Much praised for the lead performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, Stan and Ollie doesn’t quite deliver in terms of story and drama, nor is it particularly respectful of the truth. Yes, this is ‘only a movie’, but it is also a biopic (and not The Jolson Story kind, with a devoted ‘Momma’ who died when Al was eight years old keeping a scrapbook of his stage triumphs as his career progresses).
The film opens in 1937 as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are making one of their best-loved films Way Out West. A screen title proclaims they are at the peak of their careers, the toast of Hollywood and the world, adored by audiences and critics alike. Well, no, actually. Hal Roach’s studio was definitely a minor enterprise compared with MGM, Warners and 20th Century-Fox and critics generally found the Laurel & Hardy films agreeable time-passers rather than instant classics, so there’s more than a touch of hindsight here. (However, they were loved by the world’s cinema-goers.)
Despite their success, Stan is dissatisfied: he wants Laurel and Hardy to legally exist as a team, and produce their own films, something Hal Roach (Danny Huston) denies outright. His partner also feels they have a good thing going (and needs the regular Roach salary to service his gambling debts and alimony payments). Stan, however, is determined to make the break.
Fast-forward to 1953 and the boys are being dumped in front of a second-rate pub-cum-guesthouse in a rain swept Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, where they are booked to play a tour of second-rate regional theatres. In the meantime, Stan is scripting a spoof Robin Hood film, for which a London producer is supposedly raising the finance. Their Hollywood golden era is just a memory.
Business is poor and UK agent Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) suggests public appearances might help get bums on seats. The tactic works, but at a great cost to Ollie’s health (he is desperately overweight). Meanwhile the Roach contract dispute is still festering in Stan’s mind, as Ollie made a film with Harry Langdon, (Richard Cant) while Stan tried to set up his own productions.
Things don’t improve with the arrival of wives Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson). Stirring the pot more than somewhat, they bring Stan’s resentment to the boil. The team splits and the two old friends can barely speak to each other. It takes two sobering events (Ollie suffers a heart attack, and Stan realises the Robin Hood film will never be made) to bring them back for a return to tumultuous applause, even though this will prove an ephemeral triumph as Ollie will be too ill to work again.
The film has been made by people who saw Laurel & Hardy on UK television in the 1960’s and 1970’s when they were broadcast very regularly, thought “Yaayy, let’s make a film about them!”, and have then come across the practical realities of telling a story and having to introduce the boys to an audience which has not had the same level of exposure to their work.
Their solution was to invent a spurious rift in the Laurel and Hardy partnership which never happened (there was never any question of Stan working with another partner; after Ollie’s death he refused to appear alone, despite a generous offer to film a cameo in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). The result is a trite story arc – will last-minute triumph be snatched from the jaws of defeat? – which robs the film of any real grip. Anyone with any knowledge of cinema convention knows exactly where this is going.
The film also fails to give a true sense of period. We are treated to several shots of bright, shiny steam trains chuffing through the lush English countryside. A countryside growing oil-seed rape crops in 1953, and if you see photo’s of British loco’s in the 50’s they are invariably very grimy indeed. The country was still facing post-war austerity and was a pretty gloomy place, even with “that noo young Queen Elizabeth” as Lucille Hardy calls her.
It’s probably also a good job you can’t libel the dead – the film’s Bernard Delfont is very shifty, and more interested in getting Norman Wisdom’s career off the ground than in a couple of old has-beens he can squeeze a few quid out of. Delfont was a very respected UK showbiz figure, eventually becoming Lord Delfont, who had great regard for Laurel and Hardy and did not exploit them in any way.
The film has two great lead performances by actors who have obviously loved and studied their models to perfection. Their wives are also well-portrayed, Ida with lurid Slavic drama, Lucille with no-nonsense pragmatism (in a nod to their film work it’s fun to see how the real Stan and Ollie immediately modify their behaviour to accommodate their domineering spouses).
It’s good to have a film about Laurel and Hardy. Hopefully it will introduce a new generation to their work. and that unique blend of two polite, decent men adrift in a cynical and hostile world will renew its appeal and prove its timelessness. The film as a film, however, does have some serious flaws which keep it short of true memorability and greatness.