Stan & Ollie finds the legendary comedy duo at a low point in their professional lives. No longer the box-office success they once were, they attempt to reignite their careers by embarking on an extensive tour of Britain and Ireland. Directed by Jon S. Baird from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, with brilliant performances by Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, the movie opens when the duo are at their peak in 1937, as they make their way onto the set at Hal Roach Studios.
Here’s where it all began for the duo. The Roach lot, called “The Lot of Fun” due to the hilarity being filmed, was the creation of Hal Roach, born in Elmira, New York. Roach was the grandson of Irish immigrants, who – prior to finding his way in Hollywood, where he started off in bit parts in silent films – had worked as a mule skinner and gold prospector, before buying a lot in Culver City and producing his own films.
Leo McCarey, born in Los Angeles, the son of a boxing promoter, had tried various careers, including a stint as an amateur boxer, and writing vaudeville sketches and songs, before he found his way to Roach’s studio, working his way up from writing scripts and movie gags to eventually directing. It would be McCarey and Roach who would be responsible for jumpstarting Stan Laurel’s directorial career and later putting him together with Hardy as a team, thus creating a comedy pair who still have loyal fans today.
The story goes that Hardy, who was known for his hearty appetite, burned himself while cooking a leg of lamb, so badly that he couldn’t finish a film he was working on with McCarey, who asked Laurel, who at the time was working as a gag writer at the studio, to step in.
Laurel proved himself to have a brilliant sense of timing, and rubbery face that could display a range of motion, on screen, important in the silent film era. He went on to play opposite Hardy in such films such as Duck Soup and Sugar Daddies. McCarey, realizing that the audiences loved it when the two were on screen together, paired them as a team in The Second Hundred Years. From then on they made hit after hit. Stan & Ollie opens with Laurel and Hardy enjoying the peak of their success, and then jumps 16 years ahead to 1953, when their stars are in decline, and they are trying reignite their careers. They land in Newcastle, and take to the road, playing at one second-class music hall after another, with poorly attended audiences, and an agent played by Rufus Jones, who is less than thrilled to be working with the two old hats, and whose focus is on a young up-and-comer. The tour is made more complicated in that the two are accompanied by their wives, played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda. As the tour picks up, and they start to sell out, we see the pair try to rekindle their friendship even as old wounds open up again. In real life, the dispute between the two didn’t last as long as it does on the screen, but the conflict is used to build drama, and it’s an effective tool, as Coogan and Reilly really step it up to show us that fully fledged humans beings existed behind the Hollywood veneer.
Of course, it’s a moot point, but one can’t but help think that Coogan, whose mother is from Mayo, and Reilly, who the press report is applying for his Irish citizenship, would have had a blast with Hal Roach and Leo McCarey. And the scenes when the movie takes Laurel and Hardy to Ireland to play at a theater in Cork are worth the price of admission alone.
Die-hard Laurel and Hardy fans will be thrilled with Coogan’s and Reilly’s performances. The incredibly skilled actors display all of the individual, and team, hallmarks of the real Laurel and Hardy. From Laurel’s toothless long-faced grin and head-scratching, to Hardy’s stare down the camera and his tie-waving, Coogan and Reilly show us that they are masters of their craft. (As we go to press, it was announced that J.C. Reilly is up for a Golden Globe award for the part). Stan & Ollie is both a joyous ode to two comedic legends, and a reminder of the debt we owe to Hal Roach and Leo McCarey, for countless hours of laughter that the Laurel and Hardy films have brought to our lives over the years. ♦ Dave Lewis