For how many more years are we all going to remember the comedy giants of the early age of cinema? When I was a lad, the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin were shown on TV all the time. I guess they weren’t that old at the time – yikes, where does the time go?! Bob Monkhouse had a regular TV show where he indulged in the comedy nostalgia – Mad Movies – and kept alive the antics of the Keystone Cops and others. My late father was a big fan of Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle – which today is like saying you enjoy Gary Glitter – and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle loved Laurel and Hardy. She saw them at the London Palladium in 1947; it was one of her favourite memories.
But what do these old stars mean to today’s YouTube generation? It’s inevitable that at some point the memories will fade for good. There’s a sad and beautiful song from a long-forgotten 1980 musical, The Biograph Girl, about silent film star Mary Pickford, where the advent of the talkies meant that no one wanted to see the silent oldies anymore: “Put it in the tissue paper, they won’t want that shadow till another day, will we be reissued later, or condemned for life upon a shelf to stay?” In live theatre, my great-aunt, born in 1905, adored the old music-hall artists and would sing the songs of Marie Lloyd, Hetty King and Vesta Tilley. Even today, I still think The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery is one of the most charming songs I know – and there’s no one alive who was around when that was in the charts (so to speak). And talking of the charts, that always used to be one way of keeping old songs alive. The recent death of the much-loved Windsor Davies has reminded us how his version of Whispering Grass with Don Estelle, reached No 1 in the summer of 1975. Laurel and Hardy’s On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine spent four weeks at either No 2 or No 3 around Christmas the same year. Can’t imagine either of those happening today.
But while there are new releases like Stan and Ollie hitting our screens, maybe interest in these old characters will hang around for a few years yet. In case you didn’t know (I’m sure you must) Laurel and Hardy were box-office dynamite. Between 1921 and 1951 they made no less than 106 films, including 34 early silent films, and 27 full-length feature films – full-length in those days meant about an hour or so. They had the classic, visually hilarious double-act look, with Stan Laurel as a beanpole simpleton and Oliver Hardy as the wise-cracking fat man, which formed the basis of a number of subsequent double-acts – Little and Large, for instance, come to mind. As a kid, I found Oliver Hardy incredibly funny, but Stan Laurel something of a hanger-on, and I remember being amazed when the Dowager told me that it was Laurel who was the creative genius and comic innovator, whereas Hardy simply did what he was told; and that’s something that comes across very strongly in this new film.
The film starts off with “the boys” on the set of Way Out West, where we see them shoot their famous comedy dance routine which recurs throughout this film, as they would later incorporate it into their stage act. But there’s confrontation with producer Hal Roach over Laurel’s general behaviour, and intimations that there may be problems ahead when Laurel’s contract with the studio runs out before Hardy’s. Hal Roach kept Hardy on for one more film after Laurel left the studio, Zenobia, featuring an elephant, where the actor Harry Langdon took on the Laurel role. From this awkwardness rises Stan and Ollie’s strongest theme, that of loyalty and partnership.
Fast forward to 1953, and the boys are in England, starting a tour of theatres which would culminate in a London date and then filming a new movie based on the story of Robin Hood. But their fortunes are down. In Newcastle, they check into a dismal looking pub for three nights, in preparation for their performances at the Queen’s Hall, (not the prestigious Theatre Royal). They meet producer Bernard Delfont, but he’s much more interested in promoting his new protégé Norman Wisdom. There’s little publicity, audiences are thin on the ground, and it’s painful to watch. In order to avoid cancelling shows, Delfont subtly tricks them into doing some publicity, and then the audiences start to turn up. By the time their wives arrive in the UK, Delfont has secured them two weeks at the Lyceum Theatre in London.
But the tensions in their relationship return to the surface as Laurel reminds Hardy about the elephant movie. Barely talking to each other, their tour continues to Worthing, but when they’re judging a beauty pageant for publicity, Hardy has a heart attack. He can’t work – in fact, he’s told to retire. Delfont wants Laurel to double up with comedy actor Nobby Cook for the rest of the tour, but would that mean Laurel showing the same disloyalty that he’s accused Hardy? And what’s going to happen to the film of Robin Hood?
It’s a well-written, frequently funny, slightly sentimental and thoroughly nostalgic story brought to life by some extremely good performances and characterisations. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are amazingly convincing as the dynamic duo, Mr Reilly in particular becoming the spitting image of Oliver Hardy, after having to spend (apparently) four hours in make up before each shoot. Their mannerisms, their vocal tics, their walks, their facial expressions are recreated lovingly to perfection. Rufus Jones is also terrific as Bernard Delfont, persistently manipulative and with both eyes on the finances but always impeccably polite about it. There’s another superb double act in the form of Mrs Laurel and Mrs Hardy; Shirley Henderson is Hardy’s devoted wife Lucille, a mouse masquerading as a rottweiler, and highly protective of her Ollie; and Nina Arianda plays Laurel’s abrasive wife Ida, drinking his drinks, encouraging spats with Lucille, and hilariously refusing to sit next to Delfont for no apparent reason. There are some lovely minor supporting performances, with John Henshaw as the egregiously chirpy Nobby Cook, Stephanie Hyam (?) playing Miffin’s dopey receptionist and Delfont’s dreadfully hollow charity friends, whom I can’t identify from the rather under-detailed cast lists. How’s the piano? is a priceless line when you get to it.
To join a couple of metaphors, it doesn’t shake too many trees but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the can. Buoyed up by its excellent performances, you’ll enjoy this if you have happy memories of Laurel and Hardy or if you want to find out a bit more about them without sitting through some old black and white comedy.
P. S. Laurel and Hardy appearing at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Really? Are you sure? At the time, the premises were operated by Mecca and were only licensed as a ballroom from 1945 onwards. According to Mander and Mitchenson’s The Theatres of London (the bible for all things theatre-based as far as I’m concerned) there were no live performances on that particular stage from 1939 until 1963. Indeed, the London County Council (and I’m quoting from the book) “stated in 1952 that the highest offer received for use as a theatre was £11,500, as against the dance-hall offer of £20,000; but it would need £50,000 to restore it to theatrical use.” I’m not saying this is pure fiction, but if you have any definitive information on Laurel and Hardy performing at the Lyceum in 1953/4, please let me know!
P. P. S. Not only do Messrs Coogan and Reilly perform the Way Out West dance with admirable accuracy, they also give us an immaculate performance of On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I defy you to walk home after the movie and not break into the chorus.