November 11th, 2011

carole lombard 05
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Stan, Ollie and the further perils of film preservation



Yes, that's Carole Lombard (wearing a man's style tie!) at age 16, playing leading lady for cowboy star Buck Jones in Fox's 1925 oater "Hearts And Spurs." This film, and the several silents Lombard made for Fox, perished in a 1937 vault fire -- some five years before Jones himself would suffer the same fate in a Boston nightclub.

Film preservation is the theme of today's entry, and we're going to focus on how it's affected the legacy of one of cinema's most beloved comedic acts, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.



That's Stan and Ollie, along with frequent foil James Finlayson, in the late silent "Big Business" from 1929, one of the finest comedy shorts ever made and arguably Laurel and Hardy's greatest example of "reciprocal destruction." They play Christmas tree salesmen who run afoul of Finlayson, who doesn't like peddlers; the gags build up as Finlayson's house, and L&H's car, are gradually destroyed. (Hal Roach Sr. often said the wrong house was inadvertently used for the film, but according to Laurel, it actually belonged to a studio employee.)

"Big Business" will be shown on Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. at 12:30 a.m. (Eastern) Sunday night as part of a quartet of L&H silents; others include "Habeas Corpus" (1928) at midnight,..



..."Double Whoopee" (1929), with an early look at Jean Harlow (and lots of her!) at 1...



...and "Angora Love" (1929), shot alongside a goat on the streets of Culver City (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/370560.html), at 1:30:



All will feature new scores written by the masterful Robert Israel.

A few months ago, we noted that what happened to the Laurel and Hardy library was an example of how not to do film preservation (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/438472.html). For a more detailed examination of the subject, I refer you to an authoritative four-part series by Richard W. Bann, "Film Preservation -- Another Fine Mess," at the excellent Laurel & Hardy fan website (http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/archive/articles/2011-04-ucla/ucla-1.html).

Some of the stories told will frustrate the classic film fan:

* The state of California had a personal property tax on film negatives. To avoid this, said a former Hal Roach representative, "Every March 1, during the period when a physical inventory needed to be conducted, Hal Roach Studios would empty the Culver City film vaults, and load all those precious nitrate negatives into tractor-trailer-trucks. Then ... the trucks were driven out of town and all the way across the state line into Nevada, where they would be parked by the side of the road. For days on end. All those dreams, all the blood, sweat and tears invested in that unique source material, parked there in the hot desert sun with no shelter, as a tax shelter!" The heat inside those trucks caused adhesive labels and leaders to fall off the reels and cans, so relabeling those canisters can find many surprises, both good and bad.

* When Robert Youngson made his silent comedy documentaries, he preserved the pie fight from the L&H silent "Battle Of The Century," but not the entire film -- so only part of the film survives. "He had the opportunity to run a complete fine grain and preserve the entire film, but then so did his licensor, Hal Roach Studios, which did nothing. Not long after Youngson pulled what he needed from reel two, which was an abridgement of the pie fight footage, the balance of the reel decomposed while in the custody of Bonded Storage in New York, was counted out, and then junked."

* Hallmark purchased the Hal Roach library, and in 2003, it eschewed using a restored, fine-grain version of the L&H sound feature "Sons Of The Desert," instead de-colorizing a colorized version. A writer said of Hallmark's handling: "When it comes to Laurel & Hardy, they don’t care enough to send the very best."



Fortunately, there appears to be a reasonably happy ending. The UCLA archive (headed by Jan-Christopher Horak, shown above) now has the best surviving nitrate film of Laurel and Hardy's work, and is working to restore as much as it can as best as possible. To donate, and find out more, go to http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/support/laurel-and-hardy. Please contribute; this world needs all the laughter it can get.

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