Wednesday, February 23, 2011
A TIP OF THE BOWLER TO A COMEDY GENIUS
Today marks 46 years since the passing of Stan Laurel. If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, you know I consider Laurel the single greatest comedy mind ever. That’s high praise indeed considering the massive talents of Chaplin, Keaton, Fields and several others, but when you know Laurel’s background it makes sense. This man ate, drank and slept comedy. He was always working out “bits of business” – he wasn’t just a performer but also a writer, gagman, scenarist and director.
Chaplin and Keaton of course were also amazing comedy architects, but with them I was often aware of "the performance" - I could see the technique at work. For me, watching Laurel is like watching someone that is the subject of a documentary. It really feels like someone took their camera outside and started filming this real, flesh and blood person named Stanley. You get a lot of that same cineme verite feel with Fields, who I also love but ultimately Stan's endearing, childlike humanity wins out for me.
Laurel & Hardy made their fair share of horror-comedies, all of which will ultimately be explored on the Scared Silly blog and the eventual accompanying book. But it went a little deeper than that. It was well-known that Stan had a fondness for black humor. Brilliant tactical artist that he was, he used black humor sparingly. He knew it lacked its punch if overused.
Laurel was famous for his “shock endings.” These were gags that had an edge, a bite to them that was often macabre or just plain bizarre and unsettling. The type of gags that would populate an entire half hour episode of “The Addams Family” but which just appeared suddenly in Laurel & Hardy films to finish off the proceedings with a(n often horrific) bang. Such endings included a blood transfusion that makes Ollie thin and Stan fat in “Thicker than Water,” Stan and Ollie tortured resulting in Ollie stretched on the rack and Stan shrunk in a compressor at the finish of “The Bohemian Girl,” and the duo skinned alive (their intact heads atop dangling marionette-like skeletons) in their final Hollywood film, “The Bullfighters.”
Among Laurel & Hardy fans the most legendary “shock ending” is one that never saw the light of day (indeed, there is some debate over whether it truly is “legend” and was never actually conceived/considered in the first place). In the film “Blockheads,” Laurel & Hardy find themselves facing the ire of jealous husband and master big game hunter Billy Gilbert (I’ll allow you the wonderful privilege of seeking out the film to find out just how they incurred his wrath).
According to the legend, the original ending Laurel conceived faded on the boys’ mounted heads, Ollie bemoaning his familiar, “here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” lament as punctuation.
All of this is to underscore that Laurel understood that line where laughing and being scared meets, overlaps and ultimately blends together. And that’s really what “Scared Silly” is all about, isn’t it? Facing the fear of death and the unknown head-on, with laughter. Thanks for all the laughs, Stan!