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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

'Stan & Ollie' Theatrical: Solid Tale of Hardy Comedy Team Not Resting on Laurels

The numerous delights associated with the 2018 BBC Films biopic "Stan & Ollie" that is enjoying a current limited run in North America makes it tough to select an apt starting point. The strongest endorsement for this film is that this tough audience who likely never laughs at a movie and only occasionally smiles laughed out loud at least three times during this one. 

An early detour is noting that this site is running a post on the very funny Mill Creek Entertainment DVD set "The Laurel and Hardy Collection" tomorrow. 

One "Point A" is that this tale of the desperate times of the titular comedy team leading to the desperate measure of a 1950s stage-tour of the U.K. evokes strong memories of the "Trip" films of Laurel portayor Steve Coogan with fellow funny guy/actor Rob Brydon. That comic documentary series has Coogan and Brydon entertaining each other and the audience as they take restaurantcentric extended road trips through places such as Italy and Spain. Their dueling Connerys in what is recalled to be during the "Italy" film is hilarious.

Coogan trades in Brydon for Hardy portrayor John C. Reilly this time around. The strong performance of Reilly and his mastery of the comedy style of Hardy makes up for his recent film pairings with Will Ferrell.

The starting point for "Stan" is a dressing-room conversation during the filming of the 1937 Laurel and Hardy film comic western "Way Out West," This figurative form of pillow talk immediately verifies that a comedy team is like a married couple. Stan is expressing concern regarding both the romantic life and the heavy gambling of Ollie. This exchange includes the very Cooganesque line in which Stan advocates not bothering to marry and simply giving someone whom he hates a house.

A more serious topic sets the stage (no pun intended) for the rest of the film. Stan expresses a centuries' old criticism of capitalism in complaining that producer Hal Roach is horribly exploiting the team by making a fortune off of their films and not paying them very much. This leads to learning about the personal politics of Roach.

A confrontation with Roach prompts the first of many "TV Land" thoughts. Stan walks out on Roach and expects that Ollie will follow suit. However, Ollie stays behind and works with an ersatz Stan.

This development evokes thoughts of an episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Head writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) walks out over a conflict regarding his work. Although Rob expects that his team/close friends Buddy and Sally will join him, they stay behind. Comic anger ensues.

A related note regarding Van Dyke is that he befriends Laurel in the early '60s and studies under him.

The action in "Stan" then shifts to the aforementioned tour around which most of the film revolves. The objectives of this venture include giving Ollie much needed money and helping the team revive its popularity in order to make a planned "Robin Hood" parody film a reality for these men in tight spots.

This portion of the film strongly relates to the "Happy Days" empire of super-producer Garry Marshall. On the broader level, the genius of Marshall includes his reasoning that a show that is made in the '70s but set in the '50s never looks dated. This is one way that "Stan," like its subject, is eternal.

A narrower perspective relates to the failed "Days" spin-off "Joanie Loves Chachi." Referring to the well-publicized romance and subsequent break-up of stars Erin Moran and Scott Baio, Marshall notes that making the show is tough when Joanie no longer loves Chachi. The same principle clearly applies regarding the comeback tour of Laurel and Hardy.

The first laugh-out-loud moment comes when our boys do a bit with the bell on the front desk of a hotel. This reinforces the principle that something unexpected is funny and the recent comment by comedy legend Carol Burnett (who currently is touring) that funny always be funny. The more narrow focus this time is the HILARIOUS  YouTube video of the two cats sitting side-by-side and using their paws to ring a bell so that they will get a treat, 

The pure genius of both the source material and Coogan really comes out in a scene in which the unexpected truly is not anticipated. We see our Balki and Cousin Larry dragging a heavy trunk up a long stairway at a rail station. We instantly know that the trunk is going to fall back down the stairs; Ollie asking Stan for the time at the top of the stairs tells us how the trunk will fall.

Stan sadly looking down at the trunk on the platform below and essentially saying fuck it in a much kinder and gentler manner is where the genius enters the picture.

We additionally see the boys onstage doing a bit in which Stan accidentally puts on the hat of Ollie; a moment in which Ollie shows great exasperation but switches the hats himself makes you feel as if you are watching the '60s versions of Laurel and Hardy Gilligan and the Skipper doing their thing.

A moment in which a dejected Stan is reminded that Abbott and Costello have absconded with his career is not worth more mention than that. A scene in which Stan comments to Ollie outside a hotel that "the girls" are due to arrive is noteworthy for evoking thoughts of Art Carney and Jackie Gleason in "The Honeymooners." A bit of wife swapping occurs in the form of lanky funnyman Stan having a tough and flinty Russian wife and rotund straight man Ollie having the more ditzy and mousy spouse. 

All of this climaxes as Stan picks the wrong time and place to vent long-restrained resentment. This threatens the previously successful detente between the men. One could fully expect that to be the end of Laurel and Hardy.

The nature of the subject requires that the show goes on. The enhanced manner in which the guys take more than one for the team further enhances the sense that a comedy team is analogous to a married couple. You may not always like your strange bedfellow, but you always love him or her. 

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