(No Spoilers here)
When fans of the iconic team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy think of them, it is primarily their work that came out of the Hal Roach Studios that comes to mind. Whether in films from the waning days of the silent film period or through their work in short subjects and features through the 1930's, their often hilarious predicaments have burned a definite series of images in the minds and hearts of fans for over ninety years.
In the new film directed by John S. Baird, viewers are treated to that era in time but only briefly. The story of "Stan & Ollie" concerns itself with the least documented period of their careers; their British Tour of 1953. By this time, "The Boys" are years removed from their halcyon days as the top comedians in motion pictures. Away from the cameras, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy perform on the stage for fans who grew up with them and still love them.
"At the end of the day we could have tried to do exactly what they did", John C Reilly (Oliver Hardy) explained to Ross Owen who was one of the consultants on the film, "but I don't think it would've been as satisfying as what we've done which is provide a human glimpse at these two performers". I am happy to report that this is exactly what they've done.
As Laurel and Hardy, Coogan and Reilly are wonderful whether playing the men off the stage or when recreating genuine Laurel and Hardy routines. The vocal interpretations are excellent; at times you may forget when Ollie yells, it is really Reilly!
As Stan Laurel, Steve Coogan has the difficult task of going from Laurel, the creative craft-smith and business man to Stan, the thin half of the comedy duo. Stan Laurel who Dick Van Dyke once said that while the great comedians always showed their "technique", Laurel never showed his; you actually believe he is that guy.
Coogan's Laurel, an older, more weathered man is still as brilliant at coming up with material, going through the paces and rigors of his work behind the scenes yet when he is Stan on stage with Hardy, the transformation is deft and lovely. You can hardly imagine that this simple comedian is the brains behind the creating of their material.
For John C. Reilly, the moments are even more subtle. There are times during the ninety eight minutes we spend with them that you forget you are watching an actor portraying Hardy. The final years of Oliver's life were beset with illness, an image few of his fans got to see which makes this portrayal more intense and riveting. The prosthetic make up created by Mark Coulier is so well done, you will lose yourself in the performance and believe you are seeing Oliver Hardy four years before his passing.
Equally as captivating are the performances of Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy. These talented actresses worked so well together, at times it's as if we are seeing another comedy team, reminiscent of another Hal Roach duo, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron. Arianda was afforded the opportunity of hearing Ida's voice from a recording made by longtime Laurel and Hardy fan, George Mazzey; Henderson had many tapes of Lucille to work with. Both women convey the same love and protection for their respective spouses.
Rufus Jones, a self proclaimed lifelong fan of Laurel and Hardy (he was a member of The Sons Of The Desert) is Stan and Babe's producer of the tour, Bernard Delfont and he's a riot as the promoter who get The Boys to do things they may not want to do with the skill of a surgeon.
While the most ardent fans of the real Laurel and Hardy will notice certain aspects of the film that don't hold to actual events as they may or may not have occurred, writer Jeff Pope has been able to condense separate events and place them together, telling the story without making the film a three hour affair.
Chock full with references that harken back to some of the classic films Stan and Babe made, these "easter eggs" do not detract the casual viewer from the proceedings. In fact, this is the perfect introduction to new viewers who may wish to seek out the treasure chest that awaits them in the Laurel and Hardy canon.
Inspired by the book about the British touring years by A.J. Marriot, the film is a genuine love story. Filled with heart, it is the little told account of the final performing years of Stan and Ollie and the wives and fans who loved them unconditionally. For people who will come to this story as newbies, they will understand the friendship and caring these men had for each other. For those who watch as lifelong fans, bring your handkerchief because this is one love story with the happy ending we've wanted to know.