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Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as Laurel and Hardy

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as Laurel and Hardy

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as Laurel and Hardy
January 05
04:24 2019

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Anyone could do the dance — that was the point. First seen in the 1937 romp Way Out West, the best loved of all Laurel and Hardy routines begins with a gentle sway in place beside a soundstage saloon. “Commence to dancin’,” sing the nearby vocal quartet The Avalon Boys. “Commence to prancin’.” A tap of the toe becomes a mutual sashay, and then the greatest double act in cinema history join hands, legs flicked out at right angles, two men in bowler hats, one big and one skinny, twirling flawlessly in time. Try watching without grinning. Neurosurgeons have it easier.

Cannily, the dance provides the opening for Stan & Ollie, the affectionate new biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. The scene is the set of Way Out West, the duo at the height of their success. Before the cameras roll, they discuss the stuff of movie star life — divorces, fiancées, contracts. Then action is called and they instantly slip into character. The steps are cartoonishly easy, so simple a child could master them. The dance feels like a natural extension of the private language they shared on-screen. It all appears so effortless.

Yet Hollywood is history when most of the story takes place. It is 16 years later, and the pair look every day of it: menaced by ill health, forgotten by the movie business, mounting a comeback in the creakier theatres of postwar Britain. Even at one remove in the form of Coogan and Reilly, the sight of the aged Laurel and Hardy is a jolt. The real thing is a still stronger dose of melancholy, publicity stunts from the time that are available on YouTube, newsreel clowning to shift tickets in Sunderland and Northampton.

Seeing comics ravaged by time unsettles us: it turns out that even laughter is no protection against mortality. That goes double for Laurel and Hardy, whose appeal to generations of children may explain why they failed for so long to enjoy the cinephile status of, say, Charlie Chaplin. Some of the snobbery arose out of economics. Unlike Chaplin, a spaghetti of licensing deals kept their movies on television long after their heyday. If it was on TV and it made children laugh, went the logic, could it really be art? More fool the adult world. Laurel and Hardy let kids in on a secret, showing their elders as bickering, bumbling, hopelessly naive.

But naivety takes work. Laurel was a tireless gag writer, and the pair made their triumphant passage from silent movies to sound not least through his one-liners, which achieve the kind of throwaway surrealism that only comes after hours of craft. That same perfectionism shaped their physical comedy. Another of their showpieces, The Music Box — the 1932 short in which the Laurel and Hardy Transfer Company attempt to move a piano — is a slapstick riot underpinned by tiny details, choreographed glances and pinpoint exchanges.

Laurel and Hardy performing c1955 © Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images

It takes two to draw out the full comic possibilities of a piano and a set of stairs. Yet while Laurel and Hardy are always seen as the consummate double act, most are made up of straight men and idiots. Stan and Ollie were something rarer. Each was as funny as the other. Power fluctuated. “I’m in charge,” Hardy might have said, to which Laurel would have nodded: “And neither am I.”

They were equal partners in dire straits. In the 1920s and ’30s, movie comedy like real life had a violent thrum. Kurt Vonnegut, a devoted fan, would later write: “These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all the time. They could so easily be killed.” Despair suggested itself too. Another admirer was Samuel Beckett, and the pair were assumed to be models for the limbo misfits of Waiting for Godot. And what is The Music Box if not proof of the final lines from Beckett’s The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”?

But there was solace, and hilarity, in each other. If the genius of Buster Keaton lay in films about one individual against the world — in the course of 1922’s Cops, Keaton did end up killed — Laurel had Hardy and Hardy had Laurel. That was the punchline and the profundity.

Stan & Ollie the film is frank about real-life partnership: one career is hard enough to manage. But what its subjects had at work was bona fide magic, a screen friendship made up of raw chemistry and professional brilliance. Their see-saw dynamic echoes in the work of Steve Coogan himself: in the meta TV series The Trip, Coogan is the puffed-up smooth talker, regularly punctured by Rob Brydon. But a closer parallel yet might be Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, another pair of conjoined pals who slept in the same bedroom.

The comedy of Laurel and Hardy is one grand and glorious joke about the human condition — reliant on each other whether we like it or not, forever locked into a state of can’t-live-with-them-can’t-live-without-them. A funny thing about the Way Out West dance is that, as with most of their routines, it was anything but effortless: there are photographs of the pair rehearsing it, Laurel with his shirt off, soaked in sweat. It was only appropriate. Like comedy, other people are hard work. The beauty is they still sometimes make us want to dance.

A season of Laurel and Hardy films is running at the BFI Southbank, London, throughout January

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