There’s a wonderful 1965 documentary called Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s. Director Robert Youngson pieced together several clips of classic comedy shorts made during Hollywood’s golden silent era with an accompanying narration. Though the film incorporated the work of several famous stars of the time, the documentary was principally the early work of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and it’s here where audiences are treated to the first official pairing of Laurel and Hardy in a Hal Roach comedy, a 1927 short called Putting Pants on Phillip. If you can find a copy of the documentary, keep it and treasure it.
In the new gentle biopic Stan & Ollie from director Jon S. Baird, the film begins with a title telling us that ten years later after that initial pairing, the comedy duo consisting of the short, slim Englishman and the taller, rotund American were loved around the world by millions. Stan Laurel from Lancashire played the childlike, somewhat clumsy character, while Oliver Hardy from Georgia played the pompous and usually exasperated best friend.
After opening with a lengthy, five minute tracking shot of the duo in costume walking through the studio grounds, talking of their ex-wives, money owed, Oliver’s recent proposal to a future Mrs. Hardy, and Stan’s insistence he’ll find another woman he doesn’t like and just buy her a house, the two reach the set of their 1937 comedy Way Out West. Movie buffs should salivate at the sight of seeing the behind-the-scenes machinations of those famous Hal Roach studios of Culver City as Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) casually stroll through the lot, gently laughing at each other’s comments and saying hi to whoever passes by.
It’s only when they reach the set that the tone changes. Hal Roach (Danny Huston) is having issues with Stan’s financial insistence and the comic actor’s desire for independence from the studio. The conversation between producer and actor becomes heated while Oliver looks on. But they’re professionals and there’s a film to be made. Cue the charming dance sequence in front of Mickey Finn’s wild west saloon as the Avalon Boys play At The Ball, That’s All.
From there the film jumps sixteen years later. A lot has happened during that time; contract disputes, a professional separation, Stan signing with 20th Century Fox while Oliver remained under contract with Hal Roach at MGM, plus both are now re-married. They’ve re-teamed, and by 1953 it was time for a tour of Gt. Britain.
They didn’t know it but their trek across Britain, arranged by famous British theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) would be their farewell tour. Oliver’s ill health would catch up to him during the final leg of the journey. At his wife’s insistence, he would retire. But not before one last dance on stage in front of an adoring crowd. At the ball, that’s all.
The tour didn’t start well. Stan, who wrote the material and did as much of the duo’s managing as he could, was trying to arrange the financing of a Laurel and Hardy full-length feature he’d conceived about Robin Hood. The tour of music halls across the country was to help them keep their appearances going and to remind audiences that Laurel and Hardy were still a team. But both the tour and getting the English studio financing was a struggle. Plus, Delfont’s other comedic client, Norman Wisdom, was taking all the larger theatre venues, leaving only the less prestigious and smaller variety halls to Stan and Ollie.
“I thought you retired,” says a young female desk clerk at their low-run Newcastle hotel, a line they would hear repeatedly as they moved from town to town. “We’re getting older but not done yet,” Oliver would cordially reply.
Audiences and venues are small at the beginning, but once the affable though slick talking Delfont convinces the team to make personal appearances at supermarket openings and become judges at seaside beauty pageants, giving them extra exposure with both TV and newspaper coverage, audiences increase. The turnabout comes after a new sketch Stan had written regarding a double-door routine at a train station, an act we see meticulously recreated to perfection by Coogan and Reilly. “Magical,” Delfont tells them with genuine admiration in the dressing room after the show, letting them know that those small audiences were turning into packed houses. The two-thousand seater Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End just off the Strand now beckoned.
Watching their live stage act, their discussions on future sketches, and Oliver’s amusement and praise at his partner’s ideas, Stan & Ollie says a lot about what it takes to be funny, aided by two thoroughly engaging performances from both Coogan and Reilly. Steven Coogan’s Stan is no caricature. Through body and hand movements coupled with facial expressions, Coogan fully embraces the heart of what made Mr. Laurel so thoroughly likable, down to the man’s accent that retained it’s Englishness while occasionally veering into American. The real Stan Laurel left England for America in 1912, arriving on the same ship that brought Charlie Chaplin to the States.
John C Reilly’s Oliver Hardy is quite astonishing. In the same way that Vice’s Christian Bale disappears into Dick Cheney, so does Reilly as Mr. Hardy. And again, like Coogan’s Stan, this is no caricature, nor is it a performance that relies on makeup alone. It would be hard to imagine another present-day film talent who could convincingly play the role and make you occasionally forget that you’re not watching the real thing, as Reilly does here.
There’s delight to be had when watching the duo sing The Trail of the Lonesome Pine at the Lyceum, and sadness when watching Stan stare at a poster promoting the new Abbot and Costello flick, realizing that the time for Laurel and Hardy as movie headliners had now passed. And in a rare but heated moment when old wounds of their previous professional separation resurface, they say things they didn’t mean. “I loved us,” said Stan. “You loved Laurel and Hardy,” responds Ollie, “But you never loved me.”
But it wasn’t true. They did love each other, and audiences loved them, as shown during the surprising moment when their boat taking them to Ireland is greeted with flag-waving, cheering crowds standing on the docks, eagerly waiting for their arrival and to let them know just how much Laurel and Hardy meant to them. Stan Laurel is on record as saying that he and Oliver Hardy looked at each other that day and cried.
As the narrator at the conclusion of the Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s documentary states, we’ll never see their like again. But at least, because of this enjoyably modest comedy/drama from director Baird, through some endearingly crafted recreations from Coogan and Reilly, we get the pleasure of enjoying them for just a little longer.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 98 Minutes