All About Babe

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"When a Hardy makes his mind up, it's as firm as the rock of Gibralter."

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    Oliver "Babe" Hardy was born Norvell Hardy on January 18, 1892 in Harlem, Georgia .  He was the youngest of five children borne to Emily Norvell, and was given his mother’s maiden name at birth.  A handsome baby, he was adored by his older half-sisters.

    His parents were of English and Scottish descent.  His father, Oliver, (listed in some accounts of having been a lawyer) was a foreman for the Georgia Southern Railroad, supervising the building of a rail line between Augusta and Madison.  Their marriage took place in 1890.  It was the second marriage for the widow, Emily, and the third for Oliver.

    Emily Hardy had four children from her first marriage to T. Sam Tant.  There were two girls, Elizabeth and Emily, and two boys, Sam and Henry.  At the time Norvell was born, all children were still living at home.

    When Norvell was just ten months old, his father died suddenly on November 22, 1892.  The Hardy family had been living in Madison, Georgia, managing the Turnell Butler Hotel at the time.  Emily was dismissed soon after, and moved on toward Atlanta with her children, finding work in other hotels in the area.

    There was no theatrical background within the family.  There was, however, a strong fondness for music. Family and community singing was an important part of the Hardy household.  Norvell had a beautiful singing voice as a child (and also as an adult!).  When he was 8 years old he ran away from home and toured for a brief time with a troupe called Coburn’s Minstrels.  When he returned home, his mother enrolled him in a boarding school.  Unhappy, he ran away again.  Upon returning home this time, he decided to continue his vocal training.  Emily enrolled him in the Conservatory of Music in Atlanta.

    Young Norvell Hardy also attended a military school and then Young Harris College in Georgia.  He once toyed with the idea of studying law, but listened to his sister, Elizabeth, who reminded him that he was too much of a comic.  In 1910 he abandoned his education and moved back with his family in Milledgeville, Georgia, where his mother now managed the Baldwin Hotel.   He soon was employed at the Electric Theater (movie theatre), where his duties were projectionist and singer.  Norvell had continued his singing, being a member of an amateur group called the 20th Century Four.

    It was sometime during this period that Norvell began to go by the name of Oliver.  It has been said that he changed his name on the advice of a Numerologist or Psychic who told him that it would be beneficial for him to do so.  Other accounts state that he changed his name to Oliver as a tribute to the father that he never knew.  In either case, his family continued to address him as Norvell.

    The notion of Psychics comes up again regarding Oliver’s mother, Emily.  Apparently she had visited with a psychic when her son was young.  Oliver related the story years later as follows:

"I’ve had so many nice things happen to me...it’s sort of hard to sort out.  But I guess you’d call my best moment this one.  When I was a boy, my mother would occasionally go to fortune-tellers and one day she went to visit a lady in Decatur, Georgia.  This lady told Mama that one day her son’s name would be known all over the world.  It’s nice to know that she saw that prophecy come true."

    After working at the theater for a few years, Oliver decided that he wanted to become a part of the flickering images he saw on the screen.  To achieve this dream, he left the theater in Milledgeville and moved to Jacksonville, Florida around 1913-1914.  At that time, there were a few film studios in the area.  He worked bit parts in the films during the day, eventually getting steady employment at the studio of Lubin. He also sang in a local nightclub at night and worked on the vaudeville stage with an act known as The Ton of Jollity.

     It was also around this time, (by some accounts in Milledgeville, Georgia, in others Jacksonville, Florida) that Oliver met and wed his first wife, Madelyn Saloshin in 1913.  She was also an entertainer.  Their marriage failed after a few years, but they did not legally divorce until 1921.  Conflicting information also surrounds Madelyn.  Depending upon the source, Madelyn was either a piano player at the Milledgeville Opera or an entertainer in Jacksonville.  Perhaps both accounts are accurate and the couple met and married in Milledgeville, and then relocated to Jacksonville soon after their marriage.

    It was during these years in Florida that Oliver acquired the nickname "Babe".  In his own words, he recalled the event as follows:

"In Florida, when I was working for Lubin, we used to get our hair cut at an Italian barber’s who had a shop right near our studio.   He had a thick foreign accent and he was also a boy who liked boys.  Well, he took a great fancy to me and every time after he’d finish shaving me, he’d rub powder into my face and pat my cheeks and say, ‘Nice-a bab-ee, Nice-a bab-ee’.   The gang always used to kid me about it and after a while they started to call me ‘Baby’ and then it was cut down to ‘Babe’."

    And so Oliver Hardy became known to his friends as "Babe".  He never much cared for the nickname.   (Though the nickname is widely used throughout written material about Hardy, I will not refer to him as this.  To my mind, a nickname is used in a sense of camaraderie, and as I did not know the man personally, I will not use it.  When speaking of the man, I will call him Oliver and when referring to the screen character, I will call him Ollie.)

     Oliver was a big man.   He stood six feet one inch tall and weighed up to 300 pounds.  His size placed limitations on the roles he could play.  He was most often cast as "the heavy" (no pun intended) or the villain. He also frequently had roles in comedy shorts, his size complimenting the character.

    Oliver is known to have been in Jacksonville, Florida at least until the Vim Comedy Company stopped production in 1916.   From Florida, he traveled to New Jersey where he was employed by King Bee Company, another fledgling film company.  When this company moved to California, Oliver followed.

    By 1919, Oliver had settled in Southern California, the emerging hub of the film industry.  He was employed by many of the studios there.  His work concentrated on roles in comedy shorts.  It was in these early days in California that fate (and an independent studio) teamed him in Lucky Dog with Stan Laurel.

    Busy with his career, Oliver met Myrtle Lee.  He was still married to Madelyn Saloshin, though that marriage had disintegrated years earlier.  A divorce was obtained in 1921 and Oliver and Myrtle married.

    By 1926, Oliver found himself in Culver City, California at the studio of Hal Roach.   He signed a long-term contract with Roach on February 6, of that year and was cast in a variety of roles.   It was during 1926 that Oliver found himself in a two-reeler containing most of the Roach players.  This picture was called Forty-Five Minutes From Hollywood .   It was the first Roach film to feature both Oliver and Stan Laurel.

    Still working at Roach in 1927, Oliver found himself again on screen with Stan.  In their second Roach film together, Duck Soup , we can begin to see the teamwork between the pair that was to create magic.  This unique match of talent was quickly spotted by Hal Roach and Leo McCarey.   By the end of the year, "The Boys" had been born.  Their screen characters, personalities and costumes had been set, down to their bowler hats and wing-tip shirts.

    During 1928, Oliver was very busy making films with Stan.  In all, they released eleven films that year.   Their popularity continued to increase.

    In 1929, they released a total of thirteen films.  It was an extremely busy year, as in addition to making these films, the pair made the transition from the silents to the talkies.  In spite of the hectic work schedule (or perhaps, because of it), Oliver became romantically involved with an attractive widow named Viola Morse.  She was a Southerner, as he was, and the pair had much in common.  Despite his feelings for Viola, Oliver couldn’t seem to bring himself to end his marriage to Myrtle, knowing that she had a potential drinking problem.  They remained married for several more years, though he continued to see Viola throughout the 1930’s.

    Through 1930 to 1932, Oliver continued to work at a hectic pace as his and Stan’s popularity grew. In 1931, he made his first feature film, Pardon Us . This was quickly followed by a second feature in 1932, Pack Up Your Troubles .  Between the features, they continued to make shorts.  It was also in 1932 that the short, The Music Box was made.   This film won Oliver and Stan the Oscar for Best Live Action Comedy Short Subject of 1932.  It was the only Oscar that Oliver was to receive in his lifetime.

    In 1932, Oliver and Stan had been working almost non-stop since 1926.  These seven years had been tiring and they decided to take a working holiday to tour the British Isles.  They planned on going to Great Britain so that Stan could visit his family in and around Lancashire.   Oliver was eagerly awaiting a round or two of golf on the famous links of Scotland.

    Myrtle accompanied Oliver on the trip.  Perhaps the journey was also meant to serve as a reconciliation attempt.

    The travelers headed East, where they would board a steamer in New York.  When they arrived in Chicago, they were besieged by their admiring fans.  Their travel plans had been broadcast ahead of them, and everywhere they went throngs of fans, reporters and newsreel journalists were waiting to greet them.

    The same scene was repeated at their other stops, and in New York, they were again swamped.  Oliver was amazed.  He had barely left Hollywood since joining Roach Studios and had not realized just how great a star he had become.  The holiday had turned into a fully working tour, for everywhere he went there were waiting fans.

    Upon reaching Great Britain, the crowds were even larger.  Their popularity in Europe was especially great.   Everywhere they went, town officials met them and requested they attend some social event.  They were asked to be judges at local contests and happily obliged, always throwing in a little skit to please the crowd.

    The six week trip was an amazing success to boosting their stardom, but exhausting to them physically. Upon returning to California, they were more tired than before they left.  Oliver was especially disappointed, as he had not been able to play one round of golf, even though that prospect had been what prompted him to go in the first place.  But the voyage had been very enlightening for them.  They both now realized that they were world stars.

    It was during this trip that Oliver came to the realization of how much he liked Stan.  In the six to seven years that they had worked together, they always had a good professional relationship, but had seldom seen each other socially.  During this trip, they grew much closer and remained close throughout the rest of their lives.

    Back at work, Oliver was again busy making films.  The last film released in 1932 was the short, Towed in a Hole .  It was released on New Year’s Eve.

    In 1933, The Devil’s Brother was released.  This feature was the first of several operatic spoofs.   This particular film was loosely based on the operetta by Auber.  Three more shorts followed and the last film released that year was Sons of the Desert , being released Christmas week on December 29th.

    During 1934, the number of films decreased to five, with four being shorts and one feature.  Despite the reduction in new films, Oliver and Stan’s popularity remained high.  Their earlier films were still being re-run.

    It may be appropriate here to comment on Oliver’s outlook towards the film business.  He was content to spend his day in front of the camera, but when the last take had been shot for the day, he was quickly off the lot.  He much preferred to spend his time on the golf course or at the race track.  Oliver was essentially an actor.  His main interest was in doing a good job and earning his salary.  He was not concerned with the artistic elements or construction of the films - that was Stan’s domain.  In fact, Oliver never believed that he was funny at all.  His wife commented that,

"He never truly considered himself a comedian at all, and was genuinely surprised that people thought of him as such."

    And Oliver, himself has said,

"I have never really worked hard in the creation department.  After all, just doing the gags is hard enough work, especially if you’ve taken as many falls and been dumped in as many mud holes as I have.  I think I’ve earned my money."

    In 1935, Oliver and Stan made four films. There was one feature, Bonnie Scotland , and three shorts. The last short they were to ever make, Thicker Than Water was released during this year.

    At this point, Oliver was still married to Myrtle.  They had remained together through the last six years, despite the emotional and financial drains placed on him by Myrtle’s drinking.  Most people who knew him, thought that when he and Myrtle did split up, he would surely become seriously involved with Viola Morse.

    During 1936 through 1938, Oliver and Stan only made two features each year.  The times had changed and the days of the two and three reelers had passed.  They each had personal issues to resolve as well.

    Oliver and Myrtle finally divorced in 1937, and Stan had divorced his wife that year as well.  In addition, Stan and Hal Roach had contract disagreements.  Oliver was unhappy that Stan’s dispute with Roach was keeping them both out of work.

    In 1939, Oliver was still under contract, though Stan’s contract was no longer in force.  He was teamed with Harry Langdon in the feature, Zenobia .  The press took this to mean an end to Laurel & Hardy.  This was not the case.  The simple truth is that Oliver enjoyed his salary check, and making Zenobia was putting money into his pocket.

    Meanwhile, Stan had arranged for both a non-exclusive contract for the team with Roach and for a film deal with an independent producer from RKO, Boris Morros.  Oliver joined Stan with this producer and the result was the film, The Flying Deuces .  This was an especially popular film in Europe.  The success of this film helped to restore some of the relationship between Laurel & Hardy and Hal Roach.  The result was the making of two features, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea .  It is interesting to note that A Chump at Oxford was actually filmed before Flying Deuces.

    Another event occurred in Oliver’s life during this year.  While filming Flying Deuces, he became quite taken with a continuity girl, Lucille Jones.  She joined Roach Studios as a script clerk after shooting was completed.  Despite everyone’s expectation that Oliver would marry Viola, he and Lucille were married during the filming of Saps at Sea on March 7, 1940.  This would prove to be Oliver’s final and most successful marriage.  The couple remained devoted to each other until Oliver’s death.

    The latest contract at Roach was destined to be short lived.  There was no extension to Oliver’s contract when it expired.  Times had changed on the eve of World War II and other studios were not showing much interest in the comedy team.

    Oliver and Stan eventually obtained a contract at Fox Studios.  The deal offered was not the best, but Oliver wanted to work, he was only forty-nine years old.  The films at Fox were never planned to be first rate, being budgeted as supporting features.

    In all, Oliver and Stan made eight films for Fox (two on loan to M-G-M).  By 1945, they couldn’t tolerate the treatment they received and asked to be released from their contract.  There was no objection by the studio and the contract was terminated.

    After leaving Fox, Oliver and Stan’s popularity remained high, especially in Europe.  They made numerous personal appearances which always drew a crowd.  They could also be heard on radio, doing skits such as The Marriage of Stan Laurel.

    In 1947, British impresario Bernard Delfont planned a European tour.  Oliver and Stan went to England aboard the Queen Mary.  Once in England, they played at the Palladium and major provincial centers. Arriving at Waterloo Station, huge crowds were on hand to greet them and it was not unlike their arrival fifteen years earlier in 1932.

    Again, they were asked to appear in town events and they obliged.  At one point, they were asked to officiate at the ribbon cutting of a new section of rail line.  They tour was a huge success.

    After England, they traveled to Paris, where the crowds were just as great.  From France, they went to The Netherlands and then finally to Sweden before returning home.  Everywhere they had gone, they had been met by their admiring fans.

    When Oliver returned from this tour, he went into a semi-retirement in California.  He still made personal appearances with Stan, but seems to have been enjoying his time out of the public eye and on the golf course.

    During this time, Oliver and Stan had remained close personally.  They frequently visited one another and reminisced about the early days at Roach Studio.

    In 1949, Oliver was again looking to work.  He landed a role in the John Wayne film, The Fighting Kentuckian.   Following this, Oliver then had a role in the Frank Capra film, Riding High in 1950, working alongside his golfing buddy, Bing Crosby.

    In 1950, Oliver and Stan received an offer to make a film in France.  The film was called Atoll K and it would prove to be Oliver’s last work.

     Oliver traveled to Paris with Stan to make the film.  A television interview exists of Oliver as he about to leave for Paris.  He briefly speaks about the new film and his career throughout the years. Atoll-K seems ill fated from the start.  The filming was scheduled to take six months, but took almost a year.  Production problems and language barriers further frustrated the making of the film.

    During the shooting, Oliver became ill.  It was the first sign of heart trouble to plague him in later years.   He recovered sufficiently to complete the film. It was finally released in 1952.

    Back home in 1951, Oliver and Stan planned another nine month tour of England to take place in 1952.  The tour again proved to be huge success.  Another trip to the British Isles followed in 1953.   This would prove to be the last tour Oliver would make.  Opening in Dublin in September, 1953, the journey proved exhausting.  Stan became ill in November and Oliver suffered a slight heart attack in May, 1954, causing an early end to the tour.   The news accounts at the time reported that he was suffering from a viral condition and complete exhaustion.

    Upon returning home, Oliver recovered, but his doctors insisted that he lose weight and take it easy.  All plans for another English tour were scrapped.

    In December of 1954, Oliver and Stan were the guests on the Ralph Edwards’ This is your Life television show.   This live tribute to "The Boys" included a baby picture of Norvell Hardy and personal appearances by Leo McCarey and Vivian Blaine.

    During 1956, Oliver began looking after his health for the first time in his life.  During his health watch, he lost more than 150 pounds in a few months.  This weight loss completely changed his appearance.

"I never really tried to cut down and, of course, after Stan and I got known as fat and skinny, it just wasn’t smart to cut down on my weight. But for many years there when we did our pictures, I wasn’t really fat. I’ve always been big. I’m big-boned. Everyone in my family was big."

    Oliver suffered a major stroke on September 14, 1956, which left him confined to bed and unable to speak for several months.  He remained at home, being cared for by his beloved Lucille.  He suffered two more strokes in early August, 1957 and slipped into a coma from which he never recovered.

    Oliver Hardy passed away on August 7, 1957.  He was 65 years old.

    Oliver’s remains are located in the Masonic section of the Gardens of Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, California.

 

 

(note:  I am not certain as to who wrote this marvelous biography of Babe's.  It has been seen on several other websites dedicated to the Boys.  If anybody knows the author's name please send an email to thebrain@charter.net , and I shall certainly credit the individual.)

 

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"Stan and I have had a lot of fun appearing before you. Thank you, goodbye - and God Bless!"

- Ollie’s last curtain call

 

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Please send any comments to thebrain@charter.net .