Laurel and Hardy are coming back.
With an astounding find of nearly 100 old films -- many of them dug out of concrete in the Yukon -- Hal Roach Studios plans to do for the late comedy team what Francis Ford Coppola did for Abel Gance's "Napoleon."
This winter Los Angeles will be treated to a Laurel and Hardy festival with a live orchestra and top admission prices. Next spring New York will see it, and then maybe the pictures will be released across the country.
"What we don't know is how a modern audience will react," says studio vice president Herb Gelbspan, perhaps forgetting that if people have stopped laughing at custard pie fights, then we are all in deeper trouble than we thought.
"Many of these are silents," he says. "And they're much faster than the later ones because nobody had to stop to say lines."
The Yukon discovery was reported about four years ago, when a contractor digging into the site of an old skating rink ripped open a cache of film cans -- perfectly preserved -- in a locker in the concrete wall. The 400 reels contained many Pathe' silent movies reaching back before World War I, plus the Laurel and Hardy silents.
Other pictures have been found in Czechoslovakia, which meticulously kept a complete library of early American films, in the MGM vaults and in the Library of Congress. At least three of the comedies have never been seen by American audiences.
Gelbspan touched off the search four years ago when he realized that the studio had lost track of nearly half of the knockabout comic team's 98 movies. The Roach firm was reorganized by chairman Earl Glick to distribute its vast collection of films after it went bankrupt in the 1960s. Roach himself is alive and well at 90.
The studio traced some of the missing pictures to Yugoslavia, but these were destroyed by the U.S. Air Force in World War II when it bombed a freight train bringing assorted Yugoslavian treasures to Germany for Hermann Goering, the celebrated Nazi art collector.
"You should see some of those things," said Gelbspan. "Like 'Two Tars,' where they're sailors and they pick up some girls and go on a drive and get into the most unbelievable traffic jam you ever saw. You just can't stand it."
And then there was the famous pie war in the 1927 "Battle of the Century," of which only the second reel survives. And Hardy's first film, in 1913, without Stan Laurel. And "Do Detectives Think?" "Putting Pants on Philip" (their first together, 1927), and "Call of the Cuckoo," "Laughing Gravy" and "Saps at Sea" and on and on, some silent, some with sound, some dubbed into German, some with the late comedians speaking their brief lines in French, Italian and Spanish. The partnership ended with Oliver Hardy's death in 1957.
The Library of Congress was given at least 70 nitrate negatives by Hal Roach a decade ago, says Paul Spehr, acting chief of the motion picture, broadcasting and recorded sound division. For years, the library has been frantically working to preserve as much of the volatile nitrate film as it can get hold of.
"Lots of these Laurel and Hardys have been reproduced many times," Spehr says. "Some were syndicated for a series of half-hour shows on TV a few years ago. Many of them are in bad shape -- they look as if you're seeing them through a beaded curtain. That's the trouble with the good ones: It's the dumb pictures that you find in beautiful shape."