February 12, 2019


Laurel and Hardy - another fine mess: The real story of their final days: Stan & Ollie follows the comedians' final years. How closely does it match the reality? (Stephen Dixon, 1/09/19, Irish Times)

Forty years later, Stan Laurel was back in Britain, touring some of the same theatres he had appeared in before the first World War. As film artists, Laurel and Hardy were washed up: their glory days with Roach studios in the 1930s far behind and even the inferior Fox and MGM movies of the 1940s just bad memories.

Aged around 60, they embarked on three very long tours of Britain and Ireland, in 1947, 1952 and 1953-54 - their main source of income during those years. Neither had received a cent in residuals from the old Roach shorts that were constantly playing on American television.

At the height of their fame Laurel and Hardy rarely socialised together. Stan was the creative force, rewriting scripts, making props, working late in the editing suites. Ollie, always known as Babe, was far less driven: he gave it 100 per cent when the cameras were rolling then headed for the golf course or the racetrack with his drinking buddies.

It was only on these later variety tours that the comedians, constantly together on trains, ships and in hotels, really got to know each other properly for the first time and, in the words of their biographer, John McCabe (who knew both personally) "each found a cherished friend".

Stan & Ollie explores the 1953-54 tour, though it contains elements of all three. Directed by Jon S. Baird from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, it stars Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, with Shirley Henderson as Ollie's wife, Lucille, and Nina Arianda as Stan's Russian wife Ida.

Some events are elided for dramatic reasons and the chronology changed, but there is little sense in the movie that Stan was returning home, and to theatres where he would have been well known not only from films but in person from recent tours and much-earlier appearances. There is a grain of truth, and some emotional justification, in portraying Laurel and Hardy as semi-forgotten has-beens, I suppose, but contemporary reports show that, as Hollywood royalty, they were received rapturously by cheering crowds in austerity-stricken post-war Britain.

Stan, in particular, had difficulty visiting his family because he was mobbed whenever he set foot outside his hotel.

In Stan & Ollie, on the posters outside the sometimes tatty theatres (in fact they played the Number Ones) only their names appear, giving an impression they were onstage during the whole show. In reality, they performed a 20-minute sketch topping vast bills that included stars of the day such as Elsie and Doris Waters, budding comics like Harry Worth and the usual assortment of singers, jugglers, acrobats and animal acts.

The late ventriloquist Ray Allen told a story that demonstrated Oliver Hardy's essential sweetness and humility. At the end of each week Hardy, in poor health and at his heaviest, struggled up all the backstage stairs to tiny dressing rooms to obtain the autographs of every artist who had appeared on the bill, no matter how humbly. Alan suggested he might save Hardy the trouble and get the signatures for him. "Oh no," explained Ollie. "It is I asking the favour."

A famous story (in the film but chronologically misplaced) has them docking in Cobh in 1953. Their previous tour had ended only 11 months before and Hardy, as a US citizen, couldn't work in Britain until a full year had elapsed. However, he could perform in Northern Ireland if he entered from the Republic. No advance publicity about their arrival had been released, but the people of Cobh found out anyway and thronged the quayside to greet them. Stan, Ollie and their wives waved back from the deck, and suddenly the town's church bells started ringing out their theme tune, Dance of the Cuckoos. "I looked at Babe and he looked at me and we wept," Stan told McCabe.

Posted by at February 12, 2019 7:41 PM