A great time to be a Laurel & Hardy fan with the arrival of A, Stan & Ollie – the, incredibly, first ever biopic of the boys – and B, the first ever collection on Blu-ray of the team’s Hal Roach comedies in high definition. A great time indeed then to be a fan, providing you’re not a whinging nit-picker. No prizes for guessing I am that whinging nit-picker.
I’m of the aged ilk (over 30) who find it incomprehensible that a whole generation have now grown up never having seen Laurel & Hardy. They were a television staple ever since the box entered living rooms, but vanished around the mid-90s (along with most other black and white film clowns) as TV programmers lost interest in vintage cinema. Their recent revival on the UK’s Talking Pictures channel is a welcome sight, but in the age of Amazon Prime, unlikely to feature in most young people’s customised viewing schedules.
Under such threat of obscurity, it’s therefor been a reassuring delight to hear of the UCLA Film & Television Archive‘s recent efforts to restore and preserve every Laurel & Hardy film, despite no sizeable public demand for such an overwhelming and expensive undertaking.
The Archive have thus far restored around 20 of the 106 films in which the pair appeared together. Though much more work remains, this is already a fabulous accomplishment considering the decaying condition much of their original film negatives and prints exist in. Roll on the Blu-ray!
Universal Pictures UK released The Very Best of Laurel & Hardy – a three-disc set of eight films – on Blu-ray on December 10, 2018. Of these eight picks by Universal, only three have been restored by UCLA. But even those restorations are nowhere to be found on this set, as Universal have opted instead to license unrestored masters over a decade old. My inner geek rages on.
But it isn’t just my nerdy predilection for wanting to watch films in shiny HD that’s at stake. In this age of streaming’s continued encroachment on physical media’s presence, it is a genuine worry that access to classic cinema (particularly in its healthiest condition) will become an increasing challenge in years to come, as services like FilmStruck continue to fold and the likes of Netflix pick and choose which movies to offer on any given day. As John Lewis discontinue DVD players and HMV shut shop, are older/non-mainstream films destined to be glimpsed only at festivals or limited screenings?
A world without Laurel & Hardy would bring a particular sadness for me, as I always felt a kinship to their on-screen characters growing up. Stan & Ollie were portrayed as childlike innocents in a cruel and uncaring world. Rarely did they encounter anyone who understood or tolerated their empty-headedness. Landlords evicted them, wives nagged them, shopkeepers yelled at them, police assaulted them, cellmates threatened them and most just kicked them up the arse. Being the socially-awkward loner type as a younger loon, they were most definitely my peeps.
I’ve often felt the boys have been denied the kind of recognition the likes of Chaplin and Keaton receive as auteurs. It’s clear that when Laurel (the team’s uncredited writer and director) was in charge of their material, L&H’s “grown-up kids in an adult world” characterisations are clear and consistent throughout all of their Hal Roach years. When the team jumped to Fox and MGM in the 1940s and were stripped of their creative control, this dynamic does a 180 and it is the adult world who are now our POV characters and L&H are no longer seen as childlike or innocent, but a bumbling annoyance to the grown-ups. Considering their increasing age and declining health at this point, this makes for a painful sight indeed.
It strikes me L&H’s off-screen lives must have born some influence on their world view authorship, considering their countless failed marriages, Laurel’s decade-long failure as a leading man in early life, Hardy’s rock bottom self esteem stemming from his hefty girth – as well as their eventual banishment from Hollywood, leading to a rather sad final European stage tour in front of half-empty halls in the late 40s. Even in real life, the world failed to understand them.
It is this less distinguished period in their career that forms the story of Stan & Ollie. Usually I’m frustrated at the team pictured as wrinklies when this isn’t how they appeared in their finest on-screen moments, however for the sake of this story, it does make sense dramatically; the real-life boys only in fact became close friends during this late period – throughout the bulk of their film career, it was only on set that they chummed around. Hardy, chronically shy to join in what he perceived as genius Stan’s territory (the writing), would bail to the golf course as shooting wrapped.
Director Jon S. Baird (a fellow Aberdonian, which I did try not to hold against him) has certainly cast his loving tribute to L&H well. Steve Coogan is outstanding as Laurel, while John C. Reilly – though not quite as convincing due to an overly assertive characterisation and a slightly Fat-Bastard-from-Austin–Powers-esque rubber suit – gives a suitably warm portrayal as well. People seem to love Stan & Ollie based on critic reviews and audience reaction. It’s certainly evident that it’s been made from the heart, by fans for fans. But while I’d love to have loved it myself, I’m afraid I can’t say much else positive thanks to what I perceived to be awfully stilted/on-the-nose dialogue, a lack of evidence of the team’s comedy from their film years (will newcomers wonder if that funny dance from Way Out West was their only claim to fame?) and, despite some fictional dramatised conflict – which I’ve no problem with – a narrative that’s kinda dull.
But there are some nice moments (the bed scene), the wives are terrific (count me first in line to see an Ida Laurel movie) and if it goes some way – ANY way – to bringing UCLA’s restorations of the genuine article to the public at large, then all will be forgiven. And a ha-cha-cha.
Here is Stan in The Finishing Touch: