INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS SEGUIN
Chris Seguin is a huge Laurel and Hardy-fan who has an obsession with "Atoll K". He watched it more then many of the 'classics'. Why? The most Laurel and Hardy-fans don't want to remember Laurel and Hardy because of that picture. It's their most 'hated'. Stan and Oliver were both very ill and the shooting in France had a lot of troubles with it. Stan, Oliver and a script girl were the only people who could speak in the English language. The making of "Atoll K" could be a drama movie and a comedy movie at the same time. Imagine if Stan and Ollie were on the same set in great condition, completely misunderstanding the director and doing the wrong things. I think it would make a great movie. But also the tragic side of "Atoll K" could be a movie, in the style of the amazing "Stan & Ollie" by Jon S. Baird, starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, with a fabulous screenplay by Jeff Pope. "Atoll K" will also be released on blu-ray by the British Film Institute. Chris helped with this release. He also wrote an article about "Atoll K" which you can find here: http://thescribefiles.blogspot.com/2016/01/no-atoll-k-isnt-utopia-but-its-nice.html
Thank you for awnsering my questions, Chris!
When did you first saw Atoll K?
I'm going to say I first saw it when I was about 16 or 17, at a screening in a lovely little theatre at the Dearborn Michigan public library. It was pre-video (1977 or so?), so it was impossible to see at the time and it was a 16mm print. I'd been fascinated by it since reading about it in William K. Everson's book, so I was excited but expecting the worst. But I really enjoyed it, I found it very different from their other films but still very funny, and the rest of the audience agreed. There was a lot of laughter. I liked it so much I immediately bought a super-8 print (I could buy 100 $1 DVDs for what I paid for it 40 years ago!) so I could watch it over and over.
Why there is a new release of Atoll K, because most of the L&H hate it?
Hate is an awfully strong word, I wouldn’t say MOST people hate it. But it is a divisive film – many DO hate it, but many others, including authors Randy Skretvedt and Norbert Aping, are highly appreciative of it. Even Laurel & Hardy’s official biographer called it “a mess… occasionally a nice mess, but mostly a messy mess”. Even he couldn’t bring himself to say he hated it. So I think a lot of people appreciate it for what it is… a brave effort by the boys, but one that didn’t reach its potential for a many reasons. Language barriers being one of them, but the biggest problem is Stan’s health and physical appearance. Too many people can’t get past that. Frankly, I can understand why.
Why is there a new release? Because a lot of Laurel & Hardy aficionados, like myself, feel the film deserves a respectful treatment. Including the team at the British Film Institute, who are behind this release.
A lot of Atoll K’s poor reputation is based on really awful looking $1 DVDs, the result of the film’s public domain status in the cut-down 82-minute US release retitled UTOPIA. Literally dozens – maybe hundreds! – of DVD distributors put it out on cheap discs in the worst condition, not caring about quality. Now all those horrible copies are on YouTube.
The British Film Institute has excellent, original 35mm nitrate materials of the complete, unreleased English-language version, and Doug Weir and Vic Pratt at the BFI felt it needed to be shared. They arranged a 2K high-definition transfer that will be used for both the blu-ray release and cinema screenings, and the BFI had enough extra material (home movies, Laurel and Hardy solo films, etc.) to create an extremely interesting, high quality release. The driving forces behind the release were Doug and Vic, they deserve a lot of credit.
The release may also be timed to synch with the new STAN & OLLIE biopic, but I think that’s more of a happy coincidence than anything.
Do you share their opinion, why (not)?
The haters’ opinion? Absolutely not. I actually really like the film. A lot. I’ve watched it more often than many of their “classics”. To me, what I love about the film is that after 10+ years in cinematic “exile” (their last Roach film was made in 1939), the characters are back to their true selves. They’re not the weak imitations of themselves that you see in the Fox/MGM films, where at times it feels they don’t even seem to know how to play the characters as written. There’s more genuine Laurel & Hardy comedy in the first reel of Atoll K than in their entire big studio output of the ‘40s. As Randy Skretvedt says, “even though their bodies are worn, they’ve regained their souls.”
Maybe that’s why I like Atoll K so much: Not because of what the film contains, but what it promises. It proves that the boys never lost their comic touch, or their innate sense of who these two characters were. It shows that Laurel & Hardy could have matured and, to me, makes the ten lost years since they left Roach all the more tragic. This is the Laurel and Hardy that could have been. That should have been.
What was your part in making the new release?
A friend with connections to the BFI – knowing my near-obsession with Atoll K – alerted me to the release and connected me with Doug Weir. I put Doug in touch with a few like-minded Laurel & Hardy fans who had rare materials (such as Stan’s original shooting script with his handwritten notes), photos, audio clips, etc., and recorded a commentary track over a slideshow of images. Mostly I would say I was a “content consultant/coordinator” and enthusiastic fanboy.
You helped Norbert Aping in translating his book on Atoll K. How did you got involved?
My friend who I mentioned above, Uli Ruedel, knew Norbert and connected us. Some time earlier I was writing a few things for the Dutch Laurel & Hardy magazine BLOTTO; the editor wished to devote an issue to Atoll K so I wrote an article as did Norbert. I helped Norbert smooth over some of this translation from German to English, so when he said he was doing a book – in both German and English editions – I volunteered to help again. It was quite an experience, I really immersed myself in learning about the film; Norbert’s book is one of the greatest explorations of the production of a single film I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend it enough.
And you wrote an article on Atoll K. Why about this one movie?
Because it’s easy to write an appreciation of Way Out West or The Music Box, but much harder to write about a film so many people automatically react negatively towards. I just really wanted to share my point of view that this is a film that’s much better than it has any right to be; that once you get past Stan’s physical appearance it’s actually very enjoyable. That’s the big sticking point: “Oh, Stan looks so sick I can’t watch” or “This is too sad”. I wanted to try to get Laurel & Hardy fans beyond their initial reaction.
How do you think Stan and Babe would have reacted on the new release because they didn't want to be remembered of this film?
I honestly can’t say. Stan was the most vocal about such things; in letters from around 1951 he’s enthusiastic about the film being released, later in life he expressed a lot of regret about it. I personally think he’d rather it not be released, he’d been quite vocal about things like This Is Your Life and the 1956 home movie footage with him and Babe being too readily available. He really wanted to be remembered at his very peak, which is why he didn’t make any TV appearances once Babe had passed away. So, sad to say, he wouldn’t have been happy. But he probably wouldn't be happy knowing The Big Noise or A-Haunting We Will Go were so readily available on DVD either.
What do you think of how the film was made? Because they didn't understand everyone on the set (except a script girl) and there was a lot of trouble with the story of the movie.
This seems to have been a common practice for a period in the early ‘50s, on a technical level I think the fact that they did so many phonetic versions of their early talkies at the beginning of the sound era helped. It feels like they were well equipped, and they definitely knew what they were getting into on that level.
What they weren’t equipped to handle was the chaotic approach to scriptwriting from various writers of multiple nationalities and hugely differing opinions of what the story should be. When you read Norbert’s book, it’s incredible how awful the first drafts are – no wonder Stan reacted so badly when he first read them, and needed to bring in outside help (Monte Collins, Alf Goulding) to whip the script into shape. It must have been a monumental task to steer this into a more traditional – and therefore better – Laurel & Hardy film.
I seriously don’t know how they managed to get anything done with the language problems and the other production challenges they faced (shooting out of sequence, the inability to get simple props, etc.) but that they succeeded is a testament to their professionalism. Add Stan’s illness to this situation, and it was just the worst possible scenario to make a decent film. The painful production itself might have coloured Stan’s opinion of the final film – I’ve often wondered if he ever saw it.
Would Atoll K be a better movie for another comedy duo? Or is this a real L&H film?
No, it’s a real Laurel & Hardy film – thanks to Stan’s input along with the creative team he brought in – but a very unusual one. You never see Laurel & Hardy doing political satire, so it’s atypical of them, but there wasn’t really any other “traditional” comedians or comedy teams engages in this kind of material at the time. Maybe just Chaplin.
But it works well for Laurel & Hardy, and here’s why: What I really like about the film is that Stan and Ollie are liked and respected by the other characters, at least their three confederates: Antoine, Giovanni and Cherie. They think highly enough of Ollie to accept him as president, he’s not the “stupid dope” he’d be thought of in the Fox and MGM films. So it gives their traditional characters more dimension – more humanity – than they’d had since, I’d say, the first half of BLOCK-HEADS.
I think it might have been a story done well by other European comics; the basic premise of the story – and what it’s trying to say about basic humanity, governments, etc. – is an interesting enough one and pretty flexible, I suppose. Maybe if it had been designed as a co-starring vehicle for Toto and Fernandel (both of whom were originally intended to join Stan & Babe in the ATOLL K cast) that might have worked, but I’m not familiar enough with their work to say for sure. But in terms of a traditional Hollywood comedy duo (Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis), I can’t imagine anyone else doing it any better. It would need to be somebody very different – like the Marx Brothers – but then it would be an entirely different film.
What would you think if a biopic was made about the making of Atoll K?
I don’t think there’s enough there for a biopic – but then, I didn’t think there was enough to write an entire book on the subject, which Norbert Aping did! I think it would make an interesting story but, as much as I enjoy the film, it would be a sad one. There was so much hope from Stan & Babe about the making of the film (again, I wouldn’t believe that was in their contract that the film NOT be shown in the U.S.), but the despair set in quickly and the productions was just an unhappy debacle. It’s a moment – an important and intriguing moment – in an illustrious, nearly 30-year career, but there are more interesting stories to tell (as they already have with STAN & OLLIE). That said, if I were to do it as a biopic, I’d treat it as a comic farce – the language barriers, director Leo Joannon’s behaviour, etc., the arguments with the writers, they all seem to be good fare for comedy – and it would take the edge off a story that doesn’t end well for the boys. But even Stan, in his 1957 interview with Arthur B. Friedman, was able to laugh a bit at the absurdity of it all later in life. So turn it into a comedy, and it might work!
What’s your favorite L&H film?
Way Out West. It’s got everything; the boys at their best, the little songs & dances, Finlayson chewing scenery, a terrific score. They’re absolutely at the top of their game. I could watch it on my deathbed. J