Tuesday, April 26, 2016

LAUREL AND HARDY RESTORED, by Susan King

The beloved comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were in another fine mess. But this time, it was no laughing matter. The prints of the classic shorts and feature films they made for producer Hal Roach, including the 1932 Oscar-winning short “The Music Box” and the 1937 feature Way Out West, were worn and torn and had been cut to shreds for commercials. Mere shadows of their former selves.

Until now.
All images courtesy Randy Skretvedt
View a Trailer for the Film Series

Thanks to the passion and largesse of a motion picture archivist and the work of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress, the duo’s legion of fans can see a dozen shorts and two feature films that have been photochemically restored from original 35mm nitrate elements and digitally cleaned for the DCP presentations at the American Cinematheque’s “Laurel and Hardy: The Original OddCouple” series, which takes place May 6-8 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

Motion picture archivist Jeff Joseph, whom Cinematheque audiences know from his remarkable 3-D festivals at the Egyptian, has acquired a 10-year license to the theatrical rights to the films the duo made for Hal Roach, minus a few titles the producer had sold.

“My goal was always to put them in theaters again,” said Joseph, 62. “Everybody thinks I’m nuts for doing this because there is no money in it.”

But he's been nuts about Laurel and Hardy ever since he was a young boy growing up in North Hollywood. Like most baby boomers, Joseph watched the genius slapstick antics of Laurel’s thin, British man-child and Hardy’s portly snoot on children’s television programs.


“They made me laugh,” Joseph said. “I would wake up at five in the morning to see them and I’d run home from school and watch them. I used to run movies in my garage to the neighborhood kids. The first film I ever collected was Laurel and Hardy. When I got to be 11 or 12 years old, I bought an 8mm of ‘Big Business’ from Blackhawk.”

But never in a million years did it occur to him that, some 50 years later, he would be working on restoring Laurel and Hardy’s films.

A few years ago, Joseph wrote a substantial check to kick-start UCLA’s ambitious plan to preserve these films, which were made in the late 1920s through the ’30s.

UCLA received the Hal Roach nitrate elements in 2003 from then-owner Hallmark. (The Library of Congress also restored titles appearing in the series, which came from a different depositor.)

“The collection included original camera negatives, sound track negatives, master positives, work prints and release prints on not only Laurel and Hardy films but Our Gang, Charley Chase and Thelma Todd shorts and features like Topper and Of Mice and Men,” Scott MacQueen, UCLA’s head of preservation, said in an email interview.


The condition of the original nitrate negatives was less than ideal. “The Laurel and Hardy films were popular worldwide and as a result, the original negatives were overprinted and incurred extensive wear and damage,” MacQueen noted. “New nitrate negatives were made in 1946 when Film Classics initiated a major postwar reissue, mainly because the originals were so unserviceable.”

And for the next four decades, MacQueen said, “Copies that were seen came down from these murky, ugly reissue elements. The originals are rife with torn perforations, indifferently made replacement sections, picture slugs to keep the negative in sync with the sound track, tears, and old repairs.”

MacQueen was asked to assess the material and develop a preservation plan in 2012. “The archive then decided to pursue a crowdsourcing campaign to fund the work, since Laurel and Hardy’s appeal has remained so strong and widespread,” he said. “That campaign is ongoing.”

Besides Joseph’s substantial gift to launch the campaign, the UCLA archive has received gifts from everyone from the Sons of the Desert tents (Laurel and Hardy fan clubs) to individuals around the world to the Winklevoss Foundation (the Winklevoss twins,Tyler and Cameron, of The Social Network fame).“Each restoration had its own little headaches and its own story,” Joseph said.

Take “Midnight Patrol,” for example.

“Fate left us only a 1933 picture master positive, but it was undamaged and orderly,” said MacQueen. 


“So it was a straightforward matter of making a duplicate negative. But the only extant sound was from a 16mm print and had been so for decades. We located previously untapped 35mm sound elements, which have more dynamic range, at the British [Film] Institute and worked from that.”

They also had to combat instances of nitrate decomposition, “most of it due to acetate leaders that were cut on in the 1950s and have gone ‘vinegar’ and infected the adjacent nitrate,” MacQueen said.

“The first 300 feet of ‘De Bote en Bote’ was an utter loss. Here is a great example of the importance of the Library of Congress’ having made a master 40 years ago that enabled reel one to be complete.”

“The Music Box’s” original negative, missing a third reel (which was discovered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and made available for this preservation), “is the one Laurel and Hardy short where the negative is nearly pristine,” MacQueen said. “Perhaps its Academy Award status caused Roach to make prints off of duplicate negatives to protect the original.”

The sound track is better now than when the film was released. “Roach,” said Joseph, “saved some of their pre-records. In ‘The Music Box,’ for example, Scott (MacQueen) went back and remixed the track. So the movie is so quiet now. You can hear the wind in the microphone when they’re outside.”

One of the team’s best features, 1933’s Sons of the Desert, is “currently on the operating table thanks to a grant from the Film Foundation and will be the most difficult restoration to date,” MacQueen said.

“Only six of the seven reels of camera negative exist, and those six are lacking perhaps 50% of the original negative, with mediocre replacements inserted in 1972. There is a clean but grainy master positive from 1933, which the archive will use to compensate where required. But we are attempting to upgrade as much of the film as possible from the camera negative.”

The sound is coming from a new fine-grain Canadian track negative, MacQueen said, “then being digitally cleaned as it is rife with audio problems endemic to 1933: recorded in frequency, hums, erratic mix levels, noisy bloops, clicks and pops.”

UCLA is doing photochemical restoration, MacQueen explained, because “analog, photochemical protection is essential. Not only does it generate high-quality 35mm prints, which look superb and have a very different cognition from digital displays, but the new polyester masters and negatives ensure that these subjects will be around for 500 years.”


Joseph is scanning the films digitally and cleaning them up even further for the DCPs. UCLA’s team was able to pull the original title sequences from saved work prints of the films, and Joseph is restoring the MGM lion to its former glory.

“The MGM lions were terrible,” Joseph said. “It’s like, why do they look so bad? I got one of the negatives from ‘Come Clean’ from 1931. It’s an original negative and the MGM lion is date-coded to 1930 and it looks terrible — meaning it looked terrible from day one."

So he replaced the shabby dupe lion with a majestic one, which makes Leo look like the King of the Jungle he should be.

But the UCLA archive and Joseph have a long way to go until all of the films have been restored and preserved.

“Of the roughly 40 sound Roach shorts, the archive has restored six and four are currently in process,” MacQueen said. “That’s 10% of the shorts. Of the 13 Roach features, two have been restored by UCLA — Way Out West and De Bote en Bote, the Spanish version of Pardon Us — with a third, Sons of the Desert, currently in progress.”

Yet there are 25 sound shorts and 11 features that still need to be restored. “The most critical roadblock to the archive’s completing its Laurel and Hardy initiative is the old one — money,” MacQueen said. “We encourage all lovers of Laurel and Hardy to search their hearts for benefaction and their sofa cushions for loose change.” If you do find loose change, you can learn more about contributing to the restoration project here.


The Cinematheque festival kicks off Friday, May 6, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood with four shorts, three of which have been preserved by UCLA, including “The Music Box,” "Helpmates" and 1932’s “County Hospital,” as well as the 1939 feature Flying Deuces. (The latter title, which is in the public domain, was restored by Joseph.). Billy Gilbert, who appears in three of tonight's shorts will be remembered by his niece Judy Cooper and great nephew Bryan Cooper, who will share stories prior to the film program.

Shorts and features preserved by UCLA screening Saturday afternoon May 7 and Sunday, evening May 8 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica include 1933’s “The Midnight Patrol” and the classic Way Out West. On tap for Saturday evening is a 35mm print of 1933’s The Devil’s Brother (an archival 35mm print) and 1935’s Bonnie Scotland.

Author Randy Skretvedt will sign his book, Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, before the programs. Books will be sold in the lobby prior to the film screenings when doors open.

For the full schedule, click here. To see the series trailer click here.
Click here for side-by-side restoration comparisons of Me and My Pal and Their First Mistake


- by Susan King
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in Classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times
Follow her on Twitter: @mymackie