Childhood & Early Life
Stan Laurel was born as Arthur Stanley Jefferson on 16 June 1890 in Argyll Street, Ulverston, Lancashire. His father Arthur Jefferson was a theatre manager, while his mother Margaret Jefferson was an actress. He had four siblings.
Laurel studied at King James Grammar School in Bishop Auckland and later at King’s School in Tynemouth. However, he moved to Scotland with his parents, and he completed his schooling at Rutherglen Academy there.
Since Laurel’s parents were both from theatre, it was only natural for him to gravitate towards the stage. He helped his father manage the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. He was inspired by the comedian Dan Leno and aspired to become like him.
He gave his first performance when he was 16 at the Panopticon, Glasgow. He performed pantomime as well as musical hall sketches. He found music hall more suited to his style and decided to improvise with a bowler hat, thus creating his hallmark.
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In 1910, Stan Laurel embarked on his professional career after joining Fred Karno’s troupe, which also had Charlie Chaplin in it. He assumed the stage name Stan Jefferson there. He was an understudy to Chaplin, and the duo learnt slapstick comedy from their mentor, Karno.
Laurel moved to the United States along with the troupe to tour the country. Despite registering for military service during the First World War, he wasn’t called up due to his resident alien status and deafness. Therefore, Laurel continued his tour in the United States.
From 1916 to 1918, he teamed up with Baldwin and Alice Cooke and performed with them. He also worked with Oliver Hardy for the short film ‘The Lucky Dog’ in 1921. He met Mae Dahlberg around this time, and the duo performed together. He changed his stage name to Laurel upon Dahlberg’s suggestion.
He was offered a contract to star in short comedies. He was first seen in ‘Nuts in May’ and later, he worked together with Dahlberg in the 1922 short, ‘Mud and Sand’. He decided to abandoned his stage work and continue working for shorts and two-reel comedies.
In 1924, Laurel became a full-time movie actor. He signed a contract with Joe Rock for 12 film shorts and slowly drifted apart from his association with Dahlberg. His most famous short reels from this time were ‘Detained’ (1924), ‘Somewhere in Wrong’ (1925), ‘Navy Blue Days’ (1925) and ‘Half a Man’ (1925).
In 1926, the famous Hal Roach studio signed Laurel. Under their banner, he started directing and writing for films. His movie ‘Yes, Yes’ Nanette’ was released in 1926 and starred his future collaborator, Oliver Hardy. Laurel also starred as an actor in lieu of Hardy in the film, ‘Get ‘Em Young’.
From 1927 onwards, Laurel and Hardy started appearing together as a duo in several comedies. Their most famous short films were ‘Duck Soup’, ‘With Love and Hisses’, and ‘Slipping Wives’. The duo hit it off due to their on-screen chemistry and grew close as friends.
The audience’s reactions to the comic duo was positive; and Leo McCarey, the director of Roach Studios, decided to pair them up more often. He envisaged the success of Laurel and Hardy and decided to work on a series of films with them.
The ‘Laurel and Hardy’ pair was a massive success, and they starred in many short films, including ‘Should Married Men Go Home?’, ‘Be Big!’, ‘The Battle of the Century’, and ‘Big Business’ among others. When film technology began to change, they moved from silent to talking films, and their first release was ‘Unaccustomed As We Are’ (1929).
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The pair’s work increased in the early 1930s. They were seen in a variety of films, including ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929’ and ‘The Rouge Song.’ Feature films were introduced in this era, and the pair was actively involved in them. Their first feature film was ‘Pardon Us’ in 1931.
Laurel and Hardy continued to make films together despite Laurel’s separation from Roach Studios. Their movie ‘The Music Box’ released in 1932 and won the Academy Award. For Roach Studio, the pair’s last films were ‘A Chump at Oxford’ and ‘Saps at Sea’.
In 1941, Laurel and Hardy signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and agreed to work on 10 films in five years. However, most of their films, including ‘The Bullfighters’ and ‘Jitterbugs’ didn’t succeed.
In 1947, the pair returned to do what they loved the most - musical hall. They toured the UK for six weeks and were met with enthusiastic, jampacked audiences everywhere. They even performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London. They decided to continue touring for many years after their success in the UK.
Laurel’s health started deteriorating in the 1950s, and Hardy worked on solo projects. However, they came together for ‘Atoll K’, a French feature film. The film was a disaster, and the duo decided to continue touring. However, Laurel’s health didn’t improve, and he missed many shows.
Hardy’s death in 1957 put a permanent damper on Laurel’s career as he was devastated by his partner’s departure. He refused to perform on stage or act in films without Hardy and decided to retire from the big screen.
Towards the end of his career, Laurel was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1961. His prolific output of 190 films was applauded by the industry. He spent his last days in California and always wrote back to his fans.
Family & Personal Life
From 1919 to 1925, Stan Laurel and Mae Dahlberg lived together as common-law husband and wife, despite never being married. Mae returned to Australia after Laurel’s career took off. She returned much later to sue Laurel for financial support, but the case was settled out of court.
He was officially married four time. His first wife was Lois Neilson (m. 1926), and they had one daughter, Lois. The couple divorced in December 1934.
He married Virginia Ruth Rogers in 1935, but filed for divorce in 1937. His third wife was Vera Ivanova Shuvalova (m. 1938), but their relationship was turbulent and ended in divorce in 1940. However, they remarried in 1941 and divorced again in 1946.
His final marriage was to Ida Kitaeva Raphael in May 1946. The couple remained together until Laurel’s death.
Laurel died on 23 February 1965 when he was 74 years old. He suffered a heart attack on 19 February and finally succumbed to it four days later. His funeral was attended by many great comedians and actors, including Buster Keaton.
Laurel left behind a cherished legacy and inspired many. His statues have been erected in his home town, Ulverton, and Eden Theatre. The ‘Laurel and Hardy’ pair was also inducted into the Grand Order of Water Rats. Several Laurel and Hardy museums have popped up in the last few years to pay homage to the pair.