||Not every movie star gets to go out on a high, and for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy their final roles in a film were of great embarrassment to them both, for everything involved with it seemed to go drastically wrong. It was an Italian-French co-production they planned as a comeback vehicle after being off the silver screen for a while, but the issues that affected their later work (more or less everything once they left Hal Roach) were increased tenfold when they did not have the control they wished over their material. It sounds like madness than Stan wasn't trusted to deliver the duo's trademark humour, but that was in effect the case.
You can't solely blame the producers of their last film for that state of affairs, since in their Hollywood studio efforts the reins had been taken from him as well, leaving one of the greatest comedy teams of all time blustering their way through scripts that were somebody else's idea of what a Laurel and Hardy effort should be, rather than the boys' themselves calling the shots. Of course, it was really Stan who was the driving force behind them, as Ollie was famously gentle and conflict-averse off screen, unlike his persona, while his partner was the one who sorted out their productions and decided what was best for them: the boss of them, basically.
Atoll K was that final fling, and most of the bad stuff you’ve heard about it is true, assuming you had encountered it on one of its plethora of public domain releases under its American cut Utopia - there was an additional British version called Robinson Crusoeland, amounting to four distinct edits for what was an orphaned movie. However, Atoll K was the most complete, and existed in an English language incarnation, making its rediscovery of great interest to fans as it would offer a better idea of what was intended. It was this version released by the British Film Institute in late 2018, on a Blu-ray packed with extras from the boys' very earliest and latest days.
The most prominent hurdle anyone settling down to watch Atoll K is the physical appearance of the stars, for in the interim between this and their previous big screen outing The Bullfighters in 1945 and the release of their final work had been a good six years, during which health problems began to take their toll. Oliver was always a big guy, but here appears terribly bloated, and Stanley looked even worse, as he had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and had other drawbacks as well, including falling ill during the protracted shoot of the film, necessitating a break of some months for him to recover, though despite that he still looks like death warmed up throughout.
Obviously, all movie stars get older, unless they die young, and the only claim to immortality they have is the fact their work is watched and rewatched long after they leave this world, but this can render their concluding roles when they were not in the shape they used to be when they became famous a little distressing to see, reminding us that even the icons of the movies are prey to the ravages of age. Not the best frame of mind, then, to be watching a comedy, but that is what will be going through your mind as you witness Stan and Ollie here: the spirit is willing, the routines are there and the old spark in their rapport has never dimmed, but the flesh was very weak.
If you could get past that somewhat gruesome reason for watching Atoll K, then some have found more worth artistically in its longest edit than anyone has in the cut down Utopia. The plot had it that Stan inherits a vast sum, a yacht and an island, and once the lawyers and authorities have helped themselves to the taxes and fees due, pretty much all that's left is the boat and the isle, though as bad luck would have it they are stuck on the titular atoll after a shipwreck, accompanied by a French refugee (Max Elloy) and a dodgy Italian engineer (Adriano Rimoldi) and eventually joined by a stranded French chanteuse (Suzy Delair, a star in France, at least).
While this offered the opportunity for the team's accustomed routines, there was a sense of them falling back on what they knew best from their years of experience, not pushing ahead into new territory: the slapstick business was there, made painful by the obvious poor constitution of the two now-ageing comedians. That said, there was something new; just as The Marx Brothers had sent up politics in their classic Duck Soup back in the thirties, here Laurel and Hardy were invited to satirise the workings of government as they establish a new nation without laws and suffer the consequences when new arrivals exploit being able to do what ever they wanted to without cost.
It would be nice to say this worked very well for the pair, but in effect it showed up why they didn't bother getting political before, as those matters may have say well with a European comedian, but misjudged why Stan and Ollie had such universal appeal: being political means there's surely someone who will take against what you're saying, and divide your audience potential. Nevertheless, there were instances of bizarre gags, such as Stan's lively pet lobster, which indicate a more surreal approach might have paid dividends, and have you lamenting the fact they were not pursued to any great satisfaction, but then, production was a nightmare anyway.
The Blu-ray is a treasure trove of extras, a real collector's item for fans of the duo, starting with five solo shorts from them in the days before they teamed up. Ollie is represented by Mother's Baby Boy (1914), the earliest surviving effort from his career where he played a mother's boy trying to romance his girl but bullied by two ne'erdowells, Something in Her Eye (1915) where he was one of three misguided suitors for a lady who wasn't winking at him, she simply had grit in her eye, and Do You Love Your Wife? (1919), where he did not feature to an enormous extent, merely showing up for the second half of this Mabel Normand comedy from near the end of her stardom.
Stan, meanwhile, appears in Somewhere in Wrong (1925) where he played the lead role of a janitor, and Should Men Walk Home? (1927), just before Roach thought it was a good idea to cast him with Hardy and illustrating the huge influence Charlie Chaplin was still having on silent comedians even at that stage in the mid-to-late twenties as Laurel played a tramp in the Chaplin mould, though bits and pieces of his performance demonstrate he was working out a proper persona for himself to utilise in the future. None of these five are hilarious, or even particularly funny, but their historical value is undoubted and it's absorbing to make out the stylings they both would employ when united.
Also on the disc are two amateur shorts showing two separate visits to Britain by the boys, where they were stunned at the crowds of thousands they managed to amass at every public appearance; these have commentary by genial expert Glenn Mitchell, as indeed does the film itself as an audio option, telling you everything you could possibly want to know about the production. Then there are two newsreel reports, likewise of British visits, and a memorabilia compilation, two trailers plus a fascinating artefact, an interview with Stan just over a week after Ollie's death in 1957; as everyone would note, they were genuinely decent men just a little awed by their popularity, and generous to a fault with their fans, which came across in that chat. All that and a booklet wraps up the package, a tribute to a generally little-loved final movie that proves far more interesting in this setting than it had previously.