(1950)2Bruce EderConsidering that it was the result of a French/Italian co-production in which the directors (at least two of them, one American), crew, and cast mostly needed interpreters to communicate with each other, a screenplay that was the work of at least five people, and also some very shaky financing and distribution, Atoll K is not the disaster that someone knowing all of that might have anticipated. That's the plus side -- it's a comedy that touches upon the condition of the world and where it seemed to be heading circa 1950, and offers quite a few laughs along the way, mostly of the slapstick variety but also rooted in political satire. On the other hand, as a Laurel & Hardy vehicle, and the final Laurel & Hardy vehicle at that, it's a disappointing coda to a catalog that is otherwise mostly filled with concisely edited, carefully devised shorts and features (albeit most of them from the Hal Roach era).
But taken on its own terms, Atoll K (aka Utopia aka Robinson Crusoeland) is a surprisingly ambitious comedy -- perhaps too ambitious. One can tell very quickly that the plot is loaded with serious implications amid its comedy -- Stan and Ollie try to take possession of Stan's inheritance and discover that most of it has gone to taxes and legal fees; only an island and a broken down old tub of a boat remain, and the pair quickly acquire the company of two people just as displaced as they feel, a "stateless" man (Max Elloy) who becomes their cook, and, initially as a stowaway, a discontented bricklayer (Adriano Rimaldi) who wants something more than what life has given him up to now. And they're later joined by Cherie Lamour (Suzy Delair), the runaway fiance of a naval officer -- who also wants more out of life than his domineering presence seems to offer. And all of that is a great set-up for some piercing social commentary as well as comedy, which seems to be what the writers and the makers had in mind. The movie is permeated with the issues that were facing the post-war world, as empires receded, the forces of order spent themselves, and new forces of disorder rose in our midst: Displaced persons, national (and personal) aspirations unleashed, hunger still rampant, and fear of other nations still a dominant feature on the world landscape. The fact that nobody other than the five people who found it -- who try to live a peaceful, idyllic life -- cares about Atoll K except as a place to mine uranium (for weapons) or as a haven from laws, for the worst impulses borne of Europe's chaos says a great deal about the thinking of the people behind the picture. Ironically, American director John Berry, who was brought in to augment the work of original director Leo Joannon, was, himself, a blacklistee for his leftist views -- but his involvement began subsequent to the script's completion, and the movie takes an even hand, criticizing by implication all of the nuclear and would-be nuclear powers (east and west) of the era for their lack of concern with people.
And therein lay part of the problem. People paying to see a Laurel & Hardy movie probably weren't expecting a movie that carried so much weight in between its laughs, however deftly and comically it dealt with some of these subjects; or, incidentally, to see Stan Laurel, in particular, looking as dire as he does in some scenes here. The latter couldn't be helped, as the legendary performer was seriously ill during shooting -- but the messages and questions that are woven throughout Atoll K were probably more appropriate to a later Chaplin movie (such as Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, or, especially, A King In New York than to L&H's output. Their contribution is very funny -- and, thankfully, a bit lighter -- than most of the script, and one heartily wishes the various elements could have been woven together better.
But then, that raises another question. According to various accounts, Atoll K ran nearly 100 minutes in Italy under that title, and 92 minutes in France under the same title, and only 82 minutes in England (as Robinson Crusoeland) and America (as Utopia, which didn't open in the US until 1954). It might be fascinating, as well as worthwhile, to try and track down the 92 minute or 98 minute versions and see if either holds together better. As it is, the familiar 82 minute version is a tantalizing -- if sometimes frustrating -- glimpse of a kind of movie that the duo otherwise never did approach. One other frustration for modern viewers, alas, is the movie's "public domain" status in the United States, which makes it virtually impossible to see good looking editions of even the shorter version of the movie -- the best that has been seen in recent years is probably the one prepared by the Hal Roach Studio for its syndicated "Laurel And Hardy" weekly television program in the 1980s, seen most recently on ME-TV.
In their very last feature film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy travel to London so that Stan can claim his uncle's inheritance. All of the cash has been eaten up by taxes, but at least Stan is able to claim a tax-free island and yacht that his uncle has left him. Boarding the yacht (actually a run-down tub) in Marseilles, Stan and Ollie set sail for their island in the company of stateless refugee Max Elloy, who signs on as a cook, and Italian bricklayer Adriano Rimoldi, a stowaway. The little party is nearly torn to bits by a storm at sea, but the yacht runs safely aground on a newly formed atoll. Its population is increased to five when nightclub singer Suzy Delair, fleeing her domineering naval-officer fiancé Luigi Tosi, takes refuge with the other castaways. Laurel & Hardy and their friends live an idyllic, Robinson Crusoe-like existence until Delair's fiancé shows up. He announces he hasn't come to claim her, but to investigate reports that the atoll is rich with uranium. Indeed it is, and soon every nation in the world is clamoring to claim the island's radioactive deposits. Laurel and Hardy take quick action, declaring sovereignty over "Crusoeland." They then devise an anarchic government over which Ollie presides. Stan is relegated to the position of "The People." Comical chaos reigns when their "no laws, no taxes" policies attract the attention of various unsavory types, including rabble-rouser Michael Dalmatoff. Filmed over a period of 12 months, this expensive Franco-Italian co-production suffers from a too-complex plot, lazy direction, poor voice-over dubbing of the largely European supporting cast, and especially the horrible physical condition of Laurel, who was suffering from several life-threatening illnesses during filming. Fortunately, he regained his health after the production wrapped, as proven by his hale-and-hearty appearance on a 1954 installment of TV's This Is Your Life. Though some disciples of Laurel and Hardy will have a great deal of difficulty sitting through Atoll K, it does contain a few isolated moments of pantomimic brilliance and first-rate sight gags. Originally running 98 minutes, Atoll K was judiciously pruned down to 82 minutes for its English-language release. In Great Britain, the film was titled Robinson Crusoeland, while it was released as Utopia in America.