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.

advertisement

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.

The EOne release has enjoyed some clever marketing

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.’”

Laurel & Hardy around the time of their tour of The UK

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.

“Stan & Ollie” is sparked by the performances of the actresses playing their wives: Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel

“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.”

Before YouTube, DVDs or home video, one of these in the mail was every collector’s Best. Day. Ever.

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 boys flanked by Hal Roach

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.

Ellen Dubin held on to her dad’s “Sons of the Desert” membership card

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.”

6 Comments

  1. Loved the Stan & Olloe story. I too was a member of the Tit for Tat tent of the Sons of the Desert and often attended the evening meetings at the Granite. Before dinner we would have cocktails followed by more cocktails followed by a tie twiddling contest which I won on one occasion. Some where I have my certificate signed by Al Dubin. Before the Stan and Ollie feature we would watch a guest performer, frequently Harold Lloyd. I plan to do one of my Toronto SUN columns (you may recall we met at 333 King W years ago) on Stan’s appearance here in Toronto (with then wife Mae) in the early ’20s. Any idea where and when this new bioptic will be shown? Best….Mike

    • Bill Brioux Reply

      Great to hear from you Mike. The cocktails story is classic. I have a copy of the Sons of the Desert constitution which is largely, as you’ll know, made up of strict rules about cocktails. The movie opened today (Friday) and is showing downtown at the Varsity. You’ll love it for all the period details as well as for the great homage to Stan & Ollie.

  2. My husband, (Al’s brother) was a faithful fan of the Laurel and Hardy Toronto fan club. We have their statues. Carl enlisted in the RCAF when only 17. His squadron’s mission was to fly down the coast of Norway in a 2-seater plane attacking enemy shipping.
    He became a resident at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre. One of his great joys was to go to the Games Room and continually play his favourites -L/H. Loved the Kilt Dance, the one with the gorilla,
    the Army…….so many more…… .

    • Bill Brioux Reply

      So nice of you to comment here Rose. The kilt dance in Bonnie Scotland and “The Chimp” are two of my favourte Laurel & Hardy highlights, too. Thanks to Ellen for tracking down your husband’s Sons of the Desert membership card and other goodies from those joyous fan club days. All best.

  3. Loved your story and love L&H. But I do have to take issue with one thing you said in your Star article. “The old-fashioned format has sometimes been the only way to see much of their work.”

    While it’s not as good as having a film print, there’s a seemingly limitless number of the boys’ old films available for free on YouTube.

    And not just their features, like the magnificent “Block Heads” or “Way Out West.” Most of their shorts are there, as well, including “The Music Box,” the only film for which they justifiably won an Oscar. (Not to mention the equally wonderful aforementioned “Tit For Tat.”

    Head to YouTube, type in any Laurel & Hardy title (or just their names if you’re not sure what the films are called) and spend hours laughing.

    There’s one other aspect of their films that can’t be allowed to go by unnoticed – and most times, it is. The background music in their movies is simply hilarious. It’s not often a tune serving as BG makes you laugh out loud, but some of the stuff that’s played underneath the action is a favourite part of their movies for me.

    I’ve been aware of this new British flick for some time, having watched a preview a few months ago on the web. I look forward to seeing this and soon. Because, in the words of Stan Laurel, “Life isn’t short enough…”

    • Bill Brioux Reply

      Thanks for that note Aaron, these is a ton of Laurel & Hardy content on YouTube, that should have been mentioned in the story. It is the best place for younger viewers to discover the team today. Us 16mm film collectors are sometime just snobby enough to overlook that, but it’s not “Our First Mistake.” Cheers.

Write A Comment

advertisement