Must They Also Be Nice People?
The recent Danny Kaye conversation has me pondering an issue that's come up time and again in my mind. Do we love our favorite comedians more for being nice guys offscreen? Or better put, will we laugh less for finding out they're not? I admit it colors my perception, having spent far more hours reading about the lives of clowns than watching their movies. It's not that I expect them to be off-set Father Christmas' buying ice cream cones for every fan they meet. Buster Keaton, for instance, was never like that and I wouldn't have wanted him to be. It's just disillusioning to know that a happy face on screen is a sour one away from it (like Danny Kaye's, by most accounts). We set a higher standard for comedians' behavior in private life. They're a little like B western stars in that respect. I've read Hoppy had his bad days, and Rocky Lane could be downright truculent. But since cowboys and clowns appeal to the youth in all of us, it's vital they respond kindly when we meet, even if it's vicariously through fans of long ago. It pleases me that Oliver Hardy took time to sit a child on his knee and Stooges Moe and Larry invited fans to visit. I've belatedly gravitated to those latter boys partly for learning they were warm and friendly in retirement. There are sites devoted to correspondence between Moe Howard and admirers, including photos where they met. Larry liked receiving guests at the Motion Picture Country Home in spite of diminished health and seems always to have had time for autographs. The roll of honor among comedians is indeed one I'm constantly updating, and yes, it matters how they would have treated me had we crossed paths.
First off, there's the difference between "on" friendly and normal friendly. The "on" setting was one a Red Skelton maintained. He was said to do twenty minutes just for encountering fans at a hardware store. Would that have been fun or just alarming? Red also made hash of his writers. So did Jackie Gleason. One scribe remembered Bob Hope tossing paychecks from the top of a spiral staircase just to watch minions scramble for them. Not much to admire in that. But we're talking less about how they abused employees than how they'd treat us. I sometimes imagine myself going back and meeting clown idols, so to that extent they're still an ongoing presence. Would Lou Costello wave me off at a time travel'ed Jersey premiere of 1952's Jack and the Beanstalk? Like everyone who's read about them, I have conflicting emotions about Bud and Lou. Especially Lou. He was probably nicest to little kids. Costello's This Is Your Life reveals a lot. It's probably his most humanizing moment before a camera. The same program did as much for Laurel and Hardy, although their kind offices were never in doubt. Yes, Babe was more aloof, but we attribute that to a private nature. Stan was perhaps champion swell guy of the lot, the sort who answered every fan letter and maintained an open door policy at his Oceana Apartment of final residence. I've known admirers who dropped in there and/or spoke to Laurel on the phone. On each reported occasion, he was graciousness personified. Is it any wonder this is the comedian I'd most like to have known?
They say Buster Keaton was easily distracted, especially by a television he liked to play loud (to compensate for hearing loss). Keaton would sign or answer questions, but seemed bound to ponderings of his own. Small talk didn't interest him. Adept hands at Bridge claimed most of Buster's spare hours during later years. Otherwise, he'd be near as silent as his screen alter ego. What then, of those whose private persona contrasted most sharply with images we enjoyed on the screen? There's Jerry Lewis for extreme example here. How many youngsters came away heartbroken from disillusioning introduction to him? I've met several among wounded on Jerry's battlefields. He's one I'd be loathe to meet, or maybe afraid is the better word. Being not so ardent a fan helps in this instance. Groucho Marx is another I don't regret having missed. Some fans say it was an honor being insulted and dismissed by him. I confess to finding this a dubious one, but who's to say what distinction memory would accord to having once been rudely brushed off by Groucho? His brothers are a mixed group as potential acquaintance. Harpo was a recognized sweetheart (or pussycat, as Jerry might call him), while Chico remains a largely unknowable presence beyond gambling toward crisis at a thousand card tables.
They say Jack Benny was wonderful. A soul of generosity to fans, cast, crew ... everybody. Don't any of you correct me here with stories of Jack behaving unkind, for I'd want him to stay pristine. He's like Stan Laurel for being an icon minus even toes of clay. Some comedians were so rich as to be forever removed from the hoi polloi of fan intercourse. How many autograph hounds got to Charlie Chaplin after wealth and worldwide success swallowed him up? I once considered writing CC at that Swiss chateau, but figured one of a hundred servants would intercept my mail. Maybe Charlie sat around waiting for letters that never came, wondering if we'd forgotten him. Harold Lloyd had his palace closer to home. He strikes me as a hail-fellow-well-whatever with a glad hand for admirers, especially ones wearing Shriner hats. College students found Lloyd delightful when he brought silent backlog to campus auditoriums. Private life Harold seems to me to have fulfilled all the ambitions of his screen character. My own college years didn't miss HL's campus visits by very many, even if his did take place states away from where I attended. To go back (much) further, what would meeting Roscoe Arbuckle have been like? That seems to me like an encounter with Lincoln or Mark Twain. Still, I think Roscoe would have been good company. Navigating his vanished era might be something else. I'd be busier noticing stiff collars, straw boaters, and elegant modes of transport (his Pierce-Arrow!), taken aback no doubt by how people lived so rustic then. There'd be stopover to visit Mabel Normand, who'd be receptive enough based on what books say, but would I spend greater energy trying to warn she and Roscoe against calamities to come? What puts most of these personalities within realms of fanaticized access (excepting Mabel and Roscoe of course) is the fact of their lifetimes overlapping my own. Face-to-face encounters were at least conceivable, even if none came to fruition. The fact is I never met or exchanged mail with any of them. Perhaps some of you did. If so, I'd like hearing about it. No such thing as too many anecdotes about comedians we all enjoy.