There are seemingly endless stories about the sad final years of Golden Age Hollywood personalities. Joan Crawford was reduced to a hag horror queen. Charlie Chaplin was exiled to Europe. It’s a Wonderful Life star and Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame quietly returned to the stage, eventually soldiering on to perform in a play in Britain despite suffering from terminal cancer, late dying at the age of 57.
Grahame’s story, of course, was turned into a movie last year, the Sony Pictures Classic release Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Perhaps finding a niche it likes, SPC is back with another story about a once-great Hollywood star (or stars, in this case) making one last stand on the British stage. This time, it’s Stan & Ollie, director Jon S. Baird (Filth) and screenwriter Jeff Pope’s (Philomena) poignant account of the last time the world ever saw comedy giants (Stan) Laurel & (Ollie) Hardy perform together on stage.
It’s here I have to admit that I’ve never actually seen any of the 107 films Laurel & Hardy did together, only 23 of which were full-length features. I’ve certainly been aware of them for as long as I can remember, and it’s not like they haven’t come up in any of the film classes I’ve taken in my life. However, contemporaries like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and The Marx Brothers as well as later comedy duos like Abbott & Costello always seemed to pull focus because they all managed to make at least one movie which endured as a classic. By comparison, without turning to Google I couldn’t tell you the title of a single Laurel & Hardy movie.
The simple imagery of Laurel & Hardy – the thin, meek simpleton and his obese, pompous leader – seems to loom larger than any actual singular thing they did together. (That’s to say nothing of all the later acts they clearly inspired.) As result, Stan & Ollie is a welcome introduction the behind the scenes reality of their careers for me.
Starting off with a glorious one-shot – albeit a oner with some invisible cuts – taking us all the way from their dressing room to the set of their latest film with various pit stops in-between, we meet Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (a born-to-play-the-role John C. Reilly) at the apparent height of their careers. It’s 1937 and everything they touch turns to gold. Except they’re both broke, victims to mounting alimony payments, vice – Stan’s a drinker, Ollie a gambler – and unfair contracts with a penny-pinching studio owner (Danny Huston). We learn all of this through some “walk-and-talk” storytelling which would make Sorkin proud.
It quickly becomes apparent this is Stan and Ollie at a crucial turning point. The former wants to bolt from their current studio to a rival for a better deal; the latter is too wary of his various financial debts to rock the boat. A conflict is clearly brewing. Yet, they’ve been working together so long they can argue about this up to the very second before the director calls action, at which point they almost effortlessly slip into their act, dancing in front of a back-projected version of an Old West saloon as if they’ve done it a million times before.
Smash Cut to 1953.
They’re older. They’re still broke and still fighting their various vices, although their new, younger wives (played by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) are helping with that. More importantly, they’re unemployable in a Hollywood which has long since moved on from them. So, they’ve ended up in Britain for a stage show tour meant to drum up enough publicity to help get a new movie – a Robin Hood adaptation Stan is calling Robin Good – over the hump and into production. After some early hiccups, their tour explodes in popularity, but lingering resentments and failing health threatens to derail everything.
Except they don’t really need a stage to put on a show. The simple act of checking into their first hotel inspires an old-fashioned Vaudeville routine where they fight over whether or not to ring the little bell on the desk even though the concierge is standing right there. It’s the first of many, many moments throughout Stan & Ollie where the duo appears to always be working through bits – sometimes intentionally, other times not. There is clearly some bad blood between them related to what happened after they made that western back in 1937, but working together seems to come as naturally to them as breathing air. In fact, they almost can’t turn it off.
What’s admirable – as well as the thing which might turn away some audiences – is Stan & Ollie never tries to update any of these bits to make them more palatable for modern audiences. No, this is Vaudeville slapstick through and through, right down to the unnatural facial expressions, verbal pauses, and cartoonish violence. If little-to-none of that makes us laugh now – have to admit, I don’t totally get why their signature dance is so beloved – Stan & Ollie is okay with that. What’s more important is to see how much joy it brought to the audiences back then as well as to the two old friends who were long overdue for one last hurrah.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Like an old married couple, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly’s Stan and Ollie have their own shorthand together as well as years of built-up hostilities threatening to boil over – and boil over they eventually do – yet they genuinely love each other. Thus, Stan & Ollie is a poignant ode to an enduring friendship between two men who couldn’t imagine not working together, even long after anyone wanted to employ them.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
Geena Davis and others have since argued the absolute least film productions can do to increase diversity is look at scripts and question why all the one-line roles need to be played by white men. If you simply gender or race switch it or both, that’s one more opportunity for a minority actor to get their union card, add to their resume, and/or make connections to build up to their next part.
Stan & Ollie, which is a BBC Films production distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, meets this minimum requirement. Not all of the laughing faces in the crowd, for example, at the various shows are white, and not all of the one or two-line roles in the various hotels belong strictly to men. Given the film’s historical setting, they could so easily have gone a different route. It’s admirable they didn’t.
What about you? Are you just beyond incensed I haven’t seen a Laurel & Hardy movie? Or are you in the same boat as me? Does Stan & Ollie sound any better to you after reading this review? Or have you already seen the film and totally disagree with me? Let me know in the comments.