June 7, 2019
Stan & Ollie – 2018, UK
Throughout Jon S. Baird’s 2018 film, Stan & Ollie, there’s frequent reference to a movie referred to as “the elephant film.” Realistically, the film elects not to have any of the characters explain the reference, as who, in real life, stops to clarify what they are talking about when both parties are already in the know. The film does show us a short scene from it, and even gives us the first name of its co-star – Harry. Again, the film omits the last name because everyone around Harry knows just who he is, so there’s no need to add a moniker. I, however, was not in the know, so after watching the film, I looked it up. “The elephant film” actually had three titles: Zenobia, Elephants Never Forget, and It’s Spring Again. It was released in 1939, when Oliver Hardy was under contract with Hal Roach, but Stan Laurel was not. The film was a financial failure. Eventually Stan Laurel, after initiating legal action, was rehired, and he and Oliver Hardy made two other films for Hal Roach, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea.
The incident, according to Stan & Ollie, left a permanent chasm between the two of them, with Laurel regarding Hardy’s role in the film as a betrayal and a sign of weakness, and Hardy looking back at it with regret, yet also thinking that his long-time friend should be more understanding. In the film’s opening scene, set in 1937, during the filming of Way Out West, we see the ease with which they relate to each other and the concern they have for each other’s welfare. Laurel (Steve Coogan) gently comments on Hardy’s gambling and number of marriages (and costly divorces), and Hardy (John C. Reilly) advices baby steps when approaching Roach about getting ownership of their films, as Chaplin did, as well as higher salaries. The advice is not taken, and the result of the ensuing blow-up between Laurel and Roach is the aforementioned disaster, the elephant film.
The film flashes forward sixteen years to a time when the comic pair found themselves on a tour of the U.K. in preparation for a parody of Robin Hood that Laurel and Hardy were hoping to make. The tour starts off poorly: cheap hotels with hardly any services, less than half-filled houses, a manager whose other acts seem to be getting priority over them. It is suggested that they do pro-bono promotional appearances, a request that is both a reminder of their diminished status and an insult to people of their fame. Yet they have their desired effect. Soon their faces are all over the news, and fans are showing up in droves. Happy times are here again, for a little while at least.
To really appreciate Stan & Ollie, it helps to remember what Hollywood was like for celebrities in the 1930s. Laurel and Hardy made films at a time when movie studios had most of the power in Hollywood, and if a studio head wanted you to make a film, you made the film. Your contract stipulated it. It was also a time when the competition was fierce, and a downturn in one person’s career gave his rival an opportunity. We see this in an interesting moment when Laurel stares a poster for Abbott and Costello’s latest film, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. It was also a time when there was less access to older movies. If a movie wasn’t felt to have an audience after its initial release, it simply disappeared. If you woke up one day wanting to re-watch a particular movie, you were most likely out of luck.
Perhaps this is why Laurel and Hardy’s live act was so loved by those who saw it. Their act was akin to a greatest hits album, and seeing them perform it onstage brought back memories of dates, movie plots, and much more innocent times. In watching them perform the dance from Way Out West, the audience was recalling not simply a movie, but a time before war, death, and, for some, adulthood and its many responsibilities reared their ugly heads. Without that nostalgic power, the number would have been just two people dancing together, and they were admittedly not the greatest of dancers. But just listen to the applause.
Years ago, I read that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy did not spend much time together off camera. Hardy loved fishing and golf, and during lulls in shooting, he would leave the studio to get in some extra rounds. Laurel was said to be the creative force behind the act, spending long hours writing and choreographing many of the bits we see Laurel and Hardy perform in the film. What we see onscreen, especially during a heated argument midway through, bares this out. However, it also reveals something that is likely true of most creative partnerships: their longevity is likely due to love and distance – love for someone both professionally and personally and distance from each other when off work. Perhaps it’s the former that was damaged when Oliver Hardy went along with Roach’s decision to pair him with Harry Langdon. In Laurel’s eyes, Hardy could have stuck up for him, but chose not to.
Admittedly, the first half of the film sticks too closely to the tried and true narrative of a celebrity trying to make a comeback, with all of its bumps and hiccups. There are the many obligatory remarks about hearing that the two of them had retired, the reenactments of their performances go on a tad bit too long, and I could have done without the montage of tour stops and newspapers headlines announcing the increased popularity of their shows. There are more original ways of expressing this. However, the film hits its stride upon the arrival of the comic duo and their wives in London. In a way, the film is about three relationships, that of Laurel and Hardy, and those of their marriages, for each marriage is a portrait of love and support. The wives, played by Nina Arianda (Ida Laurel) and Shirley Henderson (Lucille Hardy), keep the pair going as much as anything else, and I was fascinated by the varying personalities and styles of the two women.
A film like this lives and dies on the performances of its cast. We must see in them the embodiment on these cherished figures, and Coogan and Reilly do not disappoint. In fact, these may be my favorite performances of theirs, and that’s saying something. From their movements during their re-enactment of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous cinematic moments to the subtle physical gestures that each called his own, they embody the Laurel and Hardy we know from the screen. However, where they are most effective is in showing us Laurel and Hardy offscreen. We see the differences in their personalities, yet also we see the way they play off each other during the creative process. What’s more, we see their failings, for example, Hardy’s gambling and Laurel’s stubbornness. Perhaps what Coogan and Reilly most excel at is at demonstrating that the love that Laurel and Hardy shared onscreen – the way every argument or mistake was followed up by glances of forgiveness and affection – was true when the camera stopped rolling. Sure, the make-ups we see are not like the ones they exhibit in their movies, but they are no less sincere and touching. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the film’s finale works as well as it does. We don’t want anything to end, either. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars