b. Arthur Stanley Jefferson, June 16, 1890; Ulverston, Lancashire, England d. February 23, 1965
Stan Laurel was half of the most successful team in the history of screen comedy. Or perhaps he was two-thirds, since he always insisted on receiving twice the salary of his partner, Oliver Hardy. Laurel reckoned he was worth it, since he was (though there's something incongruous about the phrase) the brains of the outfit—dreaming up most of their (minimal) plots, setting the pace and tone, and often serving as producer and de facto director of their films.
He was born just south of the Scottish border. Father A.J. Jefferson was an actor, playwright, and impresario extraordinaire, if chiefly in the provincial scale of things; mother was actress Marge Metcalfe. He himself entered show business in his teens. In 1909 he launched a solo act, "Stan Jefferson—He of the Funny Ways"; the soubriquet was somewhat premature, but one would love to have heard him say it. Within the year he was part of Fred Karno's comedy troupe. In the words of historian John McCabe: "...he reveled in the opportunity to use his total bodily instrument for laughter's sake. This was acting which blended the craft and art of a circus clown, Shakespearean buffoon, and ballet dancer. Karno's was the most thoroughgoing school of comedy any comic could wish for." Another such comic was rising star Charlie Chaplin, whose best pal Laurel became as they toured America in 1910 and again in 1912. When Chaplin was tapped for movie stardom by Mack Sennett, Laurel branched out into American vaudeville with an act that entailed impersonating his friend and pantomiming "the Little Tramp" on stage.
Laurel entered films in 1917. A fellow player in one of his first screen outings, A Lucky Dog (1917), was another struggling comic, Oliver Hardy. Nobody took especial note, Hardy and Laurel included. Laurel continued having a busy but unremarkable career in vaudeville and in comedy two-reelers—76 of them, all told—before he was finally and forever teamed with his screen soulmate almost a decade later, in 1926. The matchmaker was Hal Roach, who ran the best comedy factory in Hollywood, and for whom Laurel had gone to work in 1922 as a gagman and then as an actor. Within very short order, Laurel and Hardy were household names. Make that a household name.
The team's comedic style was perfected virtually overnight, in collaboration with director Leo McCarey. Eschewing the hurtling mayhem of the Mack Sennett–Keystone Kops approach to screen comedy, Laurel and McCarey developed a "slow burn" strategy whereby Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy—Stan and Ollie, the skinny guy and the fat guy, "the boys"—walk up to a more or less realistic comic situation with great deliberateness and slowly dismantle anything approximating rational order. They are not Marx Brothers seeking to loose anarchy on the world—they simply get carried away and, being undersupplied with gray cells, cannot begin to figure out how to stop, let alone extricate themselves from calamity.
The formula worked beautifully in silent comedy. Sound only improved it, allowing Hardy's pear-shaped twitter to play off against Laurel's patient English piping. And it allowed audiences to hear, as well as see, Stanley cry—an all-purpose expression of apprehension, regret, resentment, apology, self-justification, and sheer terror, usually cued by Ollie's "Here's another fine mess you've got me into."
They had about ten great years, encompassing some 40 short subjects—culminating in the Oscar-winning The Music Box (1932)—and such classic features as Sons of the Desert (1934), Our Relations (1936), and Way Out West (1937). They parted with Roach in 1940 and never made a decent movie again, though they remained active through The Bullfighters in 1945. After that, there was only one more Laurel and Hardy picture, a Franco-Italian mistake variously known as Atoll K, Robinson Crusoe-land, and Utopia (1950). Television showings of their Roach films made them beloved of a new generation, and they hoped to embark on a new series, in color, in 1954. Alas, Hardy suffered a stroke and was immobilized until his death three years later. Laurel never recovered from the loss—despite his attitude about their respective pay scales, he loved Mr. Hardy—and did not work again. In 1960 he was voted an honorary Oscar for "his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy."
Laurel was married to four women—two of them several times, for technical reasons that would fit into a Laurel and Hardy comedy—and was sued at one point by a fifth, common-law wife. You can imagine how he got out of it.