To Be Absolutely Frank

Comics Without Honor

Every American should be told that this summer the Laurel and Hardy Museum will hold its grand opening in Harlem, Georgia.

By 5.31.02

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Heard about the latest monument to an American hero? Chances are you haven't. I learned about it just two days ago in the pages of an Italian newspaper. This July 15th, reports the Corriere della Sera, the Laurel and Hardy Museum will hold its grand opening in Harlem, Georgia, U.S.A.

Housed in a converted post office on the town's main street, the museum will offer displays of L&H memorabilia and regular screenings of the duo's works, including some rare early shorts. Harlem has a population of 2,200, a figure that the town expects to double when fans from as far away as Japan show up for the inaugural. (Click here for an early visitor's report.)

Yet none of the Hollywood stars invited have so far bothered to reply. "Maybe they kid themselves that they're funnier than Laurel and Hardy," one of the organizers told the Milan daily, tactfully declining to name the offenders.

The Corriere considers such neglect a national scandal: "Stanlio e Ollio [as the pair are known here] seem to have suffered the fate of almost all the greats of American comedy: the silence that fell over the extraordinary career of Buster Keaton, the exile to television (and then only for charity marathons) of Jerry Lewis, mocked in his fatherland and acclaimed in Europe (forgotten by Oscar but awarded the Legion of Honor in France)."

Now, I happen to think that we're better off with Jerry Lewis raising money for medical research, and I've always suspected that France's lavish praise for the guy (the New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard called him "funnier than Chaplin or Keaton") was some kind of in-joke.

Yet there's no question that America's arbiters of cinematic prestige underrate comedy. The ever-astute David Edelstein made this point a couple of months back, when he ruled out any chance that Renee Zellweger would win Best Actress for her charming turn as Bridget Jones. The Academy, he noted, traditionally shuns clowning in favor of relatively dull movies that "touch, ennoble and inspire."

Maybe this shows that we Americans are still culturally insecure. While we love to watch the likes of Laurel and Hardy -- a constant presence on U.S. cable television, as the Corriere points out -- we feel it's more respectable to watch dumbed-down biopics about schizophrenic mathematicians. ("The Fat Man and the Thin Man," as they are known in the Spanish-speaking world, did win a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1960, three years after Hardy's death.)

Whatever the reason for it, America's neglect of Laurel and Hardy is all the more embarrassing since Britain has already honored its half of the team. According to its website, the first Laurel and Hardy Museum was founded "many years ago" in Ulverston, Cumbria. Located in the Lake District of northwestern England, Ulverston is the birthplace of Stanley Laurel.

That Laurel's countrymen evidently respect his memory more than Hardy's do his is further proof that there is no justice on this earth. Despite his sweet-tempered on-screen image, Laurel was apparently by far the nastier of the pair. According to Harry Mount's review of a recent dual biography:

"Laurel was an aggressive, greedy egomaniac, bossing directors around, forever seeking and getting more money than his partner, and not averse to taking the Bing Crosby approach to most of his four wives. Hardy was quiet and unassuming, spending all his evenings in with his wife, and celebrating their wedding anniversary every Thursday afternoon at 4.35pm, the exact time they had got married."

(To be fair, Mount notes that Laurel mellowed in his later years.)

Aside from Hollywood's neglect, the Corriere seems to find it disgraceful that the American L&H museum has received no money from the State of Georgia or the federal government; and that the museum's collection was put together entirely from private donations. But here the paper betrays a European taste for centralized, state control.

On the contrary, the local and volunteer nature of the Harlem museum is one of the most inspiring -- and distinctively American -- things about it. (Or perhaps I should say "distinctively Anglo-American," since the Ulverston museum seems to be a grassroots affair as well.)

Let's hope that donations keep coming in. One hundred thirty miles west of Harlem is another monument to a famous son of the Peach State: the Carter Center, in Atlanta, with an annual operating budget of $35 million. I'm sure the directors of the Laurel and Hardy Museum would be overjoyed with, say, one percent of that amount. And after all, doesn't the country owe "Stanlio e Ollio" at least one-hundredth of what it owes its 39th president?

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.