Less than five years ago a very interesting blurb was posted on a Laurel and Hardy website’s message board. The posting made the startling declaration that the long-lost 1927 L&H film Hats Off had been discovered and was tied up in negotiations with various video companies for future release. This was not the first and I expect it will not be the last time that a rumor or claim is made that this film has been found.
Laurel and Hardy fans have had the rug pulled out from under them so many times when it comes to the discovery of this film that it seems impossible that it will ever turn up. But let me be the first to say that I will almost guarantee that Hats Off will be found in my lifetime (I can’t speak for yours). Just look at Laurel and Hardy history and see that the odds are stacked in our favor.
In 1973 Richard W. Bann published the first definitive Laurel and Hardy filmography, which became gospel for over fifteen years. Prior to this, there existed no complete filmography – not even Stan Laurel’s handwritten version. The existence of The Tree in a Test Tube was not common knowledge until 1969. The boys’ cameos in On the Loose, Wild Poses, On the Wrong Trek, and The Stolen Jools were popping up to collectors one-by-one and not included on earlier lists. At some point we all became accustomed and comfortable with this list of 105 films, confident that there would be no more ‘popping up.’
We had our list of 105, but there were five ‘missing films’: Duck Soup, Why Girls Love Sailors, Hats Off, The Battle of the Century, and The Rogue Song. In 1974, Duck Soup was the first of these to miraculously re-surface. It was found in the format of a French 9.5mm home movie edition. Subsequently, a Belgian 35mm reissue provided us with a beautiful print to enjoy. Currently the only missing element from Duck Soup is the original English title cards.
The pie-fight sequence from The Battle of the Century, although incomplete and re-edited, was saved by Robert Youngson when he prepared his 1958 compilation The Golden Age of Comedy. The negative that he used was already in an advanced state of decomposition and only this portion was salvaged by Youngson. In 1979, we got to taste another missing piece of the Laurel and Hardy pie with the discovery of the opening boxing match scene. Even with this surviving footage, less than half of the complete film is known to exist.
It was not until 1985 that the major discovery of a French 16mm print of Why Girls Love Sailors took place. Unfortunately, the quality was poor, appearing extremely grainy and murky. But as Stan said “Any bird can build a nest, but it isn’t everyone that can lay an egg.” In 2000, an original European 35mm nitrate camera negative was located bringing viewers the opportunity to see this once-lost treasure in glorious pristine format.
The Rogue Song has remained one of the most intriguing and frustrating of the lost films, mainly because it is one of the very few examples of the boys in color. Although their footage amounts to less than twenty minutes of the nearly two-hour film, it has been placed on the American Film Institute’s top ten most wanted films list. And piece by piece, The Rogue Song continues to come together. The complete audio soundtrack, one three-minute clip with Stan and Babe, the complete theatrical trailer, one reel of assorted scenes, and a half-reel of a ballet sequence have all been located. Another recent discovery indicates that two Laurel and Hardy scenes from The Rogue Song (the shaving scene and the bee-swallowing scene) were televised as recently as 1970.
In 1989, the unthinkable occurred: the second reel of a ‘new’ film did ‘pop up’ which included both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It was the 1927 silent Charley Chase vehicle Now I’ll Tell One, making every known filmography of those famous 105 films now obsolete. One may also wish to add to this filmography the seven Spanish language films that were discovered in the back of an M-G-M vault in 1986: Ladrones, La Vida Nocturna, Tiembla y Titubea, Noche de Duendes, De Bote en Bote, Los Calaveras, and Politquerias, all of which feature Laurel and Hardy phonetically speaking their lines of dialogue in Spanish as well as many additional scenes edited from the American release prints.
More? There’s the French language Les Carrotiers and Un Nuit Extravagnza, the German Spuk Um Mitternacht, extended sequences from Laughing Gravy and Pardon Us, restored footage from Pack Up Your Troubles and Babes In Toyland, newsreel footage of the boys, television appearances, radio performances, Erskine Johnson’s Hollywood Reel with Stan Laurel, Hollywood Handicap newsreel featuring Oliver Hardy, new film trailers, both color and black and white home movies, and the original Brats with the original music score and main titles – all of which have surfaced for public consumption within the last twenty years
So what about Hats Off? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Bupkis. All we have are rumors and reports. Which brings us back to the claim from 2002 mentioned at the beginning of this article… This fellow claimed to be Elmer Guiol, nephew of Hal Roach director Fred L. Guiol. He stated that his uncle held many cans of unprocessed ‘movie copies to films made by the Hal Roach Studios.’ Among them were two versions of the opening spool of the film with the boys attempting to climb a staircase carrying a washing machine. He goes on to claim theat the picture quality is excellent due to the nature of the films spools, which were unprocessed until recently.
Elmer stated that he understood that this film was not available to the public at present and that, having access to these reels of film, he was currently in negotiation with various video companies with regard to its possible future release.
Incredible? Absolutely. Unbeleiveable? You tell me. But in case it is true, I wanted to report it first. If it’s another rib, I never really believed it any way. After all, Fred L. Guiol didn’t even direct Hats Off. But then why would old Elmer impersonate his nephew?
If Laurel and Hardy history teaches us anything, it is that nothing is too far-fetched not to be the truth. Or something like that. Perhaps the boys are orchestrating their newest playlet from their seats in heaven, the sequel to Leave ‘Em Laughing, entitled Keep ‘Em Guessing. Just bear this in mind the next time you poo-poo the idea of Hats Off being discovered: the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden around 67 A.D. and not located until 1947! Okay, so maybe we won’t have Hats Off in my lifetime. But never say never!