The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy
In April 1950, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy arrived in France to begin work on what turned out to be their last film. To say the production was a fiasco would be charitable - endless troubles with script development, language obstacles, health crises, financial overruns and the taboo presence of a blacklisted Hollywood director added to the calamity.
The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy is a fittingly enigmatic title for this study of the movie’s chaotic life because the finished celluloid production never truly had a proper title. Incredibly, there was no definitive version of the film. Four very different versions were theatrically released: a 93-minute French-language version known as "Atoll K," a 97-minute Italian version called "Atollo K," a 96-minute English-language for British audiences called "Robinson Crusoeland," and an 82-minute U.S. release called "Utopia.
German writer Norbert Aping goes to great lengths piecing together the tortured history of the film’s creation. Laurel and Hardy’s Hollywood career was dead by the time they received the invitation to star in this endeavor, originally intended as a French-Italian co-production. The duo, particularly Stan Laurel, did not get along with the bumbling and pokey French director Leo Joannon, but agreed to travel to France anyway. They arrived to find there was no finished script waiting for them. Shooting was delayed while efforts were made to hammer out something more or less viable. The finished effort, a wobbly satire where the pair becomes the owners of a uranium-rich island was hardly a vehicle worthy of their comic talents.
The stress was tremendous and the French locations were stifling for the summer, 1950 shoot. As a result, Laurel’s health suffered dramatically. Problems relating to diabetes, colitis, dysentery and a prostate ulcer wrecked his physical appearance and sent him to the hospital. At one point his weight sank to a mere 114 pounds. Despite being heavily made-up, he looked ghastly on camera -- gaunt, wrinkled and enervated, certainly not the lovable Stanley that people adored. The hefty Hardy, who ballooned up to 330 pounds, contracted cardiac fibrillation during the shoot. Italian co-star Adriano Rimoldi, not to be outdone, fell off a docked yacht and required a month’s time to recuperate from his injuries.
In the midst of the madness came John Berry, a Hollywood helmsman who was forced to flee the McCarthy-era Red Scare by settling in France. While Berry never acknowledged working on this film, Aping was able to get confirmation from leading lady Suzy Delair that he was, in fact, responsible for co-directing much of the movie. Berry’s presence was problematic, given that any word of his participation would have killed a U.S. theatrical release. It is unclear just who okayed Berry to be part of the film, and it is equally uncertain which scenes were his and which were directed by Joannon.
"The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy" also tracks the attempts to bring this troubled, rickety movie to theaters. Some of Aping’s discoveries are highly amusing: a British publicity stunt featuring huge plaster statues of Laurel and Hardy’s faces and the efforts involved getting Welch’s Grape Juice? inserted into the film for product placement purposes. The book offers some hilarious trivia: "Utopia" played on a double bill in Los Angeles with "Blackboard Jungle," as well as the sad news that no print of the "Robinson Crusoeland" version is known to exist.
Laurel and Hardy fans will enjoy this fascinating journey into the duo’s last and perhaps least movie. Well, it was the very final fine mess they got themselves into!
by Norbert Aping
McFarland, 272 pages, $45.00. Available at booksellers everywhere or online through Amazon.