A Duo Worthy of an Iconic Twosome
The answer to the question is a vigorous yes. Can you enjoy a movie about a comedy team that you aren’t a big fan of? The new biopic “Stan and Ollie” is the tale of the last act of Laurel and Hardy, a stage tour through the U.K. in the hopes of getting a film deal. It is a modest and amiable film that is raised to greater heights by the stunning work of Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, in particular Coogan’s.
The movie begins with Laurel and Hardy at their height in 1937. We are introduced to the pair as they walk through the sound stages at the Hal Roach Studio in a lengthy, wonderfully done tracking shot. The duo is the number one box office attraction in the country, but their wages don’t necessarily reflect that. Stan is willing to stand up to producer Hal Roach for a better deal as his contract is expiring, but Hardy, beset with gambling debts and alimony issues, doesn’t want to take a risk as he is still under contract. Hardy tries to dissuade Laurel from confronting the producer, but it doesn’t work, and the exchange between Roach and Laurel is acrimonious.
Fast forward sixteen years as the now fading in popularity team arrive in England for the tour. They are greeted by the producer of the tour Bernard Delfont (a properly greasy Rufus Jones), who appears only marginally interested in the success of it, and has done poor pre-promotion, more focused on his younger, and hotter act Norman Wisdom. They start their stay in a rather modest hotel, and their early performances are to half-filled houses, although those that are there are enthusiastic.
Coogan and Riley have the mannerisms of the characters down to a T, enough so that it doesn’t really appear that they are impersonating anybody. In fact, although I know this is heresy, and as I said I am not a big fan of the real duo, they actually do the bits BETTER in my mind than the originals. It really gave me a greater appreciation of Laurel and Hardy’s craft in turning light little ditties and simple set pieces into small works of art.
Despite their massive differences (Laurel is a single-minded workaholic constantly writing gags and working on bits, and Hardy is an easy-going sort with large excesses) they get along amiably. Their camaraderie is more based on the act than true friendship it appears, but they are very friendly with each other.
The struggles of the early part of the tour pressure Delfont into persuading the pair to do continuous cheesy promotional stunts, which actually prove successful. Meanwhile, Laurel is having serious problems pinning down the London-based producer of the proposed comic film version of “Robin Hood”. Laurel continues, however, to present a positive spin on the progress of the project to Hardy, who is always affectionately referred to as “Babe” by everyone. Laurel also is constantly writing gags for the film and running them by his partner.
Eventually, having been stonewalled on numerous phone calls to the film’s producer, Laurel goes to the studio’s offices, and again is stalled. He eventually storms into the office of the producer only to be greeted by the executive assistant. She coldly informs him that financing for the project has not come through. In one of the two best dramatic scenes of the movie, Coogan’s virtually wordless depiction of the crestfallen Laurel’s reaction to the news is genius.
He keeps the news from Hardy, and maintains the story that when the tour hits London, the producer will come and see its success and help cinch the deal. The two men’s wives will be meeting them as well in London. Each man has had a checkered marital past, but seem to have found happiness with their current bride. Laurel’s wife Ida (Nina Arianda) and Hardy’s wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) couldn’t be more different. Ida’s a snobbish Russian with a thick accent, oft-repeating tales of her past as a dancer, Lucille is a very down to earth sort. Their somewhat friendly bickering is amusing.
The tour and promotional work is wearing on Hardy, who is in failing health, but he is carrying on. After a very successful opening night in London a party is thrown in the duo’s honor. During it, Ida makes an offhand comment about the “elephant film” that Hardy made with another partner sixteen years prior during the contract hassle with Roach. This leads to a confrontation between the two, wonderfully played by Coogan and Riley, where they unload their never stated frustrations with each other, and openly question each other’s true friendship
They carry on despite the dispute, but at an appearance to judge a beauty pageant Hardy has a heart attack and is told by doctors to never work again. Delfont gets Laurel to agree to work with a replacement for the rest of the tour, but Stan can’t go through with it. Ignoring his wife’s pleas and doctor’s orders, Hardy finishes the tour, and fences are mended.
The BBC film is directed by British film maker Jon S. Baird, and he does fine work, but this is Coogan and Reilly’s movie. The relationship between Laurel and Hardy is not really explored in great depth, but the actors superbly capture the tremendous performing chemistry behind perhaps the most successful comedy double act in history.
The period details are very well displayed and the film is shot with the bright, colorful feel of an upbeat 1950’s film. The U.K. looks lovely in shots from trains, at the beach, and in the cities.
Coogan in particular, and Reilly, are both best known as comic actors, but they have obviously both done brilliant and varied work. Each holds an Academy Award nomination for a non-comic part, Coogan for “Philomena” (nominated for writing that as well), and Reilly for “Chicago”.
They combine the comic and the dramatic in this one. The film doesn’t produce big laughs, more numerous chuckles. It is sometimes hard to figure out why audiences of the day would find things like their little soft shoe routines hilarious, but they are a small delight.
This film fits like a comfortable old pair of shoes, worn with style.