10 Films to Watch if You Like Stan & Ollie

Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, Jon S. Baird's Stan & Ollie accompanies cinema's most beloved double act on their 1953-54 tour of British music-halls. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been making audiences laugh together for over a quarter of a century. But things didn't always go smoothly on a trip that forced these funny, gentle men to reassess their relationship with each other and their legacy. Cinema Paradiso invites you to sample a selection of pictures that you might want to try if you liked Stan & Ollie...

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.

  • The Strong Man (1926)

    1h 14min

    Those raised on Bob Monkhouse's marvellous TV series, Mad Movies (1965-67) will know all about Harry Langdon. But those discovering him for the first time in Stan & Ollie may be puzzled why producer Hal Roach chose him for Oliver Hardy's new partner in Zenobia. Coming late to films, the 39 year-old Langdon's impassive baby face made him look much younger and he based his screen persona on being an innocent abroad. Having churned out over 20 shorts for 'King of Comedy' Mack Sennett, Langdon moved into features with Harry Edwards's Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), which co-starred a young Joan Crawford. However, it was his two-picture collaboration with Sicilian newcomer Frank Capra that enabled Langdon to reach his comic pinnacle.

    In Long Pants (1927), he plays a rube being duped by a drug-dealing older woman, Alma Bennett. But his trusting naiveté was better suited to the story of a Belgian soldier who comes to America after the Great War to find the Red Cross pen pal who has won his heart. Before he can find Priscilla Bonner, however, Langdon learns some harsh lessons on the vaudeville circuit with strong man Arthur Thalasso and from scheming city vamp, Gertrude Astor, who poses as his dream girl. Hints of the fabled Capra-corn style are evident in the Cloverdale sequences. in which Langdon confirms his genius for shifting between comic winsomeness and dramatic sincerity. Cinema historian Kevin Brownlow considers this 'one of the most perfect comedies ever made' and there can be no higher recommendation.

    Director:
    Frank Capra
    Cast:
    Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner, Gertrude Astor
    Genre:
    Classics, Comedy
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Laurel and Hardy: Way Out West: Vol.3 (1937)

    3h 27min

    It seems odd to think that the battle for the No.1 spot on the UK Singles Chart at the end of 1975 was between Queen and Laurel and Hardy. But 'Bohemian Rhapsody' went head to head with 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine', which had been written in 1913 by Ballard McDonald and Harry Carroll. The song can be heard over the opening credits of Henry Hathaway's adaptation of John Fox, Jr.'s 1908 novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), in which Sylvia Sidney plays the June mentioned in the lyrics. This must have given Stan the idea to incorporate the ditty in the saloon sequence after he and Ollie fetch up in Brushwood Gulch to give the deeds to a gold mine an old prospector pal's daughter.

    Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) works at the saloon owned by her cruel guardians, Mickey Finn (James Finlayson) and Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynn). In a bid to stop them from stealing the deeds, Stan hides the documents inside his jacket, only to be reduced to shrieking hysterics after Lola starts tickling him. As ever, Laurel (who was credited as a co-producer) came up with much of the comic business, including the soft-shoe shuffle to the Avalon Boys's rendition of 'At the Ball, That's All', which had been written by the African-American composer John Leubrie Hill for the 1913 Harlem show, My Friend From Kentucky. So key were Marvin Hatley's arrangements to the film's success that he received an Oscar nomination for Best Music Scoring.

    Director:
    James W. Horne
    Cast:
    Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson
    Genre:
    Classics, Comedy
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Of Mice and Men (1939)

    1h 46min

    It's easy to see what drew producer Hal Roach to John Steinbeck's classic Great Depression novel, as Lennie Small and George Milton are essentially variations on Laurel and Hardy. Director Lewis Milestone and screenwriter Rowland Brown had hoped to cast Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams as Lennie, while Roach (who is played in Stan & Ollie by Danny Huston, whose father was director John Huston) had contacted Warner Bros about loaning either James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart for George. Ultimately. Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. were cast and their rapport remains poignant eight decades on, as the scrappy George seeks to protect the rabbit-loving Lennie (who has a child-like demeanour after being kicked in the head by a horse) from jealous Jackson Ranch owner Curley (Bob Steele) and his flirtatious wife, Mae (Betty Field).

    Meredith forged a lifelong friendship with Steinbeck, who had come to Hollywood after John Ford won the Oscar for Best Director for his take on The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Having been turned down by AJ Cronin, Ernest Hemingway and James Hilton, Alfred Hitchcock sought out Steinbeck to devise a scenario for Lifeboat (1944), which resulted in him earning an Oscar nomination for Best Story. He would be nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952), while his novels also inspired Milestone's The Red Pony (1949), Kazan's East of Eden (1955) and James Franco's In Dubious Battle (2016). as well as Gary Sinise's 1992 take on Of Mice and Men, in which he played George to John Malkovich's Lenny.

    Director:
    Lewis Milestone
    Cast:
    Lon Chaney Jr., Burgess Meredith, Betty Field
    Genre:
    Drama
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Norman Wisdom: Man of the Moment (1955)

    Play trailer
    1h 25min

    This seems an apt title, as Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) tactlessly leaves Laurel and Hardy in no doubt that Norman Wisdom is going to be the next big thing in comedy after landing the BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer for his performance in Trouble in Store (1953). In fact, the story of Man of the Moment bears a passing resemblance to that of Atoll K, in which Stan inherits a quiet island in the Pacific Ocean from an eccentric uncle. Just as the superpowers try to get their hands on its uranium deposits, so Britain, America and the Soviet Union seek to gain influence over the Queen of Tawaki, in the hope of building a military base on her remote Pacific realm. Standing in their way, however, is Norman, a hapless drone at the Ministry of Overseas Affairs, who accidentally votes against a motion at an important conference in Geneva.

    Pitched somewhere between Henry Cornelius's Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Jack Arnold's The Mouse That Roared (1959), John Paddy Carstairs's Cold War satire is the perfect antidote to the ongoing Brexit brouhaha. He proved to be Wisdom's best director, as he played up the Laurel-like qualities that allowed Norman's underdog to cause chaos wherever he went. In The Square Peg (1958), he even fetched up behind enemy lines during the Second World War to confound a German general who happens to be his doppelgänger, in a gag that feels recycled from Will Hay and Basil Dearden's wartime flag-waver, The Goose Steps Out (1942).

    Director:
    John Paddy Carstairs
    Cast:
    Norman Wisdom, Lana Morris, Belinda Lee
    Genre:
    Classics, Comedy
    Availability:
    DVD
  • The Entertainer (1960)

    1h 39min

    Laurel and Hardy fanned the dying embers of music-hall during their three tours of Britain. Yet when the young Stan Jefferson started out, the proud tradition was thriving and continued to produce popular entertainers like George Formby, Gracie Fields, Will Hay and Max Miller into the middle of the century, when features like Victor Saville's Evergreen (1934), Alberto Cavalcanti's Champagne Charlie (1944), Val Guest's I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945) and Wesley Ruggles's London Town (1946) did decent box office. Those 'good old days' are commemorated in Music Hall and Variety Act Memories: Vol.1, which offers 10 hours of old-fashioned fun and includes such features as John Baxter's Music Hall and Say It With Flowers (both 1934), Oswald Mitchell and Charles Sanderson's Stars on Parade (1936). Thomas Bentley's Cavalcade of Variety (1940) and Maclean Rogers's Variety Jubilee (1943).

    Director:
    Tony Richardson
    Cast:
    Laurence Olivier, Richard Baker, Brenda De Banzie
    Genre:
    Drama, Music & Musicals, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • The Beauty Jungle (1964)

    1h 50min

    Although Oliver Hardy didn't suffer a heart attack at a beauty contest, he and Stan Laurel did their share of judging beside the seaside. They might not have gone to Worthing, but they did adjudicate at a Venus Bathing Beauty Contest at Weston-Super-Mare before casting their eyes over the 'Holiday Lovelies' at Butlin's in Skegness. A clutch of British films have featured such events, including Lupino Lane's No Lady (1931), which can found on The Lupino Collection, and Peter Chelsom's Hear My Song (1992). There's also Gerald Thomas's Carry On Girls (1973), in which an entrepreneur tries to whip up some publicity for the rundown resort of Fircombe by organising a beauty pageant that raises the hackles of the town's feminists.

    Naturally, Sid Fiddler is played by the great Sidney James, who has a wordless cameo as a bored celebrity judge at Butlin's in Minehead in Val Guest's sobering exposé of the beauty business at the start of the Swinging Sixties. Janette Scott stars as a Bristol typist who is spotted by local reporter Ian Hendry and photographer Ronald Fraser when she takes part in a tawdry contest being hosted on the lido at Weston-Super-Mare by Tommy Trinder. Convincing her that she has what it takes to become a full-time beauty queen, Hendry takes Scott under his wing, as she competes with seasoned campaigners like Jacqueline Jones and Jackie White in jamborees like 'Cardiff's Brigitte Bardot' and 'Pontypool's Crumpet Quest' before aiming for the Miss Rose of England crown, with its prize of a trip to Monte Carlo.

    Director:
    Val Guest
    Cast:
    Ian Hendry, Janette Scott, Ronald Fraser
    Genre:
    Comedy
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Robin Hood (1973)

    1h 10min

    Somewhat disingenuously, Stan & Ollie ignores the fact that, while Hardy was making Zenobia, Laurel was discussing a project called Problem Child with Mack Sennett. It went unmade, however, as the boys toured The Laurel and Hardy Revue before joining Fox, where they nixed two scripts pitching them against Nazi spies. They later passed on the 1951 comedy, Two Tickets to Broadway, while a 1952 Italian version of Carmen went the way of Billy Wilder's plans to make a biopic. Yet the duo never gave up the hope of returning to the big screen, even if the Robin Hood project, with Ollie as Friar Tuck and Stan as Little John, was essentially a pipe dream. 

    Disney's recce to Sherwood Forest was also unconventional, as it dispensed with the Merrie Men and owed more to the medieval fable of Reynard the Fox than the legend of Robin of Loxley. However, the animators paid their dues by borrowing ideas from William Keighley and Michael Curtiz's Technicolor classic, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). There's definitely a dash of Errol Flynn about the vulpine hero and this cost British singer Tommy Steele the title role, as he struggled to make his Cockney brogue sound sufficiently valiant and he was replaced by Brian Bedford. One crooner who did make the cut, however, was Roger Miller, who was cast as narrator Alan-a-Dale, a rooster who owes his look to the fact that Walt Disney had longed to base a film around the fox-and-cockerel tale of Reynard and Chaunticleer.

    Director:
    Wolfgang Reitherman
    Cast:
    Brian Bedford, Phil Harris, Roger Miller
    Genre:
    Children & Family, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Birds of a Feather (1989)

    1h 15min

    At a time when many old Hollywood stars were reinventing themselves on the small screen, Laurel and Hardy were frustrated by the fact that nobody was willing to hire them while so many of their two-reelers were ready to air. It annoyed Stan that their work was being used to 'to sell products we never even heard of' and that 'someone else is making all the money'. Indeed, they had not appeared on television before host Ralph Edwards surprised them on This Is Your Life in 1954. While honoured, Laurel was such a perfectionist that he was slightly miffed at being asked to perform for free 'on an unrehearsed network show'.

    Sadly, nobody wanted to pay to see two sixtysomethings rehash old material when they could watch them at the peak of their powers. Live shows were different, however, as audiences enjoyed being in the presence of greatness, no matter how much it had faded. The title of the 'Birds of a Feather' tour was borrowed by writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran for a BBC sitcom that centred around chalk-and-cheese sisters Sharon Theodopolopodous (Pauline Quirke) and Tracey Stubbs (Linda Robson), who befriend their snooty Chigwell neighbour, Dorien Green (Lesley Joseph), when they are forced to move in together after their husbands are jailed for armed robbery. Akin to a Cockney version of Carla Lane's The Liver Birds (1971-96), the show ran for 128 episodes between 1989-98, with a brief revival on ITV in 2014. Unlike Absolutely Fabulous (2003-12), however, there was never a movie spin-off.

    Director:
    Hugh Thomas
    Cast:
    Pauline Quirke, John Benson, Robbie Vincent
    Genre:
    TV Comedies, TV Sitcoms
    Availability:
    DVD
  • The Sunshine Boys (1995)

    Play trailer
    1h 23min

    Based on Neil Brand's radio play, Jon Sen's Stan (2006) is one of several troubled twosome biopics made by the BBC. Rhys Ifans and Aidan McArdle were cast as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Terry Johnson's Not Only But Always... (2004), while Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis were paired as Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell in Michael Samuel's The Curse of Steptoe (2008), which forms part of the Legends of Comedy set. Daniel Rigby and Bryan Dick took on the roles of Morecambe and Wise in Jonny Campbell's Eric and Ernie (2011), while there have also been American TV-movies about Abbott and Costello (Bud and Lou, 1978) and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Martin and Lewis, 2002).

    By far the best comedy about a fictional double act is Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, which opened on Broadway in 1972. George Burns won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the age of 80 for playing Al Lewis to Walter Matthau's Willie Clark in Herbert Ross's 1975 screen adaptation. Unfortunately, this isn't currently available on disc. But there is still much to admire in John Erman's 1996 teleplay version, which intriguingly teamed Peter Falk and Woody Allen in an updating of the scenario that casts the duo as small-screen comics rather than veteran vaudevillians. Considering a reunion after an 11-year hiatus on a TV special about American comedy, the pair rehash the resentments that had accrued during their 43-year partnership, although the exchanges are far more waspish than those in Stan & Ollie.

    Director:
    John Erman
    Cast:
    Woody Allen, Peter Falk, Michael McKean
    Genre:
    Comedy
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Notting Hill (1999)

    Play trailer
    1h 59min

    Irish production designer JP Kelly did a marvellous job recreating Hal Roach's film studio at Pinewood and Twickenham, while also evoking the spirit of the various venues in which Laurel and Hardy played during their farewell tour, including the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden. Yet, while The Savoy has a sizeable role to play in the final third of the picture, only the famous Strand facade can actually be seen. For the dining-room sequences, Kelly used the Sheraton Grand London Park Lane Hotel and its Art Deco grandeur inspired the look of the rooms, which were created on a soundstage at the West London Studios. Kelly has revealed that the suites seen in the film are much more luxurious than would have been the case in the 1950s, as he felt he needed to strike 'a balance between historical accuracy and contemporary audience expectations of what a big hotel looks and feels like'.

    The hotel was built by Richard D'Oyly Carte from the fortune he made staging the Savoy Operas composed by Gilbert and Sullivan (he is played by Ron Cook in Mike Leigh's G&S biopic, Topsy-Turvy, (1999). It has guested in numerous films, including Night of the Demon (1957), The Long Good Friday (1980), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Entrapment (1999), Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008) and Gambit (2012). But who can forget the scene set in the Lancaster Room in Roger Michell's Notting Hill, in which Hugh Grant manages to propose to Julia Roberts in the middle of a press conference?

    Director:
    Roger Michell
    Cast:
    Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Richard McCabe
    Genre:
    Comedy, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray

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Friends for Films

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