For twenty-three years, between 1927 and 1950, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy worked non-stop. According to The Sons of the Desert, their official international fraternal organization, they appeared in 106 films together, including feature films, featurettes, short subjects and cameo appearances. This year we can add one more to the list, sort of. It’s not a recently uncovered long lost reel of film or a documentary. This time around the comedic duo get into “another nice mess” in “Stan & Ollie,” a new biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly that lovingly looks back on the double act’s 1953 farewell tour.
The action begins with the pair’s best days behind them. Their heyday a memory, the ageing duo reteam after a betrayal that blew apart their friendship. “We’re getting to know one another again,” says Stan. “It’s complicated.” Booked on a variety hall tour of post-war Britain the pair trot out some of their best known routines to small audiences. “We’re getting older,” says Ollie, “but we’re not dead yet.”
A slow start gives way to bigger and bigger crowds as audiences rediscover the pair’s wit and charm. Behind the scenes, however, tensions arise. Stan felt betrayed when Ollie didn’t back him up in a power play with producer Hal Roach years before, effectively ending their professional relationship. “The only reason we were in this situation,” scolds Stan, “is because you didn’t have the guts to ask Hal Roach for the money we deserved.” In a stinging rebuke Ollie says, “You love Laurel and Hardy but you didn’t love me.”
Those frictions, a hectic schedule and Hardy’s failing health complicate things but with the help of their strong-willed wives, Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda), the comedy legends rekindle their love of performing and one another.
Never before has Laurel and Hardy’s signature “Dance of the Cuckoos” been more poignant. The story is a show biz tale but at its heart it’s the story of two very different men, thrown together on a film set, who formed an unbreakable bond.
The film begins with a long tracking shot as the men walk from their dressing room to the set. It tells us everything we need to know about Stan and Ollie in one five-minute tour de force shot. Stan is the funny one, considered in his approach with a head for business. Ollie is impulsive, going broke and many times married. They are an odd couple with unmistakable chemistry. It’s a lovely way to familiarize the audience with these almost-forgotten characters and showcase the easy chemistry between the leads, Coogan and Reilly.
By the time the end credits roll it’s that chemistry and the just-as-entertaining double act of Henderson and Arianda that elevates this story of friendship and loyalty.