My old friend, the late Vito Russo, suggested in his famous book, The Celluloid Closet, that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had portrayed in the 1932 film Their First Mistake, the “perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very loving dimension” flushed with “unmistakably gay overtones.”
Stan and Ollie talking about Ollie’s wife in that film helped Russo make his point: Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?
Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.
Stan: Well, you do, don’t you?
Ollie: We won’t go into that!
Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?
Stan: You need a baby in your house.
Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?
Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.
| Having Scottish forebearsÃƒÂ¢??Laurel was Scottish too– I was introduced to the great comedic duo as soon as I was capable of attending movies. After a Saturday afternoon matinee in our human see, human do world and with my best childhood buddy, Marty, we incessantly pretended we were Laurel and Hardy and chased about our neighborhood, inventively imitating their behaviors.
Now, I sometimes wonder, did these amazing early 20th century comedians have more of an influence on me than I was long ago aware? Not from the perspective of gay lib concerns alone, I mean, but from other dimensions? Couldn’t they, after all, somehow have affected how I perceive the socialization process?
Jonathan Sanders’ brilliant 1995 study, Another Fine Dress, (Cassell) examines “Role-Play in the Films of Laurel and Hardy.” Mark Simpson had already suggested during the previous year, however, how various was the queerness that Laurel and Hardy represented, thus paving the way toward the expanded Laurel and Hardy scholarship of Saunders’ book. Simpson, in his classic, Male Impersonators (Cassell, 1994) had written: “Of course, Laurel and Hardy were not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’, as some have done, are as legitimate or illegitimate as any other claim on them. But no one can successfully claim exclusive ownership. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiersÃƒÂ¢??their ‘queerness’ÃƒÂ¢??is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal to perform heterosexually and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them.” It may seem peculiar to some to suggest that Laurel and Hardy used gay themes in their work. But they did. As Simpson notes, such themes stand out particularly in their silent film shorts made prior to 1932. Simpson refers us particularly to Liberty wherein Stan and Ollie, both escaped prisoners, attempt clumsily to change into civilian garb in a back alley and in a taxi. They are trying to rectify having put each others’ pants on by mistake. Each time they’re discovered trying to change garb, it is by horrified localsÃƒÂ¢??a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young straight couple and a cop, all of whom suspect them of perverse hanky panky-ism. Critics incapable of facing homosexual themes go bonkers when they’re told to take into account the gender revolution that filmdom’s earliest comedy duo have helped inaugurate. In me, Laurel and Hardy had a captive audience during the 1940sÃƒÂ¢??my childhood years. Their nose-thumbings at conventional masculinity partly influenced me, I’m sure, to write my major work (1975) a pioneering critique of the values at the base of male role-conditioning. I was later to realize that my obsessionÃƒÂ¢??at age six– with Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, the tale of a wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy, had had a similar effect. All of the pompous ceremonial clap trap our present-day society insists upon, including military status, marital status, corporate status and the like, were targets for Laurel and Hardy wit. How I loved the easy, happy go-lucky ways in which Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy woke up togetherÃƒÂ¢??always side by side in the same bedÃƒÂ¢??whether mornings or nights. Some will remind me it was considered OK for men to sleep together in 19th Century America. But there was more than this going. These two buddies were bonding bigtimeÃƒÂ¢??creating a friendship to live as long as filmdom livesÃƒÂ¢??and central to their work. Their comedic assaults on conventional masculine codes found Laurel ever free to weep, Hardy stealthily escaping the clutches of the big bad bullies. Both of them assaulted the institution of marriage by wreckingÃƒÂ¢??through buffooneryÃƒÂ¢??the sacred ceremony itself. They turned socialized heterosexuality, explains Mark Simpson, into an absurd parody. To some, particularly those with a stake in the status-quo, such interpretations of Laurel and Hardy’s comic genius may seem to go too far. They hope to protect the beloved twosome from such scrutiny. But there’s another way of looking at today’s new scholarship: Laurel and Hardy were far ahead of their times. That’s how I saw them as a kid and its exactly how I see them now.
By Jack Nichols