A fine mess - but what a great movie it would be

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In the early 1960s, even in America, Jerry Lewis was regarded as a comic genius. He had been directing his own pictures since he separated from Dean Martin. Some of them ­ The Bellboy, The Ladies' Man, It's Only Money, The Nutty Professor ­ are works of such inspiration that one day the English-speaking world will have to reassess Jerry, and wonder whether the French were simply but excessively French in adoring him. That Jerry ­ an extraordinary mixture of cold-bloodedness and humour ­ might make a challenging subject one day for Simon Louvish, who loves the bitter-sweet turmoil of comics and has just published Stan and Ollie.

I begin in this way because, in those early Sixties, Lewis apparently approached the elderly Stan Laurel and offered him $100,000 a year for comic ideas. Stan declined, but I'd love to have heard Lewis on what Laurel meant to him. Yet compared with Louvish's earlier books on WC Fields and the Marx Brothers, this one is a little subdued. He admits he was uncertain about the project when he began, and he misses several points that need to be made ­ not least, the unkind omission by the Academy when in 1961 they presented an honorary Oscar, not to Laurel and Hardy (one of those pairings in history, like Morecambe and Wise or bubble and squeak), but to Laurel alone "for his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy."

Oliver Norvell Hardy was dead by then (he died in 1957 at the age of 65 after years of poor health). Laurel had had a longer and a more illustrious career before he teamed up with Hardy in 1926. And everyone knew that the demure and inept Laurel had more to do with devising their comic routines than did the bumptious, declaratory Hardy (I am speaking of their screen personalities). Even so, it seemed mean-spirited to separate them. Laurel was never as famous or as funny as he became with Hardy. The ordinary filmgoer hardly knows that they had (or needed) independent careers.

Stanley Jefferson was born in Ulverston, near Barrow, in 1890. He was appearing in music hall by the time he was 10, and as a teenager he joined Fred Karno's company, which included Charlie Chaplin, and went to America. He settled there in 1912, still as Stan Jefferson, and only took the name "Laurel" in 1917, when he teamed up with a performer named Mae Dahlberg. They played as the Laurels, and it was clearly what we would call a common-law marriage.

Stan Laurel worked steadily for the next 10 years and he joined the Hal Roach studio in 1923. But real marriage occurred only when he and Hardy stood side by side, and people began to laugh at the big fat man in a suit too tight and the scrawny waif in baggy clothes. Stan in fact was not that short; it was just that, next to Hardy, he seemed frail. And so they made their way, for Roach first, then at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a few other studios, in an alliance that lasted from 1927 and the last years of silent films, well into the 1940s. And the films still play: most days on American television you can find one of their shorts, and they are still a riot of disorder, mishap and Stan's woeful messing up of Ollie's capacious plans.

The aspect of Louvish's book that is most striking is the bizarre marital career of the dreamy Stan who is so sexless on screen. For years, Stan was a dry, practical north countryman, intent on working out routines and living quietly. But then a time came when he seemed to go romantically crazy.

The union with Mae Dahlberg broke up in the mid Twenties, and in 1926 Laurel married Lois Neilson Ozmun, an actress. Mae would later sue for support, but the Lois marriage lasted until 1935. Straightaway, Stan remarried: to Virginia Ruth Rogers, not an actress. They were married in 1935, divorced in 1937. In 1938, Stan married Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, a singer. This lasted a little over a year, before ­ in 1941 ­ Laurel re-married Virginia Ruth Rogers, still not an actress. They were together five years, whereupon yet another divorce occurred and Stan married Ida Kitaeva, who stayed with him the rest of his days.

Just to recite these details while gazing upon Stan's sad moon of a face is to stimulate laughter. Louvish ­ who was brilliant and exuberant in his identification with Fields ­ seems to sense the farce in Stan's life, but can't quite get involved. A pity. I have a hunch it would make a delicious movie, with horny Stan always after the ladies, but retreating to the disasters he inflicted on his truest "Babe", Oliver Hardy.