By Phil Hall | August 27, 2008

Say the words “Atoll K” to most Laurel and Hardy fans and they will cringe. The 1951 film, produced in France, was the last screen appearance of the beloved comedy team – and to many fans, it was one of their very worst endeavors.

But, in fairness, it is difficult to judge “Atoll K” fairly because there is no definitive version of the film: four different theatrical versions were sent into release in France, Italy, Great Britain and the U.S. The American version was considered the worst of the bunch: retitled “Utopia,” it cut substantial amounts of footage from the European prints and used an incompetent English-dubbed soundtrack. The resulting presentation was often incoherent to follow and a nightmare on the eyes and ears.

What went wrong in the creation of “Atoll K”? Norbert Aping looked into the story behind this doomed production, and his findings resulted in the new book “The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy: A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K.” Published by McFarland, the book provides rare behind-the-scenes photographs on the film’s troubled creation and answers many lingering questions that long-confused Laurel and Hardy fans, particularly the input of blacklisted director John Berry (only French director Leo Joannon received official credit). The film also details the considerable health problems experienced by Laurel and Hardy during the production, which are fairly evident in the final film (Laurel, who was suffering from a myriad of illnesses and was hospitalized in mid-shoot, looks like he’s about to drop dead at any moment).

Film Threat caught up with Aping at his home in Buxtehude, Germany, to discuss the “Atoll K” odyssey.

Why did you decide to write a book about “Atoll K”?
I had the privilege of meeting script girl Sylvette Baudrot, who worked on “Atoll K” at the beginning of her career. When she showed me what she had saved from the production so many years later, I realized that this was a chance to take a fresh look at this ill-fated movie. So I shelved another project to start research on the boys’ final film.

In interviews that were given after their husbands passed away, Laurel and Hardy’s widows both claimed that director Leo Joannon was incompetent. However, Joannon had a long and distinguished career as a film director. Was there a problem with Joannon as the director, or was he the scapegoat for the film’s failure?
Although contemporary French film journalists didn’t hold Joannon in high regard, to say the least, his previous feature films turned out to be solid successes. So French producer Raymond Eger, who’d worked with Joannon a few years earlier, most likely thought he’d found a sure-fire team. But both Eger and Joannon overlooked the obvious fact that Laurel and Hardy needed an experienced comedy director, familiar with the duo’s particular style of comedy; Joannon just wasn’t the director needed. In my opinion, this is the main reason why Joannon really didn’t succeed in capturing some of the truly marvelous comedy scenes that Laurel and Hardy were still capable of producing.

Over the years, there have been confusion over John Berry’s role in the creation of the film? Just what was John Berry’s input with “Atoll K”?
Unfortunately, John Berry had already passed away by the time I started this book. As there are no documents to verify his input, I was quite surprised by what Suzy Delair told me during the interview, especially since we hadn’t discussed John Berry during the preparations for our interview. Obviously, she not only remembered Berry fondly, but also considered him a very gifted artist in his own right. While there’s little doubt that he contributed considerably to “Atoll K,” we can’t be 100% sure of his input.

Sylvette Baudrot, who worked mostly on location, didn’t know anything about Berry. Joannon’s assistant director Pierre Nivollet told me that after the location shooting, an American director was brought in to do the Laurel and Hardy scenes shot in the Paris studio. This matches Suzy Delair’s recollections, since most of her scenes were studio-based as well. So it seems Berry must have been the person who directed Laurel and Hardy in the studio; he saved the otherwise erratic film, which would have been far less satisfying without the solid studio scenes.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about “Atoll K” in creating this book?
When I first watched the mutilated U.S. release, “Utopia,” some 30 years ago – I wasn’t aware of the extent of the mutilation – I liked the many very funny Laurel and Hardy scenes. But, otherwise, this version missed 18 minutes from the final cut and was, at times incomprehensible. And the English-language dubbing was atrocious – not to mention the inferior picture and sound quality.

So it was a surprise when I finally managed to see the considerably longer German version, which was hard to find in those days. It’s simply a much better cut. When I came across the other versions (the French and Italian cuts are all longer than “Utopia”), I finally started to like “Atoll K” – the longer the edit, the more I liked it.

But the fact that longest version is also the best version turned out to be a real surprise to me, especially since the “Utopia” cuts removed mostly the non-Laurel and Hardy scenes; extraneous scenes without the team were often a major flaw in their earlier features, especially the romantic subplots. (Unless it’s Ollie in love!)

All told, was the film really as bad as many people have claimed?
It is a very pleasant and watchable film. Of course, the movie does suffer considerably from the boys’ abysmal physical appearance, as well as the flaws in storytelling and the extending subplots. Yet “Atoll K” is much better than the boys’ output in the 1940s, starting with “Great Guns” and ending with “The Bullfighters.”

Though it’s no masterpiece, at least it’s a true Laurel and Hardy movie – something that can’t be said for “Jitterbugs,” for example.
“Atoll K” doesn’t depict Laurel and Hardy as inept idiots but as the beloved, bumbling innocents Stan and Ollie. So it seems, at least to me, worthwhile to pay a little more attention to this extremely neglected movie.

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