Directed by Jon S Baird
Starring John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston
I’ve adored Laurel and Hardy ever since I can remember; when I was a wee boy their films (along with many other Golden Age works by Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Flash Gordon etc) would be repeated during the school holidays. Probably a fairly cheap way for broadcasters to fill up airtime for younger viewers during the holidays, but it was a bonanza for me, and I watched so many of them, usually with my dad (we still watch these together today, some things you never grow out of. My dad also saw Stan and Ollie on their final stage tour, taken to the theatre by his dad).
You might think this biases me to be predisposed to be favourable to the film, but by the same token it also means as a lifelong fan that I am wary and critical of anyone else portraying my comedy heroes, and I imagine more than a few of you would feel the same way – Stan and Ollie occupy a special place in our hearts, after all.
Rest assured though, oh Sons of the Desert, there is no need for concern here, it is more than clear that Steve Coogan and John C Reilly have the same love for Stan and Babe (Hardy) as we do. Their portrayals are quite exceptional. This isn’t just the actors recreating the looks, mannerisms and expressions of their subjects, a huge part of comedy is timing, and the real Laurel and Hardy had known each other and worked together for so long their timing was just perfect, each knowing the beats and rhythms of the other and how to compliment them just so. Coogan and Reilly recreate that, imbuing their roles with a feeling of characters who have been together for decades, it’s as if they have lived these roles.
Most of the film is concerned with what would turn out to be the duo’s final stage tour, around the UK and Ireland, although it opens with them preparing to film the famous dance scene outside the saloon in the wonderful Way Out West, in the Hal Roach Studios in 1937, when the pair are at the height of their global super-stardom. Laurel is furious with Roach (Danny Huston) – their friends like Chaplin have managed to secure control over their own works (the perennial struggle of creators throughout history, be it films or comics, sadly) and Stan is chafing under the control of Roach, and angry at how much money he makes from them. His contract is up before Ollie’s, but he expects Ollie to back him in jumping ship; when he doesn’t, for various reasons, it creates a personal as well as a professional rift.
Moving forward to post-war Britain, many years later, we see the pair getting out of a taxi at their hotel in Newcastle for the start of their UK tour (and a hoped for new film a UK producer is supposedly putting together) and right from the beginning it is clear they are past their great glory days of stardom: the hotel is just a general inn, not the fancy big hotel you’d expect for such Hollywood royalty, and their smooth-talking stage impresario who has booked their tour (and cheap hotel) has them in pretty small venues. This is a long way down from where they had been, and worse still those smaller venues are hardly packed, adding to a sense of melancholy, of trying to recapture past moments but the world has moved on (their producer talks excitedly of the “new generation” like Norman Wisdom). Fortunately a PR push on radio, papers and newsreels does the trick in Britain and soon the seemingly failing tour takes off with packed theatres.
But Stan and Ollie is not really about that final tour, that’s just the stage setting, this film is really about two men, two actors, two comedians, two friends. We all know that sometimes even our dearest friends, the ones that are like family to us (or even closer) can still infuriate us, and we them, and here too we see long-carried grudges such as Ollie failing to follow Stan out from Roach’s studio coming back, a slight that has rankled for years. Words are exchanged in anger and hurt, and as most will know both men were getting older and less able to perform as they once did (their comedy being so strong on physical work), especially Babe, who is seriously ill. The stage show becomes more of a backdrop to an examination of the final years of two men who have been closer than close, and despite the bickering, the money problems, through it all there is still that closeness, that realisation that they were lucky to find each other, that they made something remarkable together. The complete each other’s lines and movements, they argue yet when Ollie falls ill Stan sits in bed by his friend, as they did in many of their movie scenes, to comfort him. “I love him,” Stan tells his wife, simply.
The film is also replete with some of Stan and Ollie’s famous routines being re-enacted on their stage tour, and these acts still made the audience I watched with roar with laughter, they were will wonderfully funny. And that’s also a large part of this film, along with the relationship between the two men, there is the simple celebration of the pure joy the Laurel and Hardy created for millions, and that wonderful legacy that’s stood the test of time with new generations and crossed different media across the decades.