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Movie review

Stan & Ollie

 
 

A very fair review by the world's
top Laurel and Hardy aficionado and author

RANDY SKRETVEDT

Well, I saw STAN & OLLIE. It is more fast and loose with the facts than I would like or than it needed to be. However, it has such a warm spirit that in general I like it very much. I'd give John C. Reilly an A-plus, Steve Coogan an A-plus for Stan off-stage and a B-plus for Stan on-stage (he's not helped by that derby, which is too big), and a B-plus for the script by Jeff Pope.

On the negative side, Hal Roach is not portrayed well. His disagreements with Stan were never about salary (in 1934, Roach paid himself $2,000 a week, paid Babe $2,000 a week, and paid Stan $3,500 a week, more than anyone else at the studio). It's disappointing that the script portrays Roach as the cliché "money is everything" producer, which seems to be obligatory in every movie about old Hollywood. The disagreements were over stories, not money. Also, the Roach lot seemed to be a lot more like a factory than a warm, homey place as it was always described by its employees.

Stan did not have a long-simmering resentment over Babe appearing without him in "Zenobia." When Babe was about to appear on Jack Haley's radio show to promote it, Stan sent him a congratulatory telegram. I was glad that Babe was given a line saying that he had to make the picture because he was still under contract when Stan was not at the studio, and also that "I couldn't sleep while I was doing it." But the "lazy ass" line and Stan angrily throwing a roll at Babe's head -- please. I don't care if I sound like a Pollyanna, Lucille told me that Babe and Stan may have had private minor disagreements, but never quarreled. Hal Roach told me that he never saw two men who were more compatible, and also "the things that Hardy did, with the tie and looking into the camera, were his; Laurel never told him what to do, and never had to." And Stan told Tony Thomas in 1959 that "there was never any jealousy between the team."

I was confused by the scene where Stan was in the office at 20th Century-Fox, having signed a contract which we are led to believe did not go into effect because Babe never showed up to sign it. What a blessing that would have been! As we know, the boys' tenure at Fox was not a happy one, but STAN & OLLIE makes it look like a missed opportunity due to Babe's negligence.

One scene has Babe looking at some jewelry as a present for Lucille, but not having enough money to buy it; he hopes to make some extra cash with a bet on a horse, but of course he doesn't win and has to buy her flowers instead. I'm quite sure that Babe's gambling days were pretty much over after he married Lucille, because now he wanted to stay home. Life with Myrtle and her alcohol problems had been generally miserable (even though she was away for long stretches at the Rosemead Sanitarium). Now that he was at last blessed with a happy private life, Babe enjoyed being at home and farming, cooking, building furniture and engaging in other domestic activities instead of going to the track. (The opening scene of STAN & OLLIE has the boys talking about their respective ex- or soon to be ex-wives. Judging from Stan's comments that, in their peak career years, they "never mixed socially," I doubt that a conversation about such private matters would have occurred.)

Lucille and Ida are portrayed as not very friendly to each other until one of the last scenes, where Ida holds hands with Lucille as they watch the boys get through one of their last theater performances. Ida, too, is portrayed as being rather cold. I never met the lady, but every photograph I've ever seen of her shows her smiling broadly or laughing, so I can only surmise that she was much livelier than she's depicted here. Lucille told me that the only time she was a little put out with Ida was when Lucille came to the UK in the midst of the 1947-48 tour (she'd had to stay in California to recover from some back surgery--an injury from her days as a dancer--and by the way, it was Lucille who was a dancer, Ida was a singer). When they went to France late in 1947, Lucille was eager to see Paris, as it was her first time there. Ida had been to Paris many times before with her first husband, Raphael (a renowned concertina player), so was rather blasé about it and wanted to go to a movie instead. The actress who plays Lucille is excellent; Lucille's actual voice was not quite so babyish, but in general she's a very good match. The actor playing Bernard Delfont is visually a very good likeness, too. With the exception of having a train go by the London Bridge (evidently one does not), I thought the costuming, hair, makeup and art direction caught the 1953-54 period extremely well, and the re-creation of filming "Way Out West" was wonderfully rendered, even to the point of using the actual rear-projection film for the boys' dance.

The "Robin Hood" film was in preparation in 1947-48, not 1953-54, but that's an acceptable "time-shift." It got as far as a complete script and preliminary casting. The producer was to be Alfred Shipman, not the fictional "Mr. Miffin," and L&H were to co-star with English comics Sid Field and Jerry Desmonde. It fell through because of financing problems, but you can bet that Babe was made aware of this at every stage and not left in the dark as he is in STAN & OLLIE. Anything that either Stan or Babe earned from 1940 onward went into the joint account of Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions, so Babe would have been apprised of this.

STAN & OLLIE shows the initial performances of the '53-'54 tour as being set in second-rate theaters and poorly attended. Aj Marriot would be the expert on this, but Tony Hawes told me that at least the first few shows were not in great venues and were not well publicized. Laurel and Hardy had toured the UK in 1952, and I think Bernard Delfont's strategy for the '53-'54 tour was to reach houses that the team hadn't played before, which were in increasingly outlying areas from the '47-'48 and '52 tours. As I understand it, engagements were added to the last tour because of increasing attendance and good reviews. The boys were making personal appearances, showing up at store openings and beauty contests, even during the '47-'48 tour, so this was not thought of as something beneath them as suggested in the movie; I'm sure they figured that publicity was just part of the job. Heaven knows they did their share of publicity photos and personal appearances for charity during their peak years in the '30s.

Laurel and Hardy did not do the dance from "Way Out West" nor sing "The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia" on stage, but that's certainly an acceptable invention, as both scenes are so well remembered today. They did end many of their stage performances with a song and dance to "Shine on, Harvest Moon," which of course they had performed in "The Flying Deuces." I was a little surprised at the onstage use of Stan eating the hard-boiled egg as in "County Hospital," as this bit depends upon our seeing all of Stan's facial reactions; I don't know how well this would play for somebody in the back row of a theater. As Stan mentioned to Jack McCabe, "in the theater, we have to play it more broadly."

Babe's health problems are depicted accurately. Tony Hawes told me about meeting Stan during that tour; he and his writing partner Denis Gifford had a script for a radio play called "Laurel and Hardy on the Moon," and they gave it to Stan to read. Stan said, "Thank you, fellows, but I doubt we'd be able to do it." He then opened the dressing room door to reveal Babe asleep in a chair, very red-faced and breathing heavily. Stan looked at Tony and Denis ruefully without saying a word, nor did he need to. It was obvious that Babe was getting through these performances through sheer will-power.

I thought John C. Reilly was superb, both as "Ollie" and as "Babe." During a couple of scenes when he wore glasses similar to Babe's, the resemblance was astonishing. He caught the nuances of Babe's voice both on-stage and off; it is a beautiful, subtle performance. Steve Coogan never quite caught Stan's on-stage smile for me, although he looks better in the film than he does in the promotional stills. (His eyes are open too wide!) He certainly captured Stan's off-stage voice, though.

I was very glad that there was no objectionable language, nor does the film suffer from "jitter-cam," hyperactive cutting, ludicrous CGI or any of the other maladies so often found in today's movies. The pace is a moderate one and scenes are allowed to play out fully. The emphasis is on performances, dialogue and the relationships between the characters. Hooray for that! (John Wayne, in a documentary about John Ford, said, "Good pictures are about *people.*" What a shame that this lesson is lost on so many contemporary filmmakers, who are besotted with special effects.)

For anyone who may be reluctant to watch the film because of the trailer's unfortunate emphasis on the fictitious squabbles between the boys, I would strongly encourage you to see it. There is far more bonding than bickering.

Compared to other movies about the lives of great screen comedians, STAN & OLLIE is by far the most successful, even with its occasional flaws. It is affectionate, and overall it is a loving tribute, something which is sorely needed after the debacles of that BBC "Stan" radio and TV play and the abysmal book "He."

So -- although I am a champion picker of nits, I give my warm congratulations to screenwriter Jeff Pope, director Jon S. Baird, and to Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly and all involved in making STAN & OLLIE. It is generally a fine film, and it has done the boys a great service in bringing them back to our popular culture.