I love anything vaudeville. I’ve been a big fan of vaudeville ever since I became a fan of Charlie Chaplin. People like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and many, many more besides having been entertaining millions long past their deaths. They are as immortal as you’re ever likely to get.
I really got into Charlie Chaplin’s work after I read Chaplin: His Life & Art by David Robinson. It detailed the life of a comic genius from his tragic beginnings in East London, through to his rise to fame in vaudeville, though to pioneering filmmaker and eventually an exile. Having read that, I managed to find a dog eared ancient copy of My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin at the local library and absorbed it like a sponge.
When Richard Attenborough made his biopic of Chaplin, simply called Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr. I thought that this was the weirdest casting imaginable. An American playing a British vaudeville comic? Yet, it WORKS SO WELL. To this day I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing Charles Chaplin. Robert Downey Jr’s gets it. He understood who Chaplin was.
Fast forward to 2018 and I hear that Jeff Pope (writer of the superb Philomena – highly recommended) was working on a Laurel & Hardy biopic. I thought it was about time! Laurel & Hardy’s films are instant classics. Stan Laurel, who wrote and directed (if not directly, but by proxy), made good of his visit to the US with Charlie Chaplin (and even understudied him for a while) and ended up as one of the greatest comedy double acts of all time.
Stan & Ollie doesn’t offer you the whole picture of Laurel & Hardy’s lives. It instead wisely picks a particular point in their lives and concentrates on that. Starting in 1937 at the height of their fame, we’re witness to a massive falling out with their producer, Hal Roach. We forward to 1953 at the start of their British tour.
It’s really during the tour that Stan and Ollie become friends. They learn more about each other and undergo challenges that would make even the strongest friendships crack right down the middle. Yet despite everything that happens – even the big fight that occurs at the after party in London – the two friends reunite and continue their tour to great success.
Steve Coogan wasn’t the first person I’d have thought could play Stan Laurel. Far from it – like Chaplin, I couldn’t have imagined Robert Downey Jr. in the role at first. But Steve Coogan completely knocked me for six with his Stan Laurel. There were times you forget you’re watching somebody play somebody else and just think, “That’s Stan Laurel – come back to us for these 90 minues of pure magnificance”. The same can be said of John C. Reilly who plays Oliver Hardy. It’s a testament to Reilly’s acting chops and the special effects make-up team who made him up to resemble Hardy that, again, you’re not seeing John C. Reilly, but Oliver Hardy himself.
We’re treated to scenes from their films performed on stage, including Lonesome Pine, Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts, and the dance from Way Out West. Coogan and Reilly perform these routines so fantastically well, that I wonder if they’d be willing to perform some of Stan’s scripts that he wrote after Ollie had passed on. As a side note, this thing actually happened with Jacques Tati. A script he wrote but was never produced in his lifetime was eventually brought to the screen (albeit in animated form) by Sylvain Chomet in the form of The Illusionist. I highly recommend it. Coogan and Reilly really are THAT good.
Special praise must also go to the supporting actors, including Danny Houston as Hal Roach, Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel, Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy, and Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont. The two wives are a particular wonder – “a double act for the price of one” is the perfect way to describe them. It’s interesting to note that Shirley Henderson was also in another favourite movie (another biopic) of mine, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, about the lives of Gilbert & Sullivan during the time they were writing and preparing The Mikado.
The visual effects are also very good. You wouldn’t necessarily notice them, and that’s the point. Well done to Union (a company I had the brief pleasure of visiting sometime in 2017). The photography is spot on, as is the music. I look forward to hearing it whenever they get around to releasing it on Apple Music in the near future.
Stan & Ollie joins my list of all time movies which includes Chaplin, Topsy-