- Jon S. Baird
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 37 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
One who forgives an affront fosters friendship,
but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend.
I knew we were being treated to something special half-way through the opening six-minute tracking shot that follows the two comedians as they move from their dressing room at Culver Studios to the sound stage where they are filming a scene from Way Out West. They pass costumed actors dressed as Roman soldiers, cowboys, and dancers. Outside one huge sound stage they pass by large statues, props for an Egyptian movie, and dozens of men and women going about their movie making chores. Trading quips, Stan and Ollie are “on” long before the cameras roll, greeting fans and doing some of their schtick, Laurel playing with his hair and Hardy his tie.
It is 1937, and the two masters of physical comedy and the quick barb are at the height of their fame. And yet, we soon learn, they are ill-paid by the parsimonious Hal Roach (Danny Huston). Hardy is constantly in need of cash because of his race track gambling and alimony payments to past wives. Laurel wants to confront the producer to demand more money or move to another studio, but the easy-going big guy prefers to go along with things as they are.
Jump 16 years in time, and by the early 50s the pair are considered “has-beens” by the leaders of the film industry. The two are reduced to touring third-rate theaters in Great Britain where the seats are only half-filled by fans, virtually all of whom are old. As we see by a large movie poster the two pause in front of, Abbott and Costello are the hot comedians now. Stan and Ollie have agreed to the tour because Stan has arranged financing for a new film with a London producer. The film is to be parody of Robin Hood, including a much repeated line about robbing from the poor to give to the rich (no, this is not intended to be a reference to the recent U.S. tax bill). Stan spends almost every hour between their travel and on stage act working on the screenplay,
We see by the segments of their show on display—a silent skit of the two fruitlessly looking for each other at a small train station, one in which their timing must be right-on; a hospital bed-side visit which results in the bed-ridden Babe, as Stan calls his partner, constantly getting hit on the head because Stan has inadvertently become entangled in the lines of the weight contraption holding up Ollie’s huge leg caste; a closing dance routine which the couple adroitly show off their dance steps—that their physical comedy still elicits plenty of laughs.
Their somewhat sleazy English tour manager Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) talks them into doing some publicity stunts for the news cameras, so by the time they reach London, the size of their audience has grown, filling the auditorium of the prestigious Victoria Theater. Their lodgings have improved too, from little flea bags where they have to carry their own luggage (several such luggage-tussling scenes come right out of their movies) to London’s posh Savoy. Their wives have joined them, even reluctantly going along with a funny exit from the taxi for the benefit of the film publicity crew awaiting their arrival.
With the wives in the picture the laughs increase, the two actresses interacting with each other and their spouses in amusing ways. Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel are so good together that I agree with the critic that a whole move could be built around them. Lucille is a former script girl worried with good reason about the over-weight Ollie’s health. Nina, with a thick Russian accent, is proud of having been a dancer for Preston Sturges. There is an element of rivalry between the the women, though ultimately their love of their husbands and respect for each other proves stronger.
In a film filled with memorable scenes, the most dramatic one involves the bursting forth at a public reception Stan’s long simmering resentment against his partner, dating back to the time when he had gone to Fox Studios to discuss joining them but Ollie had not shown up, preferring to go along with the inferior terms of their contract with Hal Roach. Stan accuses him of betrayal because he made a movie with another partner, whereas Ollie retorts that he is “hollow and that they never have been real friends.,The two part in a huff, to the surprise of the onlookers. We wonder if either will discover the truth of Proverbs 17:9.
Director Jon S. Baird has helmed what amounts to a love story, one which like most relationships has its rocky periods, and yet one in which love eventually triumphs. Jeff Pope’s screenplay is based on A.J. Marriot’s book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours, so this is not meant to be a complete biography, just of the last year of their partnership. Due to Ollie’s heart problem that showed up when their tour took them to Ireland, they never made Stan’s Robin Hood movie—though we do get to see one scene from it as he reads it to Ollie. On the basis of this it looks like we were deprived of a gem of a comedy. The end notes reveal that even after Ollie’s death a few years later Stan continued to write comedy sketches for their act. Fittingly, the film is dedicated to the memory of Lois Laurel, Stan Laurel’s daughter, who died in 2017
I love films about the movies and movie making, and so believe that this is a wonderful addition to the genre. Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (as Oliver Hardy) are superb in their portrayal of the dynamic duo, thanks in part to excellent make-up and prosthetics, and more so because they have mastered the little quirks of each character. The film makes me want to go back and watch again some of their classics. Let’s hope this does so for a whole new generation of film lovers. Until someone produces a film that covers their whole lives, this will stand as a fitting tribute to a pair who mastered the art of making us laugh.
If this film whets your appetite for their brand of comedy, go to YouTube where many of their short films have been postd by adoring fans. There are also some of their longer ones, including Way Out West, the film they are making in the first part of this film.
This review will be in the February issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.