Jon S. Baird’s Stan and Ollie is about what may be the greatest team of comics in the silent period, and even the greatest in talking pictures as well. But Laurel and Hardy are not so famous now, and probably most people know nothing about them at all.
Stan Laurel was an English comic actor who came to this country in 1910 and then permanently in 1913 with a comedy troupe that included the less-known Charlie Chapin. Oliver Hardy came to movies from Georgia. In 1926, Hal Roach, who ran one of the major American comedy studios, put the two together – skinny, timid, always confused Laurel and heavy-set, brash, overconfident Hardy. If you throw a Laurel and Hardy picture out of focus, it looks like a dance between a stick and a ball.
And dance is what they did – in their own way. Not a ballroom dance or a ballet, but an always surprisingly graceful dance between two thoroughly inept characters, overgrown children really. In their films – mostly shorts and later some features – Laurel and Hardy were terrible carpenters, terrible piano movers, terrible sailors on leave, terrible family men, terrible Christmas tree salesmen. They combined epic incompetence with the ability to regress within seconds to terrible 5-year old’s, capable of willfully destroying anything and everything around them. Some people find Laurel and Hardy too chaotic and too violent, although in silent comedies no one gets hurt. But what Laurel and Hardy understood in their bones was that the trappings of civilization are vulnerable and fragile. All it takes to bring down the human-made world is some infantile malice, and sometimes wanton destruction can be a hilarious relief.
The movie Stan and Ollie takes place long after Laurel and Hardy’s celebrity has passed. They’re doing live stage performances on a tour in the towns of England in 1953. The audiences are small and made up of mostly older people who remember the boys from their films in the late 1920s and ‘30s. Supposedly a movie is in the works – but it’s not going to happen. Yet, the comic talent is still there. The short bits in the film are incredibly alive with Laurel and Hardy’s feel for ridiculous moments and situations – Hardy lies in a hospital with his broken leg in an enormous cast; the two of them lose each other on the platform of a tiny railroad station. Their timing is still perfect. Even in dingy surroundings, what passes on screen in Stan and Ollie all by itself, without explanation, is funny comedy.
Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Ollie are deliriously wonderful and go way beyond simple imitation. They get how Laurel and Hardy carried their bodies, down to their different walks and hand gestures. They also get how the two spoke – Steve Coogan grew up in a part of England not far from where Laurel was born, and he nails the accent; Reilly hits the final nouns in sentences just as Hardy did. Most of all, Coogan and Reilly get the feel of Laurel and Hardy in their absurd comic dance.
Stan and Ollie left me with great sadness. Stories about aging clowns are not new, but Stan and Ollie looks at the failure of a relationship. In 1932, Laurel and Hardy made Their First Mistake, a delirious short in which the two have been kicked out by their wives, so they move in together, adopt a baby, and have a stereotypical married couple argument about parental responsibilities. On screen, they were a couple – in all sorts of ways. In Stan and Ollie, they fight about their off-screen relationship. Stan pleads that he loved Laurel and Hardy, and Ollie says, “Yes, but you never loved me.”
And then you see that Stan and Ollie goes beyond a Hollywood biopic, and opens the question of who these two men were, and in a riveting sense, how did they act out their lives together.