3/9/15

ATOLL HARDY IN LAUREL-LAND; WHAT IS 'UTOPIA'?

Talking, as we've been, of the last gasps of great comedy teams appearing in final films that should never have been made, we come to Laurel & Hardy's desperately sad swan song, 'Atoll K' (trailer posted above). Or is it called 'Utopia'? Or, as some prints insist, "Robinson Crusoeland'? The title confusion is indicative of the general chaos that prevailed on this doomed project, destined for a short D.O.A. release before disappearing back into the obscurity from which it should never have emerged. So how did it happen? As with all of these final misbegotten missteps in the careers of great artists, the answers are not simple to unravel.

First of all, L&H were a dead commodity in post-war America, replaced by the likes of Abbot and Costello and Martin &Lewis. They were your fathers favorite comedy team, not really relevant to the new, hipster comic crowd. The fat guy who tramps around with the dumb guy who cries; gorgeous though we now know the magic of L&H to be, at the time it must have just seemed...weird...inexplicable...insensible and pathetic--like two aging relatives who are always asking younger ones for a few bucks to tide them over and then using the money to go out and get drunk.

But in Europe it was a different story. The war years deprived much of the continent from seeing any Laurel &Hardy--the not-so-great Fox comedies were all shot and released in America during the war but were finally released abroad upon war's end and were big hits. The return of 'the boys' thrilled Europeans. You can't entirely kill off genius and L&H, hungry for applause like all comedians, were happy to entertain an offer from a French director/huckster named Leo Joannon to star in a rather expensive (for the time) comeback vehicle. Things must have seemed too rosy to believe, but there were ominous notes struck from the beginning. Things went downhill almost instantly when Stan decided he didn't like the script and needed to bring in some of his old Roach collaborators to punch things up. (Stan was very much a filmmaking force and unlikely to sit by passively for things he deemed unacceptable and unprofessional). Add to this that the boys spoke no French and Joannon little English and one wonders how the project got passed the first meet-and-greet stage. Note the name of the production company Joannon formed for his enterprise--'Exploitation Productions'. Sometimes fate is so closely in front of us that we can't quite see it.

But that's not all. One of the most painful aspects of "Atoll K" is the condition that L&H are in. Ollie is fatter than you've ever seen him and older. Watching a sixty-something four-hundred pound man take pratfalls isn't a pleasant or necessary experience--each fall feels like it might be the prelude to a stroke or heart attack. But it is Stan who is genuinely heartbreaking to watch. He'd been beset by many illnesses including diabetes during the post-war years when they hadn't made a film and--though he wound up eventually growing stronger and living another fifteen years--you feel like you're watching a dead man walking. He grew frailer during filming, dropping to 114 pounds and being able to only work in fifteen-to-thirty minute spurts. Joannon, having been marginalized on his own film, finally agreed to allow another director to come aboard to handle L&H's scenes. And who did they get for this peculiar job? A very peculiar director indeed.

John Berry, trained in the Welles-Houseman stable, had already at the tender age of thirty-two directed a bewildering array of Hollywood movies, including the fine film noir 'He Ran All the Way' and a weird Tony Martin musical remake of 'Pepe Le Moko/Algiers' called 'Casbah'. How did he get the job of working with Laurel and Hardy you may ask? Simple--he'd been blacklisted in America (named, by the way, by fellow director Edward Dmytryk) and had fled to France. He'd work cheap for no credit--which Joannon insisted upon--and most importantly he could speak English. Shooting took a year--yes, a YEAR--and ultimately there were four separate release versions with all those different titles mentioned above. The reviews were unanimously poor and the film didn't open in the US until five years had elapsed. (It was released in Los Angeles on the bottom half of a double bill with 'The Blackboard Jungle', certainly one of the weirdest date-night movie experiences ever programmed). Eventually the copyright slipped into public domain and an enterprising French TV station restored the film ('disentombed' might be more accurate) and stuck it on DVD. Below is the complete film. I confess to having only watched the first twenty minutes before turning it off. If somebody watches the whole thing and it turns out that I skipped the good parts, I'll gladly eat my hat with salt, as Stan Laurel did in a much happier outing, 'Way Out West'.




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