Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, a city in Great Britain’s Lake District, on June 16, 1890. Both of his parents were active in the theatre, and as a child, he spent most of his time with his grandmother, because his father, A.J. Jefferson, managed various theatres. Stan was also drawn to the theatre and made his stage debut at the age of 16.
In 1910, Stan Jefferson joined Fred Karno’s travelling theatre company where Charlie Chaplin played the main parts. For quite some time, Stan was Chaplin’s understudy. In September that same year, the troupe went over to the USA, but due to poor success, they went home in 1911. They toured Europe in 1912, visiting Rotterdam and Liège amongst many other cities. Later the same year, the troupe again toured the USA, where they achieved some success performing “A Night in an English Music Hall”, in which Chaplin displayed his talents and attracted the attention of Mack Sennett, who offered him a contract to make film comedies in Hollywood. Stan became Fred Karno’s new main star, but because of Charlie Chaplin’s absence, success was no longer guaranteed, and the troupe was disbanded after some time.
Stan decided to stay in America, hoping to establish a film career. It would take another 4 years. From 1916 to 1917, he created an act with Alice and Baldwin Cooke, who became friends for life. Their collaboration ended when Stan got to know someone who would have a major impact on his life: Mae Dahlberg.
Mae, a dancer and singer, was married, but left her husband in her native country Australia. She and Stan soon became a couple, but never married because her husband wouldn’t give her a divorce. Nevertheless, she would keep posing as Stan’s wife. Like Chaplin, Stan often fell for women who weren’t ideal companions, as he had to find out to his own disgrace time and time again. Mae had a temper and a brutal attitude, which didn’t benefit the couple, neither personally nor professionally.
It was at that time that Stan, on Mae’s suggestion, took the stage name of Laurel. In 1917, he made his first film, ‘Nuts in May’, and landed a one-year contract for a series of two-reelers for Universal, where he created his first film character, Hickory Hiram. The films weren’t very funny, and Stan soon found himself back on the stage. He did occasionally return to film work, including some shorts made by “Bronco” Billy Anderson, including ‘The Lucky Dog’ from 1921, in which he was joined by supporting player Oliver Hardy. It would take a number of years before the two of them would again work together and become the world famous team of Laurel and Hardy.
In 1924, Stan quit theatre work in order to fully focus on a film career, as he was now under contract with Joe Rock for a series of twelve two-reelers. The contract contained a curious clause: Mae wasn’t allowed to appear in any of the films. It had been known for some time that Mae’s temper hampered Stan’s career. In 1925, she again started interfering with Stan’s work. Eventually, Joe Rock made a Financial deal with her, including a one-way ticket back to Australia. Freed from a heavy burden, Stan completed the twelve films before his contract run out, and moved to Hal Roach Studios as a screenwriter and director.
In 1925, Stan directed ‘Yes, Yes, Nanette’, in which a new actor made his debut at Hal Roach: Oliver Hardy.
Next year, Stan, who felt quite comfortably as a screenwriter and director, reluctantly resumed to acting, finding himself repeatedly opposite Oliver Hardy, although they had yet to become a comedy team. First, Stan formed an alliance with someone else: he married Lois Nielson on August 13, 1926.
In 1927, the Laurel and Hardy team was officially born with the release of ‘Duck Soup’ (not to be confused with the later Marx Brothers film carrying the same title), a film base don a sketch by Stan Laurel’s father. Another birth occurred in Stan’s personal life: his daughter Lois was born on December 10, 1927.
Contrary to Oliver, Stan was obsessed with every aspect of filmmaking: besides acting, he also wrote screenplays, direct, and cut films.
Stan’s film character developed steadily, over several films, to the stupid half of Laurel and Hardy as everybody knows them now.
Contrary to many of their colleagues, Laurel and Hardy had no trouble adapting from silent to sound films. Their first talkie was ‘Unaccustomed As We Are’. Other talkies followed in rapid succession.
In spite of the fast rate at which the films were churned out, and although Stan did not always have the creative control he desired, the Roach years were extremely successful. Stan got his friends Alice and Baldwin Cooke work at the studio, and they would appear in numerous Laurel and Hardy films.
In 1930, destiny struck. Stan and Lois’s second baby, Stanley Robert, was born two months prematurely, and died nine days later. In spite of his sorrow, Stan started work on ‘Pardon Us’, the team’s first feature film, a while later. In December 1931, they began filming ‘The Music Box’, one of Laurel and Hardy’s best shorts, which won them an Academy Award for best comedy short in 1932.
That same year, Stan felt he needed a vacation, and he decide to visit his father in England during the summer. Ollie and his wife Myrtle accompanied the Laurels. What was supposed to be a holiday became a heavy chore, because everywhere the team went, they were greeted and mobbed by huge crowds. It was during this trip that Stan and Oliver became real friends. Their working relationship had always been great, but they spent very little time together outside the studio. That changed during this trip, and they would remain the best of friends for the rest of their lives.
Back in America, Stan resumed the busy work schedule, resulting in ‘Sons of the Desert’ (1933), one of Laurel and Hardy’s best films. However, his marriage with Lois Neilson dwindled, and in the spring of 1933, he met Virginia Ruth Rogers. The two of them started seeing each other more frequently, and in October, Lois filed for divorce. On top of that, Stan’s brother, who was Stan’s personal chauffeur, died from the complications of a simple dental procedure.
In August 1933, Stan began filming ‘Babes in Toyland’. Hal Roach had written the screenplay, but Stan felt it wasn’t right for Laurel and Hardy, and after interminable discussions, Stan wrote his own version. This wasn’t received well by Hal Roach, and their relationship worsened.
After ‘Bonnie Scotland’ (1935), Stan’s wife Virginia suggested making a comic western, which eventually became ‘Way Out West’. In the meantime, Stan and Virginia parted ways, and to make things worse, an old acquaintance resurfaced. Mae Dahlberg returned from Australia, and demanded alimony from Stan, claiming to have been his common law wife from 1919 to 1925. The judge rejected her claim.
On January 1, 1938, Stan married Vera Illiana Shuvalova, a Russian singer. Virginia protested against the marriage, claiming her divorce from Stan wasn’t final yet. In fact, the divorce had been made official a couple of days before. Just to be on the safe side, Stan and Vera held a second marriage ceremony on February 28, 1938, and in April, a third ceremony in the Russian orthodox tradition followed. Like Mae, Vera had a bad character, as Stan soon found out. Like some wives in the Laurel and Hardy films, Vera was a shrew who didn’t mind hitting Stan with a frying pan. They divorced in May 1940.
In the meantime, Stan’s relationship with Hal Roach didn’t improve, and Stan was fired due to insubordination. Stan refuted his dismissal, and one lawsuit led to the next, until Stan and Hal came to an agreement, dropped all lawsuits, and Stan returned to the Roach Studios. Laurel and Hardy would make two more films there, ‘A Chump at Oxford’ and ‘Saps at Sea’. In April 1940, their contracts with Hal Roach expired, and they formed their own company: “Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions”.
From September 1940 on, Laurel and Hardy toured twelve large American cities, performing ‘The Driver’s Licence’ sketch, written by Stan. The public cheered and reviews were good.
In spite of their success, the big studios’ tastes in comedy had changed, and they waited in vain for a new film contract.
In January 1941, Stan remarried Virginia Ruth, only to break up again a couple of months later. They weren’t officially divorced again until 1946.
In April 1941, 20th Century-Fox finally offered Laurel and Hardy a contract for one film, with an option for nine more over a five-year period. Stan and Oliver accepted the offer, but soon discovered the drawbacks of working for a major studio. Stan didn’t have any creative input or control over the films, and Laurel and Hardy were considered small wheels in the big Fox machine. The casual atmosphere in the Roach Studios, which they took for granted, was over for good.
After two films, ‘Great Guns’ and ‘A-Haunting We Will Go’, they were hired by MGM for ‘Air Raid Wardens’. They alternately worked for Fox and MGM, ending their film career with ‘The Bullfighters’ in 1945.
In 1946, Stan married Ida Kitaeva Raphael, again a Russian singer. But this time, things were different. Stan finally found marital bliss, perhaps for the first time, in this marriage which lasted until his death.
In 1947, Laurel and Hardy, together with their wives, set off for a tour across the major British theatres. Afterwards, they also travelled to Sweden, Denmark, France and Belgium, where they performed to great acclaim at the Brussels Alhambra Theatre for several weeks, followed by more shows in Antwerp, Liège, Charleroi, Eupen, Verviers and Ghent during the first week of 1948.
In 1950, Stan and Oliver received an offer to make a film in France. Shooting ‘Atoll K’ became a nightmare. Stan got seriously ill and had to undergo a prostate operation, as well as suffering from diabetes. He lost 30 kg (66 lbs) and looks terrible in many of the scenes. It would prove to be their last and perhaps worst film.
After their return to America, both Stan and Oliver took it easy for a while, until they again went on two British tours in 1952 and 1953, this time performing new sketches written by Stan Laurel, ‘A Spot of Trouble’ and ‘Birds of a Feather’.
During the last tour, Stan again got sick, causing performances to halt for several weeks, and in May 1954, Oliver suffered a minor heart attack, ending the tour.
In the meantime, Hal Roach had sold many Laurel and Hardy films to American television, and the broadcasts were very successful. Hal Roach, Jr. wanted to make a series of television films with the two comedians, to be titled ‘Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables’. While Stan was writing a first screenplay, ‘Babes in the Woods’, Oliver had two massive heart attacks in 1955.
On April 25, 1955, Stan suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and television film plays were definitively cancelled.
Oliver Hardy died on August 7, 1957, and Stan was unable to attend the funeral on doctor’s orders. After Oliver’s death, Stan refused to ever perform again with out his partner, although he kept busy devising gags for the team.
On April 18, 1961, he was presented a special Academy Award by Charlton Heston for his pioneering in the field of comedy.
He refused Jerry Lewis’s offer to write screenplays for him.
Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965. At his request, he was cremated. ‘I don’t see why, with so little room for the living, the dead should take up so much room’, he once joked. His ashes were interred in the court of Liberty at Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn Cemetery. His grave marker reads: ‘STAN LAUREL (1890-1965), a master of comedy, his genius in the art of humor brought gladness to the world he loved.’
Stan Laurel has a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’, at 7021 Hollywood Boulevard.