Laughs and Pathos
The two most famous movie comedy teams were Abbott & Costello and Laurel & Hardy. Yes, there were others, but not as hugely famous, endeared, and long lasting as the aforementioned. In Stan & Ollie, director Jon S. Baird has fashioned a melancholy look at Laurel & Hardyís career as it was winding down after their peak years of being the top movie comics around the world.
Stan Laurel (1890-1965) was British and the funny looking skinny guy with hair like a birdís nest. Fat and jolly Oliver Hardy was born American and lived from 1892 to 1957. Both men had their own film careers separately before they ever became a team. And, they both were under contract to film producer Hal Roach at his comedy film studio.
Beginning in 1927, Roach decided to team the two comics in silent short films which continued up to 1931 when they were cast in their first feature film titled Pardon Us. The pair became world-renowned in 1932 when their film The Music Box won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject. It was the iconic film in which they were carrying a piano up a huge flight of stairs, only to have it end up at the bottom!
The pair stayed with Hal Roach Studios until their contract was up in 1940. They didnít always get along with Roach. Laurel wrote many of their best gags and more or less greatly supervised all their films, much to Roachís ire. But, since they made millions for the studio, he gave the boys free reign. They then signed contracts with both 20th Century Fox in 1941 and MGM in 1942 where they were relegated to the ďBĒ film units. They made two features at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the first was Air Raid Wardens in 1943 and Nothing But Trouble in 1944. For Fox, they made hit after hit, including six pictures that were titled Great Guns (1941), A Haunting We Will Go (1942), Jitterbugs (1943), The Dancing Masters (1943), The Big Noise (1944) and The Bullfighters (1945).
After a yearís vacation, the boys concentrated on doing stage reviews. They then embarked on a concert hall tour of England, Scotland and Ireland. What they didnít realize was their popularity was waning.
Itís at this point in the teamís career that the film begins. Surprisingly, John C. Reilly does a superb rendering of Oliver Hardy, complete with a fat suit and jowls added! Heís a dead ringer for the comedian, and the makeup people deserve kudos for their work. Reilly must have done a lot of research on the actor. He reproduces Hardyís gestures, little flibberty-jibbits correctly as well as the actorís speech qualities.
Steve Coogan also does a fine job capturing the skinny Laurelís screen qualities and gestures that made him a world star. Laurel is revealed as the one who wanted to go on tour of England and maybe capture the glory of the old days. But ticket sales in the theaters were sparse and many houses were nearly empty. Times had changed in the early 1950s as television was making inroads into homes everywhere. Why go out and see a tired old comedy team whose glory days were over? Their films were on TV for free.
But it was really the relationship between the two men that was deteriorating. Hardy was falling into bad health and he was tired. He was getting irritated with Laurel and they had spats. The men had been working together for 30 years and were bound to get on each otherís nerves. Their wives didnít help, either. Shirley Henderson, as Hardyís spouse Lucille, affects a high, squeaky voice that sounds like a broken door hinge. And Laurelís Russian-sounding wife Ida Kitaeva (a wonderful Nina Arianda) is domineering. She pushes the comic around and causes friction between the two men.
Other than the tried and true routines Laurel & Hardy do during the stage sequences, this is not a happy look at the beloved comics. But director Jon S. Baird manages to make us love the two goofballs just the same, as we always have. In the end, the men realize they do love each other and know their lives would not have been the same without their strong relationship as partners and friends.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated ďPGĒ for some language, and for smoking.)