Consternation spread from tent to tent as word of this film was announced. Sons and Daughters of the Desert, the “stanandolliverse” if you will, were excited and frightened in roughly equally measure. Because loving something oh so very much makes you protective. What will Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly and Jon S. Baird and Jeff Pope do to our boys?
I saw the movie last night and now I’m happy. Are there some points that need to be clarified for people who haven’t seen every single Laurel and Hardy film? Indeed there are. But even the distortions, conflations, omissions and inventions represented in this film are clearly to serve a larger and more important purpose – to illustrate a relationship and a craft. It’s not a black and white film but it is a sort of sepia one. It sums up a particular mood.
There is one scene in which Stan and Ollie make a completely impossible train journey over the river Thames. Nobody has ever had that view of Tower Bridge from a train.
The logic of drama demands that love be tested and threatened. In order to illustrate the triumph of love, some internal rather than just external threat needs to be presented. Accordingly, there is a “dark” scene in the middle of the film where Stan and Ollie have a bitter argument and where it is suggested that Stan was still cherishing a profound grievance against Ollie because Ollie had made Zenobia (1939) without Stan and with Harry Langdon. In fact, there’s no record of Stan ever resenting Ollie for this. As the film itself acknowledges, Hal Roach deliberately kept Stan and Ollie on asynchronous contracts in order to thwart their collective bargaining power.
The plot of the film is very straightforward. There is a brief prologue that shows Stan arguing with Hal Roach during the filming of Way Out West (1937). Stan wants to play hardball – Ollie, not so much. Their respective characters are thereby illustrated. Stan always wants complete control whereas Ollie (“Babe” as he is affectionately known) takes the path of least resistance, avoiding conflict wherever possible.
The film then quickly leaps sixteen years and treats their British and Irish tour of 1953. (No references is made to all the films they made with Fox and MGM in the interim or the nightmarish experience of making their final film Atoll K.) It suits the pathos of the film to have most people assume they’ve retired. The tour is managed by Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) who promotes them poorly and seems more interested in Norman Wisdom. Even when playing to half empty houses in second rate venues, however, Stan and Ollie give the audiences their very best and a mixture of word of mouth appreciation and strategic personal appearances means that the tour becomes progressively more and more successful. Stan discovers, however, that the funding for a new Robin Hood film he’s been pitching, has not materialised. He has not he heart to tell Ollie. Meanwhile their hilarious wives show up at the Savoy Hotel in London creating (as Delfont notes) “two double acts for the price of one”. Ollie collapses at a bathing beauties pageant in Worthing and a doctor subsequently pronounces his performing career at an end. Stan and Ollie nevertheless complete the Irish leg of their tour, with Church bells playing “Call of the Cuckoos” upon their arrival in Cobh. Everybody wills Ollie to gather the strength needed to finish this show. The End.
So it’s not complicated. The central performances could not conceivably be bettered. Steve Coogan accurately performs Stan Laurel as an obsessive perfectionist who never stops thinking about the craft of comedy, who was forever imagining new jokes, new scenarios – new ways of making people smile. John C. Reilly portrays a “Babe” whose essential geniality makes everyone around him happy. Acting from within a truly impressive prosthetic disguise which never looks fake, Reilly’s “Babe” is as elegant as it is cherubic. As well as the love between Stan and Ollie, we constantly experience a generous love for the paying and even non paying public. They constantly get into character when meeting people for the first time, constantly revert to type because, one senses, both Stan and Ollie felt that anybody meeting Laurel and Hardy had a right to have happy memories of this experience.
When the enormous packing case slides down the station steps, it’s not just The Music Box that’s being referenced, but also the whole idea of getting rid of baggage.
Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda excel as Lucille and Ide. Oliver Hardy and (especially) Stan Laurel had romantic lives of dizzying complexity. They worked on the principle that if you fell in love with someone then you married them. This meant that they got married a lot. Lucille and Ide play beautifully off one another and perhaps deserve a movie to themselves. The idea of two characters who have to have a relationship with each other because the men they are married to have a more necessary relationship with each other than ether of them do with any of their wives is itself funny.
Is “Stan and Ollie” a funny movie? Yes, intermittently, though I cried more than I laughed. Actually I cried a lot. Actually I cried more than my wife did at the end of Titanic. The boy really enjoyed their “double door” routine, which is surely clowning refined to a state of almost geometric purity. He didn’t really understand why people were laughing at the dancing, and I had to explain that the dance is much funnier in context. The scene with eggs and nuts from “County Hospital” is constantly being replayed in sketch form. It’s a reminder of just how funny it can be to watch someone slowly eat a boiled egg (and watch someone exasperated by the slowness of the egg eating), if the people on stage (or on screen) have complete faith in one another.
In fact, there is no separating the love between Stan and Ollie from a love for the craft of comedy. This is not just a film about two dear friends who happened to be a double act. This is a film about exquisite timing, about how two people making room for one another and playing off one another offers the most delicious exhibition of inter-personal co-dependence imaginable. Stan and Ollie do not have to waste too many words expressing their feelings for one another because when on stage, the singing and the dancing and the arse kicking and the anticipations and the reactions and the pain and the pity and the shapes of the contrasting bodies in the limelight perform all the loving communication necessary.
Incidentally, according to Stan, it was live performances rather than filmed ones that created a real bond of friendship between them.
Laurel and Hardy created the most lasting comedy because exquisitely timed clowning simply doesn’t date. At the heart of this clowning is understanding and at the heart of the understanding there is love.
I will be very surprised, and I suppose delighted, if I see another film with quite so much love in it in the next twelve months.
More importantly, of course, it’s a film that will make people want to watch actual Laurel and Hardy films.