Today is the birthday of Oliver “Babe” Hardy (1892-1957).
I’ll go out on a limb and say Oliver Hardy is not only my favorite half of Laurel and Hardy (most people prefer Laurel), he is also my favorite comedian, at least from the era of classic comedy. Watching him fills me with mirthful joy, mostly because of the absolute relish he takes in each and every gesture. Not just the obvious things like the tie-twiddle or his embarrassed little wave. But how he does things: how he cocks his hat on his head when he is ready to take something on, or how, when he gets doused with a bucket of water he flicks the last drop off his finger.
I’m not going to write much about the team here — for that I’ll ask you to buy my new book Chain of Fools (though there’s more about Stan Laurel and the team at this post here).
Prior to teaming with Laurel, Hardy had spent almost the entirety of his fourteen-year career as a reliable ensemble player. He usually played the “heavy” or comic villain, taking the kind of parts Eric Campbell or Bud Jamison had gotten. He is unique in being one of the first movie actors to have been almost wholly a creature of the cinema (that is, he had a very minimal stage career; he went directly into films). A son of southern aristocracy, Hardy had done a little professional singing as a teenager, but nothing like the day-in, day-out job-of-work vaudeville and circus careers of a lot of the comedians of the silent era had. At age eighteen he got a job as manager of a movie theatre in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he ran the projector, ripped tickets, and swept up the popcorn. After three years of watching movies every day, he decided he knew all he needed to know to be up on the screen himself. He moved to Jacksonville, Florida (then one of the country’s several movie-making centers) and broke in within a few months, becoming one of the principal comedians of the Lubin Manufacturing Company. It was during this time that a local barber, while shaving the baby-faced comedian, gave him the nickname that would stick for the rest of his life: Babe. When Lubin went bankrupt, Hardy went to New York for several months, jobbing for various studios. But the Big Apple didn’t suit this courtly southerner; he leapt at the chance to return to Jacksonville to star in the “Plump and Runt” series for the Vim Comedy Company.
A decade and a half from creating his famous persona, he truly is a “babe” in these early comedies. In One Too Many (1916) he sports a full mop of wavy curls on his head, and plays a lazy, layabout nephew suffering from a hangover, reminiscent of many Arbuckle characters. The plot is that old comedy stand-by: “I have to pretend that I have an infant, or Uncle will cut off my allowance.” In desperation, he hires a cigar smoking hobo to play the baby. It turns out about as well as expected. Battle Royal (1916) gives one a taste of one of the few amenities Jacksonville had to offer not available in Southern California: the Hatfields-and-McCoys style feud comedy is filmed in a Florida swamp. It’s a variety of terrain I’ve not seen in any other film of the period and really worth watching for that novelty alone (because that’s about all it has to offer).
Vim was purchased by King Bee and it was during this period that Hardy played the heavy for Billy Wests’s series of Chaplin imitations. Out of the half dozen or so of these I have seen, Hardy’s best turn is in the 1918 Charley Chase-directed He’s in Again, in which he plays a heavily made-up Eric Campbell-style waiter (a la The Immigrant) who has to keep throwing West’s penniless and conniving tramp out of a saloon.
In 1917, Hardy moved to Los Angeles, gradually working his way up to supporting player for Larry Semon. His roles are scarcely more distinguished in these pictures, but Semon was a big star and so Hardy enjoyed wide exposure as a result of appearing in them. Still, after the initial burst of “Look! It’s Oliver Hardy!” one’s interest begins to wane. He is an ensemble player merely; the Oliver Hardy we love so well from later pictures is entirely absent. In films like Golf, The Counter Jumper, The Barnyard, etc. etc. etc. (there are a lot of them), he tends to be your run-of-the-mill stooge in overalls, just another body to bounce off of Larry Semon.
By the mid-1920s, Semon was starting to flounder at the box office and that’s when Hardy began to work for Hal Roach. Thanks to his high visibility in the Semon films he was among the many not-quite-stars that Roach cast in his “All-Star” series, trying to make that title a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, Hardy gets much juicier turns. In Isn’t Life Terrible? (1925), he plays Charley Chase’s good-for-nothing brother-in-law, a lazy hypochondriac whose “weak heart” gets him a pass on doing any work, but conveniently qualifies him to tag along on the family vacation. (The movie has a happy ending though. When the ocean liner they’re taking stops off in South America, he is shot by a firing squad!)
In Yes, Yes, Nanette (1925), Hardy plays the former boyfriend of Jimmy Finlayson’s new wife (Lyle Tayo). Finlayson (still known as “Fin” to the fans who revere him) is best known today as Laurel and Hardy’s comic foil, although he appeared in many other films, often as the star, as in this one. The Scottish comedian had gotten his start at Sennett and other studios in the late teens, and had become frustrated with playing supporting roles, so he moved over to Roach in 1922. He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. There’s plenty of room for that in Yes, Yes, Nanette as Hardy’s character bullies and badgers the newlywed groom, until Fin snaps and sends the much larger Hardy running down the street with his tail between his legs. The film is especially notable here because it was directed by another member of the Roach All-Stars: Stan Laurel.
NOW: a few words about the post-Laurel Hardy. There are a couple of very special later pictures that are well worth checking out. One is the 1939 film Zenobia. That year Laurel was having a contractual feud with Hal Roach. In the interim, he made a film starring Hardy, who was under separate contract. In the film, he plays a vastly different from “Ollie”, he plays a courtly southern doctor in the antebellum south. Harry Langdon is his co-star, although they are not paired as a team. The film is an eye-opener. Hardy would have done just fine in the movies without Laurel. The other picture is The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), a western in which he plays a sort of Sancho Panza to John Wayne! Again , he is great in the role of a western sidekick –could have done a lot more of it.
And now, a rare 1950 interview with Ollie as he plugs the team’s last film, the terrible Utopia a.k.a Atoll K:
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.