Comedy is one of the great joys of life, a chance to sit back and ignore the serious business of life for a moment in favour of poking fun at, musing on its ups and downs, and sometimes just being plain silly and goofy in a way that is wondrously therapeutic to the soul.
But while comedy might be lighthearted and diverting on the outside, it is often anything but on the inside, taking a considerable toll on performers and their relationships which are anything but humourous away from the stage.
There are, however, exceptions to the rule, such as Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), two comedians with backgrounds in vaudeville who were brought together by Hal Roach as a comedy team for his studio which for much of cinema’s early decades was a production force to be reckoned with.
The remarkable thing is that even though they were in essence an artificial construct borne of business necessity, they became fast and devoted friends, as in sync comedically as they were personally.
Stan & Ollie, directed by Jon S. Baird from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, celebrates the durability of this partnership which survived the ruthless business machinations of Hal Roach, who had the men on separate out-of-sync contracts that meant they could never leave him as an intact team, one or two poor career decisions engendered by Roach’s contractual arrangements and the shifting tastes of comedy consumers.
While there is some tension embedded in the narrative, generated by the need of every biopic to create some drama with a capital “D”, it is largely fabricated for cinematic purposes with the tensions between the two men no more malignant or generated than those between any two long time friends.
Contrary to the trailer which suggests a major rupture at play between the two during a make-or-break tour of England and Ireland in 1953, when their star was sadly very much on the wane, their friendship survived everything that was thrown at them, standing them in stark contrast to our great comedy duos such as Abbott & Costello who famously hated each other (or again, so the story goes).
Not that there weren’t pressures aplenty on them.
After riding high through the 1920s and ’30s and into the 1940s on a beguilingly whimsical blend of slapstick comedy with Hardy as the impatient straight man and Laurel the clumsy child-like friend, Laurel and Hardy found themselves in the early 1950s, after an impressive 107 films (short and feature-length), as publicly-perceived has-beens.
They weren’t of course having made their last film, Atoll K, in 1950 and continuing an exhaustive tour of stage shows to crowds who remembered with affection the comedy of a duo where Laurel was the creative powerhouse and Hardy the perfect partner.
But the truth was they were past their prime, professionally and in Hardy’s case, physically, with a congestive heart condition imperilling his ability to perform the necessary slapstick vigour on stage,with the tour acting as a last ditch attempt to secure a film deal that would put them into the cinemas of the world, and erase the idea that they were outdated retirees (a running joke through the film).
The very real pressures facing them, or more particularly Laurel who bore the brunt of the creative and business side of their partnership, form a significant part of the central narrative of Stan & Ollie, with most acutely aware that time is likely against them.
Refreshingly though Pope, who describes the duo as comedy heroes, doesn’t let this thread dominate with far more attention paid to the closeness of the men’s friendship (and the frenemy status of their wives, Hardy’s Lucille, played by Shirley Henderson, and Laurel’s Ida, played by Nina Arianda), and the obvious affection between two men who loved each other as much off-stage as on.
In various low-key but powerfully emotional ways, Stan & Ollie demonstrates again and again how much their partnership extended beyond prat-filled singing, whimsically silly dance routines (usually to their theme music “The Cuckoo Song”) and superlatively simple visual comedy, much of which is recreated as we follow the two men on what amounted to their final big tour together.
This closeness is demonstrated when they’re on the ferry to their tour dates in Ireland, where they received a rapturous rock star welcome, where the two men talk openly and honestly about their likelihood of making another film (not high), their love of the same jokes (very high) and how they would miss each when they were no longer performing.
The intimate friendship demonstrated in just this one beautifully-moving scene is buttressed by their final performance on stage in the film where Hardy, heart conditions be sweetly damned, danced through a physically-demanding dance routine because it matter so much to him and he knew, to Laurel.
The odds of him collapsing then and there are quite real but he soldiers on, the two men smile at each other revelling in the ease and comfort of their friendship and on-stage partnership in a way that will leave you smiling at the sheer joy of their transportive rapport.
Even the credits provide a touching homage to how close they were, explaining that even after Hardy died in 1957 that Laurel kept writing material for them until his own death in 1965.
It’s a simple two line update on the legendary comedy partnership but it speaks volumes about two men whose lives are brought to moving, heartwarming but never less than real life in Stan & Ollie, performers who weren’t inured to career struggles and business and creative schisms but whose friendship survived all kinds of ups and downs, allowing them to bring joy and endless amusement (including to yours truly who spent his childhood watching the short films on TV) well past their heyday, reminding us at every turn that it is possible for voluminous on-stage and on-screen laughs to be every bit as resoundingly loud and appreciative away from the spotlight.