There is a saying that goes: the careers of all politicians end in failure. If true, then the same can be said of fine comedians; their careers usually end in sadness.
I think of Billy Connolly in that way, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock. Stan & Ollie illustrate the maxim to perfection, while offering us a film full of good humour and gags with a lot of sadness and choking emotion, scenes to reduce the toughest truck driver to tears.
I bargain a lot of readers will have been around back in the day, (Laurel died in 1965) but too young to have seen their stage show. This generation may only know them by name. Some weeks ago I showed Daughter Two – the theatre director, one of Laurel and Hardy’s dance routines on YouTube. She’d heard of them but never seen them. In seconds she was captivated, in minutes giggling and laughing. This film will grab you in the same way – there’s a few of their best routines to savour and one I have never seen before, a work of comic genius.
Attempting a biopic of a comedian can be a risky proposition, following two fallen comedians courts disaster. Traditionally, comics are not a happy breed. Meeting them make-up off and in civvy clothes can be a bit of a disappointment. I had that experience with Leonard Rossiter of Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin fame. An improvisational wonder on stage, a serious grouch off stage.
There are a few scenes in Stan & Ollie that echo Tom McGraths stage play Laurel and Hardy premiered at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, in 2005. Mostly, they are miles apart.
The film is more or less concerned with a brief time in their relationship, one year. Enjoying tremendous success and fame in movies, stopped in Los Angeles streets by adoring fans wherever they went, they took a serious misstep and headed for a fall. A contract dispute with hard ass producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), led to a rift between them and caused them a serious loss of earnings. To raise wages they embarked on a theatrical tour of the United Kingdom in 1953 then European cities, visiting the Republic of Ireland on the way where they got a rapturous welcome compared to the UK.
I recognised every painful event, every betrayal by their producers. It’s a cruel reminder that artistes just like artists need a business head on their shoulders or someone they can trust to do the deals, otherwise they’ll end their days in poverty, or work till they drop.
Inspired by the book Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours by A. J. Marriot, Stan & Ollie is full of tender moments between the men and their wives and between themselves. In fact, the wives turn out to be as much a double act as the men. They bicker and they snarl, they protect their husband’s reputations as one would expect a spouse to do. They see themselves in competition, and let fly with some stinging remarks. Luckily, when the blues threaten, both comics can turn on the tap to lighten the moment.
There is one affecting scene that lingers in the mind. Laurel decides to comfort a bedridden Hardy late in the story. Laurel’s act of kindness toward Reilly feels perfect – the visual imagery is comic but the sentiment is genuine and heartbreaking.
I found myself watching Reilly more than Coogan though Coogan is the spitting image of Laurel. There’s pathos in Hardy that Reilly, weighed down by prosthetic make up and cushions, brings to the fore with every deep breath and sly look. His performance is a wonderful tribute to a man who was nothing without Laurel. Reilly masters the ageing process with ease as his faulty ticker takes its toll on his body after years of heavy drinking, hard living, and pumping blood around all that blubber he calls puppy fat. In an instant, all that evaporates when he steps onto the stage, the born performer.
I first saw Steve Coogan from the front row on his first stage gig at the Edinburgh Fringe, a show for new stand-up comics, ten minutes a routine. He was the only comic to do impressions, one a drunk Saturday night binger. All the others did one line observational comedy. In Stan & Ollie he’s honed that skill to perfection He melts into the role and becomes Laurel, the best praise I can give him. As in the real duo, the chemistry between Coogan and Reilly is quite magical.
Laurel was the writing half of the pair, constantly bouncing ideas for verbal and visual gags off Hardy, and the accountant behind the scenes, the brains of the outfit. Hardy was an inveterate gambler on the horses losing money faster than he could earn it. As a comedy team Hardy was quite happy to take Laurel’s instruction and speak the lines and walk the walk just as Laurel envisaged it.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in his grandparents’ house on 16 June 1890 in Argyll Street, Ulverston, Lancashire, one of five children. Then fate took a hand. His family moved to Glasgow, he got an education at Rutherglen Academy, and began his professional career at the city’s Metropole Theatre trying out comedy sketches and pantomime routines. His father was manager of the theatre. Laurel always talked with gratitude of his apprenticeship “among Glaswegians great sense of humour”.
Later, he joined Fred Karno’s troupe where he met Charlie Chaplin and became his understudy. By 1916 they were all in Hollywood trying their luck in a new fangled thing called movies. There, Stanley altered his surname to Laurel, taken from Laurel Canyon.
Fast-forward to 1953, where this film begins, the duo, out-of-fashion and showing their advanced years, embark on a British nostalgia-based tour in order to prove to a Hollywood mogul they’re still bankable enough for a Robin Hood-based feature. To their consternation the banal clowns Abbott and Costello are all the rage, Norman Wisdom the pratfall king. Disillusioned but troopers to the end, the duo fall back on their best routines from their glory days much to their promotor’s disappointment.
They promoter they’re saddled with is smarmy Brit Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), a producer who made it big as an impresario in later years, television too, whose love of his clients knows every cheap skate trick. All they see are Blighty’s run down hotels and decrepit venues. The theatres are barely half-full though audiences are appreciative of the masters of comic timing.
Their old talents intact, they support each other in the face of dismal box office takings and Delfont insinuating a cancelled tour is the honorable way out to retirement.
Stan and partner Ollie don’t go unnoticed in the streets of town and city, but people keep insulting them with the wrong kind of praise. “I loved your old films”, and “I thought you two lovely men had retired”. To those ‘compliments’ the duo always answer with a gallant ‘thank you’.
In a last ditch attempt to raise their profile, and his profits, Delfont sends his stars on publicity tours where they improvise for television, open new shops, and whoever shows up to see them. This does the trick. Audiences get larger and larger until Delfont promises them a night at London’s biggest entertainment theatre and a full house. As they enter London across the Thames and see the Tower of London through the train window, Laurel says, “Ah, there it is, the Eiffel Tower”.
Laurel and Hardy are joined by their wives Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda). Mrs. Laurel is a former dancer who once auditioned for films. Like her husband, she’s very driven and has a tough side that clashes with Mrs. Hardy’s more easy-going but no less tough attitude. This allows for some acerbic repartee between the warring wives. There’s a screwball comedy in the foursome, and now and again we get a whiff of it.
Just as I thought the third act was about to descend into the worst kind of sentimentality and bathos it takes on a tragic tone. Strong emotions transcend surface scenes – and there are a few – as the duo bring up old arguments and open old wounds. The conflict threatens to tear them apart. Laurel and Hardy’s livelihood is challenged by hurt feelings that have festered for decades. Hardy is a tired old man, while Laurel’s sprightliness and comic ideas to spare belies his age.
Studying early cinema in my student days I learned to accept Buster Keaton a greater cinematic comic than Charlie Chaplin, though Chaplin was more popular, and that Keaton’s gimmick of never smiling is a big fat lie. As for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, they were always superior to all the comedy duos who followed and in my opinion will remain so until the Earth goes fizz-bang!
This film succeeds so well for it knows how balance laugh-out-loud comedy and quiet, reflective introspection. It has you thinking, christ, it’s sad to get old. You measure the depth not the length of their relationship. And it has you chuckling, for Stan and Ollie are always inventing new gags and trying them out on each other, and that’s very infectious.
Stan & Ollie gets four stars because it follows the conventional lines of biopics and some of its time is recreating the duo’s original material, but wear a balaclava and sunglasses if you don’t like to be recognised sobbing in your seat. You’ll be blubbing your eyes out well before the ending arrives.
Clichéd moments are there, but smothered in a humanity we recognise and with which we empathise and….. sniff. Sorry, please excuse me. I need to find a handkerchief.
- Star Rating: 4 stars
- Cast: John C Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda
- Director: John S Baird
- Writer: Jeff Pope (Based on the book by AJ Marriott)
- Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
- Composer: Rolfe Kent
- Duration: 1 hour 37 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?