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In November of 1965, about nine months after the death of Stan Laurel,
the CBS-TV network broadcast a one-hour special hosted by Dick Van Dyke
which was intended as a tribute to the late comedian. I say "intended"
because the result was almost universally panned as inept, unfunny and
unworthy of its subject by critics of the day, while authors of the
various books on Laurel & Hardy published since '65 have all derided
the special as a tacky promo for the network's then-current stars at
the expense of its ostensible honoree.
I just saw the 'Salute' again for the first time in over forty years, and would have to agree with most of the criticism. Still, the show does offer some points of interest. Dick Van Dyke was an ideal choice to host: he knew and admired Stan Laurel and did a terrific impression of him; although, oddly, he doesn't do it here. Laurel admired Van Dyke's work too, and felt that he was one of the few TV comics who kept the tradition of physical comedy alive. Here Van Dyke speaks of Stan with real warmth, and introduces a number of clips from Laurel & Hardy's silent work -- no talkies, however. Unfortunately, the excerpts are all too brief, and none are identified or given any context. For instance, a clip from Wrong Again is used without any explanation as to WHY Stan and Ollie are trying to put a horse on a piano; I guess you just had to be there. Most of the other bits are from The Finishing Touch, an early short in which the boys ineptly attempt to fix up a house, and although the clips are enjoyable they suggest that Laurel & Hardy were rather limited in range.
It would appear that this show's producers couldn't find time for more excerpts, but they did have time for some cheesy musical numbers about Old Time Movies that will make today's viewers wince. They also found time for several weak comedy sketches. Phil Silvers, of all people, appears in one that is both unfunny and irrelevant. Audrey Meadows appears as Pearl White in a tribute to silent serials that is about as edifying as it sounds. Still another sketch takes place on the set of a silent movie -- weren't they aware that Laurel & Hardy made dozens of talkies? -- and features Cesar Romero, Louis Nye, and Tina Louise, i.e. Ginger of "Gilligan's Island." This bit concludes with a black-out gag involving Fred Gwynne in his Herman Munster outfit. It's said that in his later years Stan enjoyed a number of TV comedy shows, but something tells me he wasn't an avid fan of Gilligan or The Munsters.
On the plus side, Bob Newhart offers a monologue that, while irrelevant to the matter at hand, is at least amusing, and our host performs a routine Stan might well have appreciated. Van Dyke delivers a mock-serious speech declaring that slapstick isn't funny anymore, since audiences today are too sophisticated for that sort of thing. Needless to say, he manages to injure himself repeatedly before he's finished, earning some of the show's biggest laughs. But the best reason to watch is the opening sketch, which features Lucille Ball and, in one of his final appearances, 70 year-old Buster Keaton. Lucy and Buster were friends dating back to his days of "internal exile" on the MGM lot, and she often credited him with teaching her a great deal about comedy. The sketch takes place in a park, and although the gags will be familiar to Keaton fans (e.g. Buster bumps into Lucy, steals a kiss, then pretends to be a blind man; Buster unfolds a newspaper which turns out to be gigantic, etc.) it's nice to see these two greats working together. It's too bad the rest of the program didn't rise to this level.
I don't doubt that the original impulse behind this 'Salute' was sincere and well-intentioned, but along the way somehow the program did indeed turn into a 60-minute commercial for the CBS television line-up of 1965-66. Grown-up baby boom kids who are more familiar with Herman Munster than Laurel & Hardy may appreciate this special as an exercise in 'Sixties nostalgia, but viewers genuinely interested in saluting Stan Laurel will do a better job of it by watching the man's own work.
After Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965, a photographer named Gene Lester-who had taken some pics of Laurel in his last days which appear in the end credits of this special-approached CBS with producing a tribute to him. Since Gene wasn't really a producer, the network picked a crew experienced in variety shows to make this program. The beginning production number featuring many Oliver Hardy impersonators dancing on stage is a bit overwhelming but for the first 23 minutes after that, things seem to be fine with host Dick Van Dyke telling of his love for the late comedian he resembles, Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton doing an amusing enough sketch with Harvey Korman as a cop, Van Dyke returning in a hilarious bit about how unsophisticated slapstick is as he keeps falling over (this was originally done on his show a few years before), and Bob Newhart performing a very funny monologue about a patronizing kids show host that shows these classic L & H shorts. There's many amusing clips of those funsters from their silent era throughout the show as they're taken from the latest Robert Youngston compilation, Laurel & Hardy's Laughing '20s. Then things go downhill real fast with lame sketches like Audrey Meadows' portrayal of a damsel in distress with unfunny title cards, a behind-the-scenes making of a silent picture complete with violin playing, and Phil Silvers' comparing his career to that of Laurel's when reenacting his struggles which doesn't compare at all according to what we see here. Oh, and Danny Kaye also appears with Stan's Oscar-which Danny had accepted since Stan was unable to attend the ceremonies that night-with some touching words of his own and film of Stan's funny reaction when he sees it at his home. The closing number which uses some of Marvin Hatley's iconic L & H theme of "The Cookoo Song" may be a little overbearing but was a touching tribute just the same. So on that note, Salute to Stan Laurel is worth a look if you love the man like yours truly.
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