July 9, 2015
Utopia (aka Atoll K) – UK, 1951
When you hear the names Orson Welles, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Charlie Chaplin, which movies do you think of? Do you think of Transformers: The Movie, Someone to Love, High Society, Always, and A Countess from Hong Kong? Probably not, yet these were the films that these great actors and directors ended their careers with. If Gene Hackman and Sean Connery remain retired, their last films will have been Welcome to Mooseport and a cartoon called Sir Billi – hardly the stuff of legends. Alas, actors and directors are not like great professional athletes. They don’t often get to pick the role that ends their career. They don’t get to tell their director that their retiring after their next hit, and truly legendary ones don’t get an entire year to say good-bye to their fans all over the United States. It is much more likely that as the years progress, they see their star power wane, and with it goes their ability to choose scripts and parts. In other words, the end of directing or acting careers can be disappointing.
Add to the list of people who deserved better in their final screen appearance Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. To be fair to them, the film that ended up being their swan song, 1951’s Utopia, was not intended that way, but after completing it, Oliver Hardy suffered a series of health problems that prevented him from working. Weight was one of them, and it is this one that will be most obvious to viewers. It is said that prior to filming, Hardy’s weight ballooned from 250 lbs to 350.
In Utopia, Stan Laurel once again finds himself inheriting something after a deceased relative’s death. This is familiar territory for the two, yet with the right invention or retooling, it is a scenario that could have been the start of a decent film. Alas, the film saddles the comic duo with a stale scene about taxes and greedy lawyers that sucks the energy out of the film almost immediately. The film’s screenwriters – all six of them - should have looked at that scene, noticed that it didn’t play, and changed course. Instead it becomes a running gag that succeeds in producing few if any laughs.
From then on, it looks as if the film simply goes on autopilot. We get Stan throwing things to Oliver when he blows a whistle to obvious results, food being mysteriously taken from their plates by a not-so mysterious hand, and the boat Stan and Oliver are traveling in being caught in a terrible storm. We’ve see it all before, and we’ve seen it done better. Eventually the pair, their stateless cook (Max Elloy) and a stowaway (Adriano Rimoldi) find themselves stranded on a newly formed atoll, and – in the only part of the movie with any promise to it – are completely fine with that. Soon, we see a dirty, unshaven Stan, and for a moment, I though he was parodying Humphrey Bogart’s appearance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. What a film that might have been.
Utopia does not work for several reasons. First, the film displays an utter lack of originality, preferring past formulas and gags to novelty and spontaneity, and the results are as you’d expect. For example, later in the film, Hardy gets elected president of the atoll. Would it have been more original – and have more potential for comedy - to have Laurel elected? Second, the film elects to introduce a series of uninteresting characters in the most ludicrous of ways. There’s the cook without a country trying to pass himself off as an animal (no laughs there), as well as a stowaway, who the script gives nothing substantial to do other than sailing a ship while looking handsome. In addition, we’re expected to accept that a young singer named Cherie Lamour (Suzy Delair) gets herself dropped off on the atoll simply because she is upset at her fiancé (Luigi Tosi), another of those straight-faced, humorless characters that we often find in later Laurel and Hardy films. Cherie’s introduction to the story, explained by a most superfluous narrator, gives the audience hope of something interesting occurring, for no sooner does she arrives than the quartet of men set out to impress her. This is dropped fairly quickly. Finally, in the film’s most cringe inducing moments, it seems to be channeling the final chapter of Mutiny on the Bounty, in which the crew of the Bounty reach the island of Pitcairn and lose all grip on common decency. This does not describe our heroes of course, but the thousands that flock to the island after it is declared free of all modern-day trappings - you know, annoying things such as laws, taxes, and visas. At one point, a character seems to imply he has a right to sexually harass (or worse) Cherie if he wants to, and it is disturbing to see the throng of women that join the man’s fight to preserve the island’s lawlessness. So much for sisterhood.
Utopia is not included on any of Laurel and Hardy’s recent box sets. Instead, the film has lapsed into public domain and several versions of the film have been released by companies without the budget or will to release a quality version of the film. The versions that I looked at online all had volume and clarity problems, and at times the audio track was slightly behind the picture. Does the film deserve better? It does, but not because the film is an undiscovered masterpiece or one of the duo’s great works. It deserves better simply because it completes their career, and therefore there will probably always remain an interest in the film. While it is not something that I think many people will like, Laurel and Hardy have earned the right to have all of their films pristinely preserved for posterity – even clunkers like this one. (on DVD, Youtube, and archive.org.