Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Bad Example of a Big Bully

The 1925 comedy Stick Around stars Oliver Hardy as a stout, bossy paperhanger who violently abuses his small, blank-faced assistant, played by Bobby Ray. Hardy kicks Ray, shoves him, punches him, and lifts him off the ground and rattles him. The paperhangers are called to a job at a sanitarium. Ray is loaded down with poles, buckets, brushes and wallpaper rolls while Hardy leads him around barking orders. When the pair arrive at the room that needs to be papered, Hardy sits down to read a newspaper while Dunn gets down to work. A rivalry between the two men is sparked by a pretty nurse entering the room. Slapstick ensues.

Stick Around has been widely identified as a precursor to the Laurel and Hardy comedies. Hans J. Wollstein wrote in his All Movie Guide, "Hardy himself later acknowledged that his character in this film resembled the Ollie of later fame, with a condescending attitude toward his less-brainy partner, dainty hand gestures and all." But, for the most part, Stick Around has more in common with a Ham & Bud comedy than a Laurel & Hardy comedy. While teamed with Laurel, Hardy was not much like the boss paperhanger. He could be domineering and pompous, but he was never a bully. Nor was he a lazy man willing to let his partner do all the work. The paperhanger's relationship with his assistant is, in this regard, more akin to something out of a Ham & Bud comedy.

And yet, in the final moments of Stick Around, the relationship between the paperhangers changes. Hardy rushes over to help Ray, who has sat down in a bucket and got himself stuck. The manager of the sanitarium is infuriated by the mess the paperhangers have made and demands that they get out immediately. Hardy, expressing himself with delicate hand gestures, politely advises Ray to come with him. Ray no more than stares at Hardy vacuously and blinks his eyes. The two men then lock arms, tip their hats, and walk to the door together. Hardy has Ray stand aside while he opens the door for him. The pair back out of the doorway together and immediately fall off a balcony. This ill-fated teamwork - the courteousness, the cooperation and the ultimate mishap - is what, in the end, makes Hardy and Ray resemble Laurel & Hardy. This comedy, which combines elements of Ham & Bud and elements of Laurel & Hardy, could be viewed as a link between the two comedy teams.

Ham & Bud, for all their crudeness and simplicity, established an effective template that continued to have an effect on comedymakers for years after their series ended in 1917.

It is possible that Jackie Gleason had Ham & Bud in mind while creating the "Rudy the Repairman" sketches for his television variety show in the 1950s and 1960s. Gleason is often associated with Hamilton in regards to his "Poor Soul" character, which was clearly inspired by Hamilton's post-Ham work, but it would be wrong to assume that Hamilton's influence on Gleason ended there. Rudy the Repairman shares significant traits with Ham. Rudy, like Ham, was big, bossy and boorish. Rudy, like Ham, abused a pint-sized sidekick (Rudy's sidekick, Whitey, was played by 4' 11" Jerry Bergen). Rudy, who enjoyed breaking things with his hammer, was as destructive of property as Ham had been.

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