Laurel and Hardy rarities at BFI Southbank, 30 January 2013

Laurel and Hardy in Atoll K (1951)
Laurel and Hardy in Atoll K (1951)

There are so many silent film myths and so little time to wearily dismiss them all. But next time someone blathers on about the coming of sound causing all the silent stars to disappear in a puff of smoke, never to darken the doors of Hollywood again, point them in the direction of Laurel and Hardy. Case closed.

And once you’ve sung the praises of the little clever British one and big daft American one, you’ll be in the mood for seeing some of their films. Happily BFI Southbank is screening the full version of their last feature, the rarely seen Atoll K (1951) on 30 January. You can read more here from Uli Ruedel about why this is such a special opportunity:

Shot in Europe by the comics with genuine enthusiasm, but in poor health and under chaotic production circumstances, the film has been much maligned by some fans and writers, who would rather see it erased from history than enjoy it for what it is.

The film’s longest version – with its extra two reels including “some of the funniest sight gag sequences” (Everson) – has practically been unseen for decades, let alone in its original technical quality.

Curators, comedy historians and conservation scholars at BFI have now previewed and confirmed that the archive’s 35mm print, preserved from unique nitrate master materials in glorious black and white, does conform to the length of this longest existing (and likely never theatrically released) extended English-language version.

Running a delightful 98 minutes, it’s only a couple of minutes short of the 100 minutes worth of footage used in all the different national versions altogether. And with a splendid visual and sound quality, it allows for a fresh appreciation of the French-Italian ‘European super-production’, its sight gags and satire, even its mostly post-synched, faux American English soundtrack – the only dub incorporating the Boys’ distinctive voices in the original, on-set performances.

The hardcore nothing-but-silent fans among you will be pleased to note that Atoll K will also be accompanied by some dialogue-free treats – including a surprise change to the programme.

First up is Grand Hotel (aka Laurel and Hardy Visit Tynemouth, UK 1932, Dir JG Ratcliffe, 10min, silent). In this newsreel footage, the duo “are rapturously received when they visit Tynemouth in 1932, and Stan clowns for the camera with his dad”. But there’s more: “programme will now include previously unseen silent amateur footage of Stan and Ollie opening a Gymkhana at Eastwood Park, Giffnock, during their visit to Scotland in June 1947.” That’s another nice er, bit of BFI archive film programming you’ve gotten yourself into.

Two more thing to know if you’re a Laurel and Hardy fan:

a) You want to be at the amazing Slapstick festival in Bristol this weekend.

b) Book now for this triple-bill of silent Laurel and Hardy films at the Barbican.

The Laurel and Hardy rarities programme screens in NFT1 at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 30 January at 6pm, introduced by Glenn Mitchell, author of The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, and Archive curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler. You can buy tickets here.

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