Words can barely express how much I love and admire Neil Brand‘s beautifully observed gentle, warm, bittersweet, poignant and moving biopic about Laurel and Hardy, Stan. Its roots started as a radio play, evolved to a TV drama on BBC4 directed by John Sen, and is now on YouTube and DVD. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to gain insight into the workings of a comedy partnership, or even more basic, of two people who have spent more time together than they spent in any one of their multiple marriages.
Barely an hour long, the film still manages to encompass the pair, their subtly nuanced but still affectionate relationship, their long history in the formative years of movie making after Laurel graduated from the vaudeville stage (a few more insights on Stan’s background in showbiz can be found in this 1959 interview), their conflicts and, with Hardy on his death bed and silenced by a near-fatal stroke, a final reconciliation that may or may not have happened in reality, though the pair did meet (this film taken in 1956 after Hardy had lost a lot of weight due to his illness showed they were still capable of playing up for the camera together.)
The script is not necessarily the greatest strength of Brand’s play, though it does convey with admirable economy the key themes of Stan and Ollie’s lives and attitudes to one another through their younger and older selves. Stan is beautifully played by Jim Norton and Trevor Cooper as the older version of the pair (younger selves played by Nik Howden and Mike Goodenough) and supporting cast – though make no mistake, this is very much a voyage around Stan and Ollie.
However, the greater part of Norton and Cooper’s articulation of their characters, particularly due to Hardy’s enforced speechlessness, is conveyed through facial movements and body language, a throwback to the silent era but massively reminiscent of L&H films and redolent with the underlying pathos of both characters.
They had plenty of differences, including the fact that Laurel earned 50% more than Hardy, reflecting that he was the one who worked on every aspect of each movie while his partner did the job, milked the “fat man losing his dignity” role, then spent much of his time on the golf course. Whatever drove a wedge between them, Hal Roach is right that they were better together and would not be the same without one another – a marriage of habit but also because the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. In a flashback scene, they drink bourbon on Hardy’s veranda while Ollie waxes lyrical about how they are a team, like the New York Yankees – he is Babe Ruth and Laurel is Lou Gehrig. Together they can conquer the world.
So often in the brief duration of the play, while the characters were themselves and not in the guise of their screen alter egos, small gestures communicated both intimate feelings and a throwback to the legendary partnership. It is one of these that forms the central conceit to the play as the dying Hardy’s familiar gesture is repeatedly misinterpreted until the end, when the realisation forms the big punchline (no, I’m not going to spoil it.) Cue much laughter, but it is sad laughter – this is to be the last time before Hardy’s inevitable demise. Laurel lived on until 1965.
But what is really going on behind the eyes? The truth is that Laurel did not attend Hardy’s funeral, ostensibly due to his own poor health, saying “Babe would understand,” mentioned during the end of the play as Laurel/Norton suggests he could not cope with Babe’s funeral or would make a fool of himself but you suspect there was a deeper psychological reason – deeper even than the thought of being alone, though Stan never really acclimatised to life without his partner.
Though the play hints at the depths, they are never fully exploited, leaving us to judge for ourselves. Maybe a wiser choice than leading us by the hand didactically. Best draw a veil, leave a touch of mystique about the greatest of stars than to sum up their complex personas as the tears of a clown. There is always much, much more to it than that.