The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy (2008) – By James L. Neibaur

 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the supreme comedy team in motion picture history.  Respected and beloved by everyone from the recently deceased Paul Newman to young actress Rose McGowan, their artistry has transcended all time and generations.

In 1950 the duo had been off screen for five years, concentrating on personal appearances here and abroad.  It was during one of these tours that the boys were signed to appear in a European production, tentatively titled ATOLL K.  Filming was supposed to take twelve weeks, but ended up taking twelve months.  Both Laurel and Hardy experienced illnesses during the shoot, cast members, directors, and crew members were speaking either French or Italian and only some knew English, the film was ultimately edited for different markets and received scant distribution under a variety of titles including UTOPIA and ROBINSON CRUSOELAND, and, to the end of his days, Stan Laurel dismissed the entire enterprise as an aberration.

It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the American edit, titled UTOPIA, started showing up in revival houses and on low rent UHF television stations.  Laurel’s illness makes him look especially haggard, Hardy appears to be heavier than in any other film, and the plot is an incomprehensible mess with everyone except Laurel and Hardy having their dialog clumsily dubbed in English.  But the Laurel and Hardy scenes are of a classic sort, very funny, well performed, and firmly entrenched in the inimitable Laurel and Hardy style.

This fascinating, confusing production is given a complete book-length study with THE FINAL FILM OF LAUREL AND HARDY by Norbert Aping.  With a wealth of photos and many interesting new facts, this book carefully examines the production, the subsequent marketing, and aesthetic quality of the film’s various versions (apparently the footage is different whether you are watching the French original, the British edit, or the especially butchered American version).  The book also explains that, due to the production falling into the public domain, it became readily available on VHS and DVD from virtually every fly-by-night distributor, likely confusing the uninitiated.

The idea of having an entire book about one movie, and not a particularly good one, is daunting and most welcome.  Aping’s careful examination offers insights not only pertaining to this production, but gives us a good example of the creative and business aspects of domestic and European movie production from this period.  That Laurel and Hardy were able to perform so beautifully despite all of the problems surrounding this production is a real testament to their uncanny ability.

The book is truly an outstanding study, very thorough and always interesting.  It shows us how much more there is to be said about a particular movie, at all levels of production and marketing.  For anyone interested in film making at any level, this book is essential.