It's a rare treat to watch a film while it's still showing in the cinema. Normally it's DVDs or terrestrial TV rights for us. But as a long-time Laurel and Hardy fan, Stan and Ollie was one not to miss.
And boy was it one not to miss.
Their films are well known, as is the era when they made them - mostly under Hal Roach Studios. Stan and Ollie tells the less well-known bittersweet story of their reunion in the early 1950s, their plan to make a film in the UK, and a music hall tour here to rebuild their profile for that.
It's at once funny and tragic. It's funny because a film about Laurel and Hardy would be a failure if it wasn't. They are two of the best known comics of all time, and a film about them is bound to contain humour. There's plenty of it. Their tour brought to the stage the components of their films that would work in a theatrical setting. Old-time fans will enjoy seeing some of these routines re-enacted, as Steve Coogan and John C Reilly re-enact Stan and Ollie re-enacting their own sketches on stage. If you know their film County Hospital, you know what's coming, and it's as enjoyable as ever. Equally, even those who do not know the Laurel and Hardy films well will hugely enjoy this film. The gags are reproduced well enough that the same surprises trigger the same laughs as watching the Laurel and Hardy originals.
But there's more than just humour here. We get an insight into some of the strains in Laurel and Hardy's working relationship. We see some resentments that have built over the years come out. We see the pressures of being on tour for several months. We see tragic insights into Hardy's gradually failing health (he never recovered after this tour of the UK), and Stan's deep grief over the partner he loved (as a friend) more than he cared to admit to Ollie.
Delightfully, the film contains many of Laurel and Hardy's most well-known set-pieces. Some are reproduced on stage, but we also get some as they interact with each other and with the public whilst not performing. There is a scene near the start of the film where they check in to a guest house where they're staying. Stan staggers in having had to carry all the luggage, and the rest could be straight out of one of their films. Even watching them discuss how to negotiate a pay rise with Hal Roach, Stan is in character, promising not to antagonise Hal provided Hal doesn't say anything. And as they heave their trunk up the flights of steps from the railyway platform, everyone knows exactly what's going to happen. And it does.
That all made me wonder: Were the stage personas of Laurel and Hardy an extension of their natural personalities, so that meeting them in real life would have involved some of the banter and humour we know from the films. Or was this a device introduced by John S Baird as he planned the film, to incorporate more Laurel and Hardy humour.
The promotional blurb for the film said this: "Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the inimitable movie icons, Stan and Ollie is the heart-warming story..." There's a paradox there (either deliberately injected by the studio's PR team, to stress that the two actors have just achieved the impossible, or accidental): If Laurel and Hardy really are inimitable, they cannot be played by two modern-day actors.
And yet it turns out they're not inimitable. Reilly and Coogan do a brilliant job. They didn't look quite right (in my opinion, Reilly looked more like the real Ollie than Coogan did the real Stan), but everything else was spot on. We had the right accents, the mannerisms, the timing as they acted and interacted. Reilly had perfected Ollie's frustrated "Mmm-Hmmph" ("Hard boiled eggs and nuts! Mmm-Hmmph!"), and the look into the camera having fallen in the water yet again. He knew how to twiddle his tie whilst chuckling in deep tones to exude shyness. Coogan had perfected Stan's ability to scratch his mop of hair, and to roll his eyes and frown when confused. They'd mastered the dance routine from Way Out West, and we even got the bit when Stan drops an octave in the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.
There was even a short part for a very plausible looking James Finlayson, probably my favourite regular co-actor for Laurel and Hardy. Addressed as Jim, he only gets a couple of lines, but little touches like this endear the film to a Laurel and Hardy fan like me.
All of this makes me want to dust off my box set of the Laurel and Hardy films. When I bought it, it was reduced from a RRP of £200 (for 21 discs = 68 hours, 42 minutes!) down to £50. Checking just now, it's available on Amazon for just £44.88 (obviously prices will vary).