Pardon us for not writing very often; we have been very busy with our activities dedicated to the work of Laurel and Hardy – last but not least, helping Rai TV with their important project of seriously restoring the Italian editions of their films – that we almost forgot our own blog.
Today, however, we come back to it to comment on some news that has been making the rounds among fans for a few days now. According to official press releases, the next edition of the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, an event that we hold very dear, one of the most prestigious ones in the world in terms of rediscovery and promotion of silent cinema, will host a special event dedicated to Laurel and Hardy. The occasion, we read, is the screening of the "Italian version" of Night Owls (1930) titled Ladroni (Thieves).
This news could be of the uttermost importance, as it would not be the usual 20-minute short film that we are used to seeing on TV, but the first phonetic version dubbed directly by Laurel & Hardy in Italian and – at least until today – considered lost.
A brief history recap to remember exactly what it is all about. In 1929, Laurel and Hardy started making sound films and, as dubbing (or post-synchronization, as it would be better called it in this case) did not yet exist, to overcome the obstacle of the multilingual market, the Roach Studios adopted the somewhat cumbersome practice to have the actors act in different languages: Spanish, German, French… and Italian.
The first short film made with this technique was in fact Night Owls. Simultaneously with the English version, a Spanish version was shot, replacing the supporting cast scene by scene with native Spanish speakers. This version, titled Ladrones, ran 15 minutes longer than the English version: it included sequences that Laurel himself had decided to discard from the final American cut, and even a different ending.
Having achieved great success with audiences in Spanish-speaking countries, Hal Roach decided to use the same technique to expand the distribution of the film to other markets, including Italy. And here's the surprise: unlike what happened later with other short films, this film was not reshot in Italian. Several months after having made the film in Spanish, Roach hired sound engineers to post-synchronize the Italian dialogues on this version, taking advantage of the similarity in lip movements between both languages. (Sometime later, the same trick would be used for some sequences in the Spanish version of Berth Marks.) The result was far from perfect, but it was in fact the team’s first film “dubbed” in Italian, probably – we repeat: probably – by Laurel & Hardy themselves. The sound was also recorded on four discs of the Victor Talking Machine Company, using a technique already employed to post-synchronize some silent films with music and effects, to be able to distribute them in theatres already equipped for sound.
According to research conducted a few years ago, this hypothesis was confirmed in the online archive of Victor: the four disc codes (MVR-54999, MVR-61101, MVR-61102, and MVR-61103) are dated August 25 and 26, 1930, approximately eight months after the release of Night Owls and Ladrones. Furthermore, the Roach Studios records report that both versions have the same length: 3306 feet, i.e. 1021 meters, about 37 minutes of projection time. A unique case, at least according to the documents, among the phonetic versions shot by Laurel and Hardy up to that time.
Ladroni was successfully released in Italy in early 1931, paving the way for the first and only phonetic version shot in Italian by Stan and Babe: Muraglie (Pardon Us). Since then, all traces of Ladroni and Muraglie have vanished. Subsequent post-war dubbings made any attempt to preserve those precious first Italian versions redundant, effectively rendering their recovery or restoration impossible.
In the press release by Le Giornate, we read that the research group "SOS Stanlio e Ollio" (founded, according to what we read online, with “the aim of promoting cultural initiatives of various kinds aimed at the national and international promotion of the work of the famous artist couple, and to safeguard and digitally recover the Italian versions of the films they made”) is said to have recovered the “negative scene” of the Italian phonetic version of Ladroni at the George Eastman House in Rochester (NY). However, it is a silent copy, since the “negative scene” was made separately from the “sound negative” – provided that the latter really existed: we cannot know for sure whether the Roach Studios relied exclusively on Victor records or not back in 1930.
The footage and screen capture of the film (at 1080p only) accompanying the press release show that Ladroni is indeed Ladrones post-synchronized in Italian, in fact confirming what has been stated until now. It is therefore a duplicate of the Spanish negative, with all of its inherent problems, which however retains the original MGM opening credits translated into Italian. This is the only real news.
Good news? Up to a certain point.
Our concerns regarding this “recovery” (it is a bit difficult to call it a “restoration”) are about what will be screened in Pordenone this October. The press release, also published on the festival's Facebook page, reports that “[the research group] took care of the meticulous reconstruction based on the Spanish Ladrones edition, retaining for the soundtrack noises and a few almost identical phonemes in both languages. This way, you will be able to hear Oliver Hardy's voice in a joke, albeit a very short one, in Spanish-Italian”.
The statement raises some questions. For example, how is it possible that this “meticulous reconstruction” reproduces only a single Italian sentence in a 37-minute film? Granted, Laurel & Hardy speak very little in the film, but that is not the case with the other performers. We therefore decided to ask the festival directly for clarification, through its official Facebook page. The festival forwarded our request directly to the project managers. We quote their answer verbatim: “[...] the Italian vintage soundtrack is currently unavailable but being partially reconstructed based on the Spanish one [...] it was decided to keep sounds, noises and some identical phonemes, inserting a musical commentary only for some very brief scenes”.
So the footage of Ladroni – which, as we have stated, is identical to Ladrones – has been combined with some sounds from Ladrones. In other words: the “recovery” carried out by SOS Stanlio & Ollio is Ladrones but with Italian titles. Given that the same procedure could easily be applied to any other Spanish phonetic version by Laurel & Hardy, the choices that have been made for the reconstruction cause further perplexity. Based on which criteria did they decide that some sentences were fine and others were not, leaving only a single line in Oliver Hardy's “Spanish-Italian”? Not to mention the choice of inserting a musical commentary, albeit in “some very short scenes”, which – if confirmed – would constitute a real arbitrary interpolation.
Over the years, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto have given Laurel & Hardy scholars and admirers real rarities: in 2015, the European premiere of The Battle of the Century, in the most complete version seen since 1927 (we also talked about it in this article). We are therefore surprised that a festival with forty years of history on its shoulders, a reference point for cinephiles, researchers, historians, and archivists, has decided on this occasion to provide a platform for an operation like this.
An operation from which, as Oasis no. 165 of the “Sons of the Desert” international association, we can only firmly distance ourselves.
In any case, still on the subject of Laurel & Hardy, we point out that this year, Le Giornate will present restored editions of the films Rupert of Hee-Haw (1924), a parody of Rupert of Hentzau starring Stan Laurel solo and directed by Percy Pembroke (he short film will also be available online) and Long Fliv the King (1926) with Charley Chase and Oliver Hardy, directed by Leo McCarey.
Nico Cartenstadt (English translation)