Their heyday was over but when Hollywood’s most famous comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy topped the bill at Cardiff’s New Theatre in 1952 they received a tumultuous reception.
Their slapstick humour was still a magic formula for laughs and although their great film making days were over they had been partners for more than 25 years and still pulled crowds.
After making 100 films together the comedy pair came to Cardiff as part of a UK tour aimed at reviving their stardom.
Stan with his trademark blank looks, unruly hair and wiggling ears and the fat, pompous, tie-twiddling Ollie had been stars in the 1930s and wartime bringing much needed light relief to the grim reality of the depression years and war.
By the time they came to Cardiff, they were considered old men back in the USA as audiences turned to newer stars like Abbott and Costello or switched on their televisions rather than going to the cinema.
But in 1952 in Cardiff, Laurel and Hardy still had the magic to make grown men run down the street after them and make eating a bag of chips as funny as our picture shows.
One report from the time tells how a builder’s labourer, standing in the back of a lorry driving down Park Place, was so star struck he jumped from the vehicle and rushed to touch Hardy when he saw the pair as they approached Queen Street.
Yelling “Stan”, “Ollie” as the comics walked towards the New Theatre he jumped off the lorry and ran down the road to clutch the trouser leg of Hardy.
It was enough to make Laurel run his fingers through his hair in his famous gesture of incomprehension.
In the history section of its website, the New Theatre records how: “In 1952, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, despite both being in their sixties, receive a wonderful reception from several generations of fans for their unique brand of slapstick comedy.”
This sort of adulation must have been sweet for the pair who had been reduced to playing small theatres while staying in boarding houses on the comeback tour which never really was.
And the press still wanted to speak to them in Cardiff. Asked the secret of their comic genius by a South Wales Echo reporter who visited them in their New Theatre dressing room in 1952, Stan said: “People are fed up with looking at stuffed shirts on the stage. They like action and human characters.
“Too many would-be comedians today want to take the easy way. They don’t want funny clothes or dirty faces. They want to throw away the tramp’s outfit and walk on stage in evening dress and talk. Words, words – no action, no characters.”
But by the time they came to Cardiff, they were both 63 and younger comics were snapping at their heels in Hollywood.
Hard up, chased for money by ex-wives and with their fame dwindling the pair were reduced to playing smaller UK venues. But, their swansong made the pair true friends for the first time, as a new film reveals.
Stan & Ollie stars Steve Coogan as Lancashire-born Laurel, and American actor John C. Reilly as Hardy.
The film, which opens in the UK on January 11, has had good reviews in the USA.
While the pair’s hope of reviving their flagging career with the UK tour ultimately failed, the film suggests it cemented friendship.
And generations on their comic genius lives on, even if they never recaptured the adulation of their heydey which had brought crowds of thousands to the streets on previous UK tours.
Who were Laurel and Hardy?
American comedian Hardy (1892-1957) was born in Harlem, Georgia and ran away from home to join a minstrel group when he was eight years old.
He soon returned home to his widowed mother and when he wasn’t in school hung around the lobby of his mother’s hotel studying the odd behaviour and mannerisms of the guests.
Later sent to military school, he went awol and ended up singing in a movie house for 50 cents a day. After running a movie theatre in Milledgeville for three years, he moved to Jacksonville following films crews in the hope of obtaining employment before moving on to California where he met Hal Roach and Stan Laurel.
Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson (1890-1965) in Ulverston, Lancashire – now in Cumbria. In his early days, he had gone to work for a number of travelling groups earning a pound a week. He later joined Fred Karno’s troupe and after a tour of Britain the troupe went on to America in 1910.
How did they meet?
In America, Stan wrote his own material and started touring with his own shows until he met Hollywood producer Hal Roach who was to become his long-time boss and for whom he directed many films.
Roach was well known for giving his actors, writers and directors the scope to create great comedy routines. Even so, he often fell out with Stan. Almost by chance, Stan played in the film Lucky Dog with Ollie, but it wasn’t until a few years later when they starred in Slipping Wives that Roach teamed them up.
Their first full-length feature film in 1931 was Pardon Us and they became so successful that by 1935 they made no more shorts, only feature films. Although they were really a visual act, their genius was in being able to make the transition from silent film to sound.
What makes them funny?
Ollie said that the secret of their success was, “Those two fellows we created, they were nice, very nice people. They never get anywhere because they are both so dumb, but they know they’re dumb.
“One of the reasons why people like us, I guess, is because they feel superior to us.”
It was their pairing that made them what they were – the funniest couple in Hollywood. The many Laurel and Hardy websites and fan clubs devoted to them, the books, videos and DVDs being re-released of their old films proves how popular they still are.