You may have heard about the Internet imbroglio last week over a recording that some people thought sounded one way and others thought sounded another, aka the “Laurel ? Or Yanny?” contest. The first time I saw that formulation pop up on social media, I misread it as “Laurel? Or Hardy.”
Of course I picked Hardy because he was, for a while, a Florida man.
That’s right, the portly half of one of the most famous comedy teams of all time, Oliver Hardy, got his start in the movie biz right here in Florida.
This was well before he hooked up with his skinny partner Stan Laurel, with whom, over a 20-year period, he made more than 100 slapstick movie masterpieces. Their precisely-timed pratfalls and choreographed pie fights made them famous in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. When those movies were shown on TV in the ’50s and ’60s, they attracted a whole new set of fans.
Anyone could imitate the man his friends called “Babe”: pretend to fiddle with a too-short tie and twitch a tiny mustache, then repeat his famous catchphrase, “Well this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”
Hardy was born outside Atlanta and, believe it or not, earned a law degree from the University of Georgia. But he abandoned his legal career to tour the South with a vaudeville troupe. He managed a movie theater for a while. He studied how the actors performed and became convinced he could do that, too.
Around 1913, he headed south to try his luck in the city known as the “Winter Film Capital of the World” — Jacksonville.
How did Jacksonville become Hollywood before Hollywood? The earliest films, shot at the end of the 1800s, were made in New York, until inventor Thomas Edison began suing everyone for violating his movie-making patents. Suddenly, getting out of New York seemed like a smart legal move.
Jacksonville appeared to be the perfect alternative. It was far enough South to be well away from the long reach of Edison’s lawyers, and (unlike New York) warm enough to film there year-round. Getting there via either railroad or ship was comparatively easy. Labor and real estate were both cheap and in abundant supply. The city’s government and business leaders, still rebuilding after a devastating 1901 fire, were eager to accommodate this new industry and its influx of investors.
The first film studio moved there in 1908, and others quickly followed. By the time Hardy arrived, Florida studios were cranking out silent films galore, helping to make stars out of Rudolph Valentino, Theda Bara and Lionel and Ethel Barrymore.
The first Technicolor film and the first feature-length color film were shot in Jacksonville, but many were forgettable melodramas. They also shot a lot of movies that, as one historian put it, featured “sensational stories about Florida ‘Crackers’ drinking, killing and cheating.”
In other words, Jacksonville filmmakers invented the “Florida Man” character before the Internet meme — or the Internet.
At first, Hardy got a job as a nightclub singer, billing himself as The Ton of Jollity. But then one of the studios needed a tubby comic for a picture and so Hardy got his shot. In his first movie, Outwitting Dad, he had a fairly small role.
Soon, though, he was being featured in a series of two-reel comedies as half of a duo called “Plump and Runt.” You can probably guess which one he played. It was a precursor of his future.
He also played villains — commonly referred to as “the heavy” — in more dramatic films, such as Westerns. He wound up cranking out around 100 pictures, 35 of them for a studio with the delightful name of “Vim.”
Those were heady times, with film crews — who called themselves “Knights of the Crank” — doing whatever they had to do to grab the shots they needed. If they needed fire trucks for a scene, someone would make a phony report of a fire and bring all the city’s hook and ladder trucks roaring in. Car chases were staged without warning, scaring the dickens out of other drivers and pedestrians.
On Sundays, when the good people of Jacksonville were all in church (with the windows thrown open to catch the breeze), that was the time the “Knights” would stage an Old West gunfight in the empty street, with the sound of the blanks ricocheting into the middle of the preacher’s sermon.
The mayor who had been welcoming to the film industry was a permissive sort. He had run for re-election on a platform of keeping the city’s bordellos open. Eventually, though, he was replaced by a more conservative politician, and the new mayor and his voters didn’t like the fact that the movie people drank a lot and also some of the women wore — gasp! — pants.
A blog run by the Florida State Archive notes that “the political atmosphere in Jacksonville turned against the movie industry due to accusations of fraud, ties to political corruption and fear of endangering the public welfare with elaborate stunt sequences.”
There were other problems as well. One historian notes that “production at Vim studios came to a halt in 1917 after Oliver Hardy discovered that (the two owners) both were stealing from the payroll.” I wish someone would make a movie out of that! Oliver Hardy, Ace Detective!
So it was adios to Jacksonville as the movie industry said “California, here we come.” It’s been glamming up the West Coast ever since. As for Hardy, once he made the move, director Hal Roach teamed him up with Laurel and fame was assured.
Yet he never forgot where he started. In a letter to a friend in 1934, Hardy wrote, “The best times of my life were spent in Jacksonville.”