Saturday, March 2, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie was written by Jeff Pope and directed by Jon S. Baird.

Pope has primarily worked in TV. On the film side, he previously wrote Essex Boys, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman and Philomena. Baird previously directed Cass and Filth

Stan & Ollie is a well made, well acted and well directed little film that's long on  sweetness and sentimentality, and short on actual plot. 

Seriously, there's not a lot that actually happens in the film. I like character driven pieces as much as the next guy, but this is ridiculous! In fact there's so little that actually happens it makes me wonder why the hell they bothered making the film in the first place. I'd have much rather seen a biopic about how Laurel & Hardy started, rather than one about their sad, melancholy last days.

Even on the rare occasion when something does occur, the movie never follows through with it. For example, Stan & Ollie embark on a series of live shows in the UK that fails miserably. But not really, as they eventually play to packed houses. Ollie makes a movie without Stan that causes the team to break up. But not really, as they immediately get back together. Ollie suffers a heart attack that ends his career. But not really, as a few days later he struggles through another show. 

Stan & Ollie isn't a particularly humorous film either. I get that they were going for a behind the scenes peek into their real lives, but... I dunno. It just seems counter-intuitive to me to make a serious movie about the world's greatest comedy duo.

Of course the big draw here are the performances. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do a spectacular job as Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. In fact they're so good that after a few minutes you forget you're not watching the real things!

Most people are raving about John C. Reilly's amazing turn as Ollie, but I actually think Coogan was more impressive. Not to take anything away from Reilly, but a good chunk of his performance relied on his terrific prosthetic makeup and fat suit. Coogan had to replicate Stan with his own bare face!

Sadly, as good as the performances are, they're in service of nothing.

Uh-oh... as longtime readers of Bob Canada's BlogWorld know, any time you see this logo on the screen you should gather your belongings and briskly head for the nearest exit. Sony's the absolute worst, and I honestly don't understand how they're still in business.

This is actually a Sony Pictures Classic movie though, which is a division of Sony. SPC is a little better, as they generally release low budget prestige films like Call Me By Your Name, Foxcatcher and Whiplash, that are generally higher in quality than the usual Sony fare.

So far Stan & Ollie's grossed just $5 million here in the States, against its minuscule $10 million budget. It's done a little better overseas, where it's made $13.9 million, for a worldwide total of $18.9 million.

Obviously the studio never intended this to be a box office blockbuster— hence its extremely limited release. This is an Oscar® bait movie, plain and simple. 


The Plot:
In 1937, Stan Laurel (played by Steve Coogan) & Oliver Hardy (played by John C. Reilly) are at the height of their global popularity. Sadly neither of them are reaping the financial rewards from their films, which are owned by Hal Roach Studios. 

Stan, the brains of the duo, says as soon as their contracts are up they should quit Roach Studios and start making their own pictures in order to become rich. Ollie, who owes thousands in alimony to his various ex-wives, is unwilling to take such a risk. Besides, Roach (who's portrayed here as a sleazy con artist) has the two signed to staggered contracts, making it impossible for them to quit at the same time.

Despite this, Stan quits Roach Studios to sign with 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately Ollie misses the meeting, as he's still tied to his contract and forced to make Zenobia, aka "The Elephant Picture." His absence forces Fox to pass on signing the duo, and the two are forced to remain with Roach. This causes Stan to feel betrayed by his best friend.

Sixteen years pass. It's now 1953 and Laurel & Hardy's careers are winding down. They embark on a grueling music hall tour in the UK and Ireland, which Stan hopes will attract the attention of investors who'll bankroll his proposed new Robin Hood film. Their slimy and incompetent manager Bernard Delfront books the Boys in tiny, out of the way venues, where they play to nearly-empty theaters.

Despite these setbacks, Stan continues writing gags for the Robin Hood movie. Eventually the public becomes aware of their tour, and the music halls begin filling up. After a while Delfront starts booking them in larger and more respectable venues.

Unfortunately there's no news from the film's investor, and he refuses to take Stan's calls. Frustrated, he shows up at the producer's office in person, where an assistant tells him the funding fell through and the Robin Hood picture is dead. Stan's devastated, and can't bring himself to tell Ollie. He continues writing the script as if everything's proceeding normally.

Eventually Stan's wife Ida and Ollie's 
wife Lucille join them on the tour. The two women constantly bicker with one another, adding to the tension. The Boys play a series of sold out shows at the Lyceum Theater in London. During an after party, Stan brings up The Elephant Movie to Ollie, which causes a huge fight between the two. Years of resentment surfaces as Stan says he's always been the brains of the act. Ollie tells him they were never friends, and are only together because Hal Roach happened to put them in the same film decades ago. This causes the two to split up.

Despite their breakup, the Boys are obligated to continue the tour and their public appearances. They're booked as judges at a beauty contest, but before they can announce the winner, Ollie suffers a heart attack and collapses. His doctor orders strict bed rest until he's healthy enough to travel back to the States.

Delfront suggests that Stan complete the tour with a new partner, Nobby Cook. Stan reluctantly agrees. He then goes to Ollie's room and tells him the news. Ollie says his doctor told him he can never perform onstage again, as the strain on his heart could be fatal. Stan crawls into bed with Ollie (not like that!) to comfort him. The two admit they didn't mean what they said during their fight, and lie next to one another in silence.

The next day Stan is set to perform with Nobby Cook. Once he sees Cook backstage practicing Ollie's part, he realizes he can't go through with it and cancels the show. He tells his wife he's 
returning to America with Ollie.

Ollie sneaks out of his hotel room and visits Stan. The two admit their brotherly love for one another, and Ollie says they have a show to do. That night they perform in front of an packed house, as Ollie struggles to get through the show.

They then sail to Ireland for the next leg of the tour. Stan nervously works up the courage to tell Ollie that the Robin Hood movie fell through. Ollie says he figured it out a long time ago. They arrive in Ireland to thunderous applause, greeting by thousands of fans. A weakened Ollie summons the strength to perform on last perfect show with his friend.

A title screen informs us that Ollie's health never improved, and he died in 1957. Stan refused to appear without his partner, and as a result never worked again. He continued writing Laurel & Hardy bits and scripts till his death in 1965.


• There's honestly not a lot to say about Stan & Ollie, so this won't take long.

• The movie begins with a title card stating that Laurel & Hardy's films were dubbed into dozens of languages and shown in virtual every country, which made them global superstars. Eh, that's mostly true. They were indeed known around the globe, but their films weren't actually dubbed.

See, back in the early days of Hollywood, dubbing a movie into another language was apparently an impossible task, similar to landing a man on the Moon. So in order to sell their films in foreign markets, Laurel & Hardy actually performed them in various languages— English, Spanish, French, German and Italian! 

The studio hired vocal coaches to help the Boys learn the proper pronunciations and inflections, and the scripts would be translated and written phonetically on cue cards. They'd bring in an entirely new supporting cast— fluent in a particular language— to film each version.

In all they shot each of their movies a whopping FIVE times! Crazy!

• The movie opens with a very long tracking shot, following Laurel & Hardy as they wind their way through the studio backlot and onto a bustling soundstage. In all the scene lasts a good five, maybe six minutes. 

I've always been a sucker for a good unbroken shot. This one's actually several takes expertly stitched together to make it appear like one long shot, but it's still very impressive. Kudos!

• There's an odd scene in which Stan & Ollie are laboring to carry a large trunk up a long flight of stairs. Once they get to the top, Stan accidentally lets go of the trunk, and it slides several hundred feet to the foot of the stairs.

Of course this is a recreation of one of the better known gags from their films. When I first saw this scene, I assumed it was gonna be a running gag that their bits would start happening to them in real life. Nope! The trunk scene's the only time it happens, which just makes it all the more odd. 

Hey guys, it's not a running joke if it only happens once!

• There are two or three scenes in which Coogan and Reilly recreate famous Laurel & Hardy routines, and they do a great job of it. I only wish they'd done more. 

As it is, the film shows us what the real Laurel & Hardy were like (more or less), but it does little to tell us why they were so famous. 

If you're under thirty and have no idea why the Boys were so universally beloved, you'll find no answers within the film.

• In the third act, Ollie suffers a debilitating heart attack and collapses. His doctor grimly informs him that his career is over, as he'll certainly die if he ever performs on stage again.

Sometime later, Ollie sneaks out of bed and tells Stan he's determined to finish their UK tour, doctors be damned. Stan smiles sweetly at his old friend, and the two of them head out onto stage.

What the hell?

What kind of person would let their best friend risk their very life for something as trivial as a goddamned stage show? Wouldn't it have made a lot more sense if Stan had said, "No, Ollie, I won't let you do it. You've got a wife who loves and adores you, and she's much more important than any show."

I get that they were going for a "The Show Must Go On" type of thing, or trying to show how important performing was to Ollie. But as filmed, it just made Stan look like a colossal dick.

• As is typical of all biopics, Stan & Ollie plays fast and loose with the facts, and even makes up events out of whole cloth to generate drama where none actually existed.

Here's just a few of the outright fabrications:

— Most of the plot, such as it is, revolves around Stan's resentment at the fact that Ollie made "The Elephant Movie" without him. This eventually causes the duo to split up

This is all 100% pure fiction.

Stan was never angry at Ollie for shooting the movie, as he understood he was under contract to do so. Which of course means the two of them never broke up over it. In fact as far as I know they never broke up over anything.

— Another major thing the movie fudges is Stan & Ollie's ages in 1953. In the film they look relatively young, just a little bit older than they appeared in 1939.

This is what they really looked like in '53. Yikes! I can kind of understand why they deliberately cheated their ages in the film, as they were well past their primes by the fifties. I hate to say it, but Stan looks positively ghoulish!

— In the film, Hal Roach is portrayed as a harsh, overbearing ogre. In reality, he was nothing like that.

— The Boys did not have a sweet offer from 20th Century Fox in 1939.

— Their popularity had faded somewhat by 1953, but not to the extent shown in the movie.

— Laurel & Hardy actually went on three tours in the UK. The movie merges them all into one. I'm actually OK with that change, as it's not that big a deal. I'm less OK though with the fact that the tours were not the poorly-attended fiascoes depicted here, and were all actually quite successful. 

— Their tour agent Bernard Delfont was not a mealy-mouthed, incompetent charlatan as he's portrayed in the film.

— Hardy did suffer a mild heart attack on their third UK tour, which resulted in them canceling the rest of the dates. As such, he didn't risk his life by defying his doctor's orders and finishing the tour.

The real story is actually much more tragic. After his heart attack, Hardy went home, rested and eventually recovered. The two were prepping to start shooting a new film (not sure if it was a Robin Hood picture or not!) when STAN suffered a debilitating stroke that ended their career as a team. Sad!

Stan & Ollie is a sweetly sentimental little character study, that inexplicably examines the sad, final days of the world's greatest comedy team. Unfortunately, since nothing of note actually happened during this period of their lives, the movie makes up a host of fabricated events. Just like all biopics! It features amazing performances by Steven Coogan and John C. Reilly as the Boys, but even they can't save the uneventful and fictionalized script. It probably deserves a C+, but I'll bump it to a B- for the performances.

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