An inside peek at cinema’s odd couple by Richard Jones

A look at Stan & Ollie (PG)

stan&OllieI didn’t know until this week that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy reprised their comedy act after World War 2. In 1953, in fact, when they toured England and Ireland. I knew only of their black and white comic movie romps from the 1930s and they presumably kicked off even earlier – in the Twenties.

A similar act featured Abbott and Costello with the same basic premise – a large rotund comic paired with a smaller, thinner offsider.

Yet in Jon S Baird’s film the more famous duo play out a drama balanced between laughter and tears, humour and pathos, illness and good health.

Sure Laurel and Hardy are touring Great Britain with the hope a comedy movie about Robin Hood can be stitched up with a mercurial – never seen – UK film magnate.

But back to the beginning. We first see them in 1937 with Stan (Steve Coogan) desperately tring to match his film contract with that of Oliver (John C Reilly). Producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) tells them – a tad unkindly – the comedians aren’t in the same class as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, but nonetheless Oliver Hardy goes on to shoot another film. Without Stan. So Laurel heads over to the Fox studios certain that his great pal will follow him. How that works out we aren’t told because Baird fast forwards us to 1953 when the ageing comedians are struggling financially.

They’re in Newcastle in northern England at a pretty ordinary low rent hotel hoping to stitch up the Robin Hood spoof project.

They’re told by agent cum impresario – the charmy-smarmy Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) – they’re trailing newbie Norman Wisdom in the ability to draw large audiences and overall in the comedy stakes. Still Stan and Ollie (who everyone calls ‘Babe’) carry on and gradually their audiences start to swell.

By the time they reach London Stan and ‘Babe’ are playing to packed houses and with the arrival of their combative wives everything starts to move into overdrive. Ollie’s wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) dismisses Stan’s consort Ida (Nina Arianda) as not really an actor even though Ida, originally  from Russia, proclaims her credentials to anyone sipping cocktails after a theatre performance.

“She’s more of a dancer, really,” pronounces Lucille. “With a very high pain threshold.”

Ollie, meanwhile has his own health scares. is knees are

His knees are wearing out but more importantly his heart is failing. In one unforgettable scene with Ollie confined to his hotel bed Stan climbs in with him – shoes and all – to try and keep his beloved partner warm.

After a brief hiatus Stan and Ollie battle on and even when a very public row erupts between them one night at the after-party drinks onlookers ask them if that was actually a comic routine.

The Robin Hood comedy is finally shot and even has Ollie tumbling off a bridge – wonky knees and all – as one of Robin Hood’s merry men beans him with a long pole. As well as that brief look at the film spoof, Baird has left us with a memorable on-stage sketch devised by Stan, the pair’s writer.

It’s a very clever double door routine on a rural railway station as they enter and exit the two doors without actually meeting up.

Credit must also go to the make-up and styling people. Apparently it took four hours each day for Reilly to be made up while Coogan boasts a pair of prosthetic ear tips to give him the actual Stan Laurel protruding ears. And movement director Toby Sedgwick spent hours and hours training Coogan and Reilly to perfect their dance skits.

There’s undeniable poiignancy in this movie. Stan tells Ida that he “loves Ollie” and later he reminisces: “All we had was each other. And that’s the way we wanted it.”

It’s a bittersweet little movie with a lot to like about it and stangely enough it’s the very first biopic ever filmed on the lives of Stan and Ollie.

     

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