Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Celluloid Ramblings from the Mysterious Pudatsa: STAN & OLLIE

by JB
“Two, Four, Six, Eight… Time to Transubstantiate!” -- Tom Lehrer

Last night, I was awakened from a fitful sleep by a shrill, sibilant, faceless voice. I couldn't make it out at first in the dark bedroom. (I think it might have been Patrick; he’s very… sneaky.) The Voice said to me: “I want you to tell the people the truth about movies—not an easy thing to do because the people don't want to know the truth about movies.” And I said, “Where have you been? I’ve been writing on this website for eight fucking years. I taught film classes for thirty fucking years.”

The Voice said to me: “Do you eat with that mouth? Garbage mouth! Do you really need to use language like that? And do we all really need to hear your god damned Curriculum Vitae again? Sheesh. Just do your best. And be good to your parents; they’ve been good to you.”

And I said, “Both of my parents are dead.”

Then, after an awkward silence, the Voice granted me some hella magick powers. It was the coolest! He said unto me: “We're not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth. We're talking about impermanent, transient, movie truth. God-dammit, we should all be able to talk about movies like little ladies and gentlemen!' And I said, 'Why me?'

And the Voice replied, “Because you're on the Internets, dummy!”

I am still not sure; I either transubstantiated last night or I had a stroke. There is only one thing left of which I am sure. I now have an ability hitherto reserved for certain magicians from the turn of the 19th century: the ability to self-decapitate. I can detach my head and, free from the anchor of my body, my head can float freely about the house, or indeed, the world. It’s a trip.

During the upcoming year, my free-floating head (or, as ancient Hindu shamans called it, “Pudatsa”) will fly willy-nilly around my office and type with its nose, prognosticating, prescribing, and prevaricating on the world of film. Please join the Mysterious Pudatsa on its journey, won’t you?
Stan & Ollie is the first official disappointment of 2019. Although the sets, costumes, and John C. Reilly’s performance are stellar, the entire enterprise sinks under the weight of its own bullshit and misconception, like Laurel (Yanni) and Hardy’s little yacht sinking at the end of their celebrated two-reeler, Towed in a Hole.

The filmmakers choose to focus on the famous comedy team’s decline, with only a passing mention made to the halcyon days of their career. Perhaps this is because the movie’s source material was a book about Laurel and Hardy’s ill-fated tour of England in 1953, or because the screenwriter thought a movie about the geniuses of silent film comedy actually “getting along with each other” and “creating timeless comedy” lacked dramatic interest. The film opens with the pair filming the famous saloon dance number from Way Out West, and Reilly and Steve Coogan do a great job recreating it. Still, one senses the director is only including this material to emphasize during the rest of the narrative how the mighty have fallen—or that perhaps this charming sequence exists only as background for a later scene in which the pair recreate the dance… DESPITE THE FACT THAT WE ARE TOLD OLIVER HARDY MAY HAVE A FATAL HEART ATTACK IF HE EVEN STEPS ONSTAGE AGAIN, MUCH LESS DANCES AROUND.

That’s drama.

This VH-1 “Behind the Music” sensibility drives me nuts. I would like to know why filmmakers and studios insist that these bilious biopics must revel in the decline of famous artists. At first I thought perhaps they desired a built-in narrative arc so that audiences would enjoy “a good story” with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet thinking about Stan & Ollie, I concluded that some filmmakers are baffled by genius. They don’t understand it, and they certainly don’t know how to explore that intellectual concept on screen for two hours in any compelling manner. Coming to terms with any artist’s genius also leaves some filmmakers feeling like their own self-esteem is being kicked to the gutter.

“Orson Welles was 26 when he made Citizen Kane,” muses a 40 year-old filmmaker, “I am incapable of making anything approaching Citizen Kane. I therefore hate Orson Welles.”
And so countless biopics focus on the waning, painful years of their subjects’ lives, because those are the parts that these filmmakers suspect “modern audiences” can relate to—or darkly think they DESERVE. Filmmakers who, perhaps, can’t get ten people to laugh at a dinner party are now going to punish Laurel and Hardy for daring to entertain millions. Perhaps this director’s fevered ego shouted, “Let’s focus on Laurel and Hardy’s final years of bickering and failure to create a paper monument to two filmmakers whose genius I could never fathom in a hundred years.” Part of the genius of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic is that it actually focuses on Wood’s halcyon days when he was a working filmmaker, churning out his questionable masterpieces. Burton wisely chose to ignore Wood’s eventual slide into alcoholism, pornography, poverty, and death.

It just seems lazy to focus on such Lifetime Channel movie fodder as built-up resentments, meddling wives, audience disinterest, and “the show must go on.” Surely there is more of a story in the careers of the legendary LAUREL AND HARDY than two foundering comedians past their retirement ages attempting a semi-successful tour of England? Laurel and Hardy deserve more than this. They deserve a movie that explores or demonstrates their genius and what endeared them so to millions of movie fans over three decades, not a boring show business soap opera. This movie is beneath the dignity of Laurel and Hardy.

Though Stan & Ollie does not get make the same mistake as Bohemian Rhapsody—which turns its story of Freddie Mercury’s genius into an Audio-Animatronic simulation—the movie spends almost no time on what made its two subjects great in the first place and what I feel audiences would find compelling: Laurel and Hardy discovering and developing their genius. That film would be an artistic challenge to write and produce. Stan & Ollie is just too easy.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a rabid L & H fan. I come by it honestly. In the pre-VHS and pre-cable days of my misspent youth, I first developed a jones for motion pictures because my loving parents gifted me with a silent Super 8mm projector one Christmas. I would check out silent films from our local library and project them in our basement onto a hanging sheet. It was in that basement that I first fell in love with Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Lon Chaney. I then discovered Blackhawk Films, a mail-order house out of Davenport, Iowa that actually sold silent Super 8mm films. Taking pity on twelve year-olds with small allowances, Blackhawk films featured a monthly special: a silent comedy two-reeler that could be had for the low, low, discount price of only $6.99. Three of the first films I ever purchased in 1975 were Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopie, Wrong Again, and Big Business. I still think that Big Business is one of the most perfect comedy films ever made.
Because of rights issues, some Laurel and Hardy films have been notoriously difficult to see in this country. I own a few of my favorite silent shorts on DVDs that went out of print years ago. So I took the advice of none other than Stan & Ollie star John C. Reilly during his recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Facing the reality that most young people have never heard of the famous comedy team, he exhorted Colbert’s audience to “go on YouTube” and watch some of their famous films.

Typing “Laurel and Hardy” into the YouTube search box reveals a treasure trove of the duo’s work, unhindered by pesky issues like “copyright” and “ownership.” I must admit that I am so old, stodgy, and set in my ways that it had never occurred to me to do this. Thanks, John C. Reilly. You have not only suggested a way to prepare for your awful film, but also suggested a much more entertaining substitute for seeing it at all.

Here are links to my two favorite L & H silent shorts. Forgive the odd foreign translation on Two Tars, but it’s the best-looking transfer of the many versions posted there. Enjoy.

Big Business:

Two Tars:


  1. I liked the movie, i didn't hate that it focused on the down part of their career, but as you said, it missed the part that explained properly what made them so great. Though i knew who they were, it never felt deserved

    At least it's not Holmes And Watson

  2. I found the anecdote about renting film reels from a library fascinating, J.B. It is amazing how much the technology of watching movies has changed. I worked as a projectionist for my film professor as an undergrad and always enjoyed the whirring sound of the projector.

    Back in the early days of the AMC channel, when it actually was a classic movie channel, it frequently broadcast Laurel and Hardy's short films. I really loved them. I am sure I would now if ever set aside time see them again. There is not enough time to watch everything I would like to.

    1. Side note: I rent DVDs from the library so I guess part of this still lingers!

  3. Your head, does it hurt? What happens to your body? Do you park it? Have you managed to use it in other capacaties? Does it feel like flying?

    It is a shame that so fe biopics get it right. And when t comes to genious you sometimes get the other end of the spectrum where they are made into a 'crazy', shut in, savant type. This really makes me appreciate Angel At My Table all the more!

  4. My body usually just sits and waits in a chair and is happy for the headless respite. I have a large pumpkin sized head and it’s my body’s relief not to support it for a few hours.

    Angel at my Table is a masterpiece. Ages ago, a fellow film teacher and I used to tour local libraries with a screening/discussion evening of foreign films. Angel at my Table and Wings of Desire were the two most popular ones with patrons.

    1. I am glad to know it is a power with so many perks!

      I agree about Angel at my table, it is one of my exploding heart movies.

  5. Regarding why so many artist biopics are of the "fading lights" variety, I imagine that A) by the time stars have the clout to make these kinds of insider-y vanity projects for decidedly small audiences, they’re often too old to star as the young/rising versions of the subjects themselves, and B) the declining years are probably cheaper to produce - more moping about in fewer locations. Those multi-scene “top of their game” montages don’t come cheap!