The consummate performer and entertainer, Stan Laurel spent almost every year of his life trying to lighten the lives of people all around the world. From his trademark rubber smile and spontaneous sobbing to his lifelong friendship and partnership with Oliver Hardy, Laurel will forever be remembered as one of the greatest comedians of all time.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born June 16, 1890 in Ulverton, Cumbria, England. In a classic case of foreshadowing, his father was an actor and managed theaters in the area. Arthur picked up the acting bug early, and by sixteen was appearing in plays throughout England and Scotland. It was here he began perfecting his comedy routines - pratfalls, impressions, and double takes - that would carry him the rest of his life.
In 1910, the famous Fred Karno vaudeville crew came to town, and Arthur won a spot with the show as an understudy to the central star, the inimitable Charlie Chaplin. He toured with the group for 4 years throughout America and England. Finally, in 1916 he earned his film role, a short picture called Nuts in May. Chaplin himself saw the first screening and declared Arthur Jefferson "a star."
Over the next four years, he took parts in fourteen films, most of them under the Hal Roach studio name. In 1921, he nearly lost his coveted position as comic relief: his piercing light blue eyes were blinded out by new black-and-white film techniques invented that year. Luckily, Hal decided to stick with the older techniques to keep Jefferson and other starlets around.
In 1918, he met Mae Dahlberg, another budding young actress. It was she who convinced the kinetic Jefferson to shorten his name to "Stan Laurel." The two married that year, ultimately divorcing in 1926, the first of six wives for the legend.
In 1919, while starring as the "Brash young man accused of dognapping" in The Lucky Dog, Stan was introduced to another young actor, the portly Babe Hardy. The two became friends, but it wasn't until 1925 that the two were reunited, and another three years to form the greatest comedy team of the 20th century.
Laurel & Hardy
By 1924, Stan was not only a star, but also a major writer and producer for Roach and MGM Studios. He also found ways to cast wife Mae and several of his friends in the romping low budget musicals he was directing, including the rechristened Oliver Hardy. In 1926 the two made their first appearance together in the short reel "Forty-Five Minutes in Hollywood." With the addition of Oscar-winning director Leo G. McCarey in 1928, the two began starring together in a number of shorts and films, including the Oscar-winning short "The Music Box" in 1932. (You know, the one where they move the piano. Now you remember?)
The premise for the pictures were simple yet clever: Stan was the good-natured lackey, while Oliver played the domineering schemer. Together the two would take on various jobs and activities, with lots of complications. Watching Oliver turn from nicey-nice to head smacking and Laurel reacting with his trademark whine (which he complained was degrading, but performed anyway for ratings) is classic even to this day.
While the success of Laurel and Hardy grew, Laurel used his newfound money to produce a number of western films featuring Fred Scott. Unfortunately these movies were often moneylosers, and Stan had to reluctantly quit producing them in the late 1930s.
Stan and Oliver made over 100 films together, and were the closest of friends. After their departure from Roach, they had trouble keeping up the quality of the output, mostly due to budget restrictions in the World War II era of filmmaking. Their final release came in 1950 with Atoll K, and the two retired to do stage performances throughout Europe. Finally, in 1957, their partnership was permanently dissolved with the death of Hardy. It is rumored that Stan, suffering from lung ailments himself and too ill to attend the funeral, had nervous breakdowns on a regular basis following his partner's death.
In 1958 he and Oliver were awarded with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1962 he was awarded a lifetime achievement for his "contributions to cinematic comedy" by the Academy Awards.
Stan Laurel passed away February 23, 1965 of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California. The following year he and Hardy appeared on the cover of The Beatles' classic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in 1989 the two were honored with a postage stamp, lovingly drawn by Al Hirschfeld, for the United States Postal Service.