Unlike those comedians who are determined not to be funny in real life, Laurel and Hardy – and particularly Stan Laurel – are always on. Their act bleeds off the stage and the page, and into every day.
“I’m just going to find a woman I hate and buy her a house” says Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan), as he and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) trudge across a Hollywood studio lot to film another scene.
The jokes and skits, on stage and on the road, are a treasure trove. But above all Jon S. Baird’s film, from a script by Jeff Pope, is a witty and moving study of a longterm relationship rising and falling on the waves of showbusiness, sometimes on the verge of splintering apart but always coming together again.
Their partnership has survived longer than their marriages, though it has the ghost of Ollie’s adultery – when he made a movie with another comedian – hanging over it.
On that set they’re discussing their many marriages and subsequent lack of wealth to show for years working in film and on stage. But however bad their ex-wives really were, showbusiness is a crueller mistress, who still holds them in her thrall without ever taking any of the blame.
Stan is determined to get the duo their worth, and fights with Hal Roach (Danny Huston), who owns the studio they’ve been contracted to, for more money. It’s 1937 and as Stan and Ollie (or Babe as he’s known) head to their sound stage, sets are being readied all around them. It’s exactly as you’d imagine, with dancing girls wandering by, props being moved, and extras dressed as ancient Egyptians.
Fast forward 16 years to 1953 and the pair are starting their comeback/farewell tour of the UK. Times have changed – the latest cutting edge, up and coming name in comedy is one Norman Wisdom – and their first show in Newcastle is playing to an almost empty house.
Luckily they’re old showbiz troupers, still willing to work til they drop to drum up business for their flagging tour. Stan must be 63 now, and Ollie 61. They never expect they should be able to sit back and relax now.
The tour has been booked by British impresario Bernard Delfont (a fabulously slippery Rufus Jones). They’ve signed on to keep themselves occupied while pre-production gets underway on their new film, a pastiche of Robin Hood – though its producer is strangely unavailable whenever Stan tries to call.
And it’s always Stan, who seems to be the business brains and the wordsmith behind their success. Both are masters of the pratfall and the comedy bump on the head, but it’s Stan Laurel who is always behind his typewriter, working on their own material or rewriting other people’s. Constantly looking for a chance to use their skits in public, he’s as happy trying to make the people in the street laugh as the waiting press.
If I’m honest, the slapstick took me a few minutes to get into; arriving at their Newcastle pub-hotel for the start of their tour Stan has an extended fight with several suitcases and a set of golf clubs, and from my 21st century comedy perch it all seemed a bit desperate. But soon the cheery humour, that looks so basic but relies on such perfect counting and intonation, won me over. Some things just are funny, and always will be.
And one of the joys of Stan & Ollie is listening to them discussing and acting out jokes, particularly new jokes and sketches – what doesn’t work and how it can be tweaked to work. That and their bravery in pushing a sketch on and on to get more laughs out of it. The constant bravura and ballsiness is heart-stopping, the signature of genius.
Part way through the UK tour their wives, actress Ida (Nina Arianda) and scriptwriter Lucille (Shirley Henderson) arrive from the States. Delfont, always after a show business bargain, jokes at a reception that the women’s visit means London is getting “two double acts for the price of one”. It’s true they are a sharp delight. Stan’s wife Ida in particular is hilariously barbed, with Ollie’s wife Lucille her rather bitter straightwoman.
Arianda is wickedly captivating as the resting Russian actress who tells anyone who’ll listen that she once performed with Harold Lloyd and Preston Sturges. Ida never hides her dislike of anyone – but she, like Lucille to Ollie, is utterly devoted to her husband. She and Lucille are like Velcro: stuck together but deliciously abrasive towards each other, their comic timing pin-sharp.
This is a beautifully styled film. I love a bit of old-style glamour and you can’t beat the Savoy in 1953 for a bed to die for (that’s not a spoiler by the way). Apart from everyone smoking everywhere (theatre, train, cinema), it’s a sparklingly clean 1950s Britain; as Stan and Ollie work their way round the country, all in the glare of local newspaper flashbulbs.
Coogan is exceptional, hurt crossing his face fleetingly and then lodging there as tensions bubble and old slights are remembered. Stan is the more complex and interesting character – a man who seems to be the senior partner, but all the while holding onto an old grudge.
Reilly is an understated marvel, coping with ill-health and their increasingly snippy friendship, threads of resentment over Stan’s writing twisting together after decades of suppression.
Stan & Ollie is a straightforward movie that doesn’t spring any surprises. But it packs a heady and heavy emotional punch, with as much pathos as laughter (and there is plenty of both). If you can get to see it when it goes on general release, please try – even if you risk tumbling down some stairs, slipping on a banana skin and getting a custard pie in the face for your trouble.
“I’ll miss us when we’re gone” says Ollie, backstage at one of their performances. “So will you” replies Stan.
Stand & Ollie is due to be released in the UK in January 2019.
Watch the Stan & Ollie trailer now: