When I was a kid, one of my favorite videos — literally a VHS cassette — to watch was 1952’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. While I’m not sure I would enjoy the film as much now, I loved it when I was a kid.
Abbott and Costello were fairly big during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Slapstick comedy was huge at the movies, and other prominent comedy acts included The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. While everyone is at least a little bit familiar with Moe, Larry and Curly, I’m not sure I can say I ever watched a Laurel and Hardy film.
That didn’t stop me from wanting to see “Stan & Ollie,” though. Starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, I’d heard great things about the film. While I might be an L&H neophyte, I love films that showcase Hollywood’s Golden Age. Those decades were full of glamour and glitz; and amazing films were created during this time span. While special effects and CGI have advanced to epic proportions — not that you’d know that by seeing Will Smith’s Genie in the live-action “Aladdin” trailer — there’s something beautiful in those old black-and-white films.
Laurel and Hardy were prominent at a time when Hollywood had actual movie stars, a classification that doesn’t really exist anymore outside of Tom Cruise and a select few. “Stan & Ollie” does a good job introducing us to the comedy duo in 1937, which was 10 years after they officially became a team. Both actors already had well-established film careers prior to this creative partnership. Laurel had appeared in more than 50 films as an actor (while also working as a writer and director), while Hardy had been in more than 250 productions. It makes you question why this particular pairing created magic.
When “Stan & Ollie” begins, they’re at the peak of their careers. Everyone knows them, and everyone loves them.
Hardy has a bit of a gambling problem, so money is tight, especially with ex-wives taking everything. He’d like to earn more for his stardom, but he also wants to keep his job. Laurel doesn’t quite have the same trepidation, though.
When the duo’s studio refuses to cough up extra cash, Laurel begins planning a venture that will take Laurel and Hardy to another studio. When he makes his move, he unfortunately goes alone. Hardy stays with the studio, and Laurel & Hardy are no more.
The film picks back up several years later, when Laurel and Hardy are paired up for a comedy tour that will take them through Europe. Things are tense, but in some ways, it’s like they never parted.
While Laurel’s persona on film was that of the bumbling idiot, his portrayer had a quick wit and calculating mind. He was the businessman of the two, always planning something bigger and better. Coogan and Reilly seem completely comfortable with each other, which makes the film delightful to watch. They play off each other with a familiarity that seems genuine to the men they are portraying, dropping one liners or delivering tearful statements as casually as putting on a hat.
Laurel’s and Hardy’s professional careers are explored in-depth, allowing us to see all the highs and lows. We witness sold-out crowds where everyone laughs, but we also see shows where only a handful of people care about Laurel and Hardy anymore. Hardy’s health issues are also a focal point of the film, and the audience is given a backstage pass to his fight to stay alive. He wants to follow his heart and make an audience laugh, but that same heart struggles with the strain of it all.
Coogan and O’Reilly have a strong supporting cast that proves to be just as funny and painful to watch, too. Shirley Henderson is featured as Lucille Hardy. While it’s hard to see her as anyone other than Moaning Myrtle from the “Harry Potter” franchise, she puts in a solid performance here. Lucille loves Ollie dearly, but she also can’t stand the fact she’s possibly watching him kill himself. She’s also not a huge fan of Stan’s wife, Ida (Nina Arianda), which makes their exchanges interesting, to say the least. Both women want the best for their husbands, and neither is very sure that the working or personal partnership of Laurel and Hardy is a good thing.
Therein lies the magic, “Stan & Ollie” is a film about creativity and relationships, how those two are inextricably linked, sometimes to the puzzlement and surprise of creative partners. It’s a film that holds up lightning in a bottle for all to see but assured and honest enough not to explain it. Sometimes explanations elude us, and that’s OK. Let genius be its own reward, and let all aspire to it.