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 Stan Laurel’s Favorite Book On Comedy Found!
-by Tyler St. Mark

For me, one of the great missing treasures of Laurel & Hardy memorabilia for all these years has been Stan Laurel’s copy of Clowns & Pantomimes, his most favorite book on the history of comedy, which he personally signed and presented in 1930 to his favorite cameraman, fellow sportsman, and close friend, George Stevens (1904-1975).

Long before Stevens became an director of such film classics as Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Giant (1956), Shane (1953), A Place in the Sun (1951), and Greatest Story Ever Told, he began his film career as a camera assistant at Hal Roach Studios and worked on a number of Laurel & Hardy two-reelers during the 20’s and early 30’s.

"There were no unions, so it was possible to become an assistant cameraman if you happened to find out just when they were starting a picture,” Stevens explained in an interview. “There was no organization; if a cameraman didn't have an assistant, he didn't know where to find one."

Just a teenager at the time, George admired the older (by fourteen years) and more seasoned writer/director/actor, Stan Laurel, who greatly influenced his appreciation for visual humor and helped reshape his perspective of Hal Roach comedy which, initially, he had little regard for.

“As a camera man, I hated it,” Stevens said later on. “It was the kind of humor you see in The Nitwits (1935), the comedian falling into stuff, and getting up, it just bored me to death… Then Laurel & Hardy got together at Roach, and it was great. I enjoyed working with them because they were inventing something, a new kind of comic film. I had a wonderful period with them.”

Aided in part by Stan’s mentoring and encouragement, it wasn’t long before Stevens became the mainstay cinematographer at Hal Roach Studios. In turn, it was the enterprising young George who knew about panchromatic film and was able to get some of it for the studio. Until the early 1920s, filmmakers used black-and-white Orthochromatic film stock which was "blue blind” and virtually halted Stan’s performing career before it started. This new film stock was highly sensitive and photographed Laurel's pale blue eyes more naturally. Stevens eventually became a highly skilled cameraman on the Roach lot and, when Laurel teamed with Oliver Hardy, the team made Stevens their cameraman of choice.

“I didn’t know that comedy could be graceful and beautiful until I met Laurel & Hardy,” Stevens once explained. “I didn’t know comedy was humane. I looked at these two men and I realized that these guys understood human nature. By some artistic instinct they had this wonderful business of being in touch with the human condition.”

During the eight years that he was employed by Hal Roach, Stevens was the cinematographer on many of Laurel & Hardy’s most popular and successful comedy shorts including Putting Pants on Philip (1927) Sugar Daddies (1927) The Battle of the Century (1927) Leave 'Em Laughing (1928) The Finishing Touch (1928) Two Tars (1928) Liberty (1929) Big Business (1929) Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) Double Whoopee (1929) Bacon Grabbers (1929) Angora Love (1929) Blotto (1930) Brats (1930) Below Zero (1930) and his final Stan & Ollie film, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930).
 


Lois Laurel (Stan’s daughter) remembers that a young and playful George Stevens used to dote on her when she visited the Roach lot as a child and, as both cameraman and close family friend, George even shot some of the Laurel home movies!

“Dad, Uncle Babe, and George were bosom buddies,” Lois recalls. “They all shared a love of sports and outdoors and spent many a sporting afternoon fishing or playing golf.”

At the “Lot of Fun,” The Boys and George enjoyed an equally harmonious relationship. Stan and George particularly shared an appreciation for both the history and structure of comedy and it was for this reason that, shortly before he left Roach and went over to RKO to direct features, George was presented with Stan’s most favorite book on comedy titled Clowns & Pantomimes by Maurice Willson Disher. The 344 page text, which Stevens described as Stan’s “bible” on the subject, was a fitting token to their years of collaboration. Stan had most certainly been one of George’s comedy mentors and, in the process, broadening the young film-maker’s horizons.

"By 1930, Stevens showed so much promise that Roach wanted to make him a director,” explains film historian and Hal Roach expert, Richard W. Bann. “Roach himself was directing a troubled Langdon short when he turned to his cameraman with instructions on how to take over and wrap up the film. Stevens, however, was uneasy accepting the assignment. He didn't care for the story and preferred to break into directing with a script of his own where he felt comfortable. Soon after, Stevens was given such an opportunity. But it turned out Stevens had his own ideas on making short comedies, and they varied from those of his boss.”

“It became a contest between us,” Stevens said in a later interview, “whether I'd make pictures his way or my way. He won and I got fired.'

“Actually Stevens was suspended near the end of 1931,” Bann clarifies, “then he was fired. So, he and several other Roach alumni left to make short subjects at Universal and then at RKO.”

Within a year of going to RKO Studios, Stevens began directing feature films and the rest, of course, is motion picture history. Today, George Stevens is known and celebrated as one of America’s greatest filmmakers, ranked with John Ford, William Wyler and Howard Hawks as a creator of classic Hollywood cinema.

However, George never forgot his comedy roots or the people who provided him the foundation and proving ground for his remarkable talent. The comedy shorts he made with Laurel & Hardy would influence him in many of his subsequent films.

“The beauty of the Laurel and Hardy shorts to me,” Stevens said in 1974, “was their absolute deliberation, their great poise, their Alphonse and Gaston relationship with one another. The Laurel and Hardy concept moved over into other films considerably, with Cary Grant, Roz Russell, Irene Dunne doing the late take and even the double take. That had come out of the personalities of Laurel and Hardy, and the people that worked with them.”

Through the years, Stevens remained good friends with both Stan and Babe, although he saw less and less of Stan as time passed and the special parting gift from Stan was eventually forgotten and then, unfortunately, simply disappeared.

According to Stevens, who refers to the missing book in his moving tribute to Stan in the 1975 definitive reference, Laurel and Hardy by John McCabe, Al Kilgore and Richard Bann; losing this keepsake from his friend and mentor was personally devastating.

“When I left Roach, Stan gave me a book as a farewell gift.…” Stevens writes in his tribute. …I do no injury to Stan by saying he was not a man for books, but this one he loved and had studied thoroughly. It was a view of comedy from Grock down to the then moderns. The losing of this book was one of the very real disappointments of my life.”

Personally, I had known about the missing book long before then as George was a friend of my Pop and had mentioned his deep regret at losing the book during conversations we had with him while preparing our stage production based on Stan’s life. (Sadly, George died six months to the day our show premiered on September 8, 1975)

George never said exactly when or how he had lost Stan’s gift to him of Clowns & Pantomimes but I never forgot the regret in his voice and, over the years, rarely missed an opportunity to examine any edition which might show up in used book stores or on the internet.

Although Stan may have given copies of his favorite book to one or two other cherished friends over the years, I knew this particular volume was his personal copy presented to Stevens early in their careers and so it would most likely contain both Stan’s inscription and his signature under the title page—something he used to do during the early days to mark his books.

I also knew that it wasn’t likely the inscription would include George’s last name as Stan rarely addressed close friends and colleagues by their surname back then when inscribing photos and personal gifts (unless asked to do so). So there could be but one such book from Stan inscribed to “George” as the book had been a very limited edition and not easily to obtain after it was printed in 1925. Clowns & Pantomimes was primarily a scholarly work and most copies went to theatre departments, libraries, and educational institutions.

I have said before that we do not so much find these memorabilia treasures as they find us. It may take days, months, or years until we have gained the knowledge and insights necessary to recognize these extraordinary items when they may finally cross our path.

Just a short time ago, a copy of Clowns & Pantomimes appeared on the internet for purchase courtesy of a rare book seller. This is not unusual as I have obtained several first editions online in the past which, like Stan, I have presented to close friends. However, this volume is quite special as you will see from the photos.

To wit, I am both grateful and pleased to present for the first time in eighty years, Stan Laurel’s favorite book, Clowns & Pantomimes, personally inscribed to his cherish friend, George Stevens.

Apparently, it was both a parting gift and a Christmas present and, true to Stan’s typically unemotional facade, there is no maudlin prose; the inscription merely reads “Merry Xmas, George 1930.” The book also bears Stan Laurel’s signature on the title page—just as I had always hoped and expected.

          

Unfortunately, the journey of this volume from the Stevens library to mine is virtually unknown. The book was acquired by the book seller from the estate another book seller long deceased and, unless aware of its extraordinary history, it’s doubtful that anyone would have known or cared.

More importantly and perhaps partly forgotten by myself over the zealous years of seeking Stan’s favorite book is the remarkable substance of this vintage volume. It was no random act that Clowns & Pantomimes was Stan Laurel’s chosen text on comedy. M. Willson Disher’s historical record of “the anthology of mirth” which includes chapters on “laughter and emotion” and “clownship” is an extraordinary account of the history of comedy.

“Why do you have to explain why a thing is funny?” Stan Laurel often said in his later years. “All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, he claimed, “and that’s all I know about it.”


 

Well, that wasn’t quite true if one takes the time to study Clowns & Pantomimes. Clearly, Stan thought long and deeply about his art and craft; its history and its pathology and, clearly, he was greatly fascinated by what makes people laugh and why. But like a magician who never reveals his tricks; Stan did not care that people knew he cared—unless they were cherished colleagues working diligently alongside him at the factory of laughter.

We may not ever know how Stan’s favorite book was lost or where it has traveled since, but I think that George Stevens would be greatly pleased to know that, at long last, his most cherished book about clowns presented to him by the Clown Prince of Comedy has been found!

 

oOo

 

St. Mark is a writer/producer/actor in Los Angeles and presently in preproduction on the reprise of his 1974 landmark production now titled “Stan Laurel Backstage.”   www.stanlaurel.com

If you can like to pass comments onto Tyler please get in touch using the link below and we will pass on your messages.


 

Also by Tyler St. Mark Laurel and Hardy:  The Hat Facts

for parts one and two of Tyler St. Mark's excellent paper concerning Stan and Ollie’s iconic headwear.