On Friday, Torontonians will finally get to see a film getting rave reviews in the U.K. and Los Angeles: Stan & Ollie.
The biographical comedy-drama stars Steve Coogan (Philomena) and John C. Reilly (Talladega Nights) as black-and-white film icons Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Reilly’s startling transformation as plus-size Hardy is already drawing Oscar buzz (plus a Golden Globe nomination); Coogan gets just as far under the skin of skinnier sketch-savant Laurel.
The film shows them toward the end of their careers in the early 1950s as they perform live throughout the U.K. It’s a love story, really, and that’s the reason both Reilly and Coogan signed on for the roles.
“It was a labour of love, it was definitely a labour,” says British actor-comedian Coogan, reached by phone in London. Coogan, like Reilly, spent hours rehearsing the duo’s comedy routines and endured early hours in the makeup chair as chin extensions and other prosthetics were applied.
“It was a bit scary to have the responsibility,” says Coogan. “It felt like, if we screwed it up it would be somehow sacrilegious.”
Reilly turned down the role at first, telling director Jon S. Baird, “I’m not sure I’m the guy; I definitely don’t think I’m as good as Oliver Hardy.” Eventually he came to see himself as at the right age (like Coogan, 53), with the right singing voice. “This is a case where greatness was just thrust upon me.”
While the image of Laurel and Hardy in bowler hats remains iconic, you have to really look to find their films. Coogan first saw the duo on the BBC when he was a youngster. Reilly says their films were projected on his family’s dining room table growing up in Chicago.
Sixteen-millimetre film collectors, like me, prize their prints. The old-fashioned format has sometimes been the only way to see much of their work.
Laurel and Hardy made over 100 shorts together and more than two dozen features, the best made in the ’20s and ’30s by pioneering comedy producer Hal Roach. The films, however, have had a checkered history of ownership and distribution, preventing them from getting the same kind of home video and DVD love as contemporaries such as the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers.
This fine mess eventually landed the films in Toronto, where in the early ’80s a company attempted to colourize the shorts. I was a new hire at TV Guide Canada at the time and my first assignment was to get then 95-year-old Roach on the phone (he lived to be 100) and ask what he thought of attempts to computer-colour his masterworks.
“Do you read the funnies?” Roach boomed over the phone. He was referring to daily newspaper strips that back then, as he pointed out, appeared in black and white during the week and in full colour on the weekends.
Yes, I told him. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “Do you just laugh on the weekends?”\
Researching the story led me to attend a meeting of the Sons of the Desert. The official Laurel and Hardy fan club had a chapter in Toronto known as the “Tit for Tat Tent,” named after one of their funniest films. Members would meet in different cities all over North America but, in Toronto in the ’80s, it was at the Westbury Hotel. The “Grand Sheik” here was Al Dubin, former head of Warner Bros. publicity in Canada.
Dubin’s niece, actress Ellen Dubin (Napoleon Dynamite), recalls attending meetings at Toronto’s Granite Brewery where she would watch Laurel and Hardy films with her dad and uncle.
“One day I went by the bar and watched a bunch of grown men watch The Chimp and it was so hilarious watching them laugh uproariously,” says Dubin. She has never forgotten the joy these films brought her father. “He was like a child when he left.”
That Laurel and Hardy awaken the child in all of us is exactly what I first observed back in ’83 at my first Sons of the Desert screening in Toronto. The large banquet room windows were too tall and the thin drapes let in too much light, flooding the movie screen. Being projected was an early, silent Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. I’ll never forget a room full of grown businessmen laughing in unison in all the right places at a film they could neither see nor hear!
Fellow film collector and archivist Stan Taffel who, as a child in the ’60s, first discovered Laurel and Hardy on New York kiddie shows, says their films remain among the most desired to own by 16-mm collectors.
“They can be shown to any audience and elicit the same reactions,” says Taffel, president of Los Angeles’s longest-running classic film festival, Cinecon, and grand sheik of L.A.’s Hollywood Party Tent of the Sons of the Desert. “If you placed people from every corner of the globe, each speaking a different language, put them in the same theatre and showed them one of the Laurel and Hardy silent films, while they would be unable to communicate with the person seated next to them, they would react the same way to what they saw on the screen. It’s the power of cinema.”
I share my collection of Laurel and Hardy prints on a monthly basis at long-term care facilities for seniors in Mississauga and Oakville. The comedy team seldom fails to awaken the inner child in older viewers — even many who suffer from dementia.
The two actors in Stan & Ollie hope it sparks a similar revival of interest in the comedy greats. Look for the duo on YouTube, urges Reilly, who recently turned a 7-year-old on to them. “He was on the edge of his seat the whole time when he was watching the movie.”
Taffel is proud of the fact that his own archival work as a collector has allowed him to lend materials to institutions for preservation purposes. Work is ongoing at UCLA to restore their sound catalogue.
“We can only hope that those who were too young or never knew the real comedy team will seek out their films and discover their brilliance,” says Taffel. “In this day and age, we all need things to take our minds off serious matters. Spending an hour and a half with Stan & Ollie is the perfect remedy.”
Fun facts about Stan and Ollie
- Laurel’s eyes were so pale blue they barely registered in his earliest films. Coogan wore blue contact lenses in the movie to cover his own brown eyes.
- The scenes where Laurel and Hardy tour the Lyceum and other theatres throughout England were shot on location in the actual music halls. Twenty-plus years earlier, Coogan — then performing as part of a duo — did a similar tour of the very same stages.
- Some of John C. Reilly’s favourite Laurel and Hardy films: Sons of the Desert, Helpmates, County Hospital and Brats.
- Other comedy teams, such as Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis, had huge fallings out; Laurel and Hardy remained close friends until Babe’s death in 1957.
- When Laurel died at 74 in 1965, Dick Van Dyke delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Coogan and Reilly were able to listen to recorded phone conversations between Van Dyke and the master comedian.