STAN & OLLIE vs. Laurel & Hardy

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(WARNING: This is not a review of the new movie Stan & Ollie, which has not yet come to my area and which I have not yet seen. However, the hyperlink in this blog leads to another blog which does give SPOILERS about said movie. So if you want to see the movie before reading some major plot details about it, avoid the hyperlink.)

I was looking forward to seeing Stan & Ollie. The general consensus of the film’s mostly glowing reviews is that the film mucks up a few facts about the events in question but generally gets the details right about the friendship between the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

But then I read the blog of Mark Evanier, a feverish Laurel & Hardy fan. He has seen the movie, and his blog points out the voluminous facts that the movie shunts aside in favor of tearjerking dramatics.

Reading this account of the movie angers me, though I do not blame Evanier for my ill humor. I blame it on a simple fact: I have never seen a single movie or TV show about Laurel & Hardy, either biographical or fictionalized, that does not take some kind of liberties with the facts about L&H’s history.

My late father-in-law, a Navy veteran of two wars, said he could never watch any Navy-themed movie because he knew what real Navy life was like, and Navy-themed movies always managed to get the details wrong. Evanier and I, along with generations of hardcore L&H fans, have done much reading about our two comedy heroes, and we seem to have the same problem with L&H-themed movies that my dad-in-law had with movies about Navy-based films.

Let me give you just three examples regarding L&H:

  • A 1992 direct-to-video compilation movie titled Laurel & Hardy: A Tribute to the Boys was hosted by comedian Dom Deluise. Aside from the movie showing colorized clips from The Boys’ comedies (I’ll spare you my condescending opinion of colorization), at the end of the movie, DeLuise stated when Hardy died, Laurel was at his bedside, holding his hand. A touching image, to be sure, but it’s totally false. Laurel was too ill to even attend Hardy’s funeral, much less be at his bedside to hold Hardy’s hand at the time of his death.
  • Cuckoo, a generally well-meaning 1974 British documentary about L&H, sports the oft-quoted “fact” that Stan Laurel was married eight times. Wrong again! As Evanier points out, Stan was married to and divorced from three different women (one of whom he remarried before divorcing her again).(If you’re looking for a happy ending, Laurel’s fourth wife, the former Ida [pronounced “E-da”] Kitaeva, turned out to be Laurel’s soulmate, and they were married for 18 happy years before Laurel died.)
  • Just yesterday, another well-meaning tribute to L&H was broadcast on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Half of it was a plug for the Stan & Ollie movie, while the other half was a L&H mini-history of The Boys that included several clips from their classic comedies. All well and good, except that CBS listed the wrong years for two of those comedies. If you are going to bother to list their movies’ release dates in the upper-left hand corner of the TV screen, why not go to the trouble of getting the dates right?

Sadly, Laurel & Hardy are not alone in this rewriting of movie comedy history. In 1971 came a book titled W.C. Fields & Me, written by Fields’ on-and-off mistress of 14 years, Carlotta Monti. Fields biographers (including his own grandson) have since established that the book was a vanity account in which Monti played hard and fast with several of the facts about her relationship with Fields. But nobody knew that in 1976, when Universal made a film version of the book, starring Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Monti.

The movie played even harder and faster with the book’s fantasy version of the story, stating that Fields was a somewhat impoverished comedian who came to Hollywood accompanied by a midget sidekick (played by Billy Barty). Truth: Fields had no such sidekick, and he was already fairly wealthy from his stage and Broadway careers. The movie claimed that Monti met Fields when she attended one of his parties anonymously and was brusquely put to work by Fields as the party’s waitress. The truth, at least according to Monti, was that she first met Fields when she was a starlet appearing in a screen test for one of his movies.

So it appears that Hollywood has a thing for exploiting the personalities of its comedy legends, but when it comes to getting the facts right, Hollywood figures, “Ah, they’re just comedians — who cares?” And it seems to me that Laurel & Hardy have suffered the most from this lackadaisical approach to comics’ biographies.

You might think that I’m being a little too sensitive about this kind of thing. I dunno. If a good friend or relative of yours died, and you commissioned an outside party to film or tape a tribute to that person, how pleased would you be if said party got most of the facts wrong about your beloved? Many Laurel & Hardy buffs will tell you that they regard The Boys as friends. And friends should not be so carelessly wronged.

With that in mind, I’m still interested in seeing Stan & Ollie. But I will probably do so with a far more disparaging eye than that of some exceedingly generous film critics.

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THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (1975) and THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (1977) – Gene Wilder hits the wall

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and The World’s Greatest Lover were Gene Wilder’s writing-directing award from Twentieth Century-Fox for having collaborated with Mel Brooks on Fox’s hit comedy Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, both movies suffer from the same malady: They want very badly to be Mel Brooks movies. (Brother even has a cameo appearance from Brooks, albeit in voice only.)

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Brother provides a self-explanatory title. Wilder plays Sigerson Holmes, the brilliant but highly neurotic brother of the famed detective. Sherlock decides to pass one of his cases on to the much-overlooked Sigerson to resolve. It happens to be a case in which the entire country of Britain hangs in the balance. Sigerson is aided by Scotland Yard records clerk Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) and music-hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn).

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Kahn, Wilder, and Feldman.

There are two primary problems with this movie. The first problem is that we never get a sense of Sigerson as a real character. When Sacker first encounters Sigerson and asks him if he has a brother named Sherlock, Sigerson haughtily replies that his brother’s name should be properly pronounced as “Sheer Luck.” This gets us anticipating a rich plot about Sigerson’s trying to overcome his past (just as Dr. “Fronkensteen” did in Young Frankenstein).

Unfortunately, the sibling-rivalry element pretty much ends right there. If the movie didn’t keep hammering the point home, we’d never know that Sigerson is related in any way to Sherlock.

That’s because the movie keeps going off on crazy tangents. In fact, nearly every character in the movie is crazy (or at least acts that way), even Sherlock’s famed archenemy Prof. Moriarty (Leo McKern). From the very first scene, nobody has a normal reaction to any unusual situation — it’s all pitched at Mel Brooks gaga-shtick level. So you don’t feel that you really have a stake in any of the characters. As a result, a number of elaborate set-pieces — and the movie is extremely well-mounted, with great period detail — all add up to nothing but frantic activity.

It’s not for lack of trying. Feldman, Kahn, Dom DeLuise, McKern, and Roy Kinnear (McKern’s co-star in The Beatles’ Help!) give it their all, but they’re only halfway successful. Yet of the two movies, at least Brother is more good-natured and tolerable than…
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The World’s Greatest Lover appears to have been Wilder’s effort to prove that he was another Charlie Chaplin, in both slapstick (some painfully forced physical comedy at the movie’s start) and pathos (the movie takes its last half-hour most seriously after the labored farce of its first 60 minutes).

The movie is set in the silent-film era and concerns a movie studio that is trying to find a successful counterpart to rival Paramount’s Rudolph Valentino. The studio runs an ad telling men all over the country that they can come to Hollywood to audition for the role of “The World’s Greatest Lover.” One of the auditioners is Rudy Hickman (Wilder), an inept baker from Milwaukee.

The movie might have been fairly funny if its story had been presented at face value. But from the get-go, Wilder and most of the cast mug shamelessly and do everything they can to convince us that they’re hilarious, rather than just letting the story roll out on its own.

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About the only grace notes are supplied by Carol Kane as Annie, Rudy’s timid and long-suffering wife. Kane is the one person in the movie who doesn’t oversell the comedy. And you end up feeling a lot of sympathy for Annie (probably more than Wilder intended) because Rudy is such a hyperactive, bullying, sex-crazed wacko that you wonder how Annie has ever put up with him. 

Unlike Smarter Brother (which at least had a milder tone), everything here is pitched to the rafters — at least until Wilder tries for pathos in the film’s last third. But, as happened so often with Jerry Lewis in his heyday, the movie has been done in such a comic-book style that its pathos is unearned.

Surprisingly, both of these movies were modest successes on their first release, but with only a couple of exceptions in the following decade (The Woman in Red and the disastrous Haunted Honeymoon), these movies pretty much ended Wilder’s turn as an auteur.

Four decades later, movie buffs are still praising Wilder’s writing and acting in Young Frankenstein, and with good reason. You’ll notice that even YF fans aren’t exactly clamoring for a revival of either The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother or The World’s Greatest Lover — and there’s a reason for that, too.

(Nevertheless, I’ve embedded both movies below, mainly because they’re available for free on YouTube. If you can make it very far through either movie, look for the surprise cameos: Albert Finney and the aforementioned Brooks in Brother, and an early walk-on for Danny DeVito in Lover.)

Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE (1976) – Not Chaplin, but funny enough

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The following is my contribution to The Mel Brooks Blogathon, being hosted by The Cinematic Frontier from June 28-30, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies directed by the famous funnyman!

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Just about the time you roll your eyes at the hopelessness of the gags in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, a real gem comes along. As when a poster of Bernadette Peters in bosomy vamp mode is revealed, and some men seated at a table make the table rise without touching it. Or the gigantic prop fly that lands smack in the middle of Henny Youngman’s soup, inspiring the greatest one-liner in the history of silent movies.

Of course, the fact that Mel Brooks co-wrote, directed, and stars in this silent-film spoof is enough to tell you whether you’ll enjoy it or not. Surprisingly, this ramshackle farce has its basis in autobiography. At the time of this movie, Mel Brooks had just come off his Blazing Saddles/Young Frankenstein doubleheader, and 20th Century-Fox would probably have let Brooks film a spoof of the Yellow Pages at that point.

Thus comes the storyline of Mel Funn (Brooks), a washed-up movie director who comes up with the brilliant idea of making a silent movie. The studio director (Sid Caesar, who might have done better in Brooks’s role) agrees to the film as long as Funn can provide the appropriate big-name stars as box-office insurance. It doesn’t help that Funn’s studio is being threatened by the conglomerate of Engulf and Devour, and the studio needs a hit to make it back into the black.

Surprisingly enough, the big-name cameos provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs. Burt Reynolds takes a narcissistic shower and finds himself growing extra hands. Paul Newman pokes fun at his offscreen racing hobby by zooming around in a wheelchair. And famed mime Marcel Marceau finds his voice in the movie’s only line of dialogue.

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On the other hand, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, who would seem an obvious choice as Mel’s crazy cronies, are a little joke that gets stretched a long way. Yet even when the movie isn’t as hysterical as it thinks it is, it causes you to smile throughout and to wish silent film was still a viable alternative for physical comedians, instead of an occasional novelty put to use by a hit filmmaker who could make any movie he wanted.