Fact vs fiction – How far is too far for biopics?

Stan and Ollie is a brilliant example of comedians using their aptitude for mimicry to bring a dramatic story to life. In Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, a lesser-known period of the careers of one of the world’s greatest ever comedy duos has been immortalised in film forever more.

The only problem I have with it is that almost all of it is fabrication.

Admittedly, writer Jeff Pope wasn’t there personally to verify the specifics of the script. This is forgivable.

But the plot is not.

Thanks to a wealth of online resources, not least the website Letters From Stan (which provides a record of every available letter Stan Laurel sent in his lifetime), there is enough factual evidence to piece together a fairly accurate timeline of events during their final tour of the UK and Ireland to know how much of this is real.

For a start, the tour started in September 1953 in Ireland (see letter to Dorothi and Jac dated 12th September 1953) and ended in England, allowing the duo to start their tour earlier due to a visa issue. In Stan and Ollie, the change in the plot allowed them to end on a triumphant emotional high with Oliver Hardy fully fit and able to perform. This is arguably a small change that makes sense from a story-telling point of view.

You will also note from the letters that Stan’s wife Eda joined him on the ferry crossing: “Had a nice crossing – calm sea all the way. Eda caught a cold so is now in the Pill & nose drops dept.” This is another small but critical plot point that was changed for arguably a good reason – it gives the viewer some time with Stan and Ollie without their wives, allowing the plot to explore their relationship thoroughly before the introduction of more characters on the tour.

Indeed, Stan Laurel himself was also ill for around a month in the lead up to Christmas, meaning they cancelled several shows. It makes sense to not include this in the film for timing and pacing reasons. Even if it was just a 20 second montage of him being ill for a month, it doesn’t really add anything.

The fabrications start to impact more when you think about their planned triumphant return to cinema, in this case an adaptation of Robin Hood. This is the plot device used as the driving reason Oliver Hardy agrees to do the tour. Robin Hood is a film that was mentioned once in an interview in 1947 during a previous tour of the UK, but never existed even as a concept. This factual change impacts hugely on the portrayal of the pair’s relationship.

If Oliver Hardy was only doing the tour to return to cinema, the suggestion is that his relationship with Stan is purely professional and the tour is only being completed to allow his film career to get back on track. Several times in the biopic he makes it clear he is only doing the tour to facilitate doing the film. On the contrary, in reality the pair had toured the UK four times between 1937 (when Way Out West was released) and 1953. They also released a film in 1951 (the unpopular and critically-panned Atoll K). This wasn’t a comeback for them and wasn’t something that brought them back together, and there was no film in pre-production. All three are fabrications.

The dramatic plot developments and emotional journeys of the main characters are built on a timeline so chopped and rearranged that the end result is a dishonest representation of the events. The crux of the film is a falsity.

The same can be said of the Oscar-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody, which also played around significantly with the timeline to make sure there was a triumphant ending for Freddie Mercury and Queen. The details are explored thoroughly in the article ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Fact Check: Did Freddie Mercury Really Tell Queen He Had AIDS Just Before Live Aid?.

In this film, the Live Aid performance was used as a way to reunite the band in the wake of Freddie finding out about his diagnosis. Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon had been angry after Freddie Mercury had released several solo albums in the early 1980s. As the film shows it, the band agree to reunite after a long hiatus and Freddie tells the band about his AIDS diagnosis late on in the rehearsal period.

In reality, the band had released an album together in 1983, Roger Taylor released two solo albums in 1981 and 1984 and Brian May released an EP in 1983. Queen had played a series of shows two months before Live Aid in 1985, so they had never really been apart. It is also thought that Mercury didn’t find out about his diagnosis until April 1987 (according to his partner Jim Hutton).

These are critical changes to the timeline that completely alter the impact of the story. I agree it is completely appropriate to finish on the high of the Live Aid show. Similarly, it is impossible to tell the story of Queen without mentioning Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. So, what were the filmmakers to do?

It’s a fine balance between telling a truthful story and telling an entertaining and dramatic story.

With Stan and Ollie, the result is a whimsically funny film that achieves its main goal of bringing one of the greatest comedy duos back to the attention of the public. It’s not a bad film at all. It’s just important to know where the fact stops and the fiction starts. This is a decision that ultimately lies with director Jon S Baird, writer Jeff Pope and producer Faye Ward, all of whom will presumably be happy with the critical response and the box office takings. Similarly for Bohemian Rhapsody, director Bryan Singer, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and producers Graham King and Jim Beach will not care a jot about the changes made, especially if they pick up an Academy Award for their efforts.

History will forget whether or not the facts are correct. Inevitably what is on screen will take priority over the truth, hidden away in books and on websites for only the most ardently-interested fans to find. How the films themselves are remembered will only become clear years down the line.

Why Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week’ is still fresh 98 years on

On Wednesday 1st September 1920, a significant piece of cinematic history was made. It may not have seemed it at the time, but when ‘One Week’ hit cinemas, the world got its first glimpse of Buster Keaton in a leading role.

Indeed, it wasn’t simply his first starring role. Keaton co-wrote and co-directed the two-reeler as well (with Eddie Cline). Gone was the youthful and playful Keaton viewers had made note of in the earlier Arbuckle comedies, where he was only ever a supporting role. The world was seeing for the first time The Great Stone Face taking centre stage. Deadpan, stoic and always hilarious.

The two-reel film centres around a newly-married couple attempting to setup home over the course of a week. This allowed Keaton and Cline to split the story into seven short segments, with the starts of each marked by the turn of a day calendar.

The feeling one gets when watching is that Keaton had been biding his time with Arbuckle, waiting to star in a film so he could really go to town with his abilities as a physical performer. His abilities are nothing short of acrobatic.

The falling wall gag makes an appearance, less than a year after Arbuckle had done it in ‘Back Stage’ but quite a while before it made a reappearance more famously in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). It’s one of those gasp-out-loud moments in cinema where you know that if something went wrong, he’d be in real trouble.

At one point the entire house is revolving 360 degrees, while a separate shot inside the house had the camera revolving on a turntable as a storm takes hold of the house and its inhabitants. This is Keaton innovating as a filmmaker with the team around him, elevating the film from a simple set of stunts to something more full of ambition, hinting at what cinephiles would enjoy over the next two decades.

A further use of his interest in the mechanical stunt props includes an entire side of the house rotating around a central pivot, with Keaton and Sybil Seely (The Bride) effectively swapping positions between the top and bottom of the house. It’s another gasp-inducing moment, again with little room for error. Keaton’s love for the mechanical stunt grew from his background in vaudeville performance, and viewers would continue to see more of the same in his next short ‘Convict 13’ with an elasticated hanging rope.

I still don’t get how they did all of the stunts, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the film.

‘One Week’ serves as a brilliant starting point for those wanting to get into Keaton’s shorts and feels as fresh today as it must have done in 1920.

So why is it so significant? Well, it was the start of one of the most prolific decades of any one film creator in the history of cinema. It’s incredible to conceive just how much he achieved in what would prove to be the heyday for silent film: 12 feature films and 19 two-reel shorts, all written by, starring and directed by Keaton (albeit some with a co-directing or co-writing credit). It’s similar to the output of The Beatles between 1962 and 1970; prolific and world class. Keaton’s career may have taken a turn for the worse from the start of the 1930s, but by that point his legacy had been realised.

As Orson Welles put it, Buster Keaton was “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema… a supreme artist, and I think one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed.” It’s hard to think of higher praise.

The Fireman (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)

The second in the Mutual Comedies series (the first, The Floorwalker, I have previously reviewed), The Fireman is another great example of master craftsmanship from Chaplin. It involves an insurance fraud setup whereby a man (Lloyd Bacon) colludes with a local fire chief (Eric Campbell) to collect on the insurance money. However, things don’t quite go to plan when a real fire breaks out on the other side of town and the whole plot falls over to humorous results. Chaplin plays a fire engine driver who fails at everything he is involved with and this character is the source of most of the humour, especially in his interactions with the fire chief, played by the brilliant Campbell.

It’s not quite Chaplin at his best, nor is it really quite as effective as The Floorwalker, but it has its charm and is worth watching if only for the few big laughs dotted throughout. There are much worse ways to spend 28 minutes of your day.

I preferred the original Fotoplayer music and sound effects as performed by Robert Israel on this one, but both audio tracks compliment the original visuals perfectly well. It comes down to personal preference and I’m more of a traditionalist.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Comedies is out now on BFI Blu-ray and DVD.