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For the men behind Laurel and Hardy, another fine mess

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Stan and Ollie
"Stan and Ollie" explores the relationship between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy later in their lives after their glory days were over.
Nick Wall, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film "Stan and Ollie," opening this week in the Twin Cities, examines the famous comedy duo not at the height of their fame, but later — after the cameras stopped rolling.

An early scene shows them preparing to shoot a dance sequence in the film "Way Out West" at Hal Roach's Hollywood studio. It's a goofy dance by two men — one skinny, one rotund — both in frock coats and bowler hats. Their gentle movements build into a display of graceful silliness beloved by fans. It's funny even if you have seen it dozens of times.

But the film shows the performance as coming hard on the heels of an argument with the studio owner that was to change everything. Laurel's contract was up, and he pushed Roach hard for a raise, saying he and Hardy, known to his friends as Babe, were ready to strike out on their own.

"You are setting up on your own, huh?" says Roach. "Well how about this: Babe is still under contract to me, and I ain't releasing him."

"You can't have Hardy without Laurel," says Laurel.

"That's what you think," Roach growls.

"Stan and Ollie" picks up almost two decades later, long after Roach forced Laurel and Hardy to split. They were never as good with new partners, and Hollywood moved on. So in the 1950s, they began touring around Britain, performing in theaters.

Steve Coogan, who plays Stan Laurel, said it was only then that Laurel and Hardy really became friends.

"It's a love story between two men," he said, "who, ironically, only got to know each other when they were touring. I mean, they knew each other sort of casually when they were making the movies, but when they toured Europe and Britain, that's when they got to know each other, because they were living in each other's pockets."

Stan and Ollie
"Stan and Ollie" includes several recreations of classic Laurel and Hardy film routines which they performed live on a tour of Britain in the 1950s.
Nick Wall, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Coogan signed on to the film first and was part of the effort to persuade John C. Reilly to play Oliver Hardy.

"My first response was, 'No way!'" Reilly said.  "That was a really intimidating prospect to play someone who is so important to me personally and who so many people know and love all over the world."

Reilly said he was convinced by the argument that "Stan and Ollie" was about the real men behind the characters known as Laurel and Hardy.

The costume and makeup staff on the film convincingly transformed him for the role. Coogan took less work but is similarly transformed to Stan Laurel. Together they recreate some of the famous bits that Laurel and Hardy performed on tour.

But the film also shows them tired and bruised by how Hollywood had spit them out. Oliver Hardy was in poor health. In time, they fought.

While there is a lot of research about Laurel and Hardy's filmmaking days, Coogan said there is less about their time on the road and what the two men were like together. So they started with what they did know.

"There must have been aspects of Stan in his on-screen character," he said. "So what you do is, you dial it back, dial back the character that we know so well."  

Reilly called it reverse engineering. "Stan and Ollie" is at times hilarious and at others poignant as the partners seek some way back to their former glory. Reilly said he hopes the film will help focus the attention of a new generation on Laurel and Hardy.

"It's sort of like a higher calling," he said. "I am talking about playing this role, but I am really talking about how brilliant Oliver Hardy was."

Besides that, he said, a movie that shows characters with empathy and past difficulties is a tonic for our age.