Retracing Oliver Hardy’s Georgia Roots

The Oliver Hardy Festival, 31st year, will be held on Saturday, October 5, 2019 in Harlem, Georgia. For more information contact 707-556-0043 or email cityofharlem@harlemga.org.

By Leara Rhodes

Mississippi, not Georgia, was the setting of the film Zenobia (1939) in the 1870s. The modest town doctor had a daughter who wanted to marry the son of a wealthy, though snobbish town mother. She forbids her son to marry the doctor’s daughter. In the meantime, during a dinner party designed to win over the mother, the doctor was called away to treat a sick elephant, Zenobia, part of a carnival. The elephant, who never forgets, became attached to the doctor and followed him all over town. Slapstick, popular at the time, and Southern to the core, this movie was one Norvell Oliver Hardy did without his sidekick, Stanley Laurel. Hardy reportedly played himself, a gentleman from the South.

Norvell Oliver Hardy was a Georgia boy challenged by his size; but, that did not stop him. He used his Southern roots and boarding house family to create a character that made him a “star” in silent and sound movies. A fortune teller had told his mother that one day Hardy would be famous all over the world and he has been. He is remembered for 31 years in Harlem, Georgia with the Oliver Hardy Festival. Madison and Milledgeville have a few designated historical markers as but nothing more; and, he lived in Madison and Milledgeville until he was 21 (1892-1913). He was “Fatty Hardy” to these town folks even after he became a “star.”

Hardy was born in Harlem on January 18, 1892, weighing in at 10 pounds. Harlem takes a lot of credit for his three-week residency at his grandparents’ home. Hardy’s mother, Emily Norvell Tant, had married Oliver Hardy in 1890 and had moved to Madison to run the Turnell-Butler Hotel. Though she and her husband were living in Madison, her decision to return to Harlem to have the baby was a good decision especially with his size.

Growing up as a “big boy” in Georgia, Hardy was often called “fatty” by his peers and town folks and in newspaper articles during his career as he blossomed to 300 pounds. A childhood friend in Milledgeville, Althea Miller Horne, told biographer John McCabe that Hardy’s girth and clownishness set him slightly apart in Milledgeville: “courtly, portly Oliver Hardy.” His mother, ever the hotel/boarding house matron, contributed to the fat name calling when she had Hardy walk around town with a sandwich board to advertise the boarding house meals.

Newspapers referred to him as fat, portly and described situations that pointed out his size: Laurel and Hardy attended the reopening of the Dungeness loop of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in 1947 and The Hawkinge Gazette reported that “Once the engine had been brought out onto the main line, raucous laughter accompanied the testing of the controls by Stan and Ollie, followed by further hilarity when Stan and Teddy Smith, son of the Dymchurch station master, tried to push Hardy’s enormous frame into one of the new Pullman Cars.” Then Emma Clayton wrote for the Telegraph & Argus that Hardy was so wide he couldn’t get through the doors at the Alhambra Theatre (Bradford, England) in 1953. Though the duo became famous, Hardy’s size was how people referred to them throughout the world: Dick and Doof—Fatty and Stupid (Germany), O Gordo e O Magro—Fat and Skinny (Brazil), El Giordo y El Flaco (Spain), and De Dikke en de Dunne (Holland).

Local stories in Madison and Milledgeville newspapers suggested that Hardy was bullied as a child. The definition of bullying, according to the Clarke County School District is: “Any willful attempt or threat to inflict injury on another person, when accompanied by an apparent present ability to do so; any intentional display of force such as would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm; any intentional written, verbal, or physical act, which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass, or intimidate.” However, Dr. Dawn Myers, Chief of Policy and Student Services in the Clarke County School District not only explained bullying, she also suggested that what the newspapers and townspeople in Madison and Milledgeville did was fat shaming. The term “fat shaming” comes from a history of society labeling size. Obesity was seen as a moral failing in the 12th and 13th centuries. Even in the 15th century obesity remained a moral issue: big = sin. People were starving and had to really look for food to feed their families, so if someone was large, it was seen as taking food from others. During the Renaissance criticism of a fat person changed and became more centered on slowness, laziness, and ignorance. Obesity became a stigma and with it, rejection. Storytellers used fatness to describe awkwardness as being an oaf. According to The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity by Georges Vigarello, by the 17th century, Sbastien de Vauban, a French military engineer who worked for Louis XIV, refused to give jobs to fat people who were judged “incapable of good service and not to be trusted with important affairs.” During this same era, Vigarello described the game “poste,” where an obese child was pushed by joking classmates and obliged to run nonstop to the point of exhaustion.

Children who have been bullied or fat shamed often respond with humor, according to Rita Macari, a licensed professional counselor in Athens.  “They make fun of themselves before anyone else can and often are in a constant position of making people laugh,” she explained. “Though they seem light-hearted, this keeps them miserable because they have learned they were not good enough.”

Hardy appeared in his biographies to be light-hearted. He was clownish but he was also serious about becoming an actor. He studied large actors like John Bunny, an overweight comedian with a 150 short comedic film credits. Though Bunny disappeared from the American memory, his films were taken more seriously according to Frank Scheide in A Companion to Film Comedy, “Bunny’s humor was based more on comedy of manners than slapstick,” a “polite” and “respectable” form of situational comedy in contrast to the “decidedly lowbrow, crass, and often violent” humor of slapstick films. Evidence of Bunny’s influence can be seen in Hardy’s characters. Another big man actor of the era was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the silent screen’s most successful stars earning one million dollars a year from Paramount. Rob King in Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s wrote about Arbuckle. “His nickname ‘Fatty’ encompassed his meaning. His fatness was so entrenched in his persona that it even shaped ‘news’ items in the trade press.” Both of these men certainly influenced how size was judged in silent films and made an impact on Hardy.

Early on in his life, Hardy’s size, family and Southern roots helped create his slapstick comedy characters. His father, Captain Oliver Hardy, was known to be a voracious eater and was described as being Falstaffian. Charles Lord wrote in the Augusta Chronicle that Captain Hardy had a quick wit, smoked a cigar and wore suspenders. He was a favorite with the rural electorate as a politician; he knew how to play to an audience as a tax collector in Columbia County, Georgia. Though Captain Hardy died of a heart attack when Hardy was only 10 months old, the family genes were certainly passed on. Hardy changed his name to Oliver Hardy and dropped Norvell in respect of his father.

As a young boy, Hardy watched the people coming and going through the boarding houses. There was a piano in the Madison boarding house and Hardy took singing lessons. He was performing with minstrel shows by the time he was eight. Working in the Palace Theatre in Milledgeville when he was 18, he would sing in-between the slides. Then he played the lead in his college production of “Who Killed Cock Robin.” As a big boy from Georgia, he had few choices at the turn of the century; he had to figure out how to make show business happen for him. So, he moved to Jacksonville and started as a water boy for a film company; he then began making short comedy films with the Lubin Company.

Acting in these short films in Florida is where Hardy’s size and talent began to merge. Hardy’s size did not make him eligible for a lot of roles, so slapstick was a natural for him. According to Dr. Richard Neupert, Wheatley Professor of the Arts at the University of Georgia, there is a distinction between legitimate theatre and vaudeville acts, where the audiences had a certain notion of spectacle and entertainment. Dr. Neupert suggested that at that time in theatre there were certain forms of entertainment, like slapstick, that were used as an outlet for acceptable cruelty to others. “The big fat guy was trying to control the little dumber guy. And Hardy may have been drawn to vaudeville to build on his own pain exploits. His on-stage success got him into movies,” said Neupert who then explained how during the era when Hardy was in silent and then sound movies (1916-1930) entertainment was booming with sheet music and radio. Movie palaces were everywhere and they had a formula for their audiences: short comedies, news reel, cartoon and then the feature film. The studios were looking for people and since slapstick didn’t need language, it was seen as lucrative to producers. Another plus for slapstick was many audience members were immigrants so language was not important. Producers like Hal Roach, who signed Laurel and Hardy, were looking for a fat guy to play everyman, not a villain type but a big duffus from next door.

The next-door guy was one Hardy knew well. “The world is full of Laurel and Hardys. I saw them all the time as a boy at my mother’s hotel. There’s always the dumb, dumb guy, who never has anything bad happen to him, and the smart guy who’s even dumber than the dumb guy, only he doesn’t know it,” according to Randy Skretvedt in Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies.

The dumb guy was a stock character in the film industry at the time. Producers were looking for heavy, large, physically intimidating men. Hardy fit the description at 6’2” and nearly 300 pounds.

Though his size fit the stock character role, his growing up years in Madison and Milledgeville prepared him for his acting career in two ways: through his costumes and with his Southern accent. Hardy’s costumes were slightly seedy, old-fashioned suits with stand-up collars and derbies, suggesting characters who aspire to a dignity that they can never quite achieve, according to S.K. Brehe writing in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Many of these characters had to have passed through the boarding houses where Hardy grew up. Hardy’s character, described by Brehe, was as a self-assured but utterly incompetent leader, whose grandiose gestures gave exaggerated importance to the simplest acts. Biographer, John McCabe, (Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, 1961) wrote that Laurel and Hardy engaged in reciprocal destruction, a sequence of physical gags in which characters take revenge upon each other. The gags ultimately build to a chaotic ending that exposes and ridicules the foibles of human nature. The gag formula along with John Bunny’s influence on Hardy produced a comedy duo unique to Laurel and Hardy. According to Stanley Longman, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia (Department of Theatre and Film Studies), “Laurel and Hardy created genuine and abiding comedy when they battled circumstances, as when they put great effort into getting the player piano up a long flight of stairs.” The stock gags worked for silent films but what happened when these actors transitioned to sound?

Laurel and Hardy made the transition from silent films to sound quite easily.  Audiences liked Laurel’s English accent and Hardy’s Southern accent. Combined with their ability to sing, sound films created new dimensions for their characters.

These characters have lived on through Laurel and Hardy’s fans who have created loosely constructed lodges called tents based on the film, Sons of the Desert. The first tent was in New York City and is called Sons of the Desert Founding Tent—Oasis 1. Georgia has three tents: The Harlem/Augusta’s Berth Marks Tent—Oasis 238, Dawsonville’s Helpmate Tent—Oasis 339, and Atlanta’s One Good Turn Tent—Oasis 311. There are tents in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and the UK. And, if a tent can’t be found in a certain area, there is the Utopia Tent.

The festival in Harlem brings thousands of people to the area to celebrate the duo. Books have been written. There is the museum in Harlem and one in Laurel’s birth place Ulverston, England. Years after they, Laurel and Hardy, have died, a film has been produced about the end of their career together, directed by Jon S. Baird, Stan and Ollie (2019). John C. Reilly plays Hardy and Andrew Dalton of the Associated Press (Daily Herald, Arlington Heights, IL) described Reilly’s preparation for the role and the four hours it took to do make up every day. “I had weights built into the fat suit so that I could always feel that, you know, the heft of it, so I wouldn’t just feel like this light foam suit,” Reilly said. “And I think I started to rue that decision by the end because the weight was just like—it was a lot every day to carry.”

Hardy carried that weight for 65 years. He was a fastidious dresser, married three times, had children, and a successful career. He never really returned to the South, not to Madison nor Milledgeville. He seemed to harbor no ill feelings with all the fat shaming of his growing up years from his peers and neighbors in Madison and Milledgeville, in fact he asked his childhood friend from Milledgeville to get him a two-year subscription to the Milledgeville newspaper where he had worked as a teen. Biographers have been quick to write that obesity did not kill Hardy; but, the facts are clear that ultimately it did. Six months before his death in 1957, after having a heart attack, on his doctor’s orders, he lost too much weight too fast, 150 pounds in a few months, weakening his constitution. He died August 7, 1957 of cerebral thrombosis. The New York Times obituary published the following: “Oliver Hardy, the fat, always frustrated partner of the famous movie comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, died early today….”

Longman, in a speech said: “Laughter is peculiar to human beings. Other creatures do not indulge in it at all. … Comic laughter comes out of our awareness of the act of living, an awareness that is distinctly human. Living carries with it all sorts of difficulties and petty annoyances, but we carry on as best we can. Still, an abrupt recognition of something uncomfortable in another’s experience can produce a laugh. We are not directly involved in the discomfort in someone else’s experience…so we are pleased to let someone else do the suffering. And comedy really is about suffering.”

The “big boy” from Georgia prospered. However, just as obesity has been viewed by members of society in various ways, people may be “fat shaming” without thinking about the consequences of those who are shamed. In being called “fatty” all his life, how much did Hardy suffer to create the comedic character so well remembered?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *