Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy — The Seriousness of Being Funny in Four Languages (1930) 🇺🇸
These are tough days for the screen comedians
Without knowing a word of French, German or Spanish, Laurel and Hardy manage to make comedies in these unfamiliar tongues.
by Homer Croy
I don’t suppose there is anybody in the full possession of his mental faculties who will not admit that being a comedian is serious work. It always has been; it always will be. In a theater, when the audience sees the efforts of the comedians displayed before them for their delectation, they may laugh and toss about in their seats, but, oh, the sighs and tortures of soul that have preceded those thigh-poundings! Which is one reason that comedians the world over, including Hollywood, look and are so serious when they are off the stage. A hen may cackle when she reaches her creative height, and seem a veritable hoyden, but there are long lapses when she looks as .solemn as any other hen on the lot.
Among the comedians who were having troubles of their own in their honest endeavors to make the world more suitable for human habitation were Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They had been in the humor racket, as the boys on the lot call it, for years and were suffering in their endeavors to be funny, when a terrible ogre came and sat on the head of their bed and dragged his whiskers in their faces. His name was Sound Pictures.
For years Laurel and Hardy had worked in silent pictures and knew every twist and turn and shade value, until they had become veritable Professors of Comedy, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, they were demoted to the kindergarten class. It was a stumper. That night they left the lot happy and carefree and came back the next morning looking like the Prisoner of Chillon. Laboriously and patiently they began to learn how to make sounds again, and were getting along rather well, when again an earthquake threw them out of bed. Hal E. Roach himself was the subterranean disturbance.
“Boys,” he said one morning as they were slipping out of their cars, “from now on we are going to make talking pictures in four languages.”
The boys were pleased. It showed that American pictures had found a new way, in spite of the manacles clapped on them by sound, to reach out over the world and spirit money away from all and sundry.
“I mean you two are going to make sound pictures in four languages,” said Ogre Roach.
“Us? We? We fail to follow you,” said the team of Laurel and Hardy.
“Yes, you two.”
“How do you mean?” they asked. “We can’t talk anything but English.”
This was something in the nature of a boast itself, for Hardy was born and brought up in Atlanta, Georgia, and I reckon, suh, it ain’t the kind of English you-all speak.
Laurel, on the other hand, was born in Ulverston, England, and every time he opens his mouth Ulverston pops out.
“You’ve got to,” said the Ogre of Culver City. “You boys are going over so well that I can sell you abroad and I can’t sell you in English. You’ve got to learn to be funny in English, French, German and Spanish!”
This was long after the Santa Barbara earthquake; in fact, it was only a few weeks ago, but the Santa Barbara earthquake is now forgotten in and around Hollywood, for the earth that morning seemed to shake worse than it had since the old globe’s creation.
“How can we speak it when we don’t know it?”
“I don’t know,” returned the heartless Roach. “It must be done, that’s all.”
“How much time have we to learn those three foreign languages?” asked Monsieur Hardy.
“Until Thursday,” said Roach.
“I know some German,” said Laurel. “I can say ‘Prosit.’ My grandfather studied abroad and taught it to me.”
“I can say ‘Parlez-vous,’ “ said Monsieur Hardy. “I learned it during the war.”
They found also that in Spanish they both knew frijoles, and thus equipped they started in Thursday morning being funny in four languages.
How do they do it? That is the question? If you were suddenly called upon to speak three strange languages, how would you do it? And suppose you had to speak them so that people in those countries would think you were born just outside Paris, or in Unter den Linden, or that your father was a bullfighter, what, I repeat, would you do?
I have watched Laurel and Hardy being funny in four languages, and it is something I will never forget, although I saw the shelling of Paris when Big Bertha was dropping them regularly, but, as I recall it, the people wore gay and carefree expressions on their faces in comparison to the expressions I saw and heard in and around Culver City, California.
This is the way Messieurs Laurel and Hardy do it. They have their “tutors,” as they are called, three of them: Spanish, French and German. Señors Laurel and Hardy make the scene first in English, and then they turn on the heat and make it all over again in German.
How do they gargle deeply enough to satisfy the elite of Potsdam? Well, Hardy has lost sixty pounds in the last thirty days. When he was a lad, Herr Hardy used to tour the country as one of a singing quartette which was billed as “A Ton of Melody.” Well, he couldn’t do it today. If he went out today they would have to bill him as “The Flyweight Tenor.” Foreign talkies, that is the answer.
The first day I saw them work was in “Brats.” When I arrived the two lads were in a bed that would have made Brigham Young weep with joy; the biggest bed I ever saw in my life, although I have never been in a harem. It was especially made for the occasion and was twice the size of an ordinary two-dollars-a-day bed. In fact it was made extra large as Petits Laurel and Hardy were playing the parts of children and were dressed like same. They had made the English version and now they tore into the German version.
The German “tutor” made them repeat again and again the words in German, and then he stood just outside the camera lines and listened and drilled them again showing them how to place their lips to get the right accent. The two tots lay on their great pillows snoring softly, when there was the sound off stage of an automobile horn, and then they sat up in bed and listened. Laurel had to say, “I want a glass of water.” And then poor Hardy had to say, “Ich auch.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But have you ever tried to pronounce it so that forty million Germans will say, “Ach, dot boy knows his ich’s?”
If you haven’t, don’t try, for those two words are stumpers. Men have talked German for years and died with steins in their hands and couldn’t pronounce them correctly — and yet Hardy had to get it exactly right.
Over it and over it they went, while they stared into the high-powered lights and struggled like donner and blitzen.
“Ich auch,” said the tutor, tearing his throat slightly.
“Ick auk,” repeated Hardy.
“No, do it dis vay already once,” commanded the tutor and strange subterranean noises came gurgling up out of his tummy.
“Ick auk,” said Hardy.
“Mein Gott, no — dis vay once — ich auch.”
“Ick auk,” piped Hardy.
Believe it or not, at last they got it right. Just how, I am not clear, for I have always held that the days of miracles are over. Anyway, Herr Germany was pleased and said dat it was goot.
Sometimes the two sufferers could not remember all the words, and so these were written on a blackboard and placed just outside the camera lines.
When they get stuck the boys raise their eyes to the blackboard and ick it all over again.
At last the scene was all made in German; but could they come home and call it a day? No, indeed. It had to be made encore in French; and then ditto in Spanish.
“The only words that I know in Spanish are toreador,” said Laurel, “and we haven’t had it yet. I know I’ll be good that day.”
Their work may seem haphazard and incongruous, as I fling, off these words, but as a matter of fact they are doing their foreign talkers remarkably well. One Spanish paper was so enthusiastic about their work that it came out and announced that Señor Laurel was of an old Spanish family and spoke the true Castilian. And the only Castile that Laurel ever heard of is the one in soap.
One reason why the team of Laurel and Hardy can get away with it so well is that they depend mostly on their pantomime for comedy. It is their actions and their expressions that tell the story. Words are just frosting on the cake.
Stan Laurel ought to know his way about in comedy. When that other notable Englishman, Charlie Chaplin, decided to try his wings in America in a sketch called “A Night in an English Music Hall,” Stan Laurel was his understudy and came to America with him, and he roomed with him. But business was not always good with the English comedians. Instead of going to the hotels, as they toured the country, they went to boarding houses and fried their chops in their room. Laurel’s part was to fry the chops while Charlie’s duty was to sit by the door and strum his mandolin so loudly that the landlady could not hear the sizzling.
Meantime Oliver Hardy started out to be a great and learned lawyer — and ended up by letting people throw pies at him. But, lads and lassies, there’s more money in the pie business, roughly speaking than in the learned law business. He was graduated from the law department of the University of Georgia, and hung out his shingle but spiders came and clouded it up.
“If spiders are the only ones who ever come to my office, I am going out to look for something else,” quoted the brilliant young legal mind, and forthwith he got himself a job singing on the stage. The first time he ever stood in front of a camera was in Jacksonville, Florida, for the old Lubin company.
Hardy gets relief from being funny in four languages by playing golf. He is a golf fiend, and has twenty-four cups sitting on his mantel-piece, to say nothing of two gold medals which he picked up along the way.
Herr Laurel and Monsieur Hardy are sometimes thrown into the breach when things look too solemn. M-G-M., so ‘tis said, had four reels of “The Rogue Song” finished and, when they looked at it in the little fateful projecting-room, they decided it lacked humor, and so a fleet-footed messenger raced down Washington Boulevard to the Roach studio, went into conference, papers were signed and Laurel and Hardy were brought on the run. At night, when the rest of the Rogue players would clear off, Laurel and Hardy would come on with their own rogueries, and the picture made history. Of course, it was not due to Laurel and Hardy, but they had, so to speak, a finger in the pie.
In looking back over this article I see that I have not been as heavy and impressive as I should have been, so now as I approach my peroration I will throw in the solemn part for those who love solemnity. And that is about the speed with which American talking pictures are spreading over the world — and the shock troops are Laurel and Hardy.
For a time it seemed as if talking pictures would put a quietus on the American invasion abroad; it seemed as if each country would rush in and make their own pictures, and then the impresarios of Hollywood hit on the idea of doing several versions of the same picture. And that is what is being done right now and today in Hollywood. But mostly stars are hired who can manipulate two languages, with the minor parts filled with actors native to the land where the pictures are to be shown. For instance, Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert in “The Big Pond.”
And then along came Laurel and Hardy who can speak only English and American and are required to do pictures in four languages! But they are doing it and doing it successfully.
Bravo! Also, Banzai! — which pretty soon they’ll probably have to be doing, too.
They’re good scouts — long may they rave.
Stan Laurel came to America with Charlie Chaplin in “A Night in an English Music Hall.” Stan was Charlie’s understudy.
Oliver Hardy started out to be a lawyer. He was graduated from the law department of the University of Georgia — but legal clients failed to present themselves quickly enough.
The six who do it: James Parrott, who is the Laurel and Hardy director, the Spanish tutor, Messrs. Laurel and Hardy, the French instructor and the German teacher.
Source: The New Movie Magazine, April 1930