The days of slapstick comedy in its purest form are a relic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. At one time names such as the Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges entertained audiences with innocent shenanigans and brought joy to the lives of families worldwide. They still do. But when it comes to slapstick pioneers, the names are Laurel and Hardy are arguably the most recognizable.
Beginning with The Lucky Dog in 1921, the pair appeared in 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length feature films together — and that’s not counting theater and stage shows. But who were the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy? That’s what the upcoming BBC biopic, Stan and Ollie, wants to tell us.
Directed by Filth’s John S. Baird, the story follows the funny duo at the end of their career as they embark on their dramatic 1953 farewell stage tour through Britain and Ireland. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly star as Stan and Ollie, respectively. The script was penned by Jeff Pope, who previously collaborated with Coogan on the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Philomena.
Biopics are always tricky. When it comes to portraying real people, there’s always extra pressure to deliver the goods. Other actors playing the Laurel and Hardy isn’t a new idea. However, Coogan and Reilly appear to have nailed the accents and mannerisms of the formidable twosome. The latest onscreen incarnation seems like an impressive imitation of the original actors. And they want to touch our feels. Bring tissues.
As the real story of Laurel and Hardy, this movie will be a whirlwind of emotions. Ultimately, their legacy is a story of love and friendship as much as it is about their unparalleled ability to entertain. But even the best friendships have the occasional dramatic disruptions. As Stan and Ollie will explore, Laurel and Hardy’s journey encountered a few roadblocks along the way.
In the trailer, you’ll have noticed that Laurel accuses Hardy of betraying their friendship by making a movie with someone else. The film in question was 1939’s Zenobia, which saw their producer Hal Roach (who is represented by Danny Huston in the biopic) attempt to create a new star duo with Hardy and Harry Langdon. There were plans in place for Hardy and Langdon to make several films together, but Zenobia didn’t quite catch on with audiences like Roach had hoped it would.
But what caused Hardy to temporarily separate from his co-star?
At the time, Laurel was locked in a contract dispute with Roach and his future was uncertain. Naturally, the producer was planning a future without one-half of his most bankable stars. Eventually, the dispute was settled, and Laurel returned briefly before him, and Hardy relocated to 20th Century Fox. But Laurel was upset that his comrade in comedy made a movie with someone else. The drama took its toll on both their business relationship and their personal one. Fortunately, broken friendships can be reconciled, and they made amends down the line.
But it’s hard to entertain the masses when death comes knocking at your door. The duo’s final tour was supposed to relieve some of their misfortunes and remind audiences that they were as funny as they’d ever been. For a while, they did just that. Crowds flocked to see their slapstick act on the stage, but time was running out for Ollie.
When the duo embarked on what would be their last run together, Hardy’s health was already in decline. He suffered a heart attack in 1954, which brought an end to his days as a performer. The beloved comedian passed away from cerebral thrombosis in 1957. Laurel refused to act again without his best friend dancing by his side. Some old letters later revealed that he felt lost without his partner in crime, right up until his final breath.
Stan and Ollie aims to get into, warts and all, one of the most enduring legacies in entertainment history. There will be tears, and there will be laughter, but all the best biopics drag us through the good times and the bad. When we think of this wonderful comedy act, their wacky antics are what we associate with them. That’s how they’d want to be remembered. That said, there’s a bigger story to be found — of highs and lows — when you dig beneath the surface.