(Above: ‘Stan & Ollie.’ Source: YouTube video)
Stan & Ollie, the biopic about the beloved comedy duo, is now available to rent starting at $4.99 from Amazon, FandangoNow, iTunes and other streamers. (Editors’ note: Streaming information updated as of April 1, 2019.)
For Laurel and Hardy aficionados, the excitement has been palpable.
In late 2017, photos of actors Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the comedy legends began circulating on the web. In makeup, both bore a striking resemblance to the late, middle-aged Stan Laurel and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy. Reilly’s Hardy-prosthetics were so convincing, some assumed he had gained 100-plus pounds for the role.
Although Laurel and Hardy’s movie careers ended in the early 1950s, fans have kept the faith by collecting DVDs, watching L&H films on TCM, indulging in repeated holiday showings of Babes in Toyland (1934), or reading scholarly books devoted to the duo’s entire filmography (see Randy Skretvedt’s Laurel and Hardy:The Magic Behind the Movies.)
(Note: Fans and converts can become members of the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, The Sons of the Desert, named for their 1934 feature. The founding Manhattan chapter, or “tent,” screens pristine 16 millimeter prints of their films at monthly meetings).
Stan & Ollie, which made this year’s Oscar opening montage, has been amplified by uniformly good to excellent reviews and Reilly‘s Golden Globes nomination. As a result, there is renewed interest in the work and lives of arguably cinema’s greatest comedy duo.
Stan & Ollie: A Little Background
Laurel and Hardy officially teamed toward the end of the silent film era, in 1927, under the guidance of comedy film master Hal Roach, Sr.
With the arrival of sound movies, the pair’s pleasing accents and expressive voices added to their indelible screen chemistry, characterizations and pointed use of slapstick.
Their 1932 short subject, The Music Box, won an Oscar. When Roach moved them exclusively to feature films (65 minutes+) in 1935, they often topped double bills.
By 1940, however, Roach was moving beyond his comic roots. Soon, Laurel and Hardy found themselves unmoored from the creative culture of Roach’s nurturing studio.
Starting with Great Guns (1941) at 20th Century Fox, they struggled with the loss of creative control (this being particularly painful for Stan who had written, directed and edited behind the scenes at Roach), as well as inferior scripts and recycled gags from their earlier, younger days.
Enter Stan & Ollie
Stan & Ollie is not a typical or predictable biopic.
The film takes place almost entirely in 1953, the time of the team’s post-cinema swan song. Returning to their vaudevillian roots (Laurel’s in the English music hall, Hardy’s as a singer in the theaters of Georgia, USA), the sexagenarians dust off old skits and perform live – one last time – for audiences across the British Isles. (Stan & Ollie also incorporates some events from an earlier 1947 UK tour.)
The film’s opening, staged on the duplicated set of one of their best features, Way Out West (1937), has some painfully contrived moments of exposition. In particular, Roach (Danny Houston) unfairly comes off as a heavy from a Laurel and Hardy short (Reilly goes right for Ollie’s tie-twiddle).
Throughout the film, Laurel and Hardy’s screen personas sometimes blur with real-life. A steamer-trunk that inadvertently slides down a very long staircase recalls The Music Box’s recalcitrant piano, for example.
When Laurel’s wife Ida (Nina Arian) intercepts yet another drink handed to her alcohol-challenged husband, we get the Stanleyesque, “The more I drink, the drunker she gets.”
The 1937 opening, however, does set up an important structural device: the charming dance Coogan and Reilly recreate to a song from the original soundtrack, “At the Ball, That’s All,” performed by The Avalon Boys. The soft-shoe routine poignantly bookends the film. Reuniting after a brief quarrel and Hardy’s decision to quit the tour for health reasons (he died in 1957 from a series of strokes), they perform their iconic dance once more before a delighted audience.
Coogan’s and Reilly’s performances, in a word, are fantastic. Warm and real, their characters are organic and never feel imitative.
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