Tag Archives: Stan Laurel

Atoll K 4

Book Review: “The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K”

Atoll K book

Niche publishers McFarland & Company are well known for their essential and often outré cinema books. A friend and I used to come up with imaginary titles reflecting McFarland’s quirky catalog: The Moon Voyage Films of Ray Harryhausen, The 2,341 Malaysian Films Beginning with the Letter “F”, Smelly Movies: The Creation, Production, and Distribution of Mike Todd Jr. Smell-o-Vision (Wait a minute – that’s a book I’d like to read!).

The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K is one such actual McFarland title. The great comedy team of Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) are positively beloved around the world for the silent and sound comedies they made for producer Hal Roach, but an entire book devoted to their disastrous last feature, a movie even Laurel himself regarded as “an abortion,” one so notoriously bad even many die-hard Laurel & Hardy fans outright refuse to watch it?

But, in fact, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy is a fascinating read. Though Atoll K is, undeniably, severely flawed for myriad reasons, not the least of which is Laurel’s shocking physical state – he became gravely ill partway into the production, and in much of the picture looks positively cadaverous – author Norbert Aping rightly reappraises the film as not the complete catastrophe most have long assumed, that against all odds the picture has scattered moments of pure Laurel & Hardy comedy in line with their ‘20s and ‘30s films for Roach. More importantly, Aping collates his exhaustive original research into an almost day-by-day account of the film from the development of its multiple screenplays, its problem-plagued production, and labyrinthine release versions.

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The first generation of Laurel & Hardy scholars, notably the late John McCabe, outright dismissed all of the team’s films after 1940, when they left Hal Roach Studios for what they thought would be greener pastures at 20th Century-Fox. However, once ensconced Laurel particularly was horrified to discover that the creative freedom he’d enjoyed at Roach was practically nonexistent at Fox as well as MGM, where they were loaned out for two additional films. The eight features they made during this period, as well as the subsequent Atoll K, were simply dismissed as total rubbish and barely mentioned in any of the early Laurel & Hardy books about their careers.

But DVD releases of the Fox (and, later, MGM) movies beginning in 2006 necessitated at least a perfunctory reexamination and, lo and behold, some of these long-reviled movies weren’t nearly as bad as their reputation suggested. Their first two for Fox, Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) are pretty terrible, and their two for MGM, Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing But Trouble (1944) arguably are even worse, but in fact their Fox movies gradually improved. Jitterbugs, The Dancing Masters (both 1943), The Big Noise (1944), and The Bullfighters (1945) aren’t exactly masterpieces of screen comedy, but the best of these films are really no worse than the team’s weaker Roach features. Where movies like Bonnie Scotland (1935) and Swiss Miss (1938)  get bogged down with romantic subplots, musical numbers, and Roach’s A-feature ambitions, these later Fox films wisely focus on the team’s unadorned antics.

Nevertheless, the team left Fox after 1945, wrongly assuming their modest but profitable movies assured them employment elsewhere. But the industry was changing rapidly in those early postwar years and Laurel & Hardy, considered “old-fashioned” clowns even during the 1930s, were all but washed up as far as Hollywood was concerned.

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But a comedy-starved Europe had not forgotten them. After the war their older movies were reissued and even their newer films were warmly welcomed. They embarked on a fabulously successful series of British music hall tours where they were mobbed everywhere they went.

Given their huge popularity in Europe, a French-Italian co-production starring Laurel & Hardy must have seemed like a sure thing. Indeed, though Aping’s book doesn’t speculate much on this, had Atoll K been a pleasant and rewarding experience for the team, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Laurel & Hardy might have enjoyed a brief but fruitful second career making one or two features per year there until Hardy’s untimely death.

Unfortunately, and despite a huge budget about equal to the negative cost of all of the team’s Roach features combined, Atoll K was positively cursed from the get-go. As Aping documents with extraordinary detail, the film was plagued with myriad screenwriters working in three languages (English for Laurel & Hardy’s scenes, French and Italian for everything else), each with his own comedy agenda and interests (including political satire), none particularly suited to the team’s style of screen comedy. They were also saddled with a director, Léo Joannon, completely out of synch with their brand of humor, and who infamously strutted about in pith helmet and puttees, armed with megaphones of various sizes and functions.

Meanwhile, the team’s physical health evolved into a major crisis. Hardy was never fatter, though this impacted his comic timing not in the least, and he’s actually less uncomfortably obese than he appeared in his cameo role in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950), in which he sweats with alarming profusity. Rather, during the course of Atoll K’s absurdly long production, Stan Laurel undergoes a complete transformation brought on by illness. In most of the location footage, shot first, he appears older but reasonably fit, but in all the studio scenes he looks like a man recently liberated from a concentration camp, the 5’8” actor’s weight dropping down to 115 lbs. at one point. He’s so disturbingly thin and weak, even in some of the team’s best scenes Laurel’s appalling physical state becomes an insurmountable, painful distraction.

Aping’s book is movie archeology at its best. With most of the cast and crew dead or not interviewable, he had to rely on surviving archival documents that are surprisingly plentiful. For instance, he details each version of the treatment and screenplay, weighing their pros and cons, and later clearly examines each of the film’s various final edits, including differing French, Italian, German, and two very different English-language cuts of the film.

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In the larger sense, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers detailed accounts of the team’s movements during pre-production and filming, particularly during its many long delays, as they bide their time in Paris and, later, travel to Italy to help promote the film. Other books have satiated those interested in Laurel & Hardy’s music hall career in Britain, and their last days appearing on the American television show This Is Your Life and preparing for a sadly unmade television series. But Aping’s book reveals a significant part of their later lives never before so thoroughly documented.

As someone who always liked and/or was fascinated with at least big swaths of Atoll K, by the end Aping’s book had me genuinely longing for a complete restoration of the best complete version of this now-public domain movie (the most widely available in America, called Utopa, is cut and compromised in several important ways), one that would allow viewers to see Atoll K in the best possible light. Until then, Norbert Aping’s The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers a tantalizing examination of this long-reviled but fascinating film.

Jekyll Hyde Barrymore

Savant Blu-ray Review: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920)

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One can’t get closer to the roots of modern horror than Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Predating modern psychology, Stevenson’s notion of a personality split along moral lines played well in Victorian times, as it rationalized the need for society to repress man’s baser nature. Freed from moral restraints, the benign Dr. Jekyll becomes a soulless hedonist. He defiles women, tramples children and murders men without guilt. The ‘innocent’ Jekyll cannot control his alter ego, who eventually takes over.

The book was almost immediately adapted as a London play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, who added a love interest and hyped Jekyll’s big transformation scene into a shocking showstopper. The popular stage star Richard Mansfield made Jekyll his signature role. Perhaps it was partially a publicity stunt, but Mansfield’s notoriety resulted in his being interviewed about the Jack the Ripper murders. A hundred years later, Armand Assante played Mansfield performing Jekyll & Hyde on stage in a TV movie, Jack the Ripper. Mansfield is seen using special makeup effects to pull off his transformation scenes.

The flashy role was a magnet for flamboyant actors. Eight films on the subject had already been produced when actor John Barrymore, “The Great Profile”, starred in the extremely popular 1920 Adolf Zukor version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Directed by John S. Robertson, this version is based on the Sullivan storyline. Barrymore’s performance retains the theatrical excesses that seem dated today, yet are still quite impressive. Using heavy makeup to give his hands a spidery appearance, Barrymore twists and stretches his face into a series of nasty smiles, glaring wide-eyed (even cross-eyed) at the camera. Additional makeup is added across camera cuts, until Barrymore’s Hyde is a hunched, straggle-haired fiend, with a horrid, half bald pointed head.

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Taken with a proper appreciation of the film’s age, Barrymore’s interpretation is startling and disturbing. The dull Jekyll tends to stare with a vacant, noble look on his face, while Hyde is a repulsive embodiment of evil. Modern impressions of the film have been affected by many parody versions, and the use of film clips out of context for comic purposes. One of the actor’s expressions, with his face stretched out and his eyes staring downward, pops up from time to time in the rubber-face schtick of popular comedians: Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, even Dick Van Dyke.

The story is the same as the more familiar later versions by Paramount and MGM, minus Rouben Mamoulian’s Pre-code sexuality and the bizarre Salvador Dali dream sequences in Victor Fleming’s tame remake. The conventional Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane) warns Jekyll against pursuing “the wrong kind of science.” As in the book, attorney Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn) drafts the document in which Jekyll bequeaths all of his worldly belongings to Hyde. In the film, Utterson serves double duty as a rival for the attentions of Millicent, Jekyll’s chaste sweetheart. Millicent’s hypocritical father Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) goads Jekyll into sampling the seedy Soho nightlife, advising the innocent young doctor to sow his wild oats while he may. Carewe chats up a female guest at his own party, telling her that she “is Paradise for the eyes but Hell for the soul.” In the original novella Carewe is a Member of Parliament, has no daughter and is one of Hyde’s more mysterious victims.

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One story point neglected by all the screen versions is the question of what becomes of Dr. Jekyll’s benevolent charity ward. Even before the trouble starts, Jekyll is too busy with his research and his clinic work to properly woo Millicent. As in the other versions, it looks as if the ‘indispensible’ Jekyll leaves the poor children in his clinic to rot. Another basic inconsistency is the idea that the Dr. Jekyll character is inexperienced in sexual matters. In Victorian London, a doctor working in a clinic for poor people would soon know everything there is to know about human behavior, of all kinds.

Some of the supporting characters make strong impressions. Hyde’s elderly, cackling landlady is well played by an unbilled, toothless actress. Pug-faced Louis Wolheim (All Quiet on the Western Front) runs the low-class music hall, where performs the seductive dancer Gina. Jekyll is clearly aroused by her embrace. He turns away and excuses himself, but the flame has been lit. A title clarifies things: “For the first time in his life Jekyll had wakened to a sense of his baser nature.”

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The Dancer Gina is played by the legendary Nita Naldi, in her first film role. She’d very shortly become silent cinema’s “female Valentino” in Blood and Sand. Although Naldi wears a daringly low-cut costume, her character isn’t given equal time or billing with the “good” Millicent Carewe. Gina’s relationship with the domineering Hyde is barely suggested: we see no more than the frightened look on her face when they’re introduced. Later on comes a scene meant to depict the rock bottom of Hyde’s vices. He finds Gina in a low dive, compares her to another prostitute in a mirror, and then rejects both for a younger moll brought to him in the opium parlor next door. For 1920 it’s a fairly depraved set-up: while Hyde manhandles the women at the bar, a drug addict nearby hallucinates ants crawling over his body.

Eventually Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde begin to happen spontaneously, even against his will. One of them is handled with a simple, effective dissolve. The most weird by far employs a surreal effect: pure “evil” is manifested as a ghostly spider creature, which climbs onto Jekyll’s bed and merges with this body. The hairy abomination is genuinely disturbing.

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As with other stories about evil doppelgängers, Dr. Jekyll moves a mirror into his lab to assure himself that no Hyde characteristics peek through his mild-mannered normal form. He leads a double life and spends all of his energy hiding his ugly secret from his friends and Millicent. Although all believe Jekyll to be a saint, he is of course highly corruptible, and therefore not really an inverted image of Hyde. The morally delinquent Jekyll even says that his intention is to evade responsibility for his actions: “I propose to do it … to yield to every impulse but leave the soul untouched.” After the final act’s savage murder the guilty Jekyll cannot face being unmasked. As might be expected, Millicent has been kept in the dark about everything. When Lanyon and Utterson witness a transformation with their own eyes, they lie to Millicent for her own good. The last impression is of the handsome John Barrymore, lying still — in facial profile, of course.


The Kino Lorber Classics Deluxe Blu-ray of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a good new transfer and encoding of this 97 year-old gem, billed as the first serious American horror film. The primary source is a 35mm negative with a great many fine scratches, digs and minor damage built-in. The image is reasonably sharp and stable, but no digital cleanup appears to have been applied. We’re told that five minutes of missing footage have been incorporated back into the film. We see some introductory shots in the Carewe household that appear to come from another source, as well as an interesting flashback to the time of the Borgias, to explain how poison is hidden in a special ring. It is difficult to know exactly which scenes are new, if any. Kino’s previous (2004) DVD release carries the same extras. It has a shorter running time, but this 79-minute version may be longer by virtue of a more accurate, slower frame rate. However, it has been noted online that Kino’s edition may not be as complete as David Shepard’s edition, and specifically is missing footage after the intertitle introducing Brandon Hurst as Sir George Carew. The entire show is given color tinting in keeping with original prints.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performs a full score compiled by Rodney Sauer. The music fits the show nicely, working up to some impressive melodramatic climaxes.

As the style of inter-titles changes more than once during the presentation, it’s a sure bet that multiple sources were used to reassemble the movie. Archivist David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates is credited with the first extra, the 1912 James Cruze one-reel version of the story. Considering its brevity, it is very well made: in his Hyde makeup, future director Cruze looks like a crazed ghoul, with vampire-like fangs. In 1920 at least two copycat productions followed Barrymore’s film. F.W. Murnau’s German Der Januskopf starred Conrad Veidt, and is still considered lost. But Kino offers a 15-minute excerpt from Louis B. Mayer’s version, starring Sheldon Lewis. It’s a polished show in its own right.

“The Transformation” is an audio excerpt from 1909 that appears to be a recording of a stage act. Actor Len Spencer quotes passages from Robert Louis Stevenson as part of his dramatic buildup.

The final treat is a Stan Laurel farce from 1925 called Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride. Laurel’s spoof of Barrymore’s Hyde is very funny; he transforms while his gum-chewing girlfriend looks on, suitably unimpressed. Running loose in the streets, the mirthful “Mr. Pride” pulls off a series of infantile pranks.

Looking into the histories of the cast members, we find that more than a few were personal colleagues of the star. Barrymore apparently encouraged Louis Wolheim to become an actor, telling him that his face was made for the stage. But the story of beautiful Martha Mansfield is a forgotten chapter of silent movie horror. Three years later on the set of The Warrens of Virginia, the actress’s dress caught on fire. Mansfield was so badly burned that she died the next day. She was 24 years old.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Blu-ray rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Good

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: two other silent film interpretations of the story (see above), audio record “The Transformation”, Stan Laurel spoof short subject from 1925.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English

Packaging: Keep case

Kino Lorber Classics

1920 / B&W with tints / 1:33 flat Silent Aperture / 73 min. / Street Date January 28, 2014 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95

Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim, J. Malcolm Dunn, George Stevens.

Cinematography Roy Overbaugh

Art Director Clark Robinson

Written by Clara Beranger from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

Produced by Adolph Zukor

Directed by John S. Robertson
Reviewed: January 10, 2014

 

 

DVD Savant Text Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson