Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Laurel and Hardy portrait

Englishman Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and American Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) were a comedy duo act during the early classical Hollywood era of American cinema. They started their careers as a duo in the silent film era and later successfully transitioned to “talkies,” and for the better part of three decades ranging from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s, they were internationally famous for their slapstick comedy, with Laurel playing the skinny, clumsy, childlike friend to Hardy’s rotund and pompous bully. (In Hebrew they were known as Hashamen v’Harazeh – “the fat one and the thin one.”)

Laurel and Hardy got their start in film working with a variety of Jewish slapstick comedians and, prior to emerging as a team, both had well-established movie careers; Laurel had acted in over 50 films and he was also a writer (see discussion below on his noteworthy Jewish scripts), while Hardy appeared in more than 250 productions. One of the most beloved comedy duos in cinematic history, they appeared as a team in 107 films, starring in 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length feature films. In 1932, the duo won the first Academy Award for Best Live Action Short (Comedy) for The Music Box, an uproarious performance in which they attempt to move a piano up a long flight of stairs. (For the younger generation who may not have seen it, you must; it may currently be viewed on YouTube.) In 1961, Laurel was presented with an Honorary Academy Award “for his creative pioneering in the field of American comedy.”

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When Hardy moved to Atlanta and took a job as a variety hall singer, he met and married Jewish pianist Madelyn Saloshin. As the story goes, his mother Emily was outraged by Ollie’s relationship with a Jewish woman (and also because he was 21 and Madelyn was several years his senior), so the couple eloped and married in Macon, Georgia, on November 13, 1913.

According to many authorities, however, the significance of his audacious marriage to a Jewish woman was that it took place in the shadow of the trial of Leo Frank in Atlanta on August 1913, which is broadly recognized as the worst antisemitic incident in American history. Frank was falsely accused of the rape and murder of a Catholic female employee, 15-year-old Mary Phagan and, in a trial where the prosecution emphasized Frank’s Jewish identity, he was convicted, sentenced to death and, before his appeal could be decided, dragged from jail by a huge crowd and lynched in 1915.

By marrying a Jew in this environment, Hardy was making a bold statement to both his family and the public regarding his independence and determination to set his own course. The couple immediately left Georgia – Hardy never again set foot there – but the marriage lasted only six years. In his divorce papers, Hardy characterized the marriage as “a sham.”

Although Laurel is renowned as a performer, he displayed his early comedic chops as a writer in Jewish Prudence (a lovely pun on “jurisprudence”), a 1927 short comedy film he wrote in which neither he nor Hardy appeared. Characterized as a “kosher courtroom caper,” it tells the story of Papa Gimpelwart, a Jewish father burdened with three indolent adult children including his daughter Rachel, who wants to marry Aaron, a handsome newly barred lawyer, but he will not sanction the marriage until Aaron establishes himself and wins his first case. When Gimpelwart and his younger son, Junior, witness a road accident, Gimpelwart, ever on the lookout for a get-rich scheme, tells Junior to sneak into the overturned vehicle and pose as a passenger who had sustained a serious leg injury in the crash, and some hilarious scenes ensue.

Junior files what we know to be a nonsense suit against the driver, who is defended by Aaron, who humiliates the plaintiffs and exposes them as frauds. After winning his case, Aaron assures Gimpelwart that he zealously pursued the case only because of the condition Gimpelwart had imposed for allowing him to wed the beautiful Rachel, but a furious Gimpelwart drives away angrily and strikes a passing truck. Aaron enthusiastically offers to represent him in a suit against the truck driver – who, it turns out, is Abie, Gimpelwart’s other son.

Gimpelwart is played by silent-movie comedian Max Davidson, a Jewish actor with strongly Semitic features who tended to play stereotypical Jewish characters on screen. While it is reasonable to view Gimpelwart as an antisemitic stereotype, Laurel drew him comedically as a sympathetic character who is resourceful and frugal rather than cunning and cheap.

In Why Girls Say No (1927), another film written by Laurel and in which Hardy has a bit part as a comic police officer, Papa Whisselberg (played by Davidson) wants his very popular daughter, Becky, to marry “a nice Jewish boy.” Papa declares one suitor as “kosher” after seeing his big Jewish nose, but Becky falls in love with “an Irisher,” a young Irish-looking boy. She invites him to a birthday party for her father but tells him that he will have to pass as Jewish – which he does by wearing a hat several sizes too small. Trying to be helpful, the well-intentioned lad opens the oven door, but the birthday cake deflates; desperate to cover up his error, he secretly pumps the cake up with air from a bicycle pump, but things go comedically awry and Papa throws him out of the house.

Announcing that she is going to marry him, Becky runs out after him and, after a riotous chase scene through the streets of Los Angeles, Papa finally catches the couple just as they enter the young man’s house. While screaming at the boy that he will never permit his daughter to marry an Irish boy, Becky’s beau introduces Papa to his parents – who turn out to be obviously Orthodox Jews – and the couple lives happily ever after.

 

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At the beginning of Blotto (1930), Laurel puzzles over an issue of Yiddishe Welt (the “Jewish World”), a Cleveland Yiddish newspaper with a headline about a Charles Lindbergh 1928 goodwill flight to Latin America and featuring a story about adverse weather conditions on his flight from Cuba to St. Louis. Laurel milks the Yiddish paper for hilarity as his character studies it with confusion for some time before realizing that it is written in a foreign language. Some commentators suggest that the character’s irked, skeptical, critical wife was Jewish, but there does not seem to be any support for that proposition.

 

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In the much beloved March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), starring Laurel and Hardy, the characterization of Silas Barnaby, the villain of the piece, is overtly antisemitic. The creepy Barnaby, the wealthiest resident of Toyland, owns the mortgage to the Old Woman’s shoe and threatens to evict her and her tenants if Little Bo Peep marries Peter Piper instead of him. He exhibits virtually every antisemitic caricature: his swarthy features are exaggerated in a manner that would make Der Sturmer proud: he moves around with a hunched posture; both affluent and cheap, he uses his wealth to exercise power over Bo Peep (whose striking blond hair could not have been accidental); he is a crooked, cunning and unscrupulous villain who manipulates the situation to serve his own selfish ends; he is the consummate outsider, alone and isolated with no friends or family; and he has no interest in the community around him and is in turn shunned by it.

When his evil plan to marry Bo Beep fails, Barnaby summons “the Bogeys” from the underworld and enlists these brown afro-haired half-animal creatures who grunt, cannot speak, and are known for hunting, terrorizing, and devouring all unfortunates who cross their path, in his effort to destroy the peaceful white town. At the end, the goose-stepping, boot-crushing Aryan-looking soldiers march in fearlessly to save the white townspeople from the hateful Jew and his black minions. In sum, Jews and blacks are portrayed as less-than-human undesirables to be destroyed at all costs, just classic Nazi tropes.

In this July 31, 1963 correspondence, Laurel, then living in a Santa Monica apartment, responds to William Brown, a Canadian super-fan who engaged him in extensive correspondence, regarding an antisemitic incident at Winnipeg Beach:

That anti-semitism situation sounds pretty bad. I don’t know why those swasticka [sic] groups are allowed to function should’nt [sic] be allowed PERIOD. A bunch of trouble makers – this discrimination business is shocking.

Then, responding to Brown’s complaint that he could not decide where to go on vacation, Laurel writes with his characteristic tongue-in-cheek humor:

Note you do’nt [sic] know where to go for a holiday – why don’t you make up as a ‘Heeb’ & spend a month at Winnipeg Beach?!!!! change your name to Irving Brownski!”

Laurel’s letter re swastikas at Winnipeg Beach.

The antisemitic Winnipeg Beach event to which Laurel refers did not begin in a vacuum. In the early 1960s, Canada experienced a wave of pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish activities accompanied by antisemitic vandalism. In particular, three weeks in May 1963 marked a period of extreme hate in Toronto, where Shomrei Shabbat and Anshe Apt synagogues in downtown Toronto were disfigured with slogans such as “Jew Die” painted on the buildings; black swastikas were plastered on the Borochov Center, which was known to house Jewish cultural and educational institutions; and marauding swastika gangs roamed the boardwalk at the Toronto waterfront. The Canadian Nationalistic Party printed a series of antisemitic and libelous statements against Jews and disseminated them throughout Canada.

In the early 20th century, Winnipeg Beach, known as “Manitoba’s Coney Island,” was a world-class resort, which some came to sarcastically characterize as “the Jewish Beach” because of generally accepted unwritten covenants prohibiting Jews from owning or renting property there. It was a center of antisemitism, which some experts attribute to the presence of a large Ukrainian population and, when the vacationers would return home at the end of the summer, the locals would regularly congratulate each other on the Jews finally being gone.

On June 30, 1963, a group drove through the streets of Winnipeg Beach in a car covered with placards inscribed with antisemitic slogans from which they announced through a loudspeaker “Jews get out of the beach! You will be killed. This is Adolf Eichmann speaking.” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded forcefully and arrested several antisemites, including the leader, Brian Isfeld, who claimed that he was only trying to advertise a dance and that he was merely advising Jews not to attend. He plead guilty to disturbing the peace and was fined $500.

Jews feared that the incident might trigger an attack on Jewish campers at a nearby Camp Massad. (“Massad Gimmel,” which is still in existence, is the only Hebrew immersion Massad outside Israel.) Particularly traumatized by the event were the many Holocaust survivors who had found their way to Canada and made a new life for themselves there; better than anybody, they saw the analogy between Winnipeg Beach and the beginning of Naziism in Germany and feared another Holocaust in their adopted country.

Interestingly, shortly after the Winnipeg Beach episode, Lawrence E. Tapper was elected its first Jewish mayor. In an interview following his election, Tapper, who was active in Jewish and communal affairs for many years, served as president of the local B’nai B’rith Lodge 650, and was a member of the Shaarey Zedek synagogue, made a point of crediting his victory to the support of non-Jews, “who are very much ashamed and revolted by the recent defacing of the synagogue and the swastika contagion at the Beach.”

In a subsequent event at Winnipeg Beach a few weeks later in July 1963, a Jewish store was smeared and a synagogue was painted with swastikas and, when Harvey Davis, a 14-year-old Jewish boy, bravely spoke out against the gang’s antisemitic rants, he was grabbed by the neck and choked. The perpetrator was charged only with disturbing the peace, and the police announced that no charges of assault would be filed because “no bodily harm was caused to the youngster, [who was] able to go home on his own.” Incredibly, the law enforcement authorities characterized the brutal attack as “a prank that got out of hand – rather than a serious act of racial prejudice.”

Finally, it is interesting to note that in a subsequent letter to Brown dated June 5, 1964, Laurel wrote that “Yes, [Charlie] Chaplin is Jewish that’s no secret.” Although Nazi propaganda denounced Chaplin as a “foreign Jew” after the success of his The Great Dictator (1940); and although in his first stage debut at age 18 (an unmitigated disaster), he billed himself as “Sam Cohen, the Jewish comedian,” Chaplin was raised Anglican and he was personally an agnostic, which leaves us wondering whether Laurel was mistaken or if this was an example of his sense of humor (almost certainly the latter).

Many people do not know that, early in their careers, Laurel and Chaplin were friends who toured together. The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel tells the story of Laurel sharing a cabin with Chaplin on the ship sailing from the United Kingdom to New York in 1910, serving as his understudy in Fred Karno‘s Army, and spending two years with him touring across North America. Within a few years, Chaplin had achieved international renown while an unsuccessful Laurel returned home, only to later achieve world fame with Hardy. Interestingly, Laurel, who always spoke fondly of Chaplin, received nary a mention in Chaplin’s comprehensive autobiography.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.