“Stan & Ollie” Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and Entertainment One, 97 Minutes, Rated PG, Released December 28, 2018:
“I mean, we were just two-reel comics,” Stan Laurel often said of the remarkable motion picture legacy he shared with longtime partner Oliver Hardy. “That wasn’t art.”
A genuine gold-plated treat for film buffs, “Stan & Ollie” depicts the twilight years of the legendary movie comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In a sort of nirvana for those who enjoy classic films, the picture portrays Laurel and Hardy in both the prime of their Hollywood success in 1937, while filming the comedy classic “Way Out West” at the fabled Hal Roach Studios, and then sixteen years later, during the final days of their comedy partnership during the 1950s.
The delightful surprise of this wonderfully moving picture is that it not only recreates with remarkable accuracy the history and background of the team and the genuine affection the two legendary comics held for each other, but also contains performances in the title roles that are nearly astonishing in the actors’ resemblance to their subjects and the pinpoint precision of their characterizations.
During the ninety or so minutes which portray the team’s final days together, the uncanny exactness of the actors’ performances makes it easy to imagine that “Stan & Ollie” is the one film the fabled comics never made: An extended tit-for-tat war of attrition in which Laurel and Hardy’s opponents are not their usual foils from the silent days, Jimmy Finlayson or Edgar Kennedy, or Lupe Velez in the 1934 all-star extravaganza “Hollywood Party,” but the Grim Reaper himself---mortality, time, and the ravages of age.
Most biographical pictures fail at the box office for an array of reasons. Such films traditionally attempt to fit too much information into the narrative, often trying to recreate the subject’s entire life, and in the process sacrificing accuracy. An actor portraying the primary role in a film biography also generally needs to endure an extraordinary degree of scrutiny from audiences familiar with the subject.
Perhaps most importantly, biographical pictures are usually synonymous in the audience’s mind with documentaries, and many viewers resist parting with entertainment dollars for educational purposes.
“Stan & Ollie” succeeds where most film biographies fail. The picture focuses on only two episodes of the experiences of the beloved comics instead of the entirely of their lives or their career together, and is surprisingly accurate to the facts of their remarkable motion picture legacy. The picture telescopes certain events, mostly for dramatic purposes. But nothing in this genuinely entertaining and eminently moving little picture is either false or inaccurate. It all happened.
As a matter of historical context, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been toiling separately in motion pictures since the 1910s. While each was moderately popular with audiences, separately they never achieved anything like stardom. The Georgia-born Hardy in fact for a time was marginally more popular as a motion picture performer than Laurel, appearing as a supporting actor in some 250 pictures, including the 1925 silent film version of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the actor played both the Tin Man and film’s romantic lead.
Stan Laurel was an English music hall comic who’d originally come to the United States in 1912 for a vaudeville tour as a colleague, understudy, and roommate of Charlie Chaplin. The young comic followed Chaplin into the fledgling movie business, performing in his first film comedy in 1917.
At the time of his teaming with Oliver Hardy in 1927, Laurel was actually becoming more successful as a writer and director than as an actor or comic. His transition toward a career behind the camera was partly because his pale blue eyes were difficult to photograph on the black-and-white film stock used at the time.
During the 1920s, both Hardy and Laurel were contracted--separately--to the Hal Roach film studio, a sort of comedy commune where such later stars as Will Rogers, Thelma Todd, Charley Chase, and “Our Gang” also had their cinematic beginnings. In 1927 producer Roach had the idea of teaming Laurel and Hardy as actors in a short two-reel comedy, with the expectation that the slender Laurel would be an interesting contrast and amusing foil to the taller and more corpulent Hardy.
And as a team, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made entertainment history. Among the very few silent comics who successfully transitioned into the era of talking films, Laurel and Hardy eventually appeared as a team in 79 two-reel comedies, 34 of them silent, and also in 27 feature-length sound pictures. For most of their career together, Laurel and Hardy were employed under separate contracts with the Hal Roach studios, where their partnership began. After their teaming in 1927, Laurel never appeared in a picture without Hardy.
By 1937, when the movie “Stan & Ollie” begins, Stan Laurel was chafing under the control of producer Hal Roach, feeling underappreciated...and vastly underpaid. While his former roommate and music hall colleague Charlie Chaplin had become enormously wealthy as a result of his ownership and control of his own comedy pictures, Stan was still a jobbing comic actor, drawing a comfortable salary but toiling primarily as an employee of the Hal Roach studio.
Producer Hal Roach for his part felt he was an exceedingly generous employer. In addition to paying his actors enviable salaries, he gave the workaholic perfectionist Laurel free artistic reign over the team’s pictures. During the team’s career with the Roach studios, Laurel often acted as the uncredited writer and director of the Laurel and Hardy comedies.
Roach also felt that in a motion picture industry so plagued by scandal that the major studios had recently agreed to a Production Code that regulated motion picture content and enforced censorship, Laurel was fortunate to be employed at all. At that time, any breath of impropriety or public controversy could be deadly to an entertainer...and harmful to his employer.
Stan Laurel off the screen lived in a state of perpetual domestic chaos which belied his film image as an amiable simpleton. Married five times--six if count as two the one woman he married twice, both before and after his third wife--Laurel in 1937 had not only just endured a noisy divorce, but also was sustaining a legal attack from a woman with whom he’d once lived in a casual common-law arrangement. Attracted by his professional success since they’d separated, the woman was now publicly charging Stan with bigamy, and suing him for financial support. Roach was furious.
Written by Jeff Pope with a film scholar’s eye for historical detail and directed with obvious love and affection by Jon S. Baird, “Stan & Ollie” begins at that point in time. Laurel and Hardy are at the pinnacle of their popularity, on the Roach Studios lot filming the iconic song and dance sequence for 1937’s “Way Out West.” Following a bitter argument with Roach on the picture’s set, the producer angrily releases Stan from his commitment to the studio...but simultaneously refuses to free Oliver Hardy from his.
Expecting his partner to walk out on his legal agreement with Roach and the studio, Laurel is heartbroken to learn that the producer instead is compelling the genial, non-confrontational Hardy to team with faded silent film clown Harry Langdon in a feature-length comedy entitled “Zenobia.” Hardy will star in the picture as a country veterinarian who treats a sickly circus elephant...and then finds the grateful pachyderm following him everywhere he goes.
Sixteen years later, in 1953, the two old comics are embarking on a live appearance tour of the British Isles. Long since reunited as a team and free of their commitments to Hal Roach, Stan and Ollie have been working through years as hired actors for other studios, supplanted in popularity by newer comedy teams such as Hope and Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis, enjoying precious little creative participation in their pictures besides their presence.
The team’s most recent picture, the execrable French-Italian co-production “Atoll K,” effectively ended their movie careers. With their stage appearances in Europe they hope to drum up enthusiasm for a Robin Hood script Stan’s been writing as a comeback for the team. Their live performances are beginning to snowball in popularity, and the partners are selling out larger and more prestigious theaters. Still, even after all these years, the delicate topic of “the elephant picture” hangs unspoken between the two old friends, a subject to be avoided at all costs.
“Stan & Ollie” is driven by the astonishing performances of actors Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and the brilliant, nearly-unrecognizable John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy. More popular in his native England than in the United States and also noted as both a writer and producer, the 53-year-old Steve Coogan bears a passing resemblance to the iconic Laurel, but otherwise achieves remarkable verisimilitude with his spot-on characterization in the role.
As Oliver Hardy, John C. Reilly disappears so far into his characterization that there’s seemingly no trace of the actor remaining--Reilly becomes Hardy. Initially reluctant to take on the role because “I don’t really do impressions,” Reilly was persuaded to appear in the film by director Baird, who assured the actor that the picture was going to tell the a very human story about the comics’ personal relationship and how they interacted, rather than attempt to simulate their routines.
For a role which required extensive padding and prosthetics, Reilly needed to endure some four hours in the makeup chair each morning of filming. The results are seamless, and almost uncanny. Like Christian Bale as former vice-president Dick Cheney in the recent “Vice,” Reilly as Oliver Hardy achieves something close to symbiosis. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you’re seeing the actual comic appearing onscreen again.
When the specter of “the elephant picture” finally and inevitably bubbles to the surface during a welcoming reception for the comics at an exclusive London hotel ballroom, the subject causes a furious but outrageously genteel finger-jabbing argument between the two old partners. But the other guests witnessing the bitter quarrel believe it’s a rehearsed comedy routine being performed for their entertainment. It’s a testament to the skill of the filmmakers and performers that the scene is alternately funny, touching, eminently recognizable...and almost heartbreakingly human.
“Stan & Ollie” is by no means a perfect picture. The narrative telescopes certain events and omits others for the sake of dramatic impact. And the movie will necessarily be more enjoyable for fans of classic films, especially the legions of Laurel and Hardy fans who still treasure the team’s classic two-reel comedies, many of which remain easily available on YouTube.
For others the picture will resemble in many ways a more fully-realized version of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” from 1975--a real story, instead of a fictionalized account of two old comedy partners reunited for a final performance. Either way, this little picture’s a winner.
The best of the Laurel and Hardy comedies were about social injustice, and human dignity. In their delightful short films from the 1920s and 1930s, Stan and Ollie endure the slights, the petty hostilities, and the casual unfairnesses of mankind, but always eventually come back with smiles on their faces and a renewed sense of trust in the essential decency of society. They are the quintessential symbols of the human comedy, eternal optimists in times of bitter pessimism, then as now, and now as then.
While Laurel and Hardy might’ve relied occasionally on a corny gag or a stale setup, there was never a low blow or a cheap joke. Genuine human affection drove their comedy. And when the team is performing together before an audience for the final time in “Stan & Ollie,” as Ollie smiles over to Stan and whispers, “I’ll miss us when we’re gone,” he speaks for all of us.
The highest praise--This is a film biography truly worthy of its subjects. Watch for it.
“Stan & Ollie” is rated PG for some language concerns, and for scenes depicting the use of liquor and cigarettes.