As a Laurel and Hardy fan, there has never been an absent-minded thought where they’ve not existed in my consciousness. Like everything, that journey started at childhood, flipping the channel from Saturday morning entertainment (Live and Kicking springs to mind) over to BBC2, greeted by films like Saps at Sea, Way Out West, Sons of the Desert, The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case and The Music Box. The Laurel and Hardy films further signalled the first exploratory journey in watching black and white films, to which my young, childhood self inquisitively (yet innocently) wondered whether the world was originally in black and white!
But childhood naivety aside (and my subsequent hysterical laughter that followed each of their films), Laurel and Hardy (to this day) are the heartbeat of comedy, a masterpiece in perfect timing, fun slapstick and good-natured humour. It’s hard not to fall in love with the Southern gentlemen and his dim-witted English companion – a transatlantic partnership with their infectious gift and universal appeal. It doesn’t matter the mood because they will always bring a smile to your face.
In a nutshell, that’s what director Jon S. Baird brings to the table with Stan & Ollie, functioning as a dutiful and educational biopic and a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
In hindsight, Stan & Ollie was never going to be the greatest film ever made. To a Laurel and Hardy aficionado, it presents surface-level analogies and information already known or to an eagle-eyed fan, noticing factually incorrect moments manufactured to engineer the context of their relationship and humour. It doesn’t elevate beyond the ‘made for TV’ movie feel – a light-hearted, straightforward adventure with no surprises. But having said that, that is perfectly fine. Not every film has to be high-brow or have a massive visual effects budget where every penny of it is on the big screen. Every now and again you get a film that has a natural essence of happiness and charm and is just comfortable in its existence. When it’s all said and done, Stan & Ollie is a lovely, fitting tribute to the iconic duo.
It’s a joyous love story featuring a bromance parallel of relatable and contemporary edges. It’s immediate from the very first sequence – a one track shot of two friends living in the moment discussing better ownership and salary as they make their way on set to perform the dance routine from Way Out West. In Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, it’s a sequence performed with a smooth ease, laying down a marker in their spot-on personifications. The focus of Stan & Ollie could have limited itself to this period. The Hal Roach days is considered as their most famous, profitable and recognisable. But there is a bravery that Baird commits to, focusing on a time in their lives that a) general audiences may not have been aware of but b) also functions as a self-reflective analogy and memoir on the duo. Do they still have the comedic appeal? Does anyone care about Laurel and Hardy?
In effect, that’s what the film tries to answer, focussing on Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie’s (John C. Reilly) UK tour as older gentlemen who have ‘passed’ their heyday. It allows Baird’s flexible direction to have a heartfelt warmth and personal depth, swapping the Hollywood glitz and glamour for the post-War, grounded and clean reflection of 50s Britain. It incites a counter-measuring exploration of Stan’s workaholic attitude (he was never far away from his typewriter) and his frustration with fame (in comparison to the rise of Charlie Chaplin – they were both discovered at the same time in the vaudeville days) and Ollie’s health problems and a previous incident that threatened their break-up.
It’s the classic comparison method, introducing a prior and familiar success with a forged new reality, especially during a transitional time where Hollywood shifted into a brand-new era of grandiose, ‘larger than life’ stars and escapist genres and the rising commercialism of television. Stan & Ollie opts with British references to Norman Wisdom (another childhood favourite of mine) again illustrating the ‘changing of the guard’ and how new stars were born out of their footsteps. Despite the tour representing a chance to recapture the old magic helped by their selfish, conniving promoter Bernard Delfort (Rufus Jones), it was a fund-raising opportunity to get their Robin Hood feature made.
To be frank, Coogan and Reilly are an incredible revelation, brilliantly capturing every minuscule of Laurel and Hardy’s mannerisms and voices, travelling beyond the realm of imitation. They could never replace the sheer brilliance of what Laurel and Hardy produced. Inevitably, they were always going to suffer those comparisons. But their performance brings them back to life that is both celebratory as well as profound, sincerely capturing the pitfalls of stardom and how unforgiving it can be. Serviced by Jeff Pope’s script, where Stan & Ollie finds its core is in those small moments where the ‘act’ is dropped, allowing their humanity to manifest. However condensed its presentation, Baird doesn’t care or interested in your cinematic expectations. It’s a tactic that served him best when he directed Filth. In an age of social media and all things digital, he indulges in a forgotten craft, filtered on an obsession for perfection and an audience gratifying reward. Laurel and Hardy’s desires were simple, and even in their darkest moments, it’s doing what they loved that promotes the interest and momentum. By that measurement alone Coogan and Reilly bring out the smiles, demonstrating the inseparable nature of their relationship.
Coogan and Reilly will undoubtedly take the headlines, but their wives Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda) steal the show. It’s a realisation that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some of Laurel and Hardy’s best work features their on-screen wives. Forming as the opposing duos to their male counterparts, the wives have always brought a common-sense rationalism and scepticism to their over the top antics and mishaps. But most importantly, they have a shared yet dominant equality that defied traditional values. The fond memories of Sons of the Desert and Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy are the best examples of the opposing dynamic where Christy was the sharp-shooting duck hunter to Busch’s feisty and fiery demeanour. They have the confident ability to stand out, subtly recreated for Stan & Ollie purposes where it’s possible to imagine the ebb and flow of their husband/wife relationship off-screen and how it subtly feeds into their actual films. Nina Arianda in particular, with her deadpan, no excuses, ‘cut through the BS’ persona channels the spirit of Mae Busch and her ability to have the last word (or action) in the conversation, done to great hilarity and comedic effect.
That familiarity is what serves Stan & Ollie to its enjoyable best. The film is sprinkled with little, treasured gifts, always finding opportune moments to instil a classic joke or cleverly de-constructing it to understand the mechanisms behind them. On the surface, it’s an artificial integration. However, it exemplifies the genuine acknowledgement and care from its production to ensure those recognisable moments are natural in its execution, without feeling forced or (as films tend to do these days) stop and point out the reference. It never loses sight of its pitch-perfect balance as the cast provide a suitable level of dramatic and comedic weight to establish its credentials.
Stan & Ollie was made with love and affection, one that immortalises the duo’s emotional contribution to the cinematic world but builds enough curiosity to venture out and explore their legacy and back-catalogue. Fulfilling its intent, it brings them back to a mainstream audience, and thanks to the brilliance of Coogan and Reilly, they reminded us of the simplicity and professional resilience of their work. As the closing film of London Film Festival 2018, it was a delightful and pleasant way to end.
STAN & OLLIE screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018 and will be released in cinemas on 11th January 2019.