STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Bringing two movie comedy legends to (real) life

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We proudly share the following movie review as part of this blog’s self-designated Laurel & Hardy Month. What in the world is that, you ask? Click on the above image to learn more!

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When a movie had good intentions but eventually went off the rails, the late film critic Roger Ebert used to say that the movie “knew the words but not the music.” In Stan & Ollie, the music is so lush and sweet, you can forgive the words being a little garbled sometimes.

What I mean by that is, if you go in expecting a 100% factual story about the later career of film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you will leave the theater grumbling to yourself and ticking off a checklist of everything the movie got wrong. But if you go to see a heartfelt story about two talented comics in the twilight of their careers, you will be richly rewarded, even if you’re not a Laurel & Hardy fan.

The film addresses the period where Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) took to touring European music halls in the early 1950’s after any chances of making new movies had mostly dried up. For dramatic purposes, the film condenses a lot of the true story. L&H actually made three separate tours of Europe that were mostly successful. Here, it’s a single tour that doesn’t really take off until L&H do publicity in local towns to promote the show. A subplot of the movie is Stan trying to get financing for a L&H movie comedy based on the Robin Hood legend. In real life, there was an attempted Robin Hood project, but that had mostly fallen through the cracks by the time L&H began their initial tour.

One could keep on nitpicking like this all day long, but in the end, what one is left with is the movie’s characterizations and situations, and happily, these shine like the midday sun. Let me add to the chorus of voices that have already declared Coogan’s and Reilly’s acting work remarkable, and this is another area that transcends nitpicking. Coogan gets Laurel’s voice, body language, and (seemingly) thought processes down pat. And yes, Reilly does have layers of prosthetics to help him show us the real “Babe” (Hardy’s lifelong nickname). But that only further demonstrates how Reilly managed to convey a vulnerable person breaking through those pounds of fake flesh.

The supporting actors deserve kudos as well. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson convey strength and humanity as The Boys’ wives, fiercely protecting their men from the world (and each other). Rufus Jones is a smirky delight as tour producer Bernard Delfont, trying to act as though he cares about Stan and Babe’s welfare while keeping one eye on the box-office take. And Danny Huston displays appropriate gruffness as L&H’s indulgent movie producer Hal Roach. (Well-meaning L&H historians have stated that Roach comes off as too harsh in this movie. The lawsuits that sailed back and forth between Laurel and Roach in 1939 [not depicted in this film] indicate that Roach was indulgent of Laurel’s creativity but never shy about asserting his authority when necessary.)

If you aren’t familiar with Laurel & Hardy’s movies, you’ll still appreciate Stan & Ollie’s subtle and layered portrayal of their real-life friendship. If you are a fan of L&H, you’ll be amazed at how their real-life story (at least in this instance) parallels their movie comedies. The overwhelming theme of all of their movies was of two naive friends trying to hold their own against a hostile world. In telling their late-life story, Stan & Ollie only deepens that theme.

(If, by chance, you want to hear more of what I have to say about this wonderful movie, click here to visit my Laurel & Hardy podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts.)

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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.