It’s sobering how great entertainers vanish down the memory hole, dispatched by the relentless passage of time.
I mentioned to my 29-year-old son that his mother and I had just seen “Stan and Ollie,” the heart-warming, sentimental tribute to Laurel and Hardy currently raking in the bucks at theaters across America.
“Who are they?” he said.
It’s at moments like these that I pause to do a little math. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were at their peak in 1935, which was 84 years ago. I turned 29 in 1986, which means that I should expect my younger self to have been aware of a comedy duo that was at its peak in 1902. It is not likely that I could have met that test. Years pass. People forget, or perhaps never knew.
On the other hand, Laurel and Hardy were hardly a footnote in the history of vaudeville, or indeed of the movies. They were, like the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and Hope and Crosby, icons of the silver screen, as embedded in cultural history as Al Jolson, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton (“Who are they?”).
All of these legends arose before my time, inhabitants of a hard and tough era that despite its miseries and failings was in important ways superior to my own. I bang the drum, then, not for my own generation but for that of my grandparents, who embraced comedy that lived or died according to its merits and not on the lazy ability to shock with profanity and hate.
But, to the movie.
Unlike the Marx Brothers, whose films I cherish, I have never been a great fan of Laurel and Hardy. Theirs is a broad comedy, which does little for me, unlike the broad comedy of the Marx Brothers, which appeals to me greatly. Perhaps Groucho’s superb wordplay made the difference. Whatever it may be, I have rarely lingered when the television remote stumbled across Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.
This is not to deny their genius, much less to belittle it. They are towering cultural icons and important men in the history of American entertainment.
What I did not know is that they were also what the Aussies call “top blokes,” which is to say kind and unassuming men, devoted to each other in a way that comedic partners rarely have been, and devoted also to their public.
“Stan and Ollie,” starring John C. Reilly as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan (both pitch perfect, incidentally), focuses on the duo’s 1953 tour of the United Kingdom, long after their global celebrity had dimmed. It is a rags-to-riches tour, beginning in rundown, quarter-filled theaters but picking up steam as lazy marketing mavens get off their butts and assure the British that this really is the actual, honest-to-God Laurel and Hardy who many assumed were dead or retired.
There is a wonderful early scene featuring a young clerk in a shopworn mom-and-pop hotel who happens to be on duty when Stan and Ollie check in. Irrepressible as ever they embark on a classic Laurel and Hardy routine just for her. Will she recognize what’s going on, I wondered? Is she too young to know?
The price of a ticket will get you the answer.
I am a sentimental soul. When it comes to movies, spare me the car chases, the shootouts and the cussing contests. Just give me a sweet, triumphant story about good-hearted people like Stan and Ollie.