You mess with Laurel and Hardy at your peril. Their fan base is essentially the entire world. Samuel Beckett adored them: many think they inspired Waiting For Godot. Eric Morecambe’s reluctance to appear in bed with Ernie Wise melted when he was reminded that Stan and Ollie had used the same conceit. In Poland the duo are known as Flip i Flap, in Germany as Dick und Doof. I once attended a New Year’s Eve party at which the two dozen children present (toddlers to teenagers) were parked in front of a screen with a stack of Laurel and Hardy DVDs — not one of them left the room all evening. You have to ask yourself: could you honestly be friends with someone who didn’t love Laurel and Hardy?
Which means that Stan & Ollie has got us nervous. Film-makers like newness, they like to shock, to show us something we didn’t see coming. Screenwriter Jeff Pope and director Jon S. Baird couldn’t be about to tell us that Laurel and Hardy hated each other, could they? That behind the famous on-screen chemistry there was an Abbott and Costello-style loathing? This would be an illusion-crusher of Yewtree proportions. We get even more nervous as the film progresses, and there are flashbacks from its main story — the duo’s 1953 tour of Britain — to 1939, when Hardy made a film without Laurel (but with an elephant). This still rankles, and at one point produces a row.
But relax. The row blows over, allowing the film to become something much more interesting: a love story. Beautiful writing and superb acting show us why Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) loved each other. Indeed that’s the reason for the title — it’s forenames rather than surnames because the makers wanted to reveal the people behind Laurel and Hardy. Both were flawed. Stan was a womaniser and Ollie (or ‘Babe’ as he was known, because he looked like an overgrown infant) was a gambler. At one point he’s unable to buy a necklace for his wife because he’s lost £60 on a horse. This wasn’t a huge amount even in the 1950s — Laurel and Hardy were never paid what contemporaries like Chaplin earned. The studio kept their contracts six months out of synch so they could never leave together. Hence the elephant.
Stan was always fighting to get them a better deal, while Ollie disliked confrontation. Stan also took control of the films, slaving away in the editing suite while Ollie headed for the golf course. This produced tension, but was also the reason the relationship worked. It was a marriage, very like those of the post-war British couples who came to see Laurel and Hardy on their tour. Stan was the wife patiently getting on with the housework, occasionally complaining but knowing deep down that Ollie needed looking after. Their ‘row’, you realise, was actually a lovers’ tiff.
Coogan and Reilly have paid their characters the best tribute possible: exhibiting as much attention to detail as Laurel and Hardy did in their own work. The movie opens with Stan chiselling the heel off his shoe (he always did this — it made his gait funnier), while Reilly’s fat suits (one for 1937, a bigger one for 1953) made him so hot he had to be hooked up to an ice machine between takes. The recreations of the most famous sketches — the dance from Way Out West, losing each other on the train platform — are note-perfect. And the pair’s encounters with the public, such as doing the bell routine for a hotel receptionist in Newcastle, are exquisite. Even when the fans are tiresome the stars show grace. Stan to a bore who recounts the entire ‘piano falling down the steps’ scene: ‘I know — I was there.’
This excellent movie kept reminding me of a comment Denis Norden made not long before his death last year. Comics used to go for the laugh, he said, whereas these days they go for the round of applause. Stan & Ollie is a beautiful reminder of the warmth, the lack of cynicism, the sheer love (ours for them, theirs for each other) produced by the two greatest comics ever. It’s a good job Steve Coogan is a brilliant actor: he conveys Stan’s likeability so well that for 97 minutes you forget what a self-regarding arse Coogan himself is in real life.
Those 1953 performances were the last Laurel and Hardy ever gave. Ollie died four years later. For the next eight years, until his own death in 1965, Stan continued writing sketches for Laurel and Hardy.