stan met Ruth Rogers. The two began seeing each other socially, and Ruth began visiting Stan on the set. Lois filed for divorce in October. In addition, Stan’s brother, who had moved to the USA years before and was working as Stan’s chauffeur, died during a routine dental procedure. In April of the next year, Stan and Ruth married.

Conflicts & Connubial Bliss —  Stan Laurel‘s search for happiness

Way Out West

In August,  Stan Laurel began the filming of  Babes in Toyland, one of Laurel and Hardy’s most beloved films. However, this children’s film exacerbated the tension between Stan and the Roach studio. Hal Roach had written the original story, which Stan thought would not work as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy. After numerous discussions, Stan wrote his own story line, further alienating himself from Hal Roach. In 1935, The Boys began working on  Bonnie Scotland. Stan’s wife Ruth visited on the set frequently and even made the suggestion for their next film — a comedy western (Way Out West).

However, like Stan’s previous attempts, this marriage ended in divorce the following year, despite Stan and Ruth’s obvious love and affection for each other. And, to add insult to injury, Mae Dahlberg returned from Australia and sued Stan for alimony — contending that she had been Stan’s common law wife from 1919 to 1925. As if this wasn’t enough, his contract at Roach was about to expire, and he didn’t care for the provisions.

Stan did not want to extend his contract under his existing terms, and Roach insisted on including a morals clause — perhaps not unreasonably, given the amount of time and negative publicity generated by Stan’s marital difficulties. As a solution, Stan formed the  Stan Laurel Productions film company, which had a non-exclusive contract with Hal Roach Studios. The first film the new company made for Roach was  Swiss Miss, which went into production in December of 1937.

And, proving that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, Stan got married on January 1, 1938, to Vera Illiana Shuvalova. At this point, Stan’s life reads like one of Laurel and Hardy’s scripts — Ruth flew to their honeymoon hotel, raising a ruckus that their divorce wasn’t final — in reality, it had become final a few days previously. Like Mae, Vera had a nasty temper and brought trouble on Stan’s head almost immediately. Predictably, they were divorced in May of 1940.

Also predictably, he continued to have trouble with Hal Roach studios. This ended with his contract being terminated by Roach for general insubordination. After enduring a trial (and retrial) over drunken driving charges stemming from one of his conflicts with Vera in 1939, Stan counter-sued the Roach studio. In a nutshell, all lawsuits were eventually dropped, and Stan returned to the Roach studios.

The first film Laurel and Hardy made back at Roach Studios was  A Chump at Oxford. In this film, Stan Laurel plays both his lovable, dim-witted character, as well as an intelligent professor. However, it did not appear that smooth sailing was in the cards at Roach Studios. Their next film was one of their most famous,  Flying Deuces. But Stan insisted on a major re-write to make it more adaptable to Laurel and Hardy’s comedic style. Their next film,  Saps at Sea, was to be their final film for Roach Studios. Their contracts expired in April, 1940. Their very next step was to go on a national tour from September through December. In each of the twelve major cities they performed in, reviews were favorable and the crowds were enthusiastic. In January of 1941, Stan re-married Ruth Rogers.

Now for the Bad News – lean times for  Stan Laurel

Unfortunately for Laurel and Hardy, no major studio came knocking to their door with a contract. Despite their popularity, as evidenced by their national tour, studio tastes had changed. In April of 1949, they received a non-exclusive contract from Fox Studios. The new contract called for one motion picture with the option of nine more over the next five years. Stan and Ollie accepted but came to realize the disadvantages of working at a major studio.  Unlike Roach Studios, there was no creative input. Stan could no longer control the filming, even to the limited degree that he could at Roach. Also, they were seen as relatively small cogs in the Fox machine, with none of the family atmosphere they had taken for granted at Roach, and buttonholed as making “B” grade movies.

In May of 1941, Stan and Ruth separated again.

In 1943, Ruth filed for divorce again — only to later withdraw the divorce suit later.

In 1945, Ruth filed for divorce yet again, which was granted in 1946. Shortly afterward,  Stan Laurel married yet again, to a Russian opera singer named Ida Kitaeva Raphael. This marriage was different from all of Stan’s previous marriages in one important way — it was successful. As Ida herself said,  “No more divorces for Stan Laurel!” Stan was truly happy in this marriage, perhaps for the first time.

European Tour – Laurel and Hardy still a major attraction

With their film career at a standstill, Laurel and Hardy toured Europe, playing The Driver’s License sketch written by Stan. Initial plans were to play two weeks at the London Palladium and then four weeks at various provincial theaters, for a total of six weeks. However, it was so successful, the tour was expanded to eleven  months. Laurel and Hardy played the Coliseum in London, then Denmark, Sweden, France and Belgium. They did not return home until January of 1948.

Health Issues, and a Sickly Movie – a sad, final hurrah for Laurel and Hardy

In 1949, Stan discovered that he had diabetes. Focusing on his health instead of work, he encouraged Ollie to make two films without him that year (including  The Fighting Kentuckian, with  John Wayne). In 1950, Laurel and Hardy received an offer to make a film in France, which they accepted. This film,  Atoll K (also known as  Utopia), was politely described as a disaster. While not the worst film ever made (the opening scene in the lawyers’ office is actually quite humorous), the film as a whole is probably the worst film Laurel and Hardy ever made. The script required a major re-write by Stan, and both Stan and Ollie suffered serious medical illnesses during the filming. The fact that the multi-national cast didn’t speak a common language surely didn’t help.

Once they returned home, they spent some time recovering their health. In 1952,  they did another tour of England doing a new sketch by Stan Laurel, based on Night Owls, one of their 1930’s films. The tour was so successful that they returned the next year with another new sketch by Stan. However, during their 1953 tour, Stan was taken seriously ill and was unable to perform for several weeks. In May of 1954, Oliver Hardy suffered a slight heart attack, which canceled the tour. This was to be their last tour, due to health reasons. In December of that year, they were surprised with an appearance on the TV show “This is Your Life.” As Stan said, “It was a staggering experience. We’ve been planning to do something on TV, but we certainly never intended to start out on an unrehearsed network show!”

Closing Days – the end of Laurel and Hardy

In 1955, Laurel and Hardy were planning a television series,  The Fables of Laurel and Hardy.  This was to be based on children’s’ stories, produced by Hal Roach, Jr. These plans were postponed when  Stan Laurel suffered a stroke on April 25, 1955. Stan recovered, and in 1956 was planning to get back to work, when Oliver suffered a major stroke. Ollie was paralyzed and confined to his bed for several months before his death on August 7, 1957. Stan was under his doctor’s orders due to his own poor health. Sadly, he was unable to attend the funeral of his long-time partner and friend.

After Oliver’s death, Stan realized he would never work again. However, he kept busy writing gags and sketches for fellow comedians. He was recognized with  a special Oscar for his pioneering work in the field of comedy in 1961.  Stan Laurel passed away on February 23, 1965, a few days after suffering a heart attack.

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