Laurel and Hardy are about to make a comeback, if a new biopic winds up being a success. According to Screen Daily, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly will respectively portray Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in a BBC production that will follow the comedic duo on a 1953 tour. Titled Stan & Ollie, the made-for-TV movie won’t be the sort of thing where we see Coogan and Reilly meticulously recreating famous film scenes. Still, this project will involve the basic challenges and cliches of comedian biopics, with the main appeal being seeing popular stars of today doing the shtick of iconic stars of yesterday.
As always, the real deal is recommended over any such mimicry, and Laurel and Hardy have a whole lot of silent and sound shorts plus a bunch of features, too. Start with Two Tars. But I have to admit that it took me decades of familiarity with who Laurel and Hardy were to actually see one of their films. I was introduced to them through other people portraying the duo, just as potentially and hopefully a new generation will find them by way of Coogan and Reilly. Sometimes these impersonations – remakes of comedy routines, if you will – can do some good. So, in anticipation of the BBC movie, here’s an evolutionary highlight of past depictions of Stan and Ollie on the big and small screen:
The Cartoon Cameo: Mickey’s Gala Premier
My introduction to Laurel and Hardy was most certainly in the form of a cartoon – er, animated short. Like this one from 1933, which I believe was the first of the many Disney and Warner Bros. films to feature caricatures of golden age Hollywood stars. It’s something I wish was done with today’s celebrities, too. This meta animated short brings out all the stars, especially screen comedians, to a premiere of a new Mickey Mouse film called “Gallopin’ Romance,” where they’re shown literally falling out of their seats from laughter. The idea is that the funniest people in the world now see the cartoon mouse as a peer, if not the greatest of their own kind, and congratulate him on a hilarious hit.
You can also see the depicted duo return alongside Mickey and friends in the 1936 color short Mickey’s Polo Team and then in Disney’s 1938 Silly Symphonies installment Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood, employed in a rendition of the nursery rhyme “Simple Simon.” For Warner Bros., they were part of two Merrie Melodies animated shorts similar to Mickey’s Gala Premier except just parodying movie stars – in 1936’s The Coo-Coo Nut Grove they’re represented as a monkey and a pig, and 1941’s Hollywood Steps Out just features Hardy, making fun of his girth – plus another from 1942 called Hop, Skip and a Chump where they’re depicted as crows voiced by Mel Blanc. Most of these shorts had non-vocal representations, as they were primarily known for their appearance.
The Challenge in Casting a Comedian Biopic
The Animated Series: Laurel and Hardy
While those old animated shorts were actually more often for adult moviegoers, the duo went full kiddie content in the mid 1960s, after the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy died. Animated again, this time the guys talked and were voiced by producer Larry Harmon (also known as Bozo the Clown) and Jim MacGeorge. Each episode was under five minutes in length and was syndicated on television. It was Hanna-Barbera’s first endeavor to adapt a real comedy act (or sitcom) into a children’s cartoon, making way for more series based on Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges and others, plus the celebrity character guest-appearance thing on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (for which Harmon and MacGeorge reprised their roles) and its spin-off movies.
The Biopic Cameo: Harlow
Also in the mid 1960s, portrayals of Laurel and Hardy began appearing in biopics and other movies set in the old days of Hollywood. First there was Harlow, about Jean Harlow, in which they’re briefly played by Jim Plunkett and John ‘Red’ Fox. More than 20 years later, they showed up even more briefly (played without credit by Bevis Faversham and Vincent Jerman-Jerosa) in Sunset, a period comedy about Western actor Tom Nix directed by longtime Laurel and Hardy fan Blake Edwards. And 1992’s Chaplin has just Laurel, portrayed by Matthew Cottle, because he was Charlie Chaplin’s understudy in the 1910s.
Real People Reboot: The All New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy
In 1999, the iconic duo were pretty much rebooted. Through the blasphemous concept that also gave us 1994’s The Little Rascals and 2012’s The Three Stooges, the characters of Laurel and Hardy, as originated by the real Laurel and Hardy, were recast with new actors: Bronson Pinchot (of Perfect Strangers fame) and Gailard Sartain (from the Ernest movies – and it was almost a reunion since Jim Varney was supposed to play Stan before he got sick). The trailer down below is for a feature co-directed by Larry Harmon (remember him from the animated series) titled “For Love or Mummy.” They must have assumed there would be more of these “all new adventures.”
The Full Biopic Treatment: Stan
The BBC has already made one Laurel and Hardy biopic, a 2006 adaptation of a radio play they broadcast a couple years earlier with Sir Tom Courtenay in the title role. For the screen version, Laurel is played instead as an old man by Jim Norton as he visits Hardy (Mike Goodenough) on his deathbed and reminisces about their career together. Nik Howden plays Laurel in the flashbacks. Although the radio play was highly acclaimed, the adaptation is rather cheap-looking and stiffly acted. Stan & Ollie, while not a full life-story type biopic, is sure to be of much greater quality.
And now, as is the presumed point with these gateways, here’s the real deal in Two Tars: