The sound shorts of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are iconic, well-known from decades of availability on television, and although numerous incomplete and damaged original elements survive on each title, the rights-holders have not invested in their long-term survival. These films have been part of major restoration projects between Jeff Joseph’s SabuCat Productions, the UCLA archive, the Library of Congress, and other archives.
But the silent films are a different story. Rarely shown on television, the primary commercial market for the last half of the 20th century was mostly from 8mm and 16mm nontheatrical collector prints through the distributor Blackhawk Films (whose library is now owned by Lobster Films), a few theatrical compilations (e.g., 1965’s Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing Twenties), and a little-seen television series Laurel and Hardy’s Laughtoons from 1979.
Surviving elements are held in many locations, including by the successors to Hal Roach Studios, various archives, licensees that made material for their own commercial use, and private collectors. There were two original negatives made for a number of the titles, with the extra negative sent to service European sales, often compiled from inferior shots, which offers an additional print source, but complicates the restoration process.
While some of the titles have been available for years (1927’s Hats Off is the only Laurel and Hardy title completely lost), there has been little incentive to undertake a major restoration project of the silents because the rights to these films have been, shall we say, checkered. Blackhawk Films has held nontheatrical 8mm and 16mm distribution rights since 1952, but rights for the Western Hemisphere (other than theatrical rights and the rights held by Blackhawk) were licensed in 1972 to Richard Feiner and Co., whose interest was in producing the Laughtoons series not in showing the films in their original form. That has now changed as most of the titles are, or will soon be, in the public domain.
Copyright law has evolved over the past 233 years since Congress first enacted it on May 31, 1790. For most of the 20th century, films (and books, plays, music) in the U.S. received an initial twenty-eight year copyright period that could be extended once, for a total of fifty-six years. In 1978, Congress amended the law to be a single seventy-five-year period, then in 1998 they extended it again to a ninety-five year term. For forty years, the public domain cutoff was stuck at 1922, but, finally in 2019, works from 1923 fell into the public domain. The cutoff has moved up a year every January 1 since then. This means that in 2023, all films from 1927 and earlier are now in the U.S. public domain, greatly freeing up distributors to restore and distribute all the silent Laurel and Hardy shorts—if they can access quality copies.
Unlike for the sound titles, few of the camera negatives of the silents survive. Enter the mysterious world of film collectors, who hold a vast array of prints. The Kodascope Film Library, a commercial distributor in the late silent era through 1939, released a number of the shorts in lovely 16mm tinted prints, which have filled in many of the gaps in prints when 35mm material was unavailable. Then there’s Robert Youngson, who licensed Laurel and Hardy footage for his theatrical silent comedy compilations of the 1950s and 1960s. And, also, Gordon Berkow whose legendary collection contained 16mm reduction prints struck from the camera negatives of The Battle of the Century (including the famous pie fight scene), The Second Hundred Years, Double Whoopee, You’re Darn Tootin’, and Angora Love, apparently screener prints Berkow had ordered from Roach to determine what footage he wanted to use for his 1957 compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy. With Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange supervising, Lobster Films has tapped into all these sources to undertake a massive project restoring all the silent Laurel and Hardy films, drawing on the best possible prints in consultation with the foremost Laurel and Hardy specialists in the world, returning classic and little-seen shorts to today’s audiences.
Directed by Frank Butler, USA, 1927
With James Finlayson and Dorothy Coburn
The earliest of the three restorations showing, Flying Elephants was the last made under Roach’s distribution deal with Pathé, but it was not released until after Roach and the Boys had moved over to MGM. More typical of early farces by Stan Laurel, the film is one of their few silent shorts that leaves the studio and Hollywood environs to film on location, in this case the Valley of Fire, Nevada. Against the backdrop of the area’s sandstone formations, it tells a prehistoric tale of cavemen Stan and Ollie both vying to drag Dorothy Coburn back to their cave. The characters are definitely not the team we have come to know and love, as Ollie is constantly trying to find ways to kill off Stan. The restoration was a jigsaw puzzle of prints, with a Blackhawk safety dupe negative of reel 2, a nitrate print in the Lobster collection, the French sound rerelease, and short sequences from the Packard Humanities Institute’s Kodascope print.
The Second Hundred Years
Directed by Fred L. Guiol, USA, 1927
With Tiny Sanford and James Finlayson
The tenth film in which Stan and Ollie appear together on screen, this is really the first film released where they are clearly billed as a team, not just as two characters who happen to appear in the same film. The Boys are in prison, and thanks to some men painting the prison, they concoct an escape, only to find themselves back in prison disguised as French dignitaries on a fact-finding mission. The restoration derives from a Blackhawk Films fine grain print, with about twenty percent of the material from a Robert Youngson 16mm original reduction print. These elements were combined with additional 35mm nitrate and fine grain fragments from Blackhawk and the Library of Congress.
The Battle of the Century
Directed by Clyde Bruckman, USA, 1927
With Noah Young, Gene Morgan, Sam Lufkin, Charlie Hall, and Anita Garvin
Other than a short pie-fight sequence in Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy, Battle had been unavailable for decades, making it perhaps the most famous of the Laurel and Hardy silent shorts. The “battle” of the title refers to two different fights. In reel 1, Stan is a prizefighter in a match where he is clearly outclassed, with hilarious results. In reel 2, the Boys accidentally instigate a pie fight that became the largest filmed pie-fight in cinema history, dispensing some three thousand pies in a mob scene that slowly builds to a hilarious conclusion. Having reluctantly accepted that only the short Youngson sequence survived for all these years, fans were shocked when, in the early 1990s, Leonard Maltin found an amber-tinted nitrate print of reel 1 in the Museum of Modern Art collection. It was missing only a short sequence at the end featuring Eugene Pallette convincing Ollie to take out accident insurance on Stan. Then, twenty-five years later, I began liquidating the Berkow collection, working through the more than 2,300 titles, prioritizing features and rare films that took up the most space and would bring the highest price at sale. When I found a can marked “BATTLE OF THE CENTURY R2,” I tossed it in the pile with Cops, His Royal Slyness, and The Adventurer … just another common title to check on at a later date. Months later I discovered, to my astonishment, and that of the rest of the cinema world, that this was indeed the complete reel 2. Lobster combined this footage with the reel 1 material for a nearly complete version, containing the full pie fight.
Thanks to Serge Bromberg, David Pierce, Stan Taffel, and Jim Kerkhoff for helpful details and suggestions.
Presented at SFSFF with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker on piano and Nick White on sound effects