There’s a kind of thrill when you find out one of your favourite performers has a connection with your own home suburb! And it seems that Stan Laurel had such a connection with my suburb, Brunswick, in Melbourne.
In a new book (very new – published August 24), Irish writer John Connolly creates a fictional memoir from the musings of Stan Laurel in his last home by the Pacific, some years after Oliver Hardy (always Babe to he) has died. The book has a somewhat Google unfriendly title he¸ but that’s the only unfriendly aspect to one of the most enjoyable and rewarding books I’ve read in a long time.
And his thoughts often pass back to Mae Charlotte Dahlberg. He met Mae when both were vaudeville performers, possibly around 1916. Mae had been born in Brunswick in 1888. Then it was a very working-class part of Melbourne, small cottages on small block. Her father was a labourer born in Sweden. Very early on she became a music-hall performer as a ‘serio and dancer’, and was only 18 when she married Rupert Cuthbert, a baritone while they were performing in Hobart in 1906.
In 1907 she had a child, born in Melbourne. Between then and 1913 they appeared in variety shows around Australia. In 1913 they arrived in Seattle to try their luck in America’s vaudeville houses. This was how she met another performer, one Arthur Stanley Jefferson, who had come to the US from England with Fred Karno’s troupe, which included another hopeful young comedian called Charles Chaplin.
|Mae Dahlberg and Stan Laurel|
From 1917 to 1925, Mae and Stan Jefferson lived together as a common law couple. Some of the fine points of their relationship have been lost in time or deliberately obscured. But it is apparent Mae was never divorced from her husband. Mae and Stan were already appearing on vaudeville together when he got his first offer to make a film.
She is credited with renaming him, believing the name Stan Jefferson was unlucky because it had thirteen letters. She came up with the name Stan Laurel. Before long she was also using the surname Laurel, and there are credits on some films for Mae Laurel. In 1931, after the relationship between the two was over, Stan Jefferson legally changed his name to Stan Laurel. That’s it – not Stanley, no other names. (There’s a copy of the legal document in he.)
|Mae Laurel in The Soilers, 1923 (Ralph Ceder, 1923)|
Basically, she didn’t have what it takes to make it in movies, but Stan tried to insist that there were parts for her in his early films. But her presence on set, and her inadequacy as a film performer created problems for Stan and the relationship. It could have railroaded his career before it gained any momentum. When producer Joe Rock offered Stan a contract for a series of two-reelers it included a stipulation that Mae was not to appear in any of the films. In 1926 the story goes that he offered her a one-way ticket back to Australia – and she took up the offer.
It was a bit further down the track when Laurel, then working as a writer and director for Hal Roach was asked to help out by replacing an injured actor, one Oliver Hardy. And, as they say, the rest is history.
he remembers a lot of this in his home in Santa Monica many years later.
It’s a long time since I think I’ve enjoyed a book as thoroughly as I did he. Connolly cites a wide range of sources for all the details of Laurel’s life, and without doing a fact-check it certainly reads as authentic. He says he was fascinated early on with Laurel, and had originally intended to produce a monograph. But by the time he felt he had enough material, he felt other publications had beaten him to the punch of a formal monograph or biography.
His answer was to be this novel. And as you read it, you sense how the freedom of writing ‘fiction’ possibly allows him to become closer to the truth of the man. You do feel a sense of getting closer to the creative aspect of Stan. He was the partner who thought about the shape of the film, who developed gags, who could direct a scene or improve it in the editing. Meanwhile, Babe was happy to come in, do what he was told, and get back to a game of golf – or his latest girlfriend.
And you feel very close to Stan as a man, aware of his fuck-ups, still marvelling like a kid at some of the success they, treasuring the friendship he had with Babe, not bitter, not regretful, but very realistic at all times.
There is the change of mood from the young man to the old man living in the Oceana Apartments, now keenly missing his performing partner and best friend ever. A man appreciating the contacts from outside the world - a visit from Jerry Lewis is such a thrill for him!
There’s the joy of remembering the joy of creation. For many of us, one of our most joyous moments in their films is the wonderful dance that emerges, seemingly spontaneously, in Way Out West (1937). And it’s a joy again to revisit it as he thinks back to how it all started.
“On the set of Way Out West, Babe sings. He hears Babe as he works on a set-up with James Horne, who is directing the picture, or directing it insofar as anyone directs these men. Walter Trask of the Avalon Boys is playing his guitar to pass the time, and Babe, who gravitates toward music, joins in.”
A dance is born!
Then, there’s Chaplin! He came to America with Chaplin, and always considered that Chaplin had that something extra, that special quality. He also had a much greater success – including the complete artistic control he would have liked. They do have several meetings, but Stan is always disappointed that Chaplin doesn’t really treat him now like two people who shared some experiences together before they were famous. He’s not bitter, he’s not vengeful. Chaplin is always pleasant when they do meet – but Chaplin never calls him, or makes any gesture to him. He is not bitter, or angry or even really hurt. I mean, he understands. But it is disappointing.
There is a beautiful, sad, but not bitter edge to his memories of Chaplin. And that’s the tone of the book, as well. One of those rare books that I never wanted to finish, but had to keep tearing through it.