“Will it be in black and white?” asked one teenage boy to his parents as we all queued to see STAN AND OLLIE. Judging from overheard conversations, he was just one of many who were about to have their introduction to the boys. It’s lovely that there were potential new fans in the audience; I crossed my fingers and hoped that the film would be up to the challenge.
Like many others, I had first greeted the news that a Laurel and Hardy biopic was to be made with some trepidation. Surely there would be lots of drama, lots of untruths and lots of scenes battling ex-wives. My fears eased a little as I heard more about the project, although I always feel a tiny bit peeved that these kind of films tend to focus on their stars’ fading years, rather than showing them in their prime. There’s more drama, more light and shade to be had that way, I guess
Sure enough, STAN AND OLLIE gets much pathos out of the boys’ waning years, but that pathos is genuine, and there’s a lot of warmth too. And, in the end, the decision to focus on later years makes sense as the tours were where their friendship really formed a special bond. It’s a bittersweet little film that really does come from a place of love and respect. Let’s get this straight, though; it is not a documentary. I can live with that. I don’t really care that they rolled tours that took place in 1947, 1952 and 1953 into one, that they might have swapped Morecambe for Worthing or added some small events that didn’t happen . Most of the attention to detail is astounding, and the essence of the boys’ situation is preserved, but this is storytelling, after all. Along the way, some of the supporting characters find themselves rather caricatured. The domineering and squabbling Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy or the sleazily conning Bernard Delfont are slightly unfair portrayals, but are comically done and add a good dose of humour. I was glad that, as the film went on, the wives were allowed to become more three-dimensional in their relationships to the boys and each other.
I have more trouble with the portrayal of Hal Roach as a stereotypical Hollywood bully. While undoubtedly he held the boys’ contracts to his advantage, he wasn’t the villain he’s portrayed as. I suppose the point of the brief prologue is to set up how the boys got to their 50s situation, but it’s still rather unfair. The other bit that sticks out like a sore thumb is the infamous scene where the boys argue over Babe’s appearing without Stan in ZENOBIA. While I’m sure the team probably did have at least the odd, brief cross word in thirty years, the scene just doesn’t ring true. In fact, it plays exactly like what it is: a scripted attempt to make a moment of conflict and convenient soundbite for the trailer. Still, the fact that the worst fight the script writers could conjure involves no shouting and no bad language perhaps just goes to show how deep the two men’s friendship was. At least it’s over soon and quickly forgotten.
The fact that that the gentle love between Stan and Babe shines through in all of this is a credit to the performances. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly had a hell of a job to pull off such recognisable, loved characters, as well as their offstage personas. In my opinion, they do a terrific job on both counts. The makeup makes them real ringers for the real-life men, and they get the voices down very well indeed. There’s just the right mixture of regret and good humour in their acting, and Coogan does an excellent job of conveying Stan’s gentle air of English repression. As far as the onstage personas, Laurel’s abstract vagueness is always slightly harder to convey than Babe’s precise mannerisms. Coogan grasps the importance of Stan’s eyebrows, and generally gets his flailing movements right, if not quite 100%. A reprise of COUNTY HOSPITAL on-stage is a blast, and as the two do a double door routine in long shot, I really had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching the genuine article. It’s a new variation of an L & H routine, not an exact copy, but feels totally authentic.
It’s such attention to detail that really makes the film a joy. I particularly liked the little touches of 50s culture sprinkled through: the queen’s coronation, a skiffle band or a poster for ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS, reminding us how far society had changed. The fact that Laurel and Hardy still made people laugh in the atomic age, so far from Model Ts and sunny California streets, reminds us why they are special, and still funny. If you asked me for a deep reason of why I love Laurel and Hardy beyond just laughing at them, I’d reply that their films, however unintentionally, speak deep truths about humanity, and the nature of friendship and love. The best compliment I can give STAN AND OLLIE is that it conveys much of the same.