I left my house and went to a talking picture theater, where I obtained tickets to see Stan & Ollie. This review is a bit of a cheat because, while Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were paired during the silent era, the film does not go earlier than 1937.
However, I shall shamelessly proceed because I want to write about the Boys and I don’t think I will have may objections. The film is officially in wide release as of this writing but there aren’t that many screenings available so you may need to travel a bit to get to one.
Stan & Ollie is a 2018 biopic about one of the most beloved and iconic movie comedy teams. It examines their at times tense relationship as they embark on what would be their final tour together, the UK in 1953. I spent much of my childhood being entertained by Laurel and Hardy and I am a bit protective as a result. Will this film be able to win me over? Start the scoreboard!
I say I don’t like biopics but that’s not strictly true. What I don’t like is the cowardly way so many biopics are made. The filmmakers do not trust their audience enough and so we are shown everything, cradle to grave or at least kindergarten (or early childhood trauma) to success. Because the filmmakers are trying to cram decades of events into a couple of hours, we get the annoying, jerky pace of “Two years later” and fade “three years later” and fade “two years later” and fade… And this prevents us from being immersed in the story.
Further, biopics often suffer from Forrest Gump Syndrome in which every person of note the protagonists ever met is paraded across the screen.
However, I have absolutely nothing against examining the lives and deepest inner thoughts of real historical figures. I just prefer biopics that focus on the good parts, i.e. the point where stuff actually happens. Not necessarily the subject’s most famous doings but an interesting point in their life. In short, I want the historical figure to be treated like a proper film character. For example, Lawrence of Arabia focuses on his time in the desert sans establishing shots of his childhood. All that is covered in a simple, well-acted conversation between Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. It was all we needed.
Stan & Ollie very intelligently keeps its focus on the final 1953 tour of the act and while it does include some flashbacks, it pretty much paints the past with quick strokes and then returns to focus on the fallout in the present. And while there are enough cameos to please fans (James Finlayson!) it never feels self-indulgent. So, a point to screenwriter Jeff Pope, I think.
Laurel and Hardy are very special to me. They were my first comedy loves and we shall never see their like again. Over the years, I have had almost no interest in digging into their personal lives or finding dirt on them. (Both married often and unwisely.) And this was my greatest concern about Stan & Ollie: Would it be properly affectionate? Was it made by fans? And at the same time, I didn’t want a fawning hagiography. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk.
I was reassured by the film’s PG rating (you can’t get into too much trouble on a PG) and was happy to find that the film was a celebration of the duo’s chemistry, that magic little something that elevated the whole above the sum of its parts. This was clearly made by fans for fans.
Performance vs. Impression
There is always a risk that when actors play real people, they will deliver less of a performance and more of an impression. This is especially risky when the role requires large amounts of makeup as there is a temptation to let the disguise do all the work. What can seem to be a shortcut on the surface is actually an enormous challenge. Add to that the fact that the signature comedy routines of Stan and Ollie would be used in the film.
Steve Coogan as Laurel required relatively little makeup but John C. Reilly as Hardy needed hours in the makeup chair every day to recreate the iconic Ollie look. Coogan is good but Reilly is astonishing. He captures Hardy’s grace, his voice and the fear of a man facing his own mortality. And, as mentioned above, this is an ode to the duo’s chemistry and that is captured with accuracy. That white magic when the boys become the Boys remains as potent as ever.
When watching a historical film, it can be a little difficult to silence the inner geek. “That hat is all wrong, they wouldn’t have used that phrase, those colors weren’t available yet…” and so forth. I try to avoid that in reviews of this kind because, well, at a certain point you have to repeat to yourself, “It’s just a film, I should really just relax.”
When watching a movie about the movies, my main concern is not the tiny details (though I will call out major mistakes) or the “telescoping” or simplifying of events in order to make for a smooth narrative. Rather I want to consider how audiences will feel about the main subjects after the theater lights turn back on.
Stan & Ollie greatly simplifies the career path of the duo. We are shown a quick prologue in 1937 to establish the popularity of the act, the problems at the Hal Roach lot and how Oliver Hardy came to make Zenobia (1939), a comedy about an elephant in which he was paired with Harry Langdon. The film then spends the rest of its time dealing with the fallout during the 1953 tour of England.
Of course, fans of the Boys know that they worked together after Zenobia and I count A Chump at Oxford (1939) and Saps at Sea (1940) as two of my favorites of their features. We do not talk about Swiss Miss (1938) and we do not talk about Utopia (1951). And the pair toured together before 1953 as well. All that being said, I can’t go around complaining that biopics are tedious because they don’t cut anything and then complain when they do cut something. Excising these details left room to deal with the elephant in the room: the question of friendship between Stan and Ollie.
Did I want more details on the underrated Harry Langdon’s life and career? Yes. Do I think they would have improved Stan & Ollie? No. Oh, and I am happy to say that I walked out of the theater with an insatiable itch to watch a Laurel and Hardy film!
The Treatment of Oliver Hardy
It’s well known among comedy nerds that Stan Laurel was the man behind the scenes of the act. He wrote and directed the directors, taking charge of many aspects of the team’s comedy style. This control was evident from their very first true partnering, Duck Soup, which was based on a skit that had been written by Laurel’s father. Oliver Hardy was happy to let Laurel be boss but his contribution to the team was nonetheless extremely important. Anyone who watches Laurel’s early work can see that Hardy lightened him, the humor lost its rough edges the longer they worked together. Their chemistry was like grease on the gears of their films.
Unfortunately, the fact that Laurel did the bulk of the work behind the scenes has led to the belief that Hardy was a lesser talent who got lucky. Jerry Lewis even went so far as to claim that Hardy had been a workman at the Roach studio when Laurel plucked him out of obscurity and taught him everything he knew. (One wonders if projection was at work in this particular case.) In fact, Hardy had been performing for decades and the pairing with Stan Laurel had been a studio casting decision. There is some debate as to who exactly had the idea but we can all agree that it was a happy one.
With all this in mind, I obviously was a bit concerned about how Hardy would be portrayed and I am happy to say that the film pretty much gets it right. It shows Laurel banging away at his typewriter, writing gags for a Robin Hood film that we know will never get made but then it shows the two men rehearsing and the creative sparks flying. That magical, once-in-a-lifetime chemistry is on display and it’s easy to see that Hardy could never be replaced.
The idea of replacing Hardy in the act is the closest the film comes to suspense. With his partner’s health uncertain, should Laurel finish up the tour with a substitute? After all, that should be easy if Oliver Hardy was just a no-talent gold brick.
General Thoughts on the Film
Stan & Ollie captures the gentle, childlike humor of its subjects and while nobody is portrayed as a saint, there are no real villains either. Stan Laurel could be peppery and Oliver Hardy didn’t always have his back but despite all this, they shared something enchanting. The direction by Jon S. Baird keeps things simple and to the point without overplaying the old-timey angle.
The three supporting characters with the most screentime are Stan and Ollie’s wives, Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson), and Delfont (Rufus Jones), the somewhat sleazy agent responsible for the tour. All three actors deliver colorful performances and Arianda is particularly good as the flamboyant Ida. I like giving the wives, often shuffled to the back, center stage here and the women contrast just as strongly as their husbands. Ida is the aggressive personification of “the show must go on” while Lucille just wants her husband to come home safe and sound. They never would have been friends under normal circumstances but they’re stuck with each other. Delfont, meanwhile, is the latest in a long string of businessmen who do not truly understand the secret of Laurel and Hardy.
The niceness, sweetness and general good humor of the picture likely explains why it is getting acclaim but is not making quite the same splash as other biopics. Nice is far harder to pull off than naughty but it never receives the same level of respect. Don’t get me wrong, Stan & Ollie has won awards but not, I think, in appropriate relation to its quality.
However, I think this is a movie that has legs and will be relished by film fans for many years to come. Making predictions about the longevity of films is always perilous but I really do think audiences will be watching Stan & Ollie long after this year’s Osacar bait has sunk into obscurity. It’s not perfect but it is most enjoyable, especially to Laurel and Hardy fans. See it if you get a chance.