Stanley: An Appreciation

I watched Laurel and Hardy last night in “Sons of the Desert.” It’s one of the great comedies ever filmed, with a skewed look on marriage (Stan’s wife is out duck hunting). Stan and Ollie join a lodge, Sons of the Desert, and they scheme to go to the Chicago convention but are terrified to tell their wives.

I love Ollie, but Stan is in a class unto himself, a world class actor who invents things when he’s not the focus. He does five things with his hair in seconds. Watch him eat a wax apple and get more and more into it. “You… wax eater,” sneers Ollie’s wife. And Stan goes from content apple eater to melting man in a long take of his elongated face.

There is no record of Stan Laurel knowing Samuel Beckett. Maybe I should invent such a meeting in a play. Beckett is the greatest writer of the 20th Century. And Stan Laurel is the dream actor to star as Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.” Steve Martin killed on Broadway, Laurel would retire the masterpiece because there would be nowhere else to go.

I was at Symphony Hall in Chicago once to hear Edward Albee lecture. He told a story about calling up “Art Miller” and saying, “Art, let’s go to Moscow and meet some dissident Russian writers.” And Art replied, “Let’s do it. But, let’s stop off and in Paris and hang around with Sam Beckett.” This is a writer’s wet dream of a scenario.

Stan Laurel grew up in a theatrical family, and he excelled as a mime. A mime, that is, not in whiteface but just another guest at the party who, while the other guests verbally interact, lives out a silent and devastatingly funny side existence. Slowly, your eyes gravitate to the silent partner who makes drama out of every little contrivance. You also look for the foil (often Oliver Hardy or a disgruntled wife), someone who sees what you see but wants to kill the partner or the husband.

I could watch Harpo Marx chase women in the Marx Brothers movies forever. But for substance, for sheer artistry, Stan Laurel ranks above Chaplin (Stan understudied for Chaplin) and the great Peter Sellers.

Stan Laurel didn’t invent Absurdism; he was Absurdism. His face was a great work of art. His splendid fingers were machines invented by a genius. His sense of balance—watch him go from staggering to balancing on one foot steady and unswerving—was unparalleled. He was an athlete, a dancer, an acrobat. He drew himself on his own blank slate of a face catching fire with wonder every few seconds.

Watch “Sons of the Desert.” Watch Stanley get up the courage to admit to his wife that he is a liar. Watch his reaction when his wife looks longingly at the barrel of her ginormous hunting rifle. Watch Stan and Ollie dance a hoochy-coochy with Chicago showgirls.

Pardon my Transcendentalism, I can only hope that in the Oversoul of the collective consciousness Sam Beckett and Stan Laurel are dancing and juggling and waiting for Dave Chapelle to join them in the ultimate human statement of meaning and hope and humor that is “Godot.”

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