The Culture of Comedy

Memoirs explore the life of Oliver Hardy and the essence of humor

A RECENT edition of the Los Angeles Times Book Review gives critical assessments of a biography of choreographer Bob Fosse, a book about the musical worlds of Lerner and Loewe, and two others about the Rolling Stones. Its pages also offer splashy ads for Charles Kuralt's ``long-awaited memoir,'' a posthumous autobiography of Ava Gardner (``I want to tell the truth about the three men I loved and married.... I want to write about the Hollywood I knew''), and a ``Hollywood memoir'' by Martha Hyer Wallis. This latter purports to examine this all-but-forgotten actress's ``impressive film career and enduring marriage'' and also her approach to ``the brink of spiritual and financial bankruptcy.''

All of which illustrates that the entertainment memoir/biography is as popular as ever. This review assesses two examples. Although many of the genre suffer from inadequate research and a questionable standard of factuality, both these volumes appear solid efforts at exploring their subjects.

Which is not to say that ``Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy'' does not presume readership affection for the subject. John McCabe, who has written three other books about Laurel and Hardy, takes it for granted that everyone loves the tall, rotund, fussy man who made us all laugh. No skeptical readers here, please.

Oliver Hardy, called Norvell by his family and Babe by everyone else, started life in small-town Georgia, the son of an enterprising, twice-widowed mother who ran hotels. He took the fat boy's route of compensating for his size by getting people to laugh at him. As a teenager he worked occasionally as a singer, then drifted into vaudeville in Florida and got work in early films. Eventually he landed in Hollywood, played whatever roles came his way, and finally teamed with Stan Laurel, a gagman with long experience in British vaudeville. The pairing made a small piece of cinema history.

``Babe'' gives a good sense of what it was like to be a worker in a Hollywood that was basically a factory town. For much of his career, Hardy went to the studio each workday, clowned before the camera in routines devised by Laurel, and hoped to finish the day early enough to get in a round of golf. He often went to the Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, on the weekends.

And for many years he tried to cope with an alcoholic wife who had too much time on her hands. Eventually he divorced her. Later he married a woman 20 years his junior and finally found a degree of happiness. Like the lives of most factory workers, this life is not an extraordinary one.

``Babe'' is at its most interesting when it discusses how Hardy achieved his effects.

``Aunt Susie was to have a profound effect on him professionally,'' McCabe writes, for example. ``The slightly over-genteel mannerisms he used in his comedy were mostly hers. The extended pinky, the courtly bows, the gallant gestures of welcome and farewell, the fervid cordiality - these he had all observed in Aunt Susie, and they lived again in his acting.''

Penelope Gilliatt's ``To Wit'' is an extended essay about comedy and its practitioners. It is an ``entertainment memoir'' in that it seems unquestionably to be a revisiting of earlier journalism, which produces a thorough assessment of the subject. The author is a longtime cultural reporter and sometimes New Yorker film critic; she is also a novelist and screen scenarist.

Because Gilliatt is a fine writer, the prose here is a pleasure to read: ``Language. The reviving comedy of homo sapiens rests in love of language, and knowledge of its freight. Without that, the rest is indeed silence. In the English vocabulary we have an extraordinary possession, and in the present vandalism we forfeit ourselves.''

But the book is also a distinct curiosity. One has the feeling of being visited by a dotty aunt who talks interminably about plays and films she saw 35 years ago. And how she does go on! She drops insights aplenty, but does not bother to make them connect.

As screenwriter Gilliatt well knows, a screenplay is ``a verbal expression of a visual experience.'' This fact suggests why screenplays are not much fun to read; they're a lot of descriptive words about something designed to be seen.

Essayist Gilliatt encounters a similar problem. She spends much of ``To Wit'' describing performances that have delighted her. But even her literary skill cannot make come alive performances designed to be seen. A chapter on Jacques Tati, for example, awakens memories of his performances. But for those who have no such memories, her 45-page chapter is not worth 45 seconds of actually watching Tati perform.

Occasionally Gilliatt offers gems of reportage (Chaplin, for example, directing Brando and Sophia Loren in the film ``A Countess from Hong Kong''). And frequently she gives trenchant insights. To illustrate, she describes the importance of rhythm in comedy and notes that the rhythmic clatter of early cameras may have helped Keaton and Chaplin hone performances.

But Gilliatt has trapped herself in a Catch-22. A reader accepts descriptions of performances when reading film reviews. But encountering such descriptions between hard covers, a reader grows impatient. It's a predicament that some of the book's subjects - Keaton, Tati, or Fellini - might have transformed into comedy.

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