Beloved Comics Tour 1950s England: Stan & Ollie
In the 1930s, no other comedy duo enjoyed greater popularity on the big screen than Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Behind the scenes, though, the pair had issues. The movie Stan & Ollie takes place primarily in their final years together as an act. At the height of their popularity, though, as they make another film for producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), Stan (Steve Coogan) has an argument with Roach, who's had the duo under separate contracts. When Stan's contract expires, Roach opts to not renew it. Stan seeks a deal with a deal with a new studio that will include Ollie (John C. Reilly), but Hardy fails to attend a meeting with the studio brass. Even though that failure disappoints Stan, they do work together for several more years. By 1953, though, they were no longer appearing on film, and living their lives in California. However, British impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), offers them a chance to perform some of their famous routines live before an English audience, some of whom were just becoming familiar with Laurel & Hardy films. The duo puts their differences aside and agree to perform.
This gives Stan a chance to meet a British film producer who'd expressed interest in the possibility of making a film with the pair based on the legend of Robin Hood. While Delfont promises crowds would fill theaters for them, they learn that many venues were half full. That doesn't change until their arrival in London, where appreciative - and often nostalgic - viewers help to pack the house. The men send for their wives, onetime script supervisor Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and former movie extra Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda). Their arrival helps to ignite old tensions, but they don't miss a show or a promotional appearance. Sadly, during one of their public appearances, Oliver suffers a heart attack, and is advised to stop performing. Stan seeks to find a suitable replacement to complete the tour.
Stan & Ollie, which is based on a book about the British tour by A. J. Marriot, is a sweet, but honest, look at these comedians, who spent decades working almost exclusively with one another. They go on the road, but they don't forget the good or the bad they faced. For example, Stan and Ollie still occasionally discuss "that elephant movie." Stan & Ollie never mentions that 1939 film flop, Zenobia, by name, but it's a film that paired Hardy with popular comic Harry Langdon instead of Laurel. That time remains a sore spot, especially for Stan, and this dissent sometimes plays out in public to fans who don't realize what's happening. When Lucille and Ida arrive, they seem like a comic duo themselves as they deal with their husbands as well as their own egos. Director Jon S. Baird has worked primarily in television, but he shows a duo who puts entertainment before almost any personal issue. The script comes from Jeff Pope, who did a marvelous job writing the excellent 2013 film Philomena. He recaptures the way things might have been then, and makes viewers care about them as they make patrons laugh once again.
Coogan and Reilly not only look their roles, but they embody these comics with their performances. They perform as if the roles had been written for them instead of the characters they bring to life. Coogan, as Laurel, never stops thinking about himself and Hardy in terms of a team. As he waits for a final answer to his Robin Hood comedy, he keeps fine tuning it. He also shows how much Ollie means to Stan in a scene at Hardy's bed as the ill partner works to recover. Reilly, as Hardy, shows a man who regrets disappointing Laurel, but never stops appreciating the body of work they did as a team. Time, though, is taking a toll on Ollie, as he breaks into a sweat during a show. When Oliver falls ill, he knows the end of his performing days are coming, and wants to end his career on his terms. Henderson and Arianda do nicely in support as spouses who have the same personality traits of their famous husbands. Jones is also good as a promoter with his hands full trying to deliver on his promises to Laurel and Hardy.
I haven't seen a great deal of Laurel and Hardy's work, but what I've seen remains funny, in spite of the passage of many decades. Stan & Ollie gives viewers just a taste of their enduring appeal, but shows more clearly a pair who set egos aside to do their work. They knew each other so well, they scarcely worked with anyone else. Audiences everywhere continue to reap the rewards of this partnership.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Stan & Ollie 3.5 stars. Fine, but certainly no mess.
Stan & Ollie trailer
© 2019 Pat Mills