Review: Vivien Horler
He – a novel, by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball)
John Connolly is an Irish writer better known for his Charlie Parker thrillers, but he is different.
It is a novel about the legendary Hollywood comic duo of Laurel & Hardy, who won world acclaim between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, a period that straddled Prohibition in the United States, World War II and the fundamental shift in the film industry from silent movies to the talkies.
Connolly, born in 1968, after the deaths of both Laurel, the thin one, and Hardy, the fat one, says their films were part of his childhood, and that his affection for them has not dimmed.
But they were “figures from a distant past, moving through a monochrome world”, so he was entranced to discover that a friend in Los Angeles had once been given a derby hat by Stan Laurel.
“… it seemed impossible to me that someone I knew might not only have met one of them, but have been bequeathed a hat in the process.”
Connolly began to wonder about the men and their relationship, the fact that after Hardy’s death Laurel refused to work again, because he could not without the man he knew as Babe. Babe would have thrived without him, he thinks, but he cannot thrive without Babe.
Connolly’s research eventually became the background to this novel in which he explores what he calls “a being of great emotional complexity, of pain and loss, of love and regret”.
The novel, he says, is an attempt to capture that presence, and in my view he has been entirely successful.
The story begins with Stan in his last home at the sea-front Oceana Apartments in Santa Monica, where he lives with his (I think fourth – it’s hard to keep track) wife Ida. He stares at the sea, answers fan letters, and remembers Laurel & Hardy’s glory days.
He was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Lancashire in 1890, the son of AJ Jefferson, a music hall impresario. By 16 he is performing skits and slapstick for his father’s company and soon after that is touring England with other funnymen. One of them is Chaplin, already a legend, and a legend that Stan wants to emulate, even if you can’t believe a word Chaplin says.
Chaplin is the star; Chaplin believes his own hype. Stan nearly gets to be Chaplin when he is invited to go on a US tour as Chaplin’s understudy in 1912. But when Chaplin deserts the company, Stan is not promoted. He is humiliated. He watches Chaplin’s rise, the birth of The Little Tramp, and knows that he can do what Chaplin does.
For years in the US, Stan works in bit parts and sketches and then in one and two-reel movies, longing to be great, watching Chaplin. He begins to think he does not have it in him. If he dies his obituary might say: “Formerly in pictures.”
He fears failure. “Failure in America, then Britain, and finally Europe. If he had the money and ambition, he could probably have failed in Australia too…”
And then, in 1927, he and Oliver Hardy – from Midgeville, Georgia – are cast together in Hal Roach’s Duck Soup. For years Babe has acted as a heavy and a villain, but Duck Soup reveals his comedic side. Stan tells his wife Lois he realises he will never be a star like Chaplin or Buster Keaton. He says: “Perhaps I cannot do it alone.”
And a great partnership is born.
But their private lives are appalling. Babe is married to a drunk and is having affairs, Stan is having affairs, and then Lois leaves him. He is aghast when he discovers the alimony he will have to pay. He marries again and again, and when those marriages end, is even more aghast at how much of his earnings his wives claim.
The women come and go, but Babe is always there.
This book is an education about early Hollywood, and the scores of names that made it great, names that briefly rose to the top of the bills, and then sank back. The coming of the talkies was a major challenge, because now the actors could not simply rely on slapstick: they had to have something to say.
And sound made editing difficult – if you cut a scene short, the words went with it. It was some time before the directors and actors realised you could move the microphones.
He is a revelation of the dynamics of success and failure, even for a duo who were worldwide stars.
But the book is also a love story between two men who complement each other both in front of the camera and off it. They made each other stars, and they made each other men. At the end, years after Babe’s death, as Stan contemplates his own end, he think with gratitude that he did not have to dance alone. “As the lens closes and the circle shrinks, he knows that he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.”
*This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday (December 3 2017).