Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Quote of the Day (Dick Van Dyke, on Stan Laurel and Other Clowns)

“God bless all clowns.
Who star in the world with laughter,
Who ring the rafters with flying jest,
Who make the world spin merry on its way.
God bless all clowns.
So poor the world would be,
Lacking their piquant touch, hilarity,
The belly laughs, the ringing lovely.
God bless all clowns.
Give them a long good life,
Make bright their way—they're a race apart!
Alchemists most, who turn their hearts' pain,
Into a dazzling jest to lift the heart.
God bless all clowns.”—Actor Dick Van Dyke, “Eulogy at the Funeral of Stan Laurel,” 1965

In 1969, a few years after long-running eponymous comedy series had gone off the air, Dick Van Dyke starred in The Comic. The rubber-faced silent-film clown he played bore more than a passing resemblance, in his rise to fame and unexpected hard times, to two such icons who had influenced Van Dyke’s physical style of slapstick comedy and who he, in turned, had befriended in their old age (after finding them listed in the phone directory): Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. In fact, Van Dyke became so close to them that he delivered their eulogies when they died within a year of each other.

Laurel—born Arthur Stanley Jefferson 130 years ago today in Ulverston, England—did not experience the headlong slide into obscurity that Keaton did during the early sound era. But his last decade, from the mid-Fifties to mid-Sixties, was far more troubled than Keaton’s, as ill health depleted his finances and foreclosed any possibility that he would ever resume his comic career in any form.

And, while Laurel had never been particularly chummy away from the big screen with Oliver Hardy, he suffered so keenly after his comedy partner passed in 1957 that he preferred not to go on with anyone else.

As noted by critic Walter Kerr, Laurel and Hardy were the only “silent clowns” whose popularity increased in the talkie era. Part of their success derived from the physical and verbal contrast between the thin Englishman and the rotund Georgian. 

But they also made the most of their mutual respect and deference. Laurel would not interfere with Hardy’s contributions to their routines. At the same time, when others asked Hardy what he thought of an idea, he would urge them to check with Laurel.

Over a quarter century, Laurel and Hardy made 106 films together—34 silent shorts, 45 sound shorts, and 27 full-length sound features. They can still surprise viewers into gales of laughter. Here’s to their “dazzling jest to lift the heart.”

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