Happy to be back in The Toronto Star today, this time for a feature on two of my most treasured comedy film idols, Laurel & Hardy.
The occasion is the release of the new feature “Stan & Ollie,” premiering Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The movie spreads to cinemas in other Canadian cities a week later.
The film is a love story, a sweet valentine to the iconic duo, paired by producer Hal Roach in the ’20s. They made audiences laugh for over 100 short films and through 27 features.
“Stan & Ollie” begins as the boys embark on one of their most-treasured films, “Way Out West” (1937) and jumps ahead to the early ’50s, when, in the twilight of their careers, they embark on a bittersweet tour of Music Halls in The UK. The details and authenticity in the film bring audiences back in time; the commitment and transformation of its two stars, John C. Reilly as Hardy and Steve Coogan as Laurel, is truly astonishing.
Both men worked hard to learn and rehearse Laurel & Hardy’s beautifully-timed dance and comedy stage routines. The care they and the costume and wardrobe people took to get the right looks really pays off on screen. Chin, ear and teeth prosthetics helped transform Coogan into Laurel and Reilly sent jolly baby photos to the makeup and effects people to help achieve the right body and face prosthetics to the ever chubby Hardy.
I had the good fortune to speak with both actors who were calling on the phone from London, where the film had a premiere late last year. “Stan & Ollie” was shot in The UK and those beautiful old theatres they tour in the movie are the real deal. The process was especially moving for Coogan — an English actor best known for the hilarious Alan Partridge comedies — who played those same venues early in his career.
“I did, like, ten weeks in The Lyceum twenty years ago, and, it was a big sell out thing, one of the highlights of my career,” said Coogan. “I look at the scene in the movie where they’re outside The Lyceum Theatre, as Laurel and Hardy, and think, well, my name was literally up there on that theatre, twenty years ago, and that resonates with me a lot, you know? I booked a hotel room for my Mum and Dad to come see me in that theatre and I booked the hotel right across from the theatre, so when they pulled back the drapes, it just had my name, in lights!
“I think my Dad said to my Mum, ‘When you think about what a bugger he was.’”
I probably first saw Laurel & Hardy on television. Their classic two-reel comedies were often part of the kiddie shows I grew up watching in Toronto in the early ’60s, although I can’t remember if they were shown on Buffalo’s Commander Tom or Canadian staples such as Professor’s Hideaway or Kiddo the Clown. Coogan told me he first saw them as a lad on the telly.
“They were just part of the landscape, so I don’t remember a time when they weren’t there,” he said. “It’s like asking, ‘Do you remember the first time you saw a tree?'”
Where I really got into them though was through collecting their films on 16mm film. Blackhawk Films would put out catalogues listing dozens of their titles, shorts such as “Brats,” “Their First Mistake,” “Tit for Tat” and “Them Thar Hills.” A friend and fellow collector, Fr. John Croal, bought several L&H shorts and features and used to show them at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. Many years later, when he switched to laser discs, he gave me his entire collection.
When I related that story to Reilly, it sparked a memory for him.
“I’m just remembering that we had a 16mm film in our house,” he told me. “It was one of the few that we had with our little rickety old projector and we used to watch it on the dining room wall. That’s amazing that you reminded me of that.”
I remember a fellow Toronto collector, years ago — in the city’s more prudish days — having one of the films he ordered from Blackhawk in the States being held up at the border. When the border agent saw the title — “Tit for Tat” — he thought it was pornography!
The Star wanted the story from the perspective of a Laurel & Hardy fan and film collector and that’s the take that’s in today’s paper.
Thanks to my friend Stan Taffel, a fellow collector, curator and the president of the Los Angeles-based classic film festival Cinecon, for his valuable insights into the comedy legends. It’s through passionate collectors such as Stan that we even have as much of the duo’s work to enjoy as we do. Taffel and others have generously made materials they’ve tracked down available so that the best available prints of Laurel & Hardy films can be preserved.
It is sad to think how their original film negatives and other materials, which had bounced from owner to owner, had fallen into such disrepair. A few titles are still lost. The words “Rogue Song” are enough to make a collector weep. UCLA is currently restoring many of the sound films.
The work involved is painstaking and expensive but very rewarding. I was at a screening of one of Laurel & Hardy’s Spanish language shorts a few years ago in LA. They used to shoot foreign language versions of their films by reading their lines phonetically and working with multi-lingual extras. I was astonished at the restoration on one short, which looked like it had been shot the week before — not 85 years earlier.
Back when I was starting out at TV Guide Canada in Toronto, Telemedia PR director Barry Nesbitt took me to a meeting of The Sons of the Desert, the official Laurel & Hardy fan club. The founding president of Toronto’s “Tit for Tat” tent, Al Dubin, was the uncle of Toronto actress Ellen Dubin (“Napoleon Dynamite”). Ellen also kindly shared some memories, along with some photos and flyers, from her days screening Laurel & Hardy films with her father and uncle.
The first story I ever wrote at TV Guide was about Laurel & Hardy; specifically, the colourization of their films. A Toronto company had the rights to the Hal Roach shorts and features at the time, and I remember going down near Queen and Spadina to interview this fellow Wilson Markle who led the team trying to add colour to the films.
Trouble was, Markle was ahead of his time. This was in 1983 and computers simply were not fast enough and the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make a convincing colour conversion work. The few films they did transfer look like they were coloured with crayons today.
Thanks to that assignment, however, I did get to interview Hal Roach. The Hollywood legend was 95 at the time (he lived to be 100) and very much full of vim and vigor over the phone from L.A. He gave me an unforgettable quote, and I’ve pretty much been searching for a better one ever since.
You’ll find it here by following this link to The Star story. Read it first, then run to see “Stan & Ollie.”