Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were a legendary comedy act in the early days of the cinematic medium’s existence, but like all the acts before and alongside them, they experienced a downturn in popularity in the twilight of their careers. But the retelling of their comeback tour as a traveling theater show through the whole of Europe in the early 1950s in the film Stan & Ollie is entertaining and endearing to watch thanks to great performances from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, an authentic attention to detail from the production design and costumes to the makeup that recreates the iconic looks of the pair, and the delightful tone to a story that celebrates Laurel and Hardy as comedians as well as comrades.
Comedy legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy look to revitalize their careers with a touring stage show in a period biopic from Sony Pictures Classics.
In early Greek plays, if a story wasn’t rooted in tragedy, it was rooted in comedy. The same can be said about the early days of cinema. From Charlie Chaplin’s iconic turns as The Tramp in City Lights, The Gold Rush and Modern Times, to the Marx Brothers, who crafted an unforgettable brand of slapstick in films such as Duck Soup, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, and even W.C. Fields, whose misanthropic, but sympathetic curmudgeon struck comedy gold in films like The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee, the silent era and the 1930s boasted a plethora of timeless, classic comedies, along with the comedians that created them.
Another comedy act that made a transition from vaudeville to the silver screen in this era was the duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, whose own brand of slapstick in hundreds of short films and features including The Sons of the Desert, Way Out West and The Flying Deuces, paved the way for the likes of Abbott and Costello. But like all these comedians, their respective brands eventually fell out of style with audiences, and their cinematic careers went through a downturn as a result. Nevertheless, Laurel and Hardy would do what they could to get financing for their next feature, and that story is told in Stan & Ollie, a biopic about the final months of the iconic duo’s career in entertainment.
Stan & Ollie takes place primarily in 1953, where Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) begin a traveling stage show tour across the variety halls of Europe with the intent to earn enough money to finance their next feature film, a comedic retelling of Robin Hood. They also aim to please a motion picture executive enough to get financial backing from him when their show makes its way to London. But moments from the past where Stan’s perfectionism got the comics in hot water with a producer, in addition to Ollie’s absence during a crucial meeting with Fox Studios, have created a rift in the two entertainers’ friendship, and once the tour begins, it’s only a matter of time when the two lifelong friends finally confront each other over moments long festered.
And yet, the film is slow to start out of the gate, because that confrontation doesn’t come into the picture for most of the film’s short run time, if only because writer Jeff Pope and director Jon S. Baird elected to craft a harmless narrative about the comedians. While the grudges Stan holds over Oliver are established in the first act, they don’t come back into the picture until the start of the second half, and on a sudden note, at that. This also amounts to a lack of narrative ambition; the production and costume designs are authentic to the time period in which Stan & Ollie is based, but aside from a select few brief moments of foreshadowing, there’s not really much for audiences to chew on due to the lack of themes about celebrity the film had potential to explore.
All that being said, there is a lot for audiences to find entertaining. What the filmmakers have deemed expendable in terms of plot and conflict while making Stan & Ollie is made up for in genuinely funny moments and strong performances that craft a lovely and celebratory depiction of Stan and Oliver as entertainers, as men, and as friends. Their on-screen characters were larger than life, and the film portrays them off the stage with endearing personalities. Steve Coogan replicates Laurel’s mannerisms as well as his drive to keep his and Oliver’s place in the spotlight on every facial expression. As Stan tells Oliver about a scene he wrote for their upcoming movie in a pivotal scene, he does so holding back tears, but wills himself through the re-enactment without breaking down. To carry the plethora of emotions Stan feels in that particular moment is heartbreaking and powerful to watch, and up there with Coogan’s best acting work.
Meanwhile, John C. Reilly delivers a performance that earned him a well-deserved Golden Globe as Stan’s counterpart, Oliver Hardy. Underneath a fat suit and several pounds of makeup, Reilly wears the iconic look of Hardy’s massive figure, carries the larger-than-life status of his celebrity, and conveys both the sweet nature he shows toward his wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson), as well as the exhaustion that comes with the traveling theater tour with a respective tenderness and natural progression.
But Stan is with him every step of the way, as Coogan and Reilly are together in nearly every scene, and the chemistry between the two actors makes the friendship between Stan and Ollie fun to watch. Elements of their routine came to life off the stage, from Stan’s snarky banter toward their long-time producer and collaborator Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and his attempts to draw the attention of a producer’s secretary with goofy facial expressions, to real-life slapstick when they entertain a hotel clerk with a gag involving a bell, and a pratfall where a massive suitcase of their belongings slides down a flight of stairs. (“Do we really need that trunk?”, asks Oliver.)
Yet, there’s still a certain sadness that makes an early presence in Stan & Ollie; that being one over the best moments in life never lasting forever. This is touched on in several points throughout the film about the careers of Laurel and Hardy, such as when their stage show’s producer suggests early on that they consider cancelling shows due to lack of attendance, and again when Stan looks up at a monstrous-sized poster for Abbott and Costello Go To Mars after receiving some distressing news. But the comedy pair presses on nevertheless, because as Oliver tells Lucille in a tender moment between the two of them, “the show must go on.”
Sure enough, the show does go on until the two comics can’t anymore, and every step of their journey is chronicled with the same passion for entertainment that the real Laurel and Hardy had. Coogan and Reilly are fun to watch from beginning to end thanks to their infectious charisma, and director Baird, with cinematographer Laurie Rose, captures the wonder of moviemaking in Hollywood’s golden age immediately in the film’s first shot, which tracks the two icons in the prime of their careers striding from their dressing room, past a plethora of soundstages, all the way to their places on the set of Way Out West.
It perfectly sets the stage in a time where the magic of filmmaking was at its most practical, and gives all audiences the same hope Laurel and Hardy have of resurrecting their careers, no matter if you’re an aficionado for classical Hollywood, or someone looking to learn more about cinema’s Golden Age. While it takes some time for the drama to kick in, it’s always delightful to watch everything old become new again, and see Coogan and Reilly wear the shoes of two greats in Stan & Ollie.