Seeing Laurel & Hardy in a new light

Laurel & Hardy fans have been waiting years for the comedy team’s films to be released on home DVD. Film archivists at UCLA are working toward making that dream a reality.
The university, which has the boys’ original Hal Roach film negatives and other source materials in their archives, is behind a drive to restore the prints with a nod toward eventual DVD transfers.
The push to preserve the films was announced earlier this month at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y. by the director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Jan-Christopher Horak. A major lead gift from Jeff Joseph of $100,000 has been committed toward the project, and UCLA hopes Laurel & Hardy fans will pitch in to the fundraising effort. A site set up just last week for donations had received $4000 in pledges in just a few days.
I was able to see two restored Laurel & Hardy shorts this past Sunday in Los Angeles. A screening, part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation, was held at the beautiful Billy Wilder theater located in the Hammer Museum in Westwood, not far from the university campus.

You have to walk past Billy to get into the Wilder auditorium

One of the founders of the Sons of the Dessert–the Laurel & Hardy fan club–spoke at the screening. Chuck McCann, now 76, used to host a local Laurel & Hardy TV show in LA but may be best remembered by viewers over 45 for those antiperspirant ads where he stuck his head through a two-way bathroom mirror and said, “Hi Guy.”
He hopes some of his Hollywood pals who are big L&H fans–he singled out Dick Van Dyke and Tim Conway–will step forward and help with the fundraising.
“These films are so delicate you have no idea,” he said of he urgent need for preservation. “Think of powder on the back of butterfly wings–they’re that delicate.”
The original L&H nitrate camera negatives have bounced around from distributor to distributor for years. Titles were chopped off and replaced. Random music was added. Things were indeed a fine mess.
I have several 16mm prints of their classic shorts and some of their features. Shown Sunday were two restored 35mm prints from 1930. One I have in my collection–Blotto–and another I don’t think I have ever seen, Chickens Come Home.


It’s even Wilder inside

Both were Spanish language prints. Not dubbed or subtitled–the comedians would re-shoot a Spanish version, learning lines phonetically. Spanish speaking actors were brought in to work opposite the comedians. Originally silent stars, L&H were highly exportable visual comedians and popular world wide.

The print for Blotto was just OK–apparently the original neg was in pretty rough shape. Chickens Come Home, or Politiquerias, was pretty much restored to its original glory and looked magnificent on the large theatre screen.
It is also one weird film, expanded to near feature length in the Spanish version to include Hadji Ali, this whacked vaudeville regurgitator. Working the Hardy dinner party, Ali–dressed as some sort of sheik–gulps down buckets of water and then vomits it all out in a torrential gush that lasts about a week. The dude then downs another bathtub full of H20 and washes it down with a bottle of kerosene. He spits the gas into a hearth which ignites. Then he puts it all out with another jaw-dropping yap hose display.

This guy would kill on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The screening included the restored trailer of the lost L&H feature The Rogue Song. The Lawrence Tibbett operetta, a very early colour film, has vanished from the face of the earth. If you find a print in your attic or basement, contact  UCLA or, better yet, me.

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