Wednesday, March 22, 2006

"Salute to Stan Laurel"

Here's how television paid tribute to a comedy giant over 40 years ago:

During TV's Golden Age, it was impossible to miss Laurel & Hardy. Their short films, produced by Hal Roach during the '20's and '30's, were all over the tube. Granted, this was mainly because stations needed product - any product - to fill time; thus the airwaves were literally choked with old movies. But the Laurel & Hardy titles were undoubtedly the classiest in the bunch, and they drew large audiences. Indeed, among the old theatrical two-reelers that comprised early TV programming, only Stan & Ollie, Our Gang (nee "Little Rascals") and Three Stooges shorts continued well into the modern era - and the latter two series had arrived late to the party (1955 and '58, respectively).

This particular Salute wasn't too well received at the time; consequently L&H biographers tend to regard it as well-intentioned, but ultimately inconsequential. Wrapping up the season in April 1966, TV Chronicle's Neil Compton would dismiss the special as "not much of a tribute to the late comedian (who appeared briefly in a number of film clips brutally hacked out of their original context), and did not enhance the reputations of participants such as Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, or Phil Silvers." Indeed, Van Dyke (who was also one of the producers) reportedly complained that his vision for Salute... had itself been hacked to pieces by network corporate types. Not mentioned in the synopsis above is an appearance by Fred Gwynne in full Herman Munster regalia. That clearly had more to do with CBS (home of The Munsters) than with Laurel.

Perhaps this reaction was why we didn't see a network tribute to Buster Keaton, who passed away less than 3 months after this show aired. (Was this his final TV performance? Anyone out there know?) Nor ones for Chaplin, Groucho, or a host of others. For the most part, networks would do better when preparing tributes for their own, such as CBS's look at the life of Lucille Ball in 1989.

Still, any show that features Buster and Lucy doing pantomime together, plus a Bob Newhart monologue, can't be all bad. We'd like to see this one come out of hiding and make it onto an official DVD release. How about it, Dick?


Kevin K. said...

How weird. I remember not only that special (even at age 8, I thought it was bad), but that skinny ad in "TV Guide." I wondered if they thought it was "funny" to do something like that. When you've got 8 year-olds calling you out, you know you're doing something seriously wrong.

Anonymous said...

I remember the special too. We watched it because Dad was a L&H fan and Mom liked Dick Van Dyke. Part way through the show Mom went to take a phone call and didn't come back. Both Mom and Dad were pretty disappointed with it and I remember the letters to TV Guide were critical as well- people said it was too much CBS stars doing routines and not nearly enough about Mr. Laurel.

Eric said...

Randy Skretvedt's book Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies goes into detail about how this show went so wrong. A photographer named Gene Lester came up with the idea for the tribute, but the network was worried that he didn't have enough TV experience and took over the production. Skretvedt calls it another example of a committee of executives packaging an idea of a "clever but unorthodox person" into oblivion, which (he thinks) mirrors Stan Laurel's later career.

Of course, since American TV doesn't actually do variety anymore, it might still be worth watching at this late date...once, at least.

Anonymous said...

you can watch SALUTE TO STAN LAUREL in full and for free online here: