Stan & Ollie

Release: Friday, December 28, 2018 (limited)


Written by: Jeff Pope

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Unlike the lengthy run the real-life subjects enjoyed in their careers, director Jon S. Baird’s passion project Stan & Ollie seems over before it has even begun. This isn’t me knocking the film for being slight, but because I enjoyed each precious minute like they were little fudge truffles maybe I just wish there were more of them, especially when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are involved, and when they are this good together. They truly make this movie worth savoring.

Stan & Ollie is a lovingly crafted tribute to one of the most famous and beloved comedy acts of all time. It provides insight into both the creative genius behind the comedy and the friendship that endured behind the curtains. Coogan and Reilly play Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively and I really don’t know who is better. Both. They’re both better. As history shows, the inimitable double act kept some pretty amazing company, yet even amidst their contemporaries — Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to name two — they became slapstick icons unto themselves, appearing in over 100 silent and sound productions and with starring roles in more than 20 full-length features from the 1920s into the mid-40s.

They incidentally met as cast members on the set of The Lucky Dog (1921)though they wouldn’t officially be recognized as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ until years later, when they signed separate contracts with producer Hal Roach and shared the screen in the silent short Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Laurel, whose average build looked childlike standing next to the 6-foot, 300-plus-pound Hardy, more often than not played the hapless friend to Hardy’s pompous buffoon and a common theme of their act revolved around simple misunderstandings, demonstrated most often in the visual but occasionally expressed in cleverly conceived dialogue — their “Tell me that again” routine being a classic example.

Rather than turning his tribute into a filmic tick list of everything notable that happened, Baird concentrates on a period much later in their careers, focusing on their urgency to stay in business well after the height of their fame. The essence of their camaraderie — by extension their career — is distilled into a familiar road trip comedy. After getting down to literal business in a key opening scene, one that depicts an unhappy Stan Laurel refusing to renew his contract with Roach (Danny Huston), the story leaps forward sixteen years and follows the aging pair as they attempt to mount a big-screen comeback, a potential spoof of Robin Hood. To that end they embark on an exhausting tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, playing to diminishing crowds in obscure and forgotten music halls*, their close relationship and even their own health becoming strained in the process.

The effectiveness of Stan & Ollie very much mirrors that of the iconic two-man show. It just wouldn’t work without the right personnel, and with the Mancunian Coogan portraying the English Laurel, and Chicago-born Reilly pulling his pants up well past the point of where a traditional waistline goes to become the American Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Baird’s film is in some very capable hands — arguably the ideal hands. Reilly, perhaps more so than his co-star, has staked much of his reputation on playing the lovable oaf his character in this movie became typecast as. Look no further than the projects he teams with Will Ferrell on. Coogan, on the other hand, is a drier wit but no less entertaining. I’m thinking immediately of Hamlet 2.

As an homage to comedy, Stan & Ollie plays out more as a Greatest Hits performance rather than offering a deep dive into the treasure trove. That level of discrepancy allows for a more streamlined narrative, and will undoubtedly disappoint some viewers who might be expecting revisits to certain famous gags. However, we do get treated to some of the classics, like the bedside manners bit from County Hospital (1932), where Laurel, in paying a visit to his bedridden friend, creates quite the ruckus, eventually stringing the large man up over his own cot by his comically oversized leg cast. Baird uses this specific gag (admittedly only the first few minutes of it) to exemplify the depth of their creative and personal bond. When we see Laurel later attempt to rehearse the same sketch with a different actor — this is at a point where the guys are taking some time away from each other —  it just doesn’t feel the same. Laurel’s unease in fact leads to the cancelling of that night’s performance — much to the chagrin of their inept tour manager, Bernard Delfont (a perfectly smarmy Rufus Jones).

Jeff Pope, on balance a formula-friendly screenwriter, also gets inventive with the way he repurposes other bits — a highlight being an inversion of their famous piano-up-the-stairs scene, wherein the duo, having grown quite tired of lugging around their massive shipping container that is their traveling wardrobe, let go of it on a public stairwell and watch it slide down two flights. Yet the writing is rarely more moving than when things start to get a little tense between them. At a party thrown in their honor in London, attended by a number of Important People as well as their respective wives — the uppity but ultimately loving Ida (Nina Arianda) and the kindhearted but helium-voiced Lucille (Shirley Henderson) — past troubles resurface and it all leads to some gentle pushing and shoving, a dynamic misinterpreted by the public as a comedic act playing out in real life. It’s certainly a low point for them, yet the moment isn’t played so seriously it fails to inspire some laughs for us.

The tone of that scene is really Stan & Ollie in a nutshell. The water is never scalding hot nor freezing cold. This isn’t a movie of extremes. Instead it’s one made with reverence, arguably to a fault. It is deathly afraid of coughing in a quiet room. All warts have been removed with an airbrush. Still, I find it hard to resist the simplicity of the tale. Their comedy is brilliantly reimagined by two skilled, modern funny men. The characters are lovable and Coogan and Reilly are relishing the opportunity to pay homage. Even if the story never strays from formula and there is never a shred of doubt over where things are going, I couldn’t help but get lost in the moment.

* this is apparently more for the purposes of demonstration in the film, as in reality the pair even during this time were selling out big venues in major cities

Recommendation: Sweet, charming and very much to the point, Stan & Ollie is a must-see for longtime fans of one of the world’s most famous comedy double-acts, as well as a “You Really Should See” for anyone bemoaning the state of the modern comedy and searching for a re-set button. Also, the film is directed by the same guy who made Filth — if you haven’t seen that one, it’s a decidedly different kind of comedy starring James McAvoy as a brute of a police officer. The difference between the two films is night-and-day. Not sure if that is so much a recommendation as it is a bit of funny trivia. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: [Hardy] “I’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

[Laurel] “So will you.”

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Paul G — #6

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Last time we were here, Paul was being held hostage by Samuel L. Jackson in a tense dramatic thriller F. Gary Gray made back in the late ’90s. Let’s negotiate our way past that and look at a more substantial supporting role he’s had as part of one of Ron Howard’s many prestige pictures. Here is a character that somewhat flies in the face of a career built upon playing untrustworthy, shady types and you know what? The nice guy act really suits him.

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Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/sport/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The story of James Braddock, a supposedly washed-up boxer who came back to become a champion and an inspiration in the 1930s.

Character Profile: Boxing manager Joe Gould met a then-20-year-old James “Cinderella Man” Braddock at a crumbling gym in Hoboken, New Jersey. Gould immediately liked what he saw: a tough, durable competitor, a well-spoken, decent man with one hell of a right hand. The two struck up a friendship that very soon developed into a mutually beneficial professional relationship, and under Gould’s management Braddock turned pro in 1926 as a light-heavyweight contender. Ron Howard’s 2005 biographical drama, set against the backdrop of The Great Depression, focuses on a tumultuous but ultimately miraculous period in both men’s careers, capped off by Braddock’s historic upset of current World Heavyweight Champion Max Baer in 1935. This was the unlikely result of a series of victories Braddock claimed after Gould begged for him to be re-instated as a boxer following the infamously embarrassing, one-sided loss to light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran six years earlier. It was Gould’s pitch that became instrumental in setting the “Pride of New Jersey” back on a course to stardom, necessarily establishing Braddock as one of the few rays of light amidst one of the darkest periods in American history.

Why he’s the man: In an Oscar-nominated supporting turn, Giamatti embraces a much less shifty character than he has in the past, though Joe Gould wasn’t exactly a man without foibles. (In 1942 he enlisted in the Army and earned the rank of First Lieutenant, but was later sentenced to three years’ hard labor for conspiring to accept bribes; and Cinderella Man tends to cast a less favorable light on his decision to pitch Braddock’s comeback as a major profiteering venture for fight promotor James Johnston.) Giamatti, despite a sense of two-facedness, remains a thoroughly likable guy throughout, his closeness to Braddock and the respect he has for Braddock’s love for his family readily apparent. He plays such an excitable, emotional fella, the kind that’s easy to root for, so it was a shame Giamatti lost that year to Morgan Freeman for his work in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. A shame, but also understandable.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 

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Decades Blogathon – A Night at the Opera (1935)

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The fifth day of the Decades Blogathon, being hosted by Mark of Three Rows Back and yours truly here at DSB, gives you a review from James, who runs the fantastic Back to the Viewer which you need to browse over if you haven’t before. James is taking a look at the 1935 comedy/musical A Night at the Opera

A huge shout out to Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread for hosting the first Decades Blogathon, a blogathon dedicated to films released in the fifth year of each decade since the turn of the 20th Century. There are some fantastic films up for review so be sure to check them out when the festivities kick off on Monday 18th May.

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“And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined.

Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons,

and necking in the parlor.”

The Marx Brothers are up to their usual buffoonery in this timeless piece of comedic Americana.

Adored in the world of comedy for their slap-your-leg-laughing slapstick, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx bring a conventional tale of zero-to-hero to life with a whizz bang of one-line gags and a bucket load of nuanced charm.

Whisked straight into ‘High Society’ following opening credits of old, Margaret Dumont is seated alone in a lavish restaurant awaiting the arrival of one tardy Otis B. Driftwood. In the comfort of his own whimsy Groucho asserts himself in true Groucho style, with a leap from his chair, bend in his knee and one-liners on parole. Hired by Mrs. Claypool to make her a noteworthy member of the upper echelons of society Driftwood has a plan to satisfy her obtuse desire. Driftwood has agreed with Herbert Gottlieb, a representative of the New York Opera Company, that Mrs. Claypool will invest $200,000 into the signing of Lassparri, the next greatest opera tenor. As her life of high society flashes before her eyes Gottlieb whisks her away to the opera to see her investment in action.


Cutting to the stage we enter the opera house and catch our first glimpse of Harpo and Chico, as Tomasso and Fiorello respectively. Donning his typical zany allure, Harpo is quite aptly dressed in Lassparri’s clown costume. Returning to find Harpo bumbling about on his dresser Lassparri chases him out of the room as Harpo reveals costume after costume layered a-top his humble civvies. Stumbling out into the hallway a sympathetic Rosa, Kitty Carlisle, picks him up and dusts him down before returning to her dressing room. Ricardo, Allan Jones, soon comes knocking and the love interest is secured, simultaneosly establishing Ricardo as the down-on-his-luck character, the zero if you will. Carlisle and Jones have great chemistry and it soon becomes clear the rest of this whimsical roller coaster rests on their capable shoulders.

It’s when Chico returns that the whole affair receives a boost. Bowling into the opera house he engages in a little light raillery with the mailman when he spots Tomasso. Like a princess awaiting her knight he slides down the staircase and bounds into the arms of his comedic partner in crime. After a brotherly embrace they part ways and Chico makes his way backstage to find his long time friend, and adept tenor, Ricardo. Offering, partly in jest, to represent Ricardo as his manager Fiorello gets Driftwood caught up in a baffling scheme that sets the four of them off on a journey to New York.

Every film has its moments, the moments that define it as a classic, promote a cult following, cause a tickle, or downright have you in stitches. With a smorgasbord of comedic delicacies to gorge on A Night at the Opera becomes the best night of your life as Groucho jests, Chico schemes, and Harpo honks their way across the Atlantic, getting into all sorts of Marx Brothers mischief.

This is early talkie comedy at its finest, and following Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera had a lot to live upto. The Marx Brothers are defined by their comedic timing, individual character traits and wacky storylines, but A Night at the Opera serves up a healthy portion of charming sincerity when Chico, Harpo and Jones get caught up in musical festivities aboard the S.S. Americus. Laying low in Driftwood’s stateroom the three stowaways go on the hunt for food. Stumbling across a spread fit for King Theoden the faces of the three are a joy to watch as they shuffle excitedly over the ship’s deck before breaking out into spontaneous musicality. Harpo jumps on the Harp, Chico slides onto the piano stool and Jones rises as tenor. Rousing the deck into a right ol’ song and dance the trio capture the feel of the moment and treat the audience to moments of sweet sincerity and humour.


This combination of zaniness and charm elevates A Night at the Opera above lesser Marx Brothers tenements by building upon the established repertoire, fine tuning performances, and whittling the silliness down into a more human fuelled experience disguised beneath the recognised and revered trademarks.

Catapulting A Night at the Opera into the high society of classic comedies Groucho is on top form in his finest performance as Otis B. Driftwood, Chico plays off his younger brother’s quick wit and Harpo bounces around like a ball on a string. The best scene of the film involves all three crammed into a tiny stateroom, a scene which has become one of comedy’s greatest landmarks. For the sheer ambition combined with Groucho’s endlessly quotable introductions the execution is sublime and makes for hilarious viewing.

Culminating in an act that sees Chico and Harpo amusingly, inventively ruin an opera and Groucho play hide-and-seek with the opera ushers the film ends on a high note with Rosa and Ricardo united on stage while the bumbling contract neogtiations extend beyond the closing credits.

Without a doubt one of cinema’s greatest additions to the classics list, where it should remain as a Timeless Classic for generations to witness, adore, and remember.