A Bit of Background
By the time Laurel and Hardy arrived in Britain in 1953, they had been performing together for 32 years. Oliver Norvell Hardy had debuted on screen in Outwitting Dad in 1914, a full three years before Arthur Stanley Jefferson first appeared on film in Nuts in May. Born in Ulverston in the Lake District, Laurel had arrived in the United States as part of the same Fred Karno music-hall troupe as Charlie Chaplin and it's ironic that Hardy originally found his screen niche playing a heavy to Chaplin impersonator, Billy West, who produced the 1925 short Hop to It Bellhop, which is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso.
While Laurel perfected his comic persona in a series of films for producer Joe Rock, 'Babe' Hardy honed his craft in around 40 slapstick shorts at Vitagraph. Eventually, he became a regular member of Larry Semon's troupe in such romps as The Sawmill (1922) and Kid Speed (1924). He also played The Tin Man in Semon's 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. During this period, Laurel and Hardy graced the screen together for the first time in Jess Robbins's The Lucky Dog (1921), which is available on Laurel and Hardy Collection 1. Volume 3 in this series includes Yes, Yes Nanette (1925), which saw Laurel direct Hardy, as he would again in Enough to Do (1926). These shorts were produced by Hal Roach, who was sufficiently impressed by their rapport in a string of 1927 comedies to pair them officially for the first time in The Second Hundred Years, which can be found on L and H and the Law.
Over the next couple of decades, the duo would co-star in 32 silent shorts, 40 sound shorts and 23 features, including James W. Horne's Way Out West (1937). They would also make a dozen cameo appearances and be immortalised in such Disney cartoons as Mickey's Gala Premier (1933) and Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood (1938). But, as Stan & Ollie shows, cracks had started to appear in Laurel's relationship with Roach, as he wanted more on-screen credit for devising and staging many of the team's gags. As his contract was about to expire, Roach decided to cut Laurel loose and he tried his hand producing Westerns for Fred Scott, who was billed as 'the Silvery-Voiced Buckaroo'. Needing to work, Hardy agreed to join forces with baby-faced clown Harry Langdon on Gordon Douglas's Zenobia (1937), in which he played a doctor who is befriended by an ailing circus elephant. The 2018 biopic suggests that Stan never forgave Ollie for making this picture, which is sadly not available on DVD. But its box-office failure convinced Roach to abandon plans to team Ollie and Patsy Kelly in a series entitled 'The Hardy Family' and he sufficiently patched things up with Laurel to ensure the completion of Alfred J. Goulding's A Chump at Oxford (1940) and Gordon Douglas's Saps at Sea (1941).
The latter turned out to be the last Laurel and Hardy film that Roach produced. But the freedom Stan hoped to secure in switching to 20th Century-Fox was not forthcoming and a two-film stint at MGM proved no more rewarding. Among the more curious projects they undertook during this period was Charles McDonald's The Tree in a Test Tube (1942), a wartime propaganda film made for the US Department of Agriculture that is available from Cinema Paradiso on Laurel and Hardy Collection 6. With the studios cutting back on B-movie production, however. Laurel and Hardy found themselves adrift and Stan suggested that they reconnected with their fans by touring British music-halls in 1947.
Laurel and Hardy had visited the UK before, when they had undertaken a whistlestop publicity tour in 1932. But the 1947 jaunt exceeded all expectations, as they were feted wherever they went. However, Stan's hopes of raising funding for a film about Robin Hood fell through and he was forced to take a sabbatical when he was diagnosed with diabetes. While he convalesced, Stan encouraged Ollie to keep working and he took supporting roles opposite John Wayne in George Waggner's The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and Bing Crosby in Frank Capra's Riding High (1950).
Laurel was still struggling when he joined Hardy in Europe to make Leo Joannon's Atoll K (1951), which proved a dispiriting experience, as the script needed extensive revision and the cosmopolitan cast barely shared a common language. Known in the US as Utopia and the UK as Robinson Crusoeland, the film proved a sad screen swan song. Yet it remains compelling viewing, especially as its impact upon Stan and Ollie's relationship could still be felt when they set sail for Britain in 1953.
What Happens on Tour
As Jeff Pope's affectionate screenplay rightly points out, Laurel and Hardy didn't come to Britain for the fun of it. The failure to cut a deal with Fox in 1937 meant that they remained actors for hire who couldn't rely on residuals from the re-issue of their films or their transmission on television. As each man had alimony payments to meet and Ollie had sizeable gambling debts to settle, they had no option but to tread the boards in Blighty, where their enduring popularity was unrivalled.
Their 1947 trip had been an unprecedented success. Interestingly, it began on 10 February with a Pathé newsreel interview at Southampton Docks, in which the boys mention the plan to make a film about Robin Hood during their stay (which becomes a key plot point in Stan & Ollie). During Laurel's homecoming in Ulverston, the duo had been overwhelmed by the tumultuous reception, while they had also delighted the crowd at the 21st anniversary of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. Such was the clamour to see them that further theatre dates were added in France, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden before Laurel and Hardy returned Stateside following a turn at the Royal Command Performance in front of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
A 10-month trip with the 1952 show, A Spot of Trouble, had also gone well, with the title sketch being based on a bit of business from Night Owls (1930), which is available on L and H and the Law. But only 11 months passed before they set sail again and arrived in the autumn of 1953 with Birds of a Feather to find variety on its last legs. The Coronation of Elizabeth II on 2 June had seen a boom in television sales and, while the small black-and-white sets were still a luxury item for most people, they conspired with the vogue for Hollywood epics in Technicolor, CinemaScope and stereophonic sound to lure audiences away from the increasingly tatty music-halls that had once entertained the nation - and given Stan a start in life as his father, Arthur, had been a theatre manager.
In one of the bolder strokes of poetic licence in the picture, Pope concludes with Stan and Ollie's rapturous welcome at Cobh harbour, when the bells of Saint Coleman's Cathedral had chimed out Marvin Hatley's famous theme tune, 'Dance of the Cuckoos'. In fact, this occurred at the start of the tour on 9 September 1953, as it was discovered that UK tax law prevented Oliver Hardy from working on the mainland on two separate occasions within a single calendar year. He was allowed to cross into Northern Ireland, however, when Stan visited Belfast to consult a doctor about his diabetes.
Pope and Baird also tweak the truth in having wives Ida Raphael (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Jones (Shirley Henderson) check into The Savoy in time for the London leg of the tour, as they were present from the outset. Moreover, they were nowhere near as antagonistic towards each other as the script suggests. And, by the way, the film that Ida keeps mentioning in name-dropping Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd is The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), which is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso.
The English stage of the tour got underway at the New Theatre in Northampton on 19 October. British Pathé newsreel cameras caught their chauffeured arrival at the stage door, which is reworked in Stan & Ollie to involve the wives. The week also witnessed their short stint as lollipop men, as Bernard Delfont (smarmily played in the film by Rufus Jones) sought to drum up publicity in the wake of disappointing ticket sales. There's no doubt that business was sluggish, as Britain endured a period of strikes and recession. But Delfont was too preoccupied with new star Norman Wisdom to put the necessary effort into promoting the shows. Things weren't helped by the 63 year-old Laurel contracting a chest infection that left him temporarily deaf, while the 24 stone Hardy (who was two years Laurel's junior) was struggling to catch his breath and frequently needed to sit down to rest his knees.
But, while they initially played to half-empty houses, Stan was more miffed by Delfont's suggestion that their profit percentage should be cut to reflect their reduced appeal. He perked up during the run of The Laurel and Hardy Christmas Show at the Empire Theatre in Nottingham, as he was able to spend time with his sister Olga, who ran a pub in nearby Bottesford. It was an exhausting schedule, as the pair played three shows a day for three weeks, alongside such novelty acts as Derrick Rosaire's Tony the Wonder Horse, Betty Kaye's Pekinese Pets and Bob Bemand's Pigeons. Also on the bill was ventriloquist Harry Worth, whose splendidly dotty TV shows Here's Harry (1960-65) and Thirty Minutes Worth (1972-73) can be rented from Cinema Paradiso.
January 1954 also saw Stan excited about a proposal he had received from Hal Roach, Jr. to produce 40 shorts for television. He confided in a letter to Booth Colman that part of the series would be made in Britain and that he would have complete control over the content. But spirits were sapped the following month by a nightmare week at the same Empire Theatre in Sunderland where Sidney James would collapse during a performance of The Mating Season in April 1976. Yet, there appears to have been no fraying of the bond between Laurel and Hardy themselves. While it's true that they had rarely socialised away from the film set, they maintained cordial relations and actually got to know each other better during their tours across North America and Europe.
After weeks of crisscrossing the country, things finally came to a head on 17 May 1954, when Ollie suffered a mild heart attack after coming off stage at the Palace Theatre in Plymouth - not while judging a beauty contest in Worthing. With Ida in Paris seeing friends, Stan continued to visit the theatre to support the other acts on the bill (without apparently contemplating a hook-up with an upcoming British comedian while Ollie recovered). But Lucille insisted that her husband heeded medical advice and the decision was taken to cancel the final bookings in Swansea and return to the United States aboard the MS Manchuria, which sailed from Hull on 2 June.
Behind the Scenes and Beyond
Coogan and Reilly weren't the first to play Laurel and Hardy on screen. They cropped up briefly in the guise of Jim Plunkett and John 'Red' Fox in Alex Segal's Harlow (1965) before Larry Harmon and Jim McGeorge voiced the pair in 156 cartoon shorts for Hanna-Barbera's 1966 Laurel and Hardy series. Harmon later shared directorial duties with John Cherry on The All New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy: For Love or Mummy (1999), which teamed Bronson Pinchot and Gailard Sartain. In Britain, Matthew Cottle played the young Laurel in Richard Attenborough's Chaplin (1992), while Jim Norton took the role in old age opposite Trevor Cooper in Jon Sen's Stan (2006), which, like Stan & Ollie, was produced by the BBC.
Both director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope had grown up with holiday screenings of Laurel and Hardy's shorts on BBC2. But it was a 21-disc boxed set that prompted Pope to start researching their careers and he decided to focus on their later years after reading Laurel's letters and AJ Marriot's peerless tome, Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours. In seeking to show how they grew closer on the road, Pope came to realise, 'I wasn't writing a biopic. I was writing a love story.'
As is always the case with factual reconstructions, the odd liberty is taken along the way. Laurel and Hardy weren't quite the has-beens some of the careless remarks might suggest. Similarly, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello weren't the new kids on the block implied by Stan's envious gaze at the poster for Charles Lamont's Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), as they had been making films since they had performed a version of their famous 'Who's on First?' routine in A. Edward Sutherland's One Night in the Tropics (1940). But the script does include some choice moment for L&H fans to relish, with the trunk bouncing down the station steps like the packing case containing the player piano in The Music Box (1932), which can be found on the DVD collection, A Job to Do.
Someone's Ailing is the place to go to see County Hospital (1932), which is the source of the 'hard-boiled eggs and nuts' routine - although some sources suggest that Stan changed the line to 'hard-boiled eggs and a nice onion and jam sandwich'. A variation on the Double Door sketch can also be seen in Berth Marks (1929), which is available from Cinema Paradiso on Laurel and Hardy Vol 6: Murder in the Air. However, the boys also have trouble with doors in Sons of the Desert (1933). There's also a neat touch in having Laurel and Hardy sport their kilts from Bonnie Scotland (1935) while Ollie croons 'Shine On, Harvest Moon' in Glasgow, which they had originally performed in The Flying Deuces (1939). And, of course, 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine' and 'At the Ball, That's All' derive from Way Out West.
Having shared an Academy Award nomination for adapting Martin Sixsmith's novel for Stephen Frears's Philomena (2013), Pope had no hesitation in suggesting Coogan for Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly was also Baird's first choice for Oliver Hardy and he demonstrated his dedication by piling on a few pounds. However, the bulk of Ollie's rotundity was created by prosthetic specialist Jeremy Woodhead and make-up artist Mark Coulier, who had won Oscars for transforming Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Law's The Iron Lady (2011) and for his ensemble work in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). As Reilly was also hulking 70lbs worth of sandbags as well as his 30lb fat suit, a water circulation system had to be devised to prevent him from overheating.
Bouncing back from emergency surgery following a bout of appendicitis, Baird came to rely heavily on production designer JP Kelly, costumier Guy Speranza, location manager Camilla Stephenson and choreographer Toby Sedgwick, who not only recreated Laurel and Hardy's iconic dance routines, but also their slapstick shtick. Every detail is meticulously authentic and film aficionados will particularly note the switch to a pastiche Technicolor for the imagined scene from the never made Rob 'Em Good movie.
Although Stan continued to write material for Laurel and Hardy projects for the rest of his life, he spent his last eight years alone. On 1 December 1954, the pair made one of their last appearances together when they were honoured on This Is Your Life, which is available on The Stan and Ollie Collection: Kill or Cure. However, they were all set to return to television in early 1955 in Laurel and Hardy's Fabulous Fables for producer Hal Roach, Jr. when Stan suffered a stroke 10 days before doing Babes in the Wood. In a bid to improve his health, Hardy shed 100lbs on a beetroot-only diet. But he became reclusive after being partially paralysed by a massive stroke and had to sell his house to pay his medical bills. He died in very much reduced circumstances on 7 August 1957, with Stan being too distressed to attend the funeral ('Babe would understand.').
Stan turned down a cameo in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and declined actor-director Jerry Lewis's $100,000 offer to be a comedy consultant on his films. During a rare interview, he gave aspiring comics an invaluable piece of advice: 'Don't sit around and tear comedy apart. It is like a fine watch, and you'll never get it together again. And don't ask me why people laugh - that is the mystery of it all.' In 1961, Stan was too frail to accept an Honorary Academy Award for his 'creative pioneering in the field of comedy' and Danny Kaye accepted on his behalf. He also guested in A Salute to Stan Laurel, which was broadcast after his death from a heart attack on 23 February 1965. Among the luminaries taking part were Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Phil Silvers, Bob Newhart, Gregory Peck and Dick Van Dyke.