At Christmas 1952 the inhabitants of a small village in the middle of England were surprised and delighted to discover two of the world’s best known comedians seated at the bar of their local pub. Laurel and Hardy were in another fine mess.
The landlady of the pub was Stan Laurel’s sister, who took over The Bull Inn at Bottesford, Nottinghamshire, in 1948. Laurel and Hardy stayed at the pub over Christmas, entertaining the locals and even helping to serve behind the bar. A commemorative plaque at the Bull Inn notes:
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy stayed at this 18th Century Inn whilst appearing at the Empire Theatre Nottingham during Christmas 1952. Olga Healey, sister of Stan Laurel and her husband Bill were Licensees of the premises during this period.”
In 1890 Arthur Stanley Jefferson – now known as Stan Laurel – was born in Ulverston, Cumbria, England. His father was in vaudeville and Stan began his own career in British music hall, where he picked up a number of comic devices: bowler hat, comic gravity, and nonsensical understatement. He became a member of English theatre impresario Fred Karno’s “Army”, where he worked alongside Charlie Chaplin. Karno is credited with inventing the custard-pie-in-the-face gag. During the 1890s, in order to circumvent stage censorship, Karno’s troupe also developed a form of comedy sketch without dialogue, a precursor of silent movies.
In 1912 Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin went on a tour to America. Chaplin remained, but Stan returned to England. Four years later Stan went back to the States with an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin in an act called “The Keystone Trio”, and in 1917 he made his first movie titled Nuts in May, whose premiere was attended by Chaplin and producer Carl Laemmle. In The Hobo later that same year, Stan did a full-scale impersonation of Chaplin’s little tramp, which led to more short comedies and Stan changing his surname to Laurel.
But it was not until 1926, when both separately signed contracts with the Hal Roach film studio, that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in a movie together. They officially became a team in 1927 appearing together in the silent Putting Pants on Philip. They starred in 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films and 23 full-length feature films. At the end of 1944 they concentrated on performing in stage shows and embarked on a music hall tour of England, Ireland and Scotland. In 1950, before retiring from the screen, they made a French/Italian co-production called Atoll K – a film best forgotten.
After Hardy’s death in 1957, Stan Laurel refused to perform, although he did contribute gags to several film productions. He died in 1965 after suffering a heart attack. Minutes from death, Laurel told his nurse he would not mind going skiing at that very moment. Surprised, the nurse replied that she was not aware that he was a skier. “I’m not,” said Laurel, “But I’d rather be doing that than this!” A few minutes later the nurse looked in on him again and found that he had died quietly in his armchair.
At his funeral, silent screen comedian Buster Keaton remarked, “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.” Dick Van Dyke, a friend, protégé and occasional impressionist of Laurel during his later years, read the anonymous Prayer for Clowns.
“As I stumble through this life,
help me to create more laughter than tears,
dispense more cheer than gloom,
spread more cheer than despair.
Never let me become so indifferent,
that I will fail to see the wonders in the eyes of a child,
or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged.
Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people,
make them happy, and forget momentarily,
all the unpleasantness in their lives.”