The 7th August 1957. A date which is tattooed on my shoulder. Why? Today marks the 58th anniversary of the passing of my (nick)namesake, Oliver Norvell Hardy.
Better known to family and friends as simply “Babe”, Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia, on 18th January 1892. Named Norvell by his parents, it wasn't until much later that he adopted the name Oliver, in tribute to his father, who passed away a year after Babe was born.
As a child, Babe had little interest in education, and ran away to join a theatrical group. Recognising his vocal talents, Hardy’s mother sent him Atlanta to study music. Again, Babe was less than compliant, and elected to sing in a vaudeville house.
In 1910 Ollie became the manager of a theatre, and soon became convinced he could do a better job than the actors he watched on his screen. On the suggestion of a close friend, he moved to Jacksonville, where, in 1913, where he worked as a cabaret and vaudeville singer at night, and at the Lubin film studio during the day. It was at this time that he met and married his first wife, Madelyn Saloshin. The following year he made his first movie, "Outwitting Dad", for the Lubin studio. He was billed as O. N. Hardy, taking his father's name as a memorial. He was known as Oliver Hardy for the remainder of his career. In his personal life, he was known as "Babe" Hardy instead, a nickname coined by an Italian barber.
By 1915, he had made 50 short films at the Lubin studio. He later moved to New York and made films for the Pathe, Casino and Edison studios. He then returned to Jacksonville and made films for the Vim and King Bee studios. He worked with Charlie Chaplin imitator Billy West during this time. In 1917, Oliver Hardy moved to Los Angeles, working freelance for several Hollywood studios. The following year, he appeared in the movie "Lucky Dog", produced by "Bronco Billy" Anderson and starring a young English comedian named Stan Laurel. Hardy played the part of a robber, attempting to Stan's character. They did not work together again for several years, eventually forming the famous team of Laurel and Hardy.
Between 1918 and 1923 Oliver Hardy made more than 40 films for Vitagraph, playing the "heavy" for Larry Semon, another Charlie Chaplin imitator. In 1919, he separated from his wife, ending with a divorce in 1920, due to Babe's infidelity. The very next year, Babe married again, to Myrtle Reeves. This marriage was also unhappy, with Myrtle eventually becoming an alcoholic.
In 1924, Oliver Hardy began working at Roach Studios, where he made some of his best films, working with the Our Gang films and Charley Chase. In 1925, he was in a film "Yes, Yes, Nanette!" starring James Finlayson, who, of course, became a regular returning actor in many Laurel and Hardy films.
In 1926, a hot leg of lamb changed the future of both Laurel and Hardy. Oliver Hardy was scheduled to appear in "Get 'Em Young" but was unexpectedly hospitalised after being burned by a hot leg of lamb. Stan Laurel, who had been working as a gag man and director at Roach Studios, was recruited to fill in. Stan kept appearing in front of the camera rather than behind it, and later that appeared in the same movie as Oliver, "45 Minutes From Hollywood", although they didn't share any scenes together.
In 1927, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy began sharing screen time together in "Slipping Wives", "Duck Soup" (no relation to the Marx Brothers film of the same name) and "With Love and Hisses". Roach Studios' supervising director Leo McCarey had realised the audience reaction to the two, and had begun intentionally teaming them together, leading to the start of the "Laurel and Hardy" series later that year.
Laurel and Hardy made the transition to talking films with "Unaccustomed as We Are" in 1929, a feat that many of their contemporaries stumbled over. Their comic bond was even stronger with sound, and they used sound to comedic effect, never more so than in the Academy Award winning film "The Music Box", in 1932.
In 1939, Laurel refused to renew his contract with Roach Studios. Roach had kept each of them on separate contracts, with each set to expire at different times. Roach felt that this gave him maximum control over the very popular team of Laurel and Hardy, but Stan had finally had enough. While awaiting a resolution, Hardy made the film "Zenobia" with Harry Langdon, a surprisingly funny film. Eventually, Stan got his way, and the boys were both signed to new contracts, and the team was loaned out to General Services Studio to make "Flying Deuces" one of Laurel and Hardy's best known films.
While on the lot, Babe fell in love with Virginia Lucille Jones, a script girl, whom he married the next year. Laurel and Hardy also began performing for the USO, supporting the Allied troops during World War II. They also made "A Chump at Oxford (1940)" (a classic, where Stanley "recovers" his memory and becomes a genius professor, with some humorous role reversals in Laurel and Hardy's relationship) and "Saps at Sea (1940)."
Beginning in 1941, Laurel and Hardy were beginning a decline in their professional careers. They left Roach Studios and began making films for 20th Century Fox, and later MGM. Although they were financially better off, they had very little artistic control at the large studios, and the films they made reflected that.
In 1947, Laurel and Hardy left Hollywood to begin a six week tour of the English Music Halls. It enabled Stan to visit his home country, as well as serving to prove to Laurel and Hardy that they hadn't lost their touch over the last six years of less than successful comedy films. In answer to that question, their six week tour was extended to nearly a year, and grew to include engagements in Scandinavia, Belgium, France, as well as a Royal Command Performance for King George and Queen Elizabeth.
In 1949, Oliver Hardy's friend, John Wayne, asked him to play a supporting role in Wayne's latest film, "The Fighting Kentuckian." Oliver had previously worked with John Wayne and John Ford in a charity production of the play "What Price Glory" while Stan began treatment for his diabetes a few years previously. Oliver initially refused, due to his loyalty to his partner, Stan Laurel. Stan however insisted that Oliver take the role, which he did, and did quite well. In the same way, Frank Capra invited Oliver to play a cameo role in "Riding High" with Bing Crosby in 1950.
In 1951, Laurel and Hardy made their final film, and, arguably, their weakest. "Atoll K" was a simple concept; Stan inherits a boat, and the boys set out to sea, where they discover and claim a brand new island, rich in uranium, making them powerful and wealthy. However, it was produced by a consortium of European interests, with an international cast and crew that couldn't speak to each other. In addition, the script needed to be rewritten by Stan to make it fit the comedy team's style, and both Oliver and Stan suffered serious physical problems during the filming.
In 1954, Oliver Hardy and Stan embarked on a third European tour, which again was a major success both financially and artistically for them.
In 1955, it looked as though the new medium of television would provide an avenue for Laurel and Hardy to return to their former glories. The boys had contracted with Hal Roach Jr. to produce a series of TV shows based on the Mother Goose fables. However, this was never to be. Stan first suffered a stroke, which required a lengthy convalescence. Next, Oliver Hardy suffered a heart attack and stroke later that year. Oliver never physically recovered.
Hardy was, for me, a childhood hero. One who has remained with me throughout my life. With a simple twiddle of tie, a straightening of his trademark bowler or a withering look, usually at Stan's idiocy, he could reduce me to tears of laughter. Laurel and Hardy were, and still are, the ultimate comedy duo. Often imitated, never bettered. Whilst Stan's onscreen persona was very much that of the clown, Ollie was the pompous straight man, always trying, and usually failing, to maintain some sense of dignity. His presence brought light to every scene! He was wonderful actor and comedian, with an angelic voice and a larger than life personality. The joy he, and his lifelong partner, Stan, have brought, to myself and millions of people is unparalleled.
Oliver Hardy, "Babe" to his friends, "Ollie" to people around the world, passed away on August 7, 1957, at the age of 65, following a series of strokes. His ashes were interred in the Masonic Garden of Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.
Oliver Norvell Hardy
18th January 1892 - 7th August 1957
With love and gratitude.