A Love Letter to STAN & OLLIE (Sony Pictures Classics 2018)


I told you Dear Readers I was going to see STAN & OLLIE when it came to my area, and last Saturday night I did just that. Taking the 22 mile trip down the highway to Swansea, MA to catch the 9:40 showing, I have good news and bad news. The good: STAN & OLLIE is one of the best Hollywood biopic I’ve ever seen, a loving tribute to the classic comedy duo. The bad: well, I’ll get to that a bit later.

The film follows Laurel and Hardy as they embark on a 1953 tour of the UK. The duo is older, in need of money, and Stan is working on obtaining funding for their screen comeback – an adaptation of the Robin Hood legend. Ollie is in poor physical condition due to his massive weight gain, but Stan has persuaded him to do the tour. They’re booked into a succession of second-rate houses, with a rather sparse turnout but the veteran troupers press on, adding some funny new gags to their repertoire.

The new film falls through, as the producer’s unable to secure funding for a Laurel & Hardy movie, but Stan continues to work up new gags for it, stringing Ollie along to keep his spirits up. The team’s wives come abroad to join them, Ollie’s devoted Lucille and Stan’s Ina, though the women aren’t really fond of each other. Things get ugly at a party in their honor, when Stan’s old resentment over Ollie making a film without him (1939’s ZENOBIA) while Stan was involved in a contract dispute with Hal Roach rears its ugly head, and harsh words are exchanged. The two stop talking to each other… until Ollie suffers a heart attack while they’re judging a bathing beauty contest.

The old friends mend fences in a touching scene, but doctors insist Ollie retire from show biz immediately. Stan is forced to try and continue the tour with a new, untried partner, but can’t bring himself to do it. Stan and Ina pack and get ready to return stateside, when a knock on the door finds Ollie, dressed and ready to return to the stage, despite his illness. It’s a chore, but he makes it through, and as they depart for the Irish leg of the tour, Stan lets Ollie know the new film isn’t going to happen. Ollie says he already knew, but let Stan believe he didn’t, because the show must go on!

Some dramatic license has been taken in STAN & OLLIE in order to give the film some conflict. As I told you in last week’s post on WAY OUT WEST, that 1937 comedy serves as the jumping off point for the new biopic. Stan argues with producer Hal Roach on the set, demanding more money and ownership of the Laurel & Hardy films. Didn’t happen. Stan was too much of a professional to cause a scene on a film set, though he did leave Roach during a contract dispute. Since Ollie was under a separate contract, Roach cast him in ZENOBIA opposite former silent star Harry Langdon. There was no animosity because of this, and no later public spat, but hey – can’t have a film without a little conflict, now can we!

Ollie was certainly ill, and did indeed suffer a heart attack on tour, but Stan wasn’t in the best of health either, having troubles with both his prostate and diabetes. There was indeed a ‘Robin Hood’ movie in the planning stages, but it was back in 1947. Be that as it may, STAN & OLLIE works mainly because of stars Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy. These two actors are pitch perfect as the duo, recreating many classic scenes and gags, and while Reilly has been singled out for his performance (deservedly so), let’s not give short shrift to Coogan as Stan Laurel. They are a delight, and both men are entitled to a large round of applause for bringing Stan and Ollie back to vivid life.

Equally good are Nina Arianda as Lucille and Shirley Henderson as Ina; the two women act as almost a second comedy team! Rufus Jones does good work as real-life tour promoter Bernard Delfont (he was the real-life brother of famed  producer Sir Lew Grade), Danny Huston shines in his brief turn as Hal Roach, and film buffs will enjoy cameos by Keith MacPherson as L&H’s perennial screen nemesis James Finlayson and Richard Cant as Harry Langdon.

Jeff Pope’s screenplay has called a “love letter” and “valentine” to Laurel & Hardy, and those are pretty apt descriptions. Though that necessary conflict arises, Pope shows how the boy’s undying affection and friendship for each other conquers all, as when Stan climbs into Ollie’s sick-bed to help keep him warm. I particularly enjoyed a small,  wistful moment when Stan, walking the streets of London, looks up at a movie poster of ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS, knowing he and Ollie will never get back to the big screen again. John S. Baird’s direction is subtle and unobtrusive, the hallmark of a good storyteller. STAN & OLLIE is not only for fans of Laurel & Hardy in particular, or classic films in general, but for fans of good, heartfelt filmmaking.

And now for the bad news (besides the film not getting any Oscar nominations!): while the multiplex had large crowds for AQUAMAN, GLASS, MARY POPPINS RETURNS, SERENITY, and VICE, the showing of STAN & OLLIE I attended played to an audience of one – namely Yours Truly. I didn’t expect a huge turnout, but neither did I expect I’d be getting a private screening! I felt a twinge of sadness about this (okay, more than just a twinge),as STAN & OLLIE is a good film about two great comic talents and deserves to be seen, preferably on the big screen. So if it’s playing at your local theater, do me a favor… go out and support the film. As a lifelong Laurel & Hardy fan, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Stan and Ollie deserve it.

The Real Stan & Ollie on their final tour

Stan & Ollie: OUR RELATIONS (Hal Roach/MGM 1936) & WAY OUT WEST (Hal Roach/MGM 1937)

Like many of you Dear Readers, I’m eagerly awaiting the new STAN & OLLIE biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, which hasn’t hit my area yet (and visit yesterday’s post for my thoughts on that film’s Oscar snub). I’m a huge Laurel & Hardy buff, and I spent last week warming up by watching “The Boys” in a pair of their classic comedies:

OUR RELATIONS wasn’t the first time Laurel & Hardy played dual roles (their 1930 short BRATS casts them as their own children, while 1933’s TWICE TWO finds them as each other’s spouses!), but it’s loads of fun! Stan and Ollie are two happily married suburbanites, while their long-lost twin brothers Alf and Bert are the seafaring “black sheep” of the family. Mother has informed Ollie the rascals wound up being hung from the yardarms, but it turns out Alf and Bert are alive and well, pulling into port on the S.S. Perriwinkle. The pair are conned out of their money by fellow sailor James Finlayson (who else!) under the guise of “investing” it for them (as Fin says when they leave, “Barnum was right!”). The ship’s captain (Sidney Toler, the future Charlie Chan) sends them to Denker’s Beer Garden to pick up a package for him – an expensive engagement ring for his sweetie. Couldn’t have picked two better guys for the job, right?

With but a dollar between them, Alf and Bert run into a couple of golddigging floozies (Lona Andre and the always welcome Iris Adrian ), who spot the ring and take the boys for a couple of high rollers –  and procede to run up a huge tab at the guy’s expense! The burly waiter (Alan Hale Sr.) takes the ring as collateral while Alf and Bert go to Fin to get their money back. Stan and Ollie soon arrive at the Beer Garden with their wives (Daphne Pollard, Betty Healy),  and now the fun really begins, with both sets of twins winding up at a posh nightclub before everything comes to a head on the waterfront, with Alf and Bert in cement overshoes as some gangsters (Ralf Harolde, Noel Madison) try to get the ring Bert unknowingly slipped into Stan’s pocket…

OUR RELATIONS is a classic slapstick comedy of errors with gags galore, like when the duo touch each others noses and go “Shakespeare – Longfellow” whenever they say the same thing simultaneously. Or sharing a beer with their one measly dollar, asking for two straws, and Hale brings a flagon that’s all foam (Stan asks for two spoons instead!). There’s a riotous scene involving Stan, Ollie, and perennial screen drunk Arthur Housman stuck together in a phone booth that was later reworked in the Three Stooges short BRIDELESS GROOM . And of course, plenty of Tit for Tat between Mr. Laurel, Mr. Hardy, and Mr. Finlayson!

Besides those previously mentioned, eagle-eyed comedy fans will want to keep a sharp lookout for Johnny Arthur, Dell Henderson, Gertrude Messinger, James C. Morton (as the mallet-wielding bartender), former Tarzan James Pierce, and Tiny Sanford. IMDb says Charlie Hall appears briefly at the pawn shop, but I guess I missed him! The story is credited to Richard Connell (best known for his oft-filmed short story THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) and comedy vet Felix Adler, with adaptation by Charley Rogers and Jack Jevne, with Stan providing plenty of uncredited material, as he always did. Harry Lachman’s direction keeps things moving briskly, and the whole shebang is credited as “A Stan Laurel Production”.

WAY OUT WEST is also ‘A Stan Laurel Production’; both were designated as such by Hal Roach to appease his star comic (who’d been serving in that capacity unofficially anyway) after an argument. Anytime you put classic comedians in a Wild West setting, fun is sure to follow, and WAY OUT WEST is no exception. Stan and Ollie are on their way to the rowdy town of Brushwood Gulch to find young Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), whose father has died and left her the deed to a gold mine. They’ve never met her, and saloon owner Mickey Finn (Finlayson, of course!), Mary’s ‘guardian’, conspires to pass off his main attraction wife Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne) as Mary and get the deed for themselves. When the Boys discover the ruse, chaos ensues as a mad scramble to return the deed to its rightful owner begins…

This scenario (from a story by Rogers and Jevne, with Rogers, Adler, James Parrott, and an uncredited Stan writing the script) allows Laurel & Hardy to engage in some of their most memorable gags, including Stan’s famous “Thumb Trick” – and admit it, all you L&H fans out there have tried it! We first meet The Boys on the road to Brushwood Gulch, where they have to cross a river, which proves disastrous for poor Ollie! The “block and tackle” scene is simply a masterpiece of comic construction (not to mention destruction!). Best of all is the musical interludes with The Avalon Boys singing group (featuring a young bass singer named Chill Wills !), as Stan and Ollie do a cute comic dance routine to “At the Ball, That’s All”, then later join in on a rendition of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, with Stan lip synching towards the end, dubbed by first Wills, then Lawrence!

James W. Horne took the director’s chair for WAY OUT WEST, as he did in so many other L&H romps. James C. Morton is again a bartender (complete with mallet!), Stanley Fields an ornery Sheriff, and Harry Bernard, silent star Flora Finch, Mary Gordon, and Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones contribute uncredited bits. WAY OUT WEST serves as the jumping off point for the new STAN & OLLIE movie, and I for one can’t wait to see it. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, and you can bet I’ll have a review for it ASAP… or I’ll eat my hat!

 

Double Your Fun: Laurel & Hardy in BLOCKHEADS (MGM 1938) and SAPS AT SEA (United Artists 1940)

Hal Roach first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy in 1927, beginning a long and prosperous screen comedy collaboration. The pair became the movie’s most beloved, and funniest, screen team, a point  that’s hard to argue against after a recent rewatching of BLOCKHEADS and SAPS AT SEA, two films that each clock in at less than an hour, but pack more laughs than many longer, larger budgeted films of the era – or any era, for that matter!

In BLOCKHEADS, L&H are soldiers during WWI, and Stan is ordered to stand guard in the trench until the troop returns from battle. Twenty years later, he’s still there! Found by a pilot he shoots down, Stan is taken to an Old Soldiers’ Home, when Ollie (once again a henpecked husband) spots his picture in the newspaper. Ollie rushes to see his old pal, and finds him sitting in a wheelchair with his leg tucked under him. Thinking Stan’s lost a limb, Ollie picks him up and brings him home to meet his wife, and of course mayhem ensues as they attempt to climb upstairs to Ollie’s thirteenth floor apartment, encountering trouble at every floor, and a final melee with Ollie’s wife, neighbor Patricia Ellis, and jealous husband Billy Gilbert !

A battalion of comedy writers (Felix Adler, James Parrott, Charley Rogers, Arnold Belgard, and former silent star Harry Langdon) are credited with the script, but let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes contributions of Stan Laurel. Stan held court during the writing sessions for L&H’s films, supervising the entire project, and many of the quick-hit gags sprung from his fertile comic mind. It’s hard to say who came up with what, since all were great gag writers, but they come fast and furious: Stan in the trench, eating beans, tosses his empty can onto a pile (a virtual “hill of beans”!); the aforementioned wheelchair sight gag; perennial nemesis James Finlayson battling Ollie; an obnoxious brat (Tommy Bond, Butch of the OUR GANG shorts) kicking his football on one of the floors; and Stan smoking his “hand pipe” (first used in WAY OUT WEST). One of my favorite gags is when Stan tells Ollie, “You remember how dumb I used to be?…Well, I’m better now”, followed by a series of mishaps that causes Ollie to repeat, in his own inimitable way, “You’re better now”!

Billy Gilbert as the big-game hunting jealous neighbor adds his own blustery brand of buffoonery. Like Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy, Gilbert made a great foil for the boys in many of their shorts and features. Minna Gombell takes the role usually filled by Mae Busch as Ollie’s combative wife. John G. Blystone is the credited director (he also worked with the boys on SWISS MISS), but Stan had final say on all things Laurel and Hardy. After BLOCKHEADS, the team and producer Hal Roach left MGM (though Stan and Ollie would return five years later under drastically different circumstances).

Roach moved his output to United Artists, and his last with Laurel and Hardy is one of my favorites, 1940’s SAPS AT SEA. In this one, the boys work in a horn manufacturing company, where all the noise causes Ollie to have a nervous breakdown (“Horns! Horns!). He’s sent home to get some peace and quiet – no chance of that with Stan around! Ollie’s doctor (Finlayson again) recommends an ocean voyage, which Ollie refuses, but Stan has a brilliant idea (for a change); they could just rent a boat and stay in the harbor, getting as much fresh salt air as they would by going a-sea!

After some chaos involving wayward plumbing (silent legend Ben Turpin cameos as the cross-eyed plumber in his final film appearance) and Stan’s music teacher (Eddie Conrad) stopping by to give him music lessons (driving Ollie berserk!), the boys head to their dilapidated rented scow ‘Prickly Heat’, with a goat named Narcissus in tow (because Dr. Fin recommended Ollie drink plenty of goat’s milk!). Escaped killer Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer, playing it straight), chased down to the docks by police, sneaks aboard and hides on the boat, but Narcissus chews through the line, causing the boat to drift out to sea.


Grainger and his gun (nicknamed Nick Jr.) take control, dubbing the boys Dizzy and Dopey, and ordering them to rustle up some grub… or else! Having no food on board, Stan and Ollie decide to serve Grainger a “synthetic” meal, consisting of string spaghetti, sponge meatballs, paint tomato sauce, soap grated cheese, and the like. The killer watches them make the deadly concoction, then forces them at gunpoint to eat it themselves! More mayhem occurs when Stan begins playing his trombone, causing Ollie to go berserk again and subdue the criminal, just as Harbor Patrol comes across the adrift boat, followed by a funny coda and “another nice mess” Stan gets Ollie into!

Director Gordon Douglas , a graduate of the OUR GANG shorts, keeps things moving swiftly, and writers Adler, Langdon, and Rogers return, but as usual Stan Laurel is the genius behind the scenes. Some of the gags are old (the ‘mama’ doll under the rocking chair, for instance), but Stan and Ollie make them all seem fresh. SAPS AT SEA is their last really great comedy; when they signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox, creative control was taken out of Stan’s hands, and their later films suffered for it. Thank goodness their films under Hal Roach still survive, masterpieces of comedy delivered by the best in the business. The world is a better place thanks to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy!


Quirky Jerky: Jerry Lewis in THE BELLBOY (Paramount 1960)

The late, great Jerry Lewis was not just a funny man, he was an innovative filmmaker whose talents behind the cameras matched his onscreen antics. Paramount Pictures gave him carte blanche on THE BELLBOY, his first film as producer/director/writer/star, a film with “no story, no plot, just a series of silly sequences” following the misadventures of Stanley, the world’s most inept bellboy. To the best of my knowledge it is the first of its kind… even W.C. Fields’ bizarre NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK and Olsen & Johnson’s wacky HELLZAPOPPIN’ had some semblance of loose plot foisted on them by nervous studio execs!

Lewis was doing his nightclub act at Miami’s Fontainebleu Hotel at the time, and already had CINDERFELLA in the can. Paramount wanted a summer release, but Lewis thought the film would do better in the Christmas season, so he concocted this loose, madcap romp done in blackout style, and filmed during the day at the hotel. He rounded up stand-up comics playing the area (Bob Clayton, Sonnie Sands, Herkie Styles, Jack Durant) to play minor parts, even corralling Milton Berle to play himself in one funny sequence.

Comedian/impressionist Bill Richmond pops up amidst the chaos as Stan Laurel , and that’s no coincidence. Lewis had long been a fan of Laurel & Hardy’s humor, and he asked Stan to work as a gag writer on THE BELLBOY. Laurel refused the request, but went over the script for Jerry, making notations and suggestions which Lewis diligently followed. Lewis even named his character after the comic giant, and THE BELLBOY is a love letter to the kind of silent slapstick Laurel did best, a tribute to the man’s generosity toward younger comedians.

The movie featured another first: Lewis came up with what’s now known as Video Assist, a device where the director could watch the footage being shot to assure he’s getting the scene he envisioned. Today the system is used on virtually every movie made, and Jerry Lewis is to thank for that. THE BELLBOY is a unique film in the Lewis canon, and I think it’s among his best. It’s pure, unadulterated Jerry Lewis zaniness that defies description, full of wacky sight gags that’s sure to please fans of inspired lunacy. Even non-fans of Lewis’s films will get a kick out of this if they give it half a chance.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the memories of Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel, both of whom brought so much needed joy and laughter into the world!)  

Another Fine Mess: Laurel & Hardy in JITTERBUGS (20th Century Fox 1943)

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Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the screen’s most beloved comics. Their Hal Roach comedy shorts contain some of the screen’s funniest moments, capitalizing on their unique comic personas. But by the 1940’s, Stan and Ollie had separated from Roach, and were plying their trade in features at 20th Century Fox. No longer in control of their material, the roles they played could’ve been filled by any pair of comic actors. That’s what makes later L&H efforts like JITTERBUGS so depressing.

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Stan and Ollie are two itinerant musicians (“The Original Zoot Suit Band”) conned into aiding con artist Chester Wright into hawking “instant gas pills”. The scam gets uncovered in the small town of Midville, where Chester accidentally steals pretty young Susan’s purse. Since he’s smitten with her, he returns it, and discovers Susan is being swindled by some gangland goons. The con plays a con on these cons, aided by Stan and Ollie. Stan dresses in drag as Susan’s aunt, and after some complications, the gangsters are rounded up, Chester and Susan get together, and everything’s hunky dory.

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It’s strange to see Laurel & Hardy in this 40’s milieu, acting like 40’s hepcats, surrounded by energetic jitterbuggers. Like I said before, the parts could’ve been played here by any pair of comic actors. The uniqueness of what made Laurel & Hardy so special is nowhere to be found. The boys look older, but definitely not wiser here. The gags they participate in are stale as old bread, but the duo’s natural funniness does manage to shine through in glimpses. Vivian Blaine (Susan) had a fine singing voice, wasted here with some forgettable ditties. She had more success on the Broadway stage, creating the role of Adelaide in GUYS & DOLLS, which she also played in the film version.

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Bob Bailey (Chester) never made a big splash in films, either. He was a radio star known for the series YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR. The cast is loaded with Familiar Faces: Douglas Fowley, Noel Madison, Lee Patrick, Robert Emmett Keane, Anthony Caruso, and Francis Ford. Director Malcom St. Clair had a long, undistinguished film career; his best known credit is probably THE CANARY MURDER CASE, an early talkie with William Powell as suave sleuth Philo Vance, featuring Jean Arthur and Louise Brooks.

Screenwriter Scott Darling has 196 credits listed on the IMDb! He wrote the ongoing silent serial THE HAZZARDS OF HELEN, all 119 chapters totaling over 23 hours. That alone would get him in the record books, but Darling didn’t stop there. He’s responsible for a ton of B-movies, some of them quite good: CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA, MYSTERY OF MR. WONG, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , WEIRD WOMAN, COBRA WOMAN, THE SPIDER WOMAN, DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, KIDNAPPED, BLUE GRASS OF KENTUCKY, and his last, DESERT PURSUIT. In October of 1951, the prolific writer was going through a painful divorce. His car was found parked on a beach, his wallet in the ocean surf. Scott Darling’s body was later found in the Pacific Ocean, a suicide.

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JITTERBUGS is not among Scott Darling’s, or Laurel & Hardy’s, best work. It’s sad to see the two great comedians wasted in an inconsequential movie like this. Any of their silent movies or 30’s comedies will bring you much more joy than sitting through JITTERBUGS. Don’t waste your time on this one; go find a copy of SONS OF THE DESERT instead.

 

 

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