When I was growing up in the 1960s they were often on television - in black and white, of course - on Saturday mornings. From memory, their films often started with drawings of the heads of Stan and Ollie in their familiar bowler hats, alongside intriguing titles such as “Block Heads”, “Hog Wild” and “Laughing Gravy”, while their instantly recognisable theme tune “The Dance of the Cuckoos” played. A special treat for me was being able to watch their films with my grandad when he came to stay. We both felt proud and proprietorial. After all, grandad lived in Ulverston in Lancashire, both my parents came from the town, and, as I was taught from an early age: Stan Laurel, whose real name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson, was born there (in 1890).
I was thinking about Laurel and Hardy - which it is impossible to do without smiling as their hilarious antics come to mind - after hearing the news that a film is being made about the later period of their lives. “Stan and Ollie”, which stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly and is due for release in 2018, tells the story of the couple’s visit to Britain in 1953 when they toured the country and appeared at a number of theatres. I don’t know how often Laurel and Hardy came to the United Kingdom, but I remember watching a documentary about one such visit when the reception they received from adoring fans was akin to “Beatlemania” a decade later. Today there is a Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, where the pair are also remembered with a bronze statue (unveiled by one of their greatest admirers, Ken Dodd, in 2009).
Stan Laurel died in 1965 (“Babe” Hardy in 1957) and at his funeral at the Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery, silent-screen comedian Buster Keaton commented: “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.” Stan and Ollie made 106 films together, and although, inevitably, some of them weren’t terribly good, they made a large number of classics (silent shorts, sound shorts and full-length feature films) with memorable comic scenes and snatches of dialogue that, for me, outshine anything that Charlie Chaplin did. His “Little Tramp” was an inspired creation, a figure who is probably recognised in nearly every country of the globe, and his films are undoubtedly clever with moments of comedy genius, but compared with the best work of Stan and Ollie I find them rather cold and, on occasion, cloyingly sentimental.
It was Stan Laurel himself, the creative brains of the partnership, who once warned against any attempts to analyse comedy. He likened it to a fine watch: you can take it apart to see how it works, but you might not be able to put it back together again, thereby destroying the magic. First and foremost, I think we warm to the relationship between the two characters and feel real affection for the way they go through life with such optimism, innocence, generosity, gallantry towards the opposite sex and the ability to think the best of others…all in the face of an often hostile world where Ollie’s phrase, “At last we’re getting some place”, will inevitably be the prelude to another disaster. Nothing daunted, they always pick themselves up, often literally, dust themselves down, and carry on without an ounce of anger, bitterness or cynicism. Although they frequently argue with one another, sometimes resorting to cartoon-like punches, slaps or sharp pokes, once Ollie has registered his exasperation (“Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”) with that famous tell-tale look at the camera, and Stan has sobbed and whimpered and pulled up his hair, the pair will be united again and, driven by Ollie’s pomposity and pretentiousness, ready for their next adventure.
Highlights for me include the duo’s long-winded attempt to push a piano up a long flight of steps in the Oscar-winning short film “The Music Box”, their ill-fated ruse to deceive their wives when they visit a Chicago convention in “Sons of the Desert”, the tit-for-tat encounter with regular adversary James Finlayson in “Big Business” when the destruction of each other’s property escalates until Stan and Ollie’s car and Finlayson’s house are wrecked, and “Way Out West” in which they perform the song that became a hit record: “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”.
In 2017, when so many “comedians” are aggressive, cruel and unable to tell a joke without using bad language and innuendo, it is refreshing to remember a much-loved comedy duo who won the affection of the viewing public - an affection which remains as strong today - without having to resort to anything that was offensive or vicious. I hope the new film recognises and pays tribute to that.