There’s famous line attributed to actor, Edmund Gwenn, on his deathbed. When a sympathetic friend said: “This must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy,” he replied: “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.”
I think of this line almost every time I see a comedy nowadays because so few are actually funny, even when the audience reacts like Pavlov’s dogs to every fart joke or every piece of gross sexual innuendo. Violence and vulgarity are staples of the comic repertoire but with contemporary comedy such things don’t help shape a humorous scenario, they act as a substitute.
Jon S. Baird’s bio pic of Laurel and Hardy, perhaps the most famous comic duo of all time, never lets us forget that comedy is hard yakka. Stan & Ollie features stellar performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the title roles, but there are relatively few laughs. It is at best a bittersweet affair, with an undercurrent of sadness that keeps rippling towards the surface. The movie follows the elderly clowns as they undertake a final tour of England and Ireland in 1952, trying to recreate lost glories.
At regular intervals Stan and Ollie meet people who express admiration that they’re “still going”, or “still doing the same stuff”. There are plenty who say: “I thought you’d retired”, which probably means: “I thought you were dead.” You get the picture.
Baird gives us just enough of the Laurel and Hardy backstory to set the scene for this melancholy swansong. In their heyday, in 1937, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are among the most popular acts in Hollywood, but are not earning vast sums, partly because of their contracts with Hal Roach, partly though of their bad habit of serial marriages and divorces, not to mention Ollie’s passion for the horses. Stan wants to confront Roach, but Ollie, with time to run on his contract, prefers to play it cool. The result would be the only break in their partnership, when Ollie made a film (Zenobia, 1939) with Harry Langdon as his sidekick.
The separation lasted for only one movie, but sixteen years later Stan is still feeling hurt by Ollie’s “betrayal”, while Ollie is nursing his own grievances against Stan. Nevertheless, the famous pair are united in trying to rekindle the old magic at a time when the world has moved on.
Their tour of the UK is being managed by a professional sleaze named Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), who has booked them into a series of second-rate provincial venues. The audiences are so scanty that the venture seems doomed unless Stan and Ollie pitch in with a succession of orchestrated publicity stunts that fire public interest. They need the money so badly they play along and watch ticket sales skyrocket.
As the tour finally begins to gather momentum their wives arrive, exacerbating old rivalries and sore spots. Ollie’s failing health means he is struggling to withstand the rigours of performing, while Stan is trying to secure a film deal for a Robin Hood comedy, tentatively titled Rob ‘em Good. He keeps writing sketches and new material for the movie, even though it’s becoming apparent that it’s no more than a pipe dream.
There’s a bust-up and a brief but painful hiatus in the friendship. This ushers in one of the best scenes when the two men get angry with each other at a reception and begin to argue while the rest of the room applauds, thinking it’s all staged.
The split is necessarily brief, as one of the overriding premises of this story is that the Laurel and Hardy partnership is a kind of long-running love affair in which each man has become sentimentally dependent on the other. The wives, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda), are the mainstays behind each, but it’s obvious that Stan and Ollie are hopeless when separated.
True or false this teeters on the brink of cliché, but Coogan and Reilly are so transcendentally good in their impersonations that the soft parts of the story hardly seem to matter. They are ably supported by Henderson and Arianda, who play out their own comedy duet.
Much of Laurel and Hardy’s appeal rested on the power of repetition – from their trademark theme tune, Dance of the Cuckoos, to Ollie’s catch phrase: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”. It’s appropriate that Jeff Pope’s script is also full of poignant repetitions. When Stan visits the bed-ridden Ollie he is echoing a sketch from the film, County Hospital (1932) which they’ve been recreating on stage. When invited to perform with a new partner, as Ollie did in Zenobia, it’s too much for Stan to bear.
What’s most touching about Stan & Ollie is the spectacle of the two aging stars rolling out the songs, dances and slapstick routines that belong to the days of vaudeville, or more properly, to those days when the cinema acted as an extension of vaudeville. Regardless of all the bumps and thumps, it’s an incredibly innocent form of comedy that allows us to see how stupid and fallible we are as a species. With the best of intentions Stan is always screwing up, while Ollie is always feeling exasperated. And it’s funny – even today. While comedy may be a complex and mysterious art, Laurel and Hardy understood that it’s the simplest things that make us laugh.
Stan & Ollie
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Written by Jeff Pope
Starring John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston
UK/Canada/USA, rated PG, 98 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 February, 2019