by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Over the last two days Charles and I watched a quite interesting set of movies from something advertised as a Laurel and Hardy boxed set from Platinum Disc Entertainment, reissued by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment. What sets this apart from most Laurel and Hardy compilations is that it focuses as much or more on their work separately than together; of the 14 films represented only five — the familiar public-domain features The Flying Deuces (1939) and Utopia a.k.a. Atoll K a.k.a. Escapade a.k.a. Robinson Crusoeland (1951); Lucky Dog, the early silent comedy that marked their first collaboration (though it was in fact a Laurel vehicle and Hardy was in it only as a supporting player); the 1931 National Variety Artists all-star fundraising film The Stolen Jools and the 1943 six-minute short The Tree in a Test Tube (in which Laurel, Hardy and Pete Smith participate in a demonstration of how many wood-derived products — including early plastics and synthetic fabrics like rayon — average people carry around with them; this was shot in color, in what looks like badly faded Kodachrome, during a lunch break while they were making the film Jitterbugs at 20th Century-Fox) — actually feature both Laurel and Hardy on screen. (A sixth, a 1926 Hal Roach comedy called Enough to Do — actually originally released as Wandering Papas — features Hardy as actor and Laurel as director, a career change he attempted in the mid-1920’s only to be talked out of it when the Laurel and Hardy films for Roach started becoming super-popular.) Charles and I had watched Utopia before from a download and here’s what I’d had to say about it:
We ended up watching a quite fascinating and surprisingly good movie both Charles and I had added to the collection — he on a computer download from archive.org and I from a videotape I recorded from TCM — known variously as Utopia, Atoll K, Robinson Crusoeland and Escapade, made in Italy and France from 1950 to 1951 and the last film appearance of Laurel and Hardy. I was surprised at how good this was mainly because most of what I knew about it came from Stan Laurel’s own recollections, which were of a nightmarish co-production between Italy’s Fortezza Films and France’s Films Sirius in which half the people spoke Italian, half spoke French and the two stars spoke English. The film turned out to be quite funny and — surprise! — a political satire, the sort of movie one might have expected from Chaplin or the Marx Brothers but not from two comedians whose previous work had been as relentlessly apolitical as Laurel and Hardy.
Utopia — to use the title of the print we were watching (the one Charles had burned to video CD; the name on my tape from TCM is Atoll K) — starts much like the 1940 Laurel and Hardy film A Chump at Oxford (and their little-known 1928 silent short Early to Bed as well), with Laurel traveling to England (“played” by France, since the plate advertising the lawyer’s office in which the opening scene takes place is in French) to receive an inheritance from an eccentric uncle who kept his money in cash because he hated banks, and Hardy tagging along as his financial manager. The inheritance comes in three large piles of currency — francs, lire and pounds — which soon get whittled down as the attorneys take their cut and then another piece off the top comes out for taxes. The inheritance also includes a motorboat that is rather grandly described as a “yacht” and an island in the South Seas, where Laurel and Hardy determine to set sail for so they can settle there and avoid any future tax collectors.
They set out, proving that their competence as sailors hasn’t improved any since their last film for Hal Roach, Saps at Sea (1940) and also attracting a stateless person, Antoine (Max Elloy, in a delightfully dry performance reminiscent of the great Laurel and Hardy foil, James Finlayson, from their days at Roach) and a stowaway, stonemason Giovanni Copini (Adriano Rimoldi) — there’s a delightful scene in which Giovanni, from his perch inside the boat’s sail, pilfers food from Laurel’s and Hardy’s dinner plates and, of course, Laurel and Hardy each accuse the other — and Giovanni’s presence is discovered only when the usual L&H incompetence wrecks the boat’s engine (it’s stopped turning because it’s run out of gas, but suspecting a breakdown Hardy starts dismantling the engine, and every time he removes a part he hands it to Laurel, who places it on the deck, from which it rolls off into the sea) and they have to open the sail to be able to get the boat to move.
Eventually they discover an island — not the one willed to Laurel but an entirely new one, formed as we watch by a volcanic eruption from the ocean floor — and the four men form a commune, salvaging a copy of Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe from their wrecked boat and using it as a guide to survival. Complications ensue when a woman, chanteuse Chérie Lamour (Suzy Delair), runs away from her bossy fiancé, Lt. Jack Frazer (Luigi Tosi) and ends up on the island. More complications ensue when Frazer shows up leading an international party which discovers uranium on the island and tries to establish who was the first person to land on the island, thereby establishing which country has jurisdiction. When it turns out that stateless Antoine was the first person whose feet touched the ground, the settlers decide to form their own country, “Crusoeland,” elect Hardy as president and pass a constitution (written on the flyleaf of their copy of Robinson Crusoe) that provides for no immigration restrictions, no laws, no prisons and, above all, no taxes.
Needless to say, the combination of a boom-town economy funded by the uranium mine and the lawless environment attracts the flotsam and jetsam of humanity from the entire world (it seems as if the film was parodying William Wellman’s marvelous Safe in Hell here), and when Alecto (Michael Dalmatoff), the nastiest of the nasties, makes an unwanted pass at Chérie, he responds to Hardy’s attempt to throw him off the island by staging a coup, overthrowing Hardy’s government and sentencing the four men who settled it originally to hang. There’s a slapstick chase climax before the protagonists are saved by another storm which sinks most of the island (and presumably annihilates the entire rest of the cast as well as the entire uranium operation), while Lt. Frazer shows up just in the nick of time to rescue them and take Laurel and Hardy to the island they were supposed to be on in the first place — only, you guessed it, they lose it to the taxman and Hardy gets to say to Laurel on screen, for the last time, “Well, that’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
This bizarre premise for a Laurel and Hardy movie was the work of Léo Joannon, who concocted the original story and was also the director of record, though he had a lot of help writing the film (John D. Klorer, screenplay & dialogue; I. Kloucowsky; dialogue; Frederick Kohner; Piero Tellini; René Wheeler; and Monte Collins, “additional material”) and also up to three additional directors. When Joannon seemed to be losing control of the production, the producer, Raymond Eger, decided to bring in an American director with Hollywood experience to salvage it — only the director he chose was John Berry, who had relocated to Europe because he’d been blacklisted and therefore any film with his name on it could not get U.S. distribution. So Eger just left his name off of it and (according to imdb.com) enlisted two other “ghost” directors, Alf Goulding (brother of Edmund Goulding; their father had been the manager of Fred Karno’s comedy company when both Laurel and Charlie Chaplin were members of it) and British-born but American-trained comedy specialist Tim Whelan.
Oddly, this mishmash of four directors and six writers turned out a quite good film, pleasantly satirical — though the politics seem rather muddled, at times anti-tax libertarian and at others primitive-communist, certainly this film has a message, and it is that governments are evil, corporate greed (represented by the uranium mine) ruins everything it touches and the free spirits of the world should be fed, housed and otherwise left alone to do their thing — and also drawing on enough of Laurel and Hardy’s classical comedy style to be laugh-out-loud funny, maybe not as laugh-at-loud funny as their best work but still a lot funnier than most of what’s being made and touted as “comedy” today. Laurel and Hardy don’t do the big pratfall comedy they’d done 20 years earlier — probably because they couldn’t; production on this film had to shut down for several months because Laurel suffered a stroke induced by a mystery illness that was later diagnosed as diabetes (in the opening two-shot of him and Hardy, Laurel looks like death warmed over and anyone seeing it would have a hard time believing that Laurel actually survived Hardy by eight years), and Hardy had gone from being a big but muscular man (he kept in condition by playing golf and in the early years he resembled a linebacker) to a grotesquely obese one — but they still tap a lot of their own old gags (and not just theirs; they also do the multiple introductions gag the Marx Brothers used in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) and their contributions are quite funny.
I suspect the only reason this wasn’t rediscovered by anti-establishment 1960’s audience and didn’t become the cult hit the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup did after flopping on its initial release is the film’s technical crudity: it’s all too obvious that everyone other than Laurel and Hardy is speaking in dubbed English (their lips don’t even begin to match the dialogue throughout much of the movie) and, in the scene in which their island home is menaced by a flock of bats, the bats are so obviously wire-mounted models that Bela Lugosi’s infamous film The Devil Bat looks like a Nature Channel documentary by comparison. Still, Utopia a.k.a. Atoll K (from the international designation given the island by the United Nations when various countries are squabbling over it, in a sequence which uncannily anticipates the current scramble by various nations over the mineral riches being uncovered in the Arctic as global warming melts the ice caps) a.k.a. Robinson Crusoeland a.k.a. Escapade turned out to be quite a good movie (perhaps no movie since Bette Davis’s early vehicle Ex-Lady has been so massively underrated by its star!), well worth seeing and a far better exit for Laurel and Hardy than those dreary movies they made for 20th Century-Fox and MGM in the early 1940’s. — 9/23/07
What’s fascinating about the short films that fill out the first disc of this collection is that very few of the early works of Laurel sans Hardy or Hardy sans Laurel offer much of a clue as to the chemistry they’d have together. Lucky Dog — imdb.com’s entry on it lists it with a definite article, The Lucky Dog, though neither any print I’ve seen nor any article or listing for the film elsewhere had an article in the title — is an early Stan Laurel comedy produced by G. M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and directed by Jess Robbins, the two men who had brought Charlie Chaplin from Keystone to their Essanay company in 1915 and given Chaplin the chance to develop his “Tramp” characterization (Chaplin invented the “Tramp” makeup at Keystone but it was at Essanay that he developed the unforgettable combination of comedy and pathos that made both the character and Chaplin himself so incredibly popular). Alas, Chaplin had moved on to greener pastures at Mutual and beyond, and Anderson and Robbins seized on Stan Laurel as their next star comic — perhaps because he’d been Chaplin’s understudy when both were part of Fred Karno’s famous British music-hall troupe. (Karno’s company was a hit attraction on both sides of the Atlantic; contrary to popular belief, Chaplin was a big star both in the music halls of his own country and in American vaudeville before he ever set foot in front of a motion-picture camera.)
The production history of Lucky Dog is so confused the various sources don’t even agree on the year it was made: Leonard Maltin’s Laurel and Hardy filmography says 1917, the credit on the Platinum Disc version says 1919 and imdb.com says 1921 (the last date is almost certainly wrong). All that is known is that Laurel plays a nattily dressed young man who at the start of the film is thrown out of a rooming house — Robbins (who both wrote and directed) seems to have been trying to give Laurel an image midway between Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s — and out on the street has various adventures, including befriending a street mutt (the title character), nearly getting run over by several streetcars because of his obliviousness in sitting on their tracks (this is probably as close as this film gets to the sort of gag Laurel did in his glory years with Hardy, when they had adopted their lovably stupid characters — in this, and many of his other pre-Hardy films, Laurel flits between doltishness and Lloydesque resourcefulness and energy, and the transitions jar), and encountering Hardy, a street robber who inadvertently puts the proceeds of his latest stickup into Laurel’s pocket instead of his own. Alas, this version cuts off what I remember from elsewhere as an entertaining if not brilliant two-reeler at the seven-minute mark, about where Hardy’s part ends.
After The Tree in a Test Tube (the color is too bad to show off Laurel’s red hair but the film is charming in the typically dorky way of Pete Smith’s commercial shorts back at his home studio, MGM) the Platinum Disc offers two comedies featuring Hardy in villainous supporting roles to one of the great enigmas of 1920’s film: star comic Larry Semon. Virtually forgotten today, Semon was considered a major star at the time — bigger than either Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon and rivaling the superstar comedians of the day, Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle (until the 1922 scandal that destroyed his career) and Lloyd. What happened to his reputation was that, as Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton and Lloyd had all done before him, he wanted to break out of two-reelers into features, and the vehicle he chose for his feature-film debut was a big-budget film of The Wizard of Oz. That had been my only previous encounter with Semon, and I thought it was terrible: he threw out virtually all of L. Frank Baum’s original story and substituted a stupid one of his own (despite the presence of Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn Baum, as co-writer); he cast a grown woman (his wife, Dorothy Dwan) as Dorothy; and he missed the story’s unique combination of innocence and terror the makers of the 1939 classic version expertly captured.
After seeing two Semon two-reelers I find myself liking him a whole lot better; he may have had almost no story sense at all and he didn’t create an endearing characterization the way the better-remembered silent comedians did, but he was very, very funny and he had a penchant for elaborate “trajectory” gags rivaling Keaton’s (even though he had a stunt person, William Hauber, double him for many of them, which Keaton didn’t — indeed, during his peak years Keaton not only did all his own stunt work but sometimes doubled for other members of his cast!) — including an audacious moment in The Sawmill in which he is perched on the end of a long beam and, when he jumps off, the wheelbarrow at the other end of the beam is catapulted through the air and lands on Hardy and two of the other less sympathetic members of the down-cast. The Sawmill casts Semon as “the dumb-bell,” a worker at a lumber camp (it’s considerably more than just a sawmill!) whose foreman (Oliver Hardy) is also his rival for the heroine. There’s little plot to this one but the gags are so elaborate and audacious — especially in one scene in which Semon gets too close to a buzz-saw and the entire back end of his overalls gets sawed off, to the predictable shock of the womenfolk — it really doesn’t matter.
According to imdb.com, The Sawmill was the most expensive two-reel comedy ever made; Semon took his cast and crew to Lake Hume in California and built an entire logging camp, complete with enough space for everyone to live there until he finished shooting, and some of the gags show elaborate preparation even though most of the humor is simple and pretty brutal slapstick. Still, The Sawmill — made by “Larry Semon Productions” in association with one of the original Edison Trust studios, Vitagraph (an association that was the commercial peak of Semon’s career) — is screamingly funny, and Semon himself is a ragamuffin figure with an eloquent clown’s face and protruding ears that make him look funny even before he does anything. One can see from his closeups here why he would have wanted to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz — he really does look like W. W. Denslow’s original drawings for the book — even though his lack of a sense of characterization or story mattered a lot more in a feature, and one based on a book already considered a classic, than it did in two-reelers.
Semon’s desire to make Wizard cost him his Vitagraph contract — the “suits” at the old-line company didn’t think he could be trusted to keep to a budget and make a commercially viable movie (and they were right; Wizard was a big box-office flop) — and Semon ended up at a smaller studio, Chadwick, where he made the second film by which he’s represented here; Kid Speed. In essence it’s a silent-era version of Speed Racer: the “Speed Kid” (Semon) is determined to enter a hybrid auto race with his new car, not just for the thrill of victory but because the prize is the hand of Lou DuPoise (Dorothy Dwan), daughter of the race’s corporate sponsor, Avery DuPoise (Frank Alexander — who also played Uncle Henry as an out-and-out Dickensian villain in Semon’s version of The Wizard of Oz, and whose presence here, as in Wizard, jars because one isn’t used to seeing a movie in which Oliver Hardy appears but someone else in the cast is physically larger than he is), who like Pogner in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger has promised his daughter to whoever wins his contest.
Needless to say, Oliver Hardy plays Semon’s rival, “Dangerous Dan McGraw” (in an artful touch, parody titles parallel the story to pop poems by authors like Robert W. Service as well as Henry Longfellow). There are a few dubious gags — notably ones in which Semon and his mechanic (played by Spencer Bell, the blackface actor who was cast as the usual stupid servant stereotype in Semon’s The Wizard of Oz) take turns spilling oil on themselves and end up looking like blackface minstrels, as well as one in which Semon, in the middle of the race, ends up with a white sheet over his head that makes it look as if his car is sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan — but overall Kid Speed is even funnier than The Sawmill: it’s better constructed plot-wise (well, you know that auto race — which is two laps around a track and then a cross-country jaunt — has to end sometime and Semon is going to win it), some of the stunt driving is absolutely hair-raising (there’s a gag in which a bridge collapses and Semon drives his car over the gap in a seemingly gravity-defying maneuver that anticipates the film Speed) and the film is packed full of uproarious laughs. Indeed, after the two Semon and Hardy movies the return to Stan Laurel is a bit of an anticlimax!
Next up after Kid Speed is a 1926 Hal Roach comedy presented here as Enough to Do but which, according to imdb.com, was originally released as Wandering Papas (which would seem to indicate a contemporary story about unfaithful husbands rather than the Western melodrama we actually get) and which actually involved both Laurel and Hardy — but Hardy merely as a supporting player and Laurel behind the cameras as director (as well as one of six writers). It was actually a vehicle for Clyde Cook, an Australian comedian whom Roach signed in the 1920’s hoping to build into his own Charlie Chaplin — and who comes off as a reasonably amusing but overly frenetic Chaplin wanna-be with a lot of Chaplin’s comedic skills but none of his depth. Enough to Do (this is one case where the later title actually better reflects what the movie is about) casts Cook as a cook (appropriately) at a rough-and-tumble mining camp who has to feed a group of people who are getting tired of eating beans and demand trout, rabbit and cake. He goes knee-deep in the water (pushing his legs through the holes in the soles of his shoes so they’re at water level) and tries to get the trout to leap out of the water into his creel; he traps a skunk thinking it’s a rabbit; and when he bakes the cake he puts sunflower seeds in the batter and, when it’s done — in the funniest gag of the film — sunflowers have grown out of the top of it. If nothing else, Clyde Cook’s film shows what a depth of comedic talent there was in the silent era, when people below the genius level of Chaplin or Keaton could still make brilliantly funny films (as Charles and I discovered when we downloaded a couple of movies by Snub Pollard — not a major name even then — and found them utterly fall-on-the-floor hilarious).
The disc closed with two Stan Laurel comedy vehicles, including one called West of Hot Dog — a Western spoof supposedly based on the 1922 film West of the Pecos — that was made in 1924 when Laurel had briefly left Hal Roach for a producer named Joe Rock, who offered to set Laurel up in a series of vehicles under the name “Stan Laurel Comedies” which were distributed through Universal and also shot at Universal Studios. Along with Kid Speed, West of Hot Dog was easily the funniest short of the bunch, largely because of Laurel’s character — instead of the comic dolt he played with Hardy or the confused half-Chaplin, half-Lloyd he’d been earlier, here (as in another Rock production, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde — a marvelous spoof of the 1920 John Robertson/John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) he’s playing the upper-class British twit character he mothballed until his next-to-last Roach film, A Chump at Oxford, in which he cast himself as a dual personality: Stan Laurel and the supercilious “Lord Paddington,” Oxford-educated genius until he was hit by a falling window and turned into the Stan Laurel we all know and love.
West of Hot Dog follows the pattern of plenty of comic Westerns since (including Bob Hope’s The Paleface): the pathetic coward accidentally captures the outlaws that are terrorizing the town and wins both an undeserved reputation for courage and the hand of the heroine, “Little Mustard” the sheriff’s daughter (Julie Leonard). The central premise of West of Hot Dog is that Laurel has come to the titular Western town of Hot Dog (I guess they had to call it that because “Hamburg” was taken) to collect an inheritance that includes the town saloon — only the two biggest, baddest outlaws in town are also named in the will as the secondary heirs in case Laurel dies. They repeatedly pitch him out of a second-story window — in the payoff of this running gag, Laurel merely allows them to corner him at the window and then obligingly leaps through it himself, a gag one would more likely expect from Harpo Marx — and they try to corner him and knock him off, but he turns the tables on them in some delightfully imaginative comic ways. West of Hot Dog was unusually long for a non-feature silent comedy — it ran 30 minutes, which probably meant three reels instead of two (in the 1930’s Roach would experiment with Laurel and Hardy three-reelers and their greatest short, The Music Box, would be at the longer length) — but it was good enough to hold interest at that extended running time even though the plot probably wouldn’t have been strong enough for a feature.
The disc closed with Oranges and Lemons, which Laurel made for Roach in 1923 (he went from Roach to Rock and back to Roach again after Roach offered him more money and a chance to direct; Rock graciously released him from his contract to take Roach’s offer but his bitterness was apparent when John McCabe interviewed him for his biography The Comic World of Stan Laurel in the 1970’s), which Charles and I had actually seen before in a better print (as part of Kino Home Video’s Stan Laurel compilation) and which struck us this time around as perfectly workmanlike slapstick but hardly at the level of West of Hot Dog. Here’s what I had to say about it then:
Oranges and Lemons was a one-reeler produced by the Hal Roach studio for Pathé release in 1923; it’s set (as the title suggests) in an orchard and a fruit packing plant and it has virtually no plot at all, just a series of slapstick encounters between Laurel and actors playing his boss and his fellow workers (one of whom was a large man bearing a striking resemblance to Fatty Arbuckle, though the gags they did together, notably one in which Laurel jumped on his stomach to propel fruit boxes from the man’s legs to a packer standing on a shelf above them, were too sadistic to be considers harbingers of the Laurel and Hardy team) staged at breakneck pace. Within its limits, Oranges and Lemons was quite funny, though Laurel still hadn’t evolved a personal style; in parts of the film he seems to be drawing on his experience as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy in the Fred Karno music-hall company in his native Britain — he has all the Chaplin resourcefulness but none of the Chaplin pathos — while sometimes he slowed down his reaction time and came closer to his style as we know it from the films with Hardy.
There were some pieces of equipment on the set whose functions I didn’t understand, notably an elevator-like contraption that appeared to be for applying the tops to packed fruit boxes, though it was heavy enough to sustain a man’s weight [actually this time around it looked more like a dumbwaiter], and the final gag was the most brilliant in the film and the most evocative of Stan’s character in the Laurel and Hardy films: Laurel has pinned all his adversaries down under this thing and, when the lunch whistle blows (illustrated in this silent film by an insert shot), he calmly sits on top of the contraption, with four men under it, opens his lunch pail and eats his lunch. — 9/30/04