THE BOOTLEG FILES: "THE STOLEN JOOLS" Image

BOOTLEG FILES 131: “The Stolen Jools” (1931 all-star charity fundraising movie).

LAST SEEN: On MovieFlix.com.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on collector-to-collector labels.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Obscure title with a mysterious history.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: No, because it is an orphan film.

In the early 1960s, British film archivists discovered a strange item: a short American film from the 1930s featuring more than 50 major Hollywood stars. The film, with the title “The Slippery Pearls,” appeared to have been some sort of a fundraising movie. But the print that was unearthed gave no clue as to its origins, nor was there any hint about the cause or charity it was designed to support. Even more baffling was that biographers for the many stars who appeared in the film seemed totally unaware that this movie even existed.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the mystery film was identified. The original title was not “The Slippery Pearls” – that was a new title given for the British release (but why the film needed a new title was yet another mystery that went unsolved). The film turned out to be “The Stolen Jools” and its history was as bizarre as its contents.

“The Stolen Jools” was made in 1931 on behalf of the National Vaudeville Association, a nonprofit philanthropic group with entertainment industry roots. The NVA operated a tuberculosis sanitarium in Saranac Lake, NY, but obviously the costs of maintaining such a facility was difficult during the Great Depression. For reasons that will probably remain obscure, the NVA worked with the Chesterfield Cigarette brand to sponsor a fundraising movie that would generate donations from movie audiences to help keep the TB facility operating. Again, there’s another mystery – why would a vaudeville association seek money from movie audiences?

In any event, it appears that a call went far and wide throughout Hollywood and many of the Tinseltown royalty gladly donated their services for guest appearances in “The Stolen Jools.” Most of the stars are only on screen for less than a minute, yet the stellar line-up is among the most staggering in motion picture history.

The film opens in a Hollywood police station, with Wallace Beery as the sergeant on duty. He receives telephone calls reporting various mayhem, yet he is disinterested in the actions. “What, a murder?” he says to one caller. “That ain’t news – we had three yesterday!” He eventually calls out his squadron of Keystone Kops-clone officers lead by Buster Keaton (who executes several outlandish pratfalls).

When the other cops are gone, Beery takes out a notebook and pen and begins to write a love story. Two gangsters (Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone) appear to inform Beery that Norma Shearer’s jewels were stolen from a Hollywood party last night. Beery calls in his top detective, Eddie Kane, to investigate.

Kane, in turn, gets chauffeured to the crime scene by two other detectives – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who are driving a dilapidated Model T that collapses into a wreck once they reach their destination. “I knew we shouldn’t have made that final payment,” exclaims Hardy as the duo roll around the pieces of their dead car.

Kane goes into Norma Shearer’s house where the MGM star is recalling the theft of her jewelry. Hedda Hopper sits by Shearer for moral support. Outside, the kids from Our Gang and their dog Pete are enjoying ice cream while maid Polly Moran looks on in contempt.

Kane goes about Hollywood investigating the jewel theft. Everyone seems to be a suspect: Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Richard Dix and Winnie Lightner (who is in a shower!) are questioned. Not everyone appreciates this – Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen (dressed as Marines) get hostile, but wind up assaulting a waiter (Swedish comic El Brendel) instead of Kane. Kane even disguises himself as a busboy in a diner to interview Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, but that line of questioning goes nowhere as Wheeler and Woolsey recreate their face-slapping routine from “Rio Rita.”

Word of the investigation reaches a Hollywood newspaper where Gary Cooper, Eugene Pallette, Stuart Erwin and Charles “Buddy” Rogers are reporters. Pallette calls Maurice Chevalier (whom he calls “Maurice Chandelier”) for input.

Kane continues his sleuthing. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young and Richard Barthelmess deflect questioning. Comic Frank Fay introduces his then-wife Barbara Stanwyck, who recites an atrocious poem – to which Kane takes her offscreen and shoots her! Jack Oakie and Fay Wray get angry when Kane interrupts their attempt to shoot a love scene for a new movie. Joe E. Brown, disguised with a fake beard, is cornered by Kane and has to identify himself by giving his trademark yell.

In a studio projection booth, George “Gabby” Hayes gives errand boy (and midget actor) Little Billy a reel for the flick “The Stolen Jools.” Kane tries to arrest Little Billy and confiscate the reel when child star Mitzi Green turns up to reveal she took the jewels because Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone were trying to steal it from Norma Shearer. Kane is given the jewels and departs and Mitzi Green looks at the camera and gives the audience a moral to remember: “Never spank a child on an empty stomach.” Huh?

Okay, what does any of this have to do with a TB facility in upstate New York? By itself, nothing. It seems that part of “The Stolen Jools” is still missing. In The New York Times from 1931, critic Mourdant Hall (no relation to this writer) wrote that after the film’s foolishness was over, Bert Lytell came on screen asking for donations to the NVA from the audience. At New York’s Capitol Theatre, dancing girls went through the audience with baskets to collect bills and coins – and their currency-filled bins were brought to the stage and emptied into a large container. Now that must have been a sight to behold!

But there is still more mystery afoot – there was no registered copyright on “The Stolen Jools” (Paramount Pictures put it in theaters on a pro bono basis), so the film was automatically a public domain title. However, according to the Internet Movie Database, there were three musical numbers in the film – Maurice Chevalier, Warner Baxter and Dorothy Lee each had a tune. The songs they performed are not public domain, so any exhibition of the film would require royalty payments. Thus, all circulating prints of the film are minus the songs. This makes “The Stolen Jools” abrupt in parts (the Chevalier and Lee appearances flash by too quickly to make sense), and it also prevents the film from being appreciated in its entirety. (The music numbers reportedly survive but have not been made public.)

Yet more questions remain to this date: how much money did “The Stolen Jools” collect? Why did it turn up in England, where the NVA did not operate? Why weren’t there other films of that nature in the 1930s to support other charitable groups? Where is the lost Bert Lytell plea for money? And how was it that the film vanished so completely from sight for three decades?

As a public domain title, “The Stolen Jools” has only been available in lousy bootleg dupes. The film is primarily associated with Laurel and Hardy, as it has been paired on video and DVD releases by collector-to-collector labels with some of their other public domain titles such as “The Flying Deuces” and “Atoll K.” This is strange, since it is not a Laurel and Hardy movie (the pair is on screen for a minute), but at least it enables the film to be seen – if only as a butchered bootleg.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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