Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy had been performing together for almost 30 years when they arrived in the UK in 1954 for a theatre tour. Their glory days were clearly behind them but they put on a string of admirable performances despite their advanced years and failing health. They may no longer have been at the cutting edge of comedy but there was an undeniable spark that remained between them. Stan & Ollie follows them on this bittersweet tour as they try to finance their next film and come to terms with what increasingly looks like the end of their careers.
Laurel and Hardy are screen icons that will forever be remembered for their unique brand of slapstick humour. It is on stage, whether at the Lyceum theatre in London or at an almost empty provincial theatre, that the film comes alive. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are both well cast as the double act and are able to imitate the duo’s comic cadence and style. Despite the mixed successes of the tour, there is something undeniably endearing about the sight of two world famous comics giving it their all while performing to half empty venues.
Laurel and Hardy may be in the latter part of their careers but for moments at a time Coogan and Reilly are able to recapture their magic. From 1927 onwards the double act was inseparable on screen. They inspired each other like none before or since, and while it might be a slightly sad sight seeingthem in gloomy hotels and second rate music halls it is also a mark of their friendship and dedication.
It is off stage that Stan & Ollie feels a little unremarkable. The light and jokey tone of the film precludes it from ever delving too deep into their personal lives. There may be references to their multiple ex-wives, poor health, Hardy’s gambling habit, and the duos occasional arguments, but it is nothing we didn’t already know – a quick browse of Wikipedia would be more informative than this film. I have the suspicion that somewhere beneath this film is a deeper and more insightful account of Laurel and Hardy.
But this is not the objective of Stan & Ollie. Jon S. Baird’s film is not an enquiry into Laurel and Hardy’s personal lives but instead a reminder of what made them so special. Unlike many biopics that try hard to be revelatory, Stan & Ollie acts as a loving tribute to the work of two comic icons. It is an immense compliment to both of them that such an affectionate account of year latter years has been produced more than 60 years after their final performance.
There is a humility to this approach that matches that of Laurel and Hardy, who were happy to accept the kind of second rate theatre gigs that most stars would find offensive. There is a modest acceptance on both their parts that their time in the limelight might be up. Rather than raging at the world that gave them so much they quietly left the stage open for its next incumbent.