Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film ‘Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal Nick Haeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .
(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)
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.Their First Mistake, 1932
SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimension’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’
Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?
Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to confirm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, including: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other intimate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens).
Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’
But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.
In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.
This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’
In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great American Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,
‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’
Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbidden desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discomfort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?
In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.
The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.
Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.
Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them.
This is the other meaning of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.
In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that accompanied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.
Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’.
At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.
In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to successfully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, businessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effectiveness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.
Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.
‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.
The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laughable arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bottom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.
And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruction to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension.
In the anally-fixated, scatological humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun.
If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relationship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.
So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking invalidity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s.
True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.
One American soldier, however, is captured by the Germans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyrannical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guardians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.
The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.
In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bourgeois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offering a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relationship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscription quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.
Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.
Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.
This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)
However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tradition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping.
Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.
It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.
In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault suggested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:
‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.
Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexuality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.
In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed.
Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.
Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp