Chapter 7 - SNOW JOKE!
In a sense, the war years preserved Laurel and Hardy. It was as if, in 1940 in Britain, a pause button had been pressed on their careers. During the next five years the British had been too concerned about their own battles with the Germans, to worry about Laurel and Hardy's battles with Fox and MGM, and were unaware of the comedians' decline. Now in 1947, two years after the declaration of peace, the pause button had been released and, following all the recent devastation the British had suffered, this symbol of fun and laughter was now about to appear in their midst. To be reminded of those happy times was more excitement than the fans could contain. Thus, on 10 February 1947, as the Queen Elizabeth sailed into Southampton Docks, Laurel and Hardy looking down from one of the decks may well have been forgiven for saying, "Oh no! not again!" for the scene which greeted them was almost identical to the one in 1932.
Because over in America their popularity had faded, the two ageing comedians were absolutely amazed at the great love and loyalty which the people of England had retained for them. The press, too, never foresaw this arrivada, and few were on hand to record it. The biggest saviour was Pathé Newsreel, who filmed a short interview with the two Hollywood comedians before they disembarked. In it, Laurel and Hardy announce intentions of making not only personal appearances, but also a picture. When asked what the name of the picture is, Hardy has to ask Laurel to prompt him, at which Stan offers the name, "Robin Hood," but seemingly unsure, tags it with the line: "I think."
One newspaper clip seemed to back up the claim when, a week before the Boys left the US, it revealed:
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have announced that they have closed a deal with Alfred Shipman, British producer, to appear in an English musical film, "Robin Hood." Hardy will play Friar Tuck and Laurel, Little John.
[AJM: 'Friar Hardy.' and 'Little John Laurel.']
But the film never grew beyond the acorn stage. You could say it was a case of: "You couldn't see the Hood for the trees."
Missing from the welcoming party at Southampton Docks were Stan's father and sister, who were both now living in Lincolnshire. Their village was snowed under, with no chance of anyone getting in or out, so Stan phoned and sent his regards.
The party then boarded the train to London where, at Waterloo Station, several thousand more fans welcomed them. The crush was so great that Laurel and Hardy were again split up. In 1932 Babe had found himself alone in a taxi. This time, desperately unnerved in the centre of the crush, he sought refuge on a bus. After showing extreme surprise as to his fare, the driver asked where Hardy wanted to go. "Anywhere, as long as it's away from here," Babe informed him, then added, "and on to the Savoy." However, his companions soon located him and, this time around, they all travelled to the hotel together, on the bus.
The following morning Babe, Stan, and Ida went along to Caxton Hall, Westminster, to collect their ration cards, as many items were still rationed. Some would remain so until the summer of 1954. Outside in the cold, the Hollywood party happily stood in line with the rest of the people in the queue. Inside, an enforced power-cut led to them registering by candlelight. This was no isolated incident, for electricity cuts extended throughout Britain, and domestic switch-offs were twice-daily. As if post-war conditions and shortages weren't bad enough, the weather decided to add to the misery. In 1932 the Boys had arrived in July, during record-breaking temperatures. Now, here in February, the weather was particularly bad - and with the worst still to come.
Within the next few days, Laurel and Hardy began rehearsals of The Driver's Licence sketch, at the London Casino. Joining them was Australian comedy actor Harry Moreny, who was to play 'the cop.' Moreny had been spotted in the comedy revue show High Time, currently at the London Palladium, where he was playing in sketches with the likes of comedy duo Jewell & Warriss, so his pedigree was assured.
Stan and Babe would have liked to have broken up their work schedule by going to see friends and places they had missed on their last visit, but were hampered by continual snowfalls. So, after twelve days of almost non-stop rehearsing, Sunday 23 February found them on their way to Newcastle, with Stan Laurel, in the words of Hannen Swaffer: "scared to death about the act's English debut on Tyneside."
Laurel's nervous energy was totally wasted on the reviewer from the Evening Chronicle who submitted only the following observations:
Those two droles [sic], Laurel & Hardy, ruling an empire as wide as films can travel, hold court amid the acclamation of thousands of their delighted subjects at the Newcastle Empire this week. Here they are in the flesh, looking just as they do on the screen, with the benefit of depth as well as width. Their act, a cameo of their characteristic screen life is one of an interesting variety programme.
Whether in writing the above the reviewer had bothered to go to the show, along with the "thousands of their delighted subjects," is open to speculation. Considering that a press-party had been given, plus complimentary tickets to the show, the coverage is an insult. Bernard Delfont and Billy Marsh were, however, present on the opening night, and saw nothing to cause them concern. On the contrary, the reception the packed auditorium gave the two comedians far exceeded what they, and other concerned parties, had anticipated - and that includes Laurel and Hardy themselves.
The treacherous snow-laden route the tour members had taken to get into Newcastle was worsening by the day, and there were fears that, come the end of the week, they weren't going to be able to get out. The snows had blocked most major roads, and smaller roads were totally impassable. The London to North East Railway line was also completely blocked, but snow ploughs on the front of the steam engines were being put into service to clear the tracks. Coal had become a very precious commodity, as colliery workers were unable to get to work and, during the night, temperatures of -13°C were recorded.
In these arctic conditions Babe, Stan, and Ida had to while away the days in the "comfort" of the Royal Station Hotel. After their opening-night success, the Boys took Bernard Delfont and his partner Billy Marsh back there for a celebration. Babe phoned Lucille to give her the good news and, during the conversation, was informed that the temperature in California was 27°C. Going back to Stan and Ida's room, where he found the company huddled around a meagre fire, he relayed the Californian weather situation. With perfect timing, Stan picked up the last piece of coal, and throwing it on the fire declared: "Ah well, there'll always be an England." To which Hardy injected the immortal line: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." With that, the five of them "broke up," the room shook with laughter, and the tears cascading down their cheeks warmed their faces. This was definitely a case where the meaning of the phrase "bringing coals to Newcastle" was totally lost.
But things weren't all bad. On Wednesday, they were guests of the Mayor of Tynemouth - Councillor Francis J. Mavin, who firstly had them chauffeured to Laurel's former home at 8 Dockwray Square, North Shields. At his last attempt, in 1932, Stan had been unable to enjoy the visit in solitude owing to the mass of fans but, this time, having the whole week in which to choose his moment, found the square relatively empty. Hardy was to say that Laurel was so excited as he neared his home, "He almost jumped out of the car." After a short look around, though, Stan confessed: "It's very distressing to see how the place has been knocked about during the war."
Then, on Friday, Stan and Babe were guests at a luncheon given by the Railway Electrical Engineers, at their hotel; after which they very thoughtfully made a personal house-call to local celebrity Marie Lamb to wish her a happy one-hundredth birthday. Having a telegram from the King is one honour - having Laurel and Hardy to tea is another.
Leaving the frostbitten city of Newcastle on Sunday, and travelling far inland to the city of Birmingham, might well have made the touring party think they were moving to a more temperate climate. The weathermen appeared to bear out this line of thought by forecasting a thaw within forty-eight hours; but the "thaw" turned into the heaviest snowfall of the winter, and was accompanied by gusts of wind up to forty miles per hour.
Of the opening night at Birmingham, the Evening Despatch had this to say:
The appeal of Laurel & Hardy's act is its simplicity and good nature. Hardy bullies Laurel. Laurel takes it on the chin. And finally Laurel, having mopped up all the sympathy delivers the last blow and gets the last laugh. The triumph of the little chap - you can't beat it for a punch line.
Thus with a little chat and a snatch of a song, is composed a charming and disarming act, worthily supported by a first-rate bill, in which chief honours go to Olga Varona for the grace and daring of her aerial acrobatics.
The Birmingham Mail gave a more profound opinion:
The great majority of their audience last night having fallen under the persistent influence of their pictorial personalities, were prepared at all costs, rapturously to acclaim, and heartily to laugh. But the few who came to scoff must have remained to laugh and even to praise. The act is perfectly rehearsed and perfectly timed. Their material is not brilliant or even outstandingly good of its kind. In script it would scarcely yield a smile, yet they cause it to become grotesquely funny, and their good natured stupidity shines through.
The newspapers for the Birmingham week contained little or nothing else of the exploits of Laurel and Hardy though, to be fair, perhaps there was nothing to tell. The Birmingham News told us only:
What Laurel & Hardy think about Birmingham must remain a mystery, for they were much too concerned with the weather to talk about impressions of anything - but the weather. It is a tribute to our English climate that it has so 'tamed' them that, after one month's stay, their approach to it already has a native enthusiasm, and huddled over a tiny fire of cinders with two small sullen logs atop, they spoke as wistfully and with as wry a smile of sunny skies and the 28 degrees they left in Hollywood, as might any Englishman.
Having digested all this information, one can only presume that Laurel and Hardy spent the rest of the week drinking cups of tea in front of a meagre log fire. The important issue, though, is that they had had two weeks preparing their act away from the prying eyes of the London critics, and were now ready to rise up and take London by storm.
[Please note that the 1993 First Edition has around 120 photographs and illustrations.]
[This extract is fully copyrighted. Permissions for its use elsewhere, must be sought from the copyright holder - A.J Marriot]
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