Babe: the life of Oliver Hardy
"This fascinating biography traces the life and times of one of the best-loved film comics of all time. Through a frustrating childhood to worldwide renown as half of the greatest comedy team in history of Hollywood."
I’ve been a fan of Laurel and Hardy since I was a child. My Dad was a fan too and together we’d watch films like the Flying Deuces on VHS, we went to the Laurel and Hardy museum near Stan’s childhood home on Ulverston, I even had some of the cheap 70’s cartoons on video.
Despite this however, I didn’t know much about the off screen lives of either man, which made this book such a fun discovery.
John McCabe was friends with both men, making their acquaintance during their British music hall tours in the 1950’s. He spent a lot of time with them both and pulls from their conversations to write this book, telling the life of Oliver Hardy.
The fact that McCabe approaches this book from the perspective of a friend rather than a fan (though of course, he’s clearly both) lends the book a lot of warmth, something I often feel is missing from biographies. The book is anecdotal, the writer admitting that some of the facts may have been muddied with time, but it lends the book a storytelling atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re in the room having a friendly chat with Stan and Ollie rather than just reading an essay.
What emerges from these anecdotes is the story of a man who lived to make people laugh, someone who found something their calling in life and stuck to it through to the end.
He seems to have lived a comfortable and happy life, and while it was not free of some hardships, he seems to have got through these with a minimum of fuss, the good always out weighing the bad.
These hardships include his alcoholic second wife Myrtle, who seems to have been the centre of most of what little hardship he encountered. The two had a rocky relationship which ended in divorce and lengthy court cases over alimony that would continue to Hardy’s death and beyond.
Another issue was his weight. Hardy hated being overweight but was trapped by his success. The Oliver Hardy character, worked in part because of his visual disparity with co-star Stan Laurel. Stan was thin Ollie was fat. He worried that altering this dynamic would have had an effect of the duo’s success, and he may well have been right.
For the most part though, Hardy seemed to lead a happy and content life. He made his way into the film industry, had reasonable success, was eventually paired with Stan Laurel and continued to make films and tour the music halls with him until the end of their careers.
The book may disappoint those who read celebrity biographies to learn of the vice and scandal that they’re so often pumped full of. But personally, I found it a joy to read about a hero of mine having simply lead a happy life. I was glad to learn how untarnished his life had been.
In terms of an insight into Laurel and Hardy as a team, this perhaps isn’t the best book. Laurel was really the creative force behind the films, coming up with the gags and stories for the films. Oliver Hardy was content to play his role and let Stan play his. So, for that info, a better source might be McCabe’s other books on the duo, one a biography of Stan Laurel, the other an overview of the double act as a whole. I look forward to picking up both of these books at a later date.
If you’re a fan of Laurel and Hardy, picking this one up is a no brainer. If you’re a film fan in general, you’ll enjoy the insights it offers in to the Hollywood machine, as it ran, in the 1920s and 30’s.
It’s an entertaining and heart-warming glimpse into the life of a cinematic legend and one I’d heartily recommend.
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