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By Philip Scheuer
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a couple of up-and-coming comedians on TV, are back in Hollywood from France, where they made a movie (they make movies, too). The French picture is called “Atoll K,” and with its release in the fall Stan and Ollie should regain their rightful place in the cinematic scheme of things.
To a good many of us old movie-going regulars, it seems as though Laurel and Hardy never really went away. Yet the fact is—and a crying shame, besides—that the last time a Hollywood studio deigned to employ them was early in 1945, when they completed “The Bull Fighters” for 20th Century Fox—made with “cutouts from “Blood and Sand.”
“At that point,” said Hardy, wrathfully, “we’d done four or five for the studio, and we asked for our release. The first one, ‘Great Guns,’ was funny and it made money. After that they never gave us stories—or casts.”
“So we quit,” nodded Laurel.
“The writers they brought In only wanted to write highbrow stuff; they couldn’t be bothered with us,” Ollie continued. “Brynie Foy, our producer, never read our scripts. ‘You boys don’t need a story,’ he’d tell us. ‘Your pictures are making money; what more do you want?’”
“We tried to, tell them, ‘If bad ones makes money, what would a good one do?’” Stan cut in. “He answered with, one of his disconsolate shrugs.”
“That’s a pitiful thing, when they don’t think you have to have ‘a story or a cast,” Ollie ruminated aloud. “Then they’d give us a young girl or boy who had never been in pictures, so that we’d he busy teaching them to act and trying to be funny ourselves at the same time!”
“Like Vivian Blaine, in ‘Jitterbugs,’” Stan volunteered.
“Now she’s a big star in ‘Guys and Dolls,’” Hardy resumed. “It was the same with Lupe Velez, Jean Harlow, Paulette Goddard, Thelma Todd, who was in our first talkie, ‘Unaccustomed As We Are.’ They all got their starts with us, but Harlow was the only one who gave us credit for helping her.”
“All those old movies you see on television were written and supervised by us,” said Stan, in hurt tones. “Naturally, it breaks your heart when they send you a script Friday night and say you’re to start shooting Monday morning. We’re not used to that kind of treatment.”
The script of “Atoll K” was, I gathered, something of an international affair, and making of the film in France wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was the first foreign movie for the boys, and before long they were broadcasting frantic long-distance calls for help. Tim Whelan, Hollywood director, responded—“but never got started”—and Monty Collins rushed over to supply some badly needed gags when production resumed after Laurel underwent a serious operation last January.
The French director, one Johanon or Johannon, first name Leo, was also, it appeared, the “creator;” and he never let anyone forget it. Although “Atoll K” was a sea-island story, he spent three days shooting a lake because it was photogenic, according to Hardy.
“He was doing a travelogue,” Laurel interposed, with a shy grin.
“He wore riding breeches and a pith helmet and carried a megaphone” said Hardy.
“Several megaphones,” Laurel corrected. “A different size for each occasion.”
The company was an Italian-French English outfit. Laurel and Hardy spoke English; the rest of the cast-including Suzy Delair, “one of the biggest feminine draws in France”—spoke French. Their, voices will he dubbed in the version for America.
In the story, Stan, an Englishman with an inheritance, and Ollie, his American financial adviser, are shipwrecked on this atoll which rises from the sea. With their international companions they set up a state with no laws or taxes—but in the words of Laurel, “it don’t work out.”
“It’s partly fantasy,” he added helpfully.
Stan and Ollie figure this IS the 25th anniversary of their partnership, which has been productive of “over 300 pictures—and television’s got nearly all of ‘em.” Their first official pairing occurred along about 1926 or 1927—although they had had a nodding acquaintance in one- and two-reel comedies for years before—when Hal Roach put them into “Battle of the Century.”
“We threw 400 pies in that one,” Laurel related cheerfully. “We were going to put a stop to pie-throwing for all time. And we just about did.”
“In the old two-reelers, we spent the whole picture trying to accomplish just one thing—moving a piano, climbing into an upper berth and so on,” Ollie said.
“We got into features by accident,” Stan said. “We were doing a travesty on ‘The Big House’ and it stretched from two to four reels—so Roach added a couple more and we had ‘Pardon Us.’”
Laurel and Hardy are enjoying the same vogue in Europe today on the screen that they are in American TV. “Our Relations,” one oldie, is in its sixth month in Germany, and “Fra Diavolo” another (from 1933) is having its 10th revival in Italy.
Both comedians are married and live in modest Southland homes—Stan Laurel in Santa Monica and Oliver Hardy in Van Nuys. Hardy, known to his friends as Babe, is, at 59, double-chinned, baldish and 6 feet 1 inch, wears shell glasses and a trace of familiar mustache. He has lost some weight, he says, so that now he can tie his shoelace without puffing.
Stan adds that he could stand some of Babe’s weight! Like the mouse in the shaggy-dog story, Stan’s been sick. “There’s a bug,” he explains, “but they don’t know its name.” He is 61 and “not as ready or able to go” as he once was. But his pale blue eyes are still full of fun.
Meanwhile, offers are piling up for this unique and beloved team—offers for TV series, for an Italian stage revue, a Japanese cinema; for their life story in a Billy Wilder movie. Hollywood or no Hollywood, the world is not likely to let this Silver anniversary pass unnoticed.
—The New York Times
(July 8, 1951)