The Bathos and Musicality of Laurel and Hardy

14/06/2019

Bathos, the OED says is, an unintentional change in mood from the important and serious to the trivial and ridiculous. Emphasis mine.

The art of bathos was raised to heights hitherto unknown by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. That art had its roots in Music Hall, or as it was called in America, vaudeville. Those as lucky as me, who had a grandpa who had grown up with Music Hall, took me at the age of eight or thereabouts, to Blackpool Central Pier to see Thanks for the Memory where Randolph Sutton had brought back to the stage a dozen or so of retired divas of the Halls whose powers of communication had not diminished a jot – it had indeed increased – with the passage of time.  And not so much as a whiff of sentimentality.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience fixed my mind on a career in music. Yes dear, but I mean for a living, said my grandma. Damned right she was on that too.

All this is supremely well captured in Jon S Baird’s 2018 movie, Stan & Ollie (98 minutes) with Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C Reilly (four hours daily in makeup/prosthetics) as Hardy. The movie focuses on their last years when they tried to make a not too successful comeback in the country then called the British Isles. What becomes increasingly obvious as the ninety minutes gathers pace is that one without the other is meaningless but together they are astonishing.

But this wonderfully-paced comic-thriller is on an all-white background, threaded through with the black menace of bathos. Colour occasionally breaks through the black and white. And don’t forget that the two divos began in silent movies. The effects were all done with body language and glances. They would surely have gone along with Tilda Swinton’s contention that movies went downhill when they started talking. 

Whether the Scottish Director, Jon Baird, has music qualifications, I don’t know. Either he or his editor has an immaculate sense of rhythm. Audiences are left breathless. As indeed they were at the originals. We choke on our laughter as audiences did then. No Brexit in the British Isles! It would never have been able to leave the starting post. That is revealing, as well as pertinent. Of ourselves, I mean.

And yes, a central theme of the movie is of these two men trying to find themselves. For them it is a game of mirrors. And for us today the mirrors show us our own folly.

The final wives of Stan and Ollie are as colourful as the actors themselves. The screenplay is by Jeff Pope loosely based on A J Marriot’s Laurel and Hardy –The British Tours which took place at the end of the actors’ lives.

Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston Lancashire in 1890 to an actor mother and a theatrical manager father. There is now a blue plaque on his birthplace. The family moved to Glasgow in 1910 where Stan joined Karno’s Troupe of Actors, who appeared at the Britannia Music Hall and included Charlie Chaplin.  Another blue plaque marks Stan’s debut at the Music Hall. Fred Karno then took the Troupe on a tour of America.  Stan later said, Karno didn’t teach Charlie and me everything we know about comedy, but he taught us most of it. 

In the film, both wives are handed some rather good one-liners – Nina Arianda fares best as Stan’s missus, but Shirley Henderson delivers other delightful improbabilities as Mrs Ollie or Babe as he was affectionately known as. Though their nuances couldn’t be more different, both wear delusion like costume jewellery.

None of this should surprise us. Ida Kitaeva (Mrs Stan) was a glamorous Russian singer, who in delightful Russian-English would tell anyone who would listen that she had made movies with Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd in Hollywood. You won’t find any evidence for this claim if you check it out. Hilariously, this self-promotion fell flat on the Lords and Ladies who flocked to see the final stage presentations of Laurel and Hardy in London. The English aristocracy of the fifties was gloriously ignorant of the accomplishments of Hollywood. Ah so you’re a bit of an actress yourself, are you? says Lord Somebody-or-other. It could have been an exchange in one of Stan’s scripts.

Lucille (Ollie’s last wife) was a Hollywood scriptwriter who always got the last word when she needed to. This reminds me of a snooty young man on BBC TV interviewing Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) also in the early fifties. Ms Loos was very wizen and looked older than God. And tell me Miss Loos he asked, do you think it’s true today to say that gentlemen prefer blondes? O no, she replied, nowadays gentlemen prefer gentlemen. The young snob looked as though he wished the earth would open and swallow him.

The soft-shoe shuffles and tap dancing are stunning because of the close-ups of the two men’s feet – something which was not shown in the original black and white movies and was only experienced by those British audiences who got to the live stage shows.

The Savoy Hotel plays such a key part in this movie it that it feels like an important character in itself. D’Oyly Carte constructed it from the fortune he amassed from Gilbert and Sullivan; itis not always realised that the small theatre was there first and home to the Savoy Operas; then came the luxury hotel, then as now with its reputation for the best in food and hospitality in the city. Both the actors had an alcohol problem which surfaces throughout, but especially after the arrival of the wives. Ida was especially concerned about Stan’s drinking. She would simply take the drink from his hand and drink it herself. The more I drink the drunker she gets, quipped Stan.

The wives come from the airport in a limousine to the Savoy forecourt. Publicity cameras were rolling. Stan and Ollie act out a scene they had done many times on screen – getting into the taxi to help the guests out, but the wives are blocked by the confused and confusing movements of the two men, in and out of the limousine.

I hadn’t known that Stan was the author of the gags and words of the songs. You can’t go on hiding behind your typewriter says Ollie to Stan as a put-down, which looks rather harsh on the smaller bloke.

Stan & Ollie 98 mins Directed by Jon S Baird and distributed by BBC Films, is now available on DVD and Blue-ray. For a trailer click here.

Jack Buckley

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