Were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy the greatest comedy duo in film history?
Childlike, unimposing Stan Laurel was a Brit, the lantern-jawed, cartoon-faced son of a theater manager and an actress, born in Lancashire in 1890 and trained in the music hall, where he honed his skills in song, dance and comedy. For a time he worked as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy, and he arrived in the United States on the same ship as Chaplin and broke into film along with him.Oliver Hardy was an oversized, unusually graceful American. Born in Georgia in 1892, Ollie studied music and broke into early film in the East before moving to Los Angeles and being teamed with Laurel by Hal Roach Studios supervising director Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup”). As they say, it was a bowler-hatted match made in comedy heaven.Stan was the sweet-souled, easily upset man-child, while Ollie was the big, angry, pompous bully, who looked oddly like an enormous baby. “Stan & Ollie,” which was directed by Jon S. Baird (“Filth”) and written by Jeff Pope, who co-wrote “Philomena” with Steve Coogan, co-stars Manchester, England-born Coogan and American John C. Reilly, who has had a great run recently and triumphs here, as Stan and Ollie. Continue reading →
From director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope, the biographical dramedy Stan & Ollie follows the great comedy team of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), as they set out on a variety hall tour of Britain in 1953. With their golden era behind them and an uncertain future, the two funnymen quickly reconnect with their adoring fans and the tour becomes a hit, but that doesn’t dissolve the tension between them or cure Oliver’s failing health, leaving the two men wondering just how much they mean to each other.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Steve Coogan talked about what made him want to play Stan Laurel, what he was nervous about when it came to taking on such a comedy legend, the challenges of making the Laurel & Hardy comedy routines look so effortless, what he learned about John C. Reilly from working so closely with him, his personal favorite moment in the film, his new appreciation for the comedy duo, getting into the costumes and prosthetics, and reuniting with his co-star for an appearance in Holmes & Watson.
Collider: I loved this film and thought it was such a beautifully told story. You and John C. Reilly were both so terrific in it, and I really loved the women, as well.
STEVE COOGAN: It’s good that the women’s roles are not just loyal wife, boring roles.
What made you want to play Stan Laurel?
COOGAN: I had written with Jeff Pope before. I wrote a film called Philomena with Jeff, and it was at the Oscars five years ago. Jeff and I had been writing lots of stuff, in between that. He was my writing partner, but he had written this by himself. He said, “Would you be interested in playing Stan?,” and I heard that John C. Reilly was in the offering for Oliver. So, I thought, if John C. Reilly agreed, then I would be in. To me, a green light for me doing it would be if John agreed to it. And then, Jon S. Baird, the director, came and met me, talked to me, and had to decide whether he wanted me. I just started talking like Stan and doing an impersonation. Really, I just didn’t want anyone else to do it, although it was a bit of a responsibility. Also, anything you do, if you do interesting stuff, you’ve got to carry the risk of failure. Otherwise, you just play safe, all the time. If you’re creative, you can get very bored, very quickly, so you need to roll the dice, and I thought this was worthwhile.
Were there specific aspects of playing him or embodying him that made you nervous, or was it just the idea of doing it, at all?
COOGAN: I could do an impersonation of him, but I didn’t want the role to be a superficial facsimile of who Stan was. I wanted to do him justice. I wanted to make sure that John and I were well-matched in what we were doing, and that we built up a trust and a friendship to help us with the roles. I was anxious about it not having depth. Impersonating someone is quite useful sometimes, but it can be fraught with danger and only skin deep. I was anxious about that, and wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case. The other thing was the physicality, but I knew that if I put the work in, I could get that right. There’s a great clown advisor, called Toby Sedgwick, who taught us tips on how to move, gestures, physicality, and dancing. Once we were off to the races, we knuckled down and I thought it was doable, especially with John. When you’ve got a good partner, then you’ve got a job halved.
Image via Sony Pictures Classics
The comedy routines of Laurel & Hardy were hilarious and seemed effortless, while they clearly were meticulously worked on and thought out. What were the challenges of making that look easy and effortless on film?
COOGAN: It’s a skill, and you’re trying to emulate their skill. When they made their films, Stan was the brains behind the operation. Oliver did make a contribution, but Stan wrote most of them and directed a number of them. They had to make it look effortless. It’s very hard, especially when you’re doing a dance routine. You have to learn it, and then slightly unlearn it. You have to throw it away a bit. You have to learn it mathematically and musically, with discipline, and then you need to make it a little more ragged. The skill and the hard work is making it look effortless. When it just looks accidental, that’s through rehearsal. You rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse. We actually had nearly a month, before the film started, where we had to do dance routines, and practiced gestures and physicality. We’d all talk to each other. Every day, we dressed up. We got to know each other and got to know the characters a bit. The way we rehearsed the dances, in some ways, was exactly the way Laurel and Hardy would have rehearsed the sketches and the dance routines.
It seems like you couldn’t help but know each other so much better, by the end of this, than you would have, in the beginning. By the time you got to the end of the film, what new appreciation did you have for John C. Reilly? What did you learn about him, as an actor, through this experience?
COOGAN: I got to know him because we were working closely and we were co-dependent. It was a partnership. We were a team, and we had Jon S. Baird guiding us. John and me inevitably became friendly and close. What I learned from watching him is that he’s fastidious about his job. John is all about the work, with no star BS behavior. He’s always about making it authentic and real. He would call things out sometimes, when they weren’t quite believable. A couple of scenes were re-shot because they didn’t quite ring true. He’s committed, very professional, and also good fun. We made each other laugh. It was an utter delight [ . . . ]
The true story of Hollywood’s greatest comedy double act, Laurel and Hardy, is brought to the big screen for the first time. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the legendary movie icons, Stan & Ollie is the heart-warming story of what would become the pair’s triumphant farewell tour.
With their golden era long behind them, the pair embark on a variety hall tour of Britain and Ireland. Despite the pressures of a hectic schedule, and with the support of their wives Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda) – a formidable double act in their own right – the pair’s love of performing, as well as for each other, endures as they secure their place in the hearts of their adoring public.
THERE should be a blue plaque on the lamppost outside the Plough Hotel in Northampton to mark the October day in 1953 when a council worker found himself atop a wooden scaffold mounted on an old milk float painting the lamppost. Both swaying alarmingly.
Suddenly a second floor window opened and a familiar face popped out to ask the chap with the paint pot: “What are you trying to do? Recreate one of our films?”
Just then, the next door window opened and another familiar face emerged. The council painter was inadvertently performing a stunt for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The pair were in Northampton to begin what would turn out to be their last UK theatre tour at the city’s New Theatre. The sad story of that final tour is the subject of Stan And Ollie, a major film that will close the BFI London Film Festival in October, starring Steve Coogan and US actor John C Reilly. It was written by Jeff Pope, Coogan’s co-writer on acclaimed comedy-drama Philomena.
This was Laurel and Hardy’s fourth visit to Britain as a double act. On their first trip, in 1932, their arrival brought London’s Waterloo station to a standstill. When Bernard Delfont brought them over for a tour in 1947, they arrived in February and left in October, and then only because Hardy’s visa was about to expire.
During that season they played at both the Palladium and the Coliseum, an unheard-of accolade for performers; reopened a large section of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway and were inducted into the Grand Order of Water Rats by Robb Wilton, a star English comedian of the time.
Reviewing their act, which involved disastrous attempts to procure a driving licence, The Stage asked “Are Laurel and Hardy as funny in the halls as on the films?” and declared: “They are funnier.”
After a brief diversion to the continent they returned, with Hardy’s papers renewed, to top the bill at the Royal Variety Performance.
Visas weren’t a problem for Laurel. Born in Ulverston – then Lancashire, now Cumbria – he had retained his British nationality.
The UK tours were a welcome opportunity to visit his family including his sister Olga, the landlady of the Bull Inn at Bottesford, Leicestershire. There are numerous pictures of Stan and Ollie clowning behind the bar of Olga’s pub or just enjoying a pint.
On tour here, the pair became friendly with Dump Harris, a novelty xylophone player who bore a striking resemblance to Hardy (known to his friends as Babe). Several times Harris volunteered as a decoy to divert the attention of waiting crowds at railway stations.
Avoiding the scrum isn’t to say that Laurel and Hardy were grand or aloof. Despite their success they remained humble and grounded. In public they were fools; in private they were intelligent men, interested in the people they met. Laurel once went home with a pit band drummer to see his new baby.
Delfont enticed Stan and Ollie back again in 1952, opening in Peterborough, and then again in autumn 1953. There was a sketch set in a psychiatric hospital where Hardy played a patient and Laurel his visitor, with a doctor getting the two confused. Hardy urges Laurel to get a barrister and he returns with a section of a bannister.
By then, the years were catching up with them. Stan fell ill at the start of a week at Finsbury Park Empire in November 1953 and they were replaced by Jimmy Jewel and his cousin and sidekick Ben Warriss.
When the tour reached Newcastle a couple of weeks later the bill was joined for a week or two by a young ventriloquist called Ray Alan, who was thrilled to be working with his heroes. He watched them like a hawk and learned a lot. These were the days before Alan had created Lord Charles, his then touring companion being a dummy called Steve. Originally Steve had no spectacles but after Eric Morecambe put his own glasses on Steve for a backstage joke Alan bought a pair of child’s sunglasses, popped the lenses out and stuck them to the puppet’s head.
The showbusiness rule is that big stars get the dressing rooms nearest the stage but Alan recalled that after his last show Hardy, despite his legs failing him, made the effort to visit him two floors up in just such a room.
This was a perfect example of the Stan and Ollie’s nature. They kept a huge book of signatures and publicity shots of all the people they worked with and Hardy wanted Alan to sign it.
“I looked back quickly in the book,” Alan recalled in a TV interview. “There was Danny Kaye when he was a little boy. Jack Benny when he really was 39. It was a fantastic book. As I was signing it he noticed some little photographs, half-postcard size, that we used to give out and he said, like a little boy, ‘Do you think you could spare Stan and I a photograph?’ I was choked, I couldn’t believe it. They were wonderful, wonderful people.”
In May 1954 the tour reached The Palace, Plymouth, but after the first night Hardy had a heart attack and the duo returned to the US. Plans for a TV series were shelved as his health worsened.
They made a final appearance, on film, in a 1955 BBC special honouring the Water Rats. Hardy died, aged 65, on August 7, 1957, after a series of strokes. Laurel survived him by eight years, dying in 1965, aged 74. More than 50 years later their legacy lives on.
“Some say they were very funny gentlemen,” said Ray Alan. “I’d call them very funny, gentle men.”
Knowing me Alan Partridge, knowing you Stan Laurel. Aha!Steve Coogan has gone from playing the hapless Norfolk-based TV and radio host to playing one half of legendary comedy duo Laurel and Hardy in a new film.The first photo has been released of Coogan as Laurel alongside Guardians of the Galaxy actor John C Reilly, who plays Oliver Hardy in Stan & Ollie.The film, which follows the pair on their farewell tour, will close the BFI London Film Festival on 21 October.That will be its world premiere, ahead of its cinema release next January.
Laurel and Hardy earned their places as all-time comedy greats by starring in more than 100 films together from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Stan & Ollie is described as a “heart-warming story” that follows the pair on their “triumphant” final tour of UK and Ireland in 1953.
It has been penned by Jeff Pope, who wrote 2013’s Oscar-nominated Philomena with Coogan.
Director Jon S Baird said: “Stan & Ollie, at its heart, is a love story between old friends who just happen to be two of the most iconic comedic characters in Hollywood’s history.”
The film also will also star Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as Laurel and Hardy’s wives Ida and Lucille.