Thursday 22 February 2018

Crime writer's affectionate portrait of a comedy genius

Fiction: he: A Novel, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, hdbk, 453 pages, €16.99

Another fine mess: Connolly's he is a fictionalised retelling of the life of Stan Laurel, left, who struck comedy gold with his partner Oliver Hardy, right
Another fine mess: Connolly's he is a fictionalised retelling of the life of Stan Laurel, left, who struck comedy gold with his partner Oliver Hardy, right
John Connolly: lifelong Laurel obsession. Photo: Mark Condren
He by John Connolly

Myles McWeeney

Fifteen novels featuring American cop-turned-private-eye Charlie Parker have established Dubliner John Connolly as one of the most popular modern crime writers. He is a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and his books have been translated into dozens of languages. He has staked out his own signature territory in crime fiction by cleverly combining traditional hardcore American noir crime writing with a hearty touch of the supernatural, à la Stephen King.

But in his latest book, Connolly takes a bold step, setting sail into uncharted waters, because this is neither a crime nor a fantasy novel. It is a book that tells the life story a single man, mirroring the real life of Stan Laurel, the creative half of the world's most popular film-comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy. In doing this, it delves deep into the tensions and rivalries of what is widely regarded as the golden age of Hollywood. Connolly has had a life-long interest in Laurel and Hardy, and over many years gathered material about them, becoming particularly interested in what he saw as the emotional complexity of Laurel.

Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890 in Ulverston in the north of England. His father was a well-known actor and theatre owner, and at the age of 16 he made his stage debut in Glasgow. Within three years, he was invited to join Fred Karno's 'Army'. Karno was the most successful British music-hall impresario of the time, whose biggest star was Charlie Chaplin, and soon Stanley, who was in awe of Chaplin, became his understudy, and travelled to America with the troupe in 1913.

For all but a few big stars like Chaplin, life on the music-hall circuit - called vaudeville in America -was tough. Backstage, the gilded, rococo theatres were cramped and dirty, the boarding houses the stars stayed cold and draughty, and the transport from city to city ramshackle third class. In the early 1920s, Laurel decided to settle in America, working primarily as a writer and director.

John Connolly: lifelong Laurel obsession. Photo: Mark Condren
John Connolly: lifelong Laurel obsession. Photo: Mark Condren

To get a foothold, he signed with producer Joe Rock to make 12 two-reel comedy shorts. These were very successful, and he signed to the famous Hal Roach Studios. Here, he was teamed with a heavy-set funny man called Oliver 'Babe' Hardy, already a success with 50 films under his triple X belt. In 1927, they were paired in three movies and their comedic chemistry was instantly recognised, with a Laurel and Hardy series made later that year. In a film career that lasted until 1950, they made 107 films together, some of them, such as Sons of the Desert, Way Out West and The Music Box, are now regarded as some of the funniest films ever made.

But they didn't just gel on screen; they became close friends and, in fact, when Hardy died in 1957, Laurel's sense of loss was so overwhelming he refused to perform again.

From these factual bare bones of a life lived for the most part in the full glare of the Hollywood publicity machine, Connolly has produced an affectionate fictional portrait of a man whose surface success hid deep insecurities, a lifelong inferiority complex, a deep resentment at his and Babe's treatment by studio bosses, and a devastating sense of guilt at the accidental death of his only son at just nine days old - and of his treatment of the child's mother, Lois Nelson.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood film studios were like sausage machines churning out stars. If impresarios like Fred Karno were skinflints, Laurel and Hardy soon found studio bosses such as Hal Roach and Mack Sennett could nickel and dime their stars with the best of them. Despite the vast fortunes the duo made for their studios, they were lucky if they earned $100,000 a picture. Until late in life, Laurel was permanently broke, mostly because he was paying a fortune in alimony each month - he married four different women, one of them twice. Hardy, also unhappily married, spent most of his money of slow horses and a series of mistresses. Separately, the two men were quite miserable, but when working together they were totally at peace.

Connolly tells his story in an unusual but utterly compelling manner as a series of flashbacks experienced by Laurel in his declining years as his memories fade. He is holed up in a modest apartment in Los Angeles and being looked after by his wife, Ida.

These flashbacks reveal the essential goodness of Laurel - who rarely lost his temper, even when he and Hal Roche were at financial and artistic loggerheads - his genuine creativity (he basically wrote and directed each film the duo made) and his lifelong inability to come to terms with the loss of his son.

The flashbacks also bring to life the rapacious, sleazy and exploitative nature of the early days of Hollywood with its selfish bosses and stars who believed they stood above both the law and morality.

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