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There’s always another brick. Oliver Norvell Hardy died OTD in 1957.

August 7, 2019


He had been ill for a long time and had lost a deal of weight – to the point where the last photos of Oliver Norvell Hardy seem almost unrecognisable.  His partner, himself too ill to attend Hardy’s funeral, never made another film performance – not even a tiny but remunerative cameo, despite numerous offers.

Here is Oliver Hardy at the height of his powers  – in a 1933 film called Dirty Work.  It’s not the greatest Laurel and Hardy two reeler ever made, but this image of Ollie in the fireplace is supremely expressive.  There’s always another dislodged brick that can fall on Oliver Hardy’s head.  And he will sit there and stoically take it.  And just when you think it can’t possibly continue to funny to watch bricks fall on this particular head – another one falls and you find that it still is.

Oliver Hardy’s greatest fan was a man called Stan Laurel.  Stan had a greater and more detailed appreciation of Hardy’s comic brilliance than anyone else and when Stan was working late in the editing room, he was labouring to ensure that Hardy’s slow reactions got all the time they deserved.

The screen character of “Oliver Hardy” has several critical and seemingly contradictory components.  He is a mixture of exasperation and elegance.  The slightest bump in the road causes him to lose his temper, and yet he can absorb any amount of suffering with a rare and poignant stoicism – staring straight into the camera to ensure that we too can share his meditations on the human condition.  Marcus Aurelius is a less eloquent commentator on the ubiquity of pain and sorrow.  The conclusion of Helpmates (1932) is the apotheosis of Oliver Hardy’s portrayal of calm resignation, offering the most perfect ending to any Laurel and Hardy film.  The polite way in which he asks Stan to be left alone in the ruins of the house that Stan has destroyed never fails to astonish me.

There is a connection between Oliver Hardy’s anger and his extraordinary elegance.  This character believes that the world should be an elegant place and accordingly he cannot perform the most basic task without adding a little flourish.  (Apparently it was from watching the foibles of guests at his mother’s boarding house as a child that Hardy picked up these little gestures.)  Consider all the times when Stan and Ollie are supposed to knock on a door and Stan is pushed aside at the last minute, because only Oliver Norvell Hardy can knock on a door with the requisite élan.

It is worth pointing out as well that Oliver Norvell Hardy had a beautiful singing voice – showcased not only in Way Out West, but in many other films such as Pardon UsBrats, and The Flying Deuces.  And of course he could dance as well.  On various occasions, Stan and Ollie are pressed into various versions of military service and it is a delight to see how beautifully they could subvert a display of drilled infantry by throwing in a few off-beat moves and creating an original piece of large scale choreography.  The fact that such a large ungainly man could be such a beautiful singer and dancer is part of the key to the genius of the “Oliver Hardy” character.

“Oliver Hardy” flew into rages when provoked yet was habitually polite as a matter of principle.  He screamed with pain one moment and yet absorbed punishment with calm detachment the next.  Unlike Stan, “Oliver Hardy” thought he knew how to behave in all social situations.  He was dumber than Stan in most important respects insofar as Stan had at least reached that Socratic platform of knowing how dumb he was.

So rest in peace, Oliver Norvell Hardy (I like to use his full name because he liked to use his full name).  You could make people laugh just by staring at them – by reinforcing a sense of basic human connection.  You still can.

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