Stan & Ollie

Everyone of a certain age remembers Laurel & Hardy’s famous piano removal scene. It comes in the 1932 hit The Music Boxwhen the comic pair were the toast of Hollywood, and of their producer Hal Roach. This film starts a few years later in 1937 when their star is beginning to wane.

Stan Laurel (an astonishing portrayal by Steve Coogan) quite rightly feels that they have been cheated by Roach, who has never given them a share of royalties, so they have not benefited from their universal success. When he challenges Roach saying ‘you can’t have Hardy without Laurel’, he finds himself out on his ear, while Roach tries to prove the opposite, resulting in Ollie making ‘the elephant movie’ with a stand-in, something Stan never forgives or forgets. 

Sixteen years later and decidedly down on their luck, the pair are in Newcastle at the start of a tour designed to revive their popularity. Even the boarding house receptionist says, ‘I thought you had retired’. Bernard Delfont, played like a real smoothie chops by Rufus Jones, is their impresario but he can’t drum up more than a handful of people in seedy theatres. The only way for the show to go on is by the pair undertaking a gruelling PR schedule to attract the crowds.

Stan has promised his wife the London Palladium and is pinning his hopes on a new film he is scripting, which he calls Robin Good. He is sure this will restore their position in Hollywood but is having difficulties connecting with the mysterious London-based producer, deceiving Ollie as they rehearse new gags for the movie. Meanwhile the marketing is working and soon they are pulling the crowds, but there is no guarantee that there will be a happy ending.

As with most comedy there is a tragic soft centre. Here it is Stan’s festering resentment of Ollie’s betrayal, augmented by the film’s other star turn, the arguing wives – Ollie’s over-protective and demanding Lucille (Shirley Henderson) vs Ida (Nina Arianda hamming it up nicely), a Russian actress – ‘more a dancer with a high pain threshold’, as Lucille snidely observes. Ollie’s accusation that Stan never loved him, only the act, lies at the root of their inevitable falling-out and Ollie’s ensuing ill-health.  This gives Stan the opportunity to prove the opposite is true, and to question what is more important – the act or the friendship?

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are terrific foils for each other. Coogan perfectly captures Stan’s voice and mannerisms, from the fright wig to the, loose-fitting jacket and the flat-footed walk while Reilly, augmented by the most amazing prosthetics that transform him into an obese and aging Ollie, fills his shoes, while being light on his feet, satisfying with the grunts, and the catch phrase, ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’. 

Together they are mesmerising in their carefully choreographed double door act, which had our audience laughing out loud, as did the rendering of The Lonesome Pine.What a performance. The key to their success was their owning the transition from silent movies to talkies, combining the best from the slapstick era with Stan’s razor -sharp scripts.

Endearingly the film muddles reality with fiction with some memorable comedy moments as when Stan makes an entrance juggling the suitcases and reduces the receptionist to giggles; and later, in a conscious echoing of the notorious piano gag, when these same suitcases tumble down the railway staircase. Marvellous, marvellous comedy. They don’t make them like this any more. 

This is so much more than a Hollywood story of a world-famous double act. It is a tender, warm retrospective that promises and delivers in equal measures and brings a sentimental tear to the eye. 

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