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If you're a Laurel & Hardy fan you probably know that the boys made a number of films in various European languages during the early talkie days. When sound technology was new in Hollywood there was concern that the important foreign markets would be lost. Subtitling and dubbing had not yet been perfected, however, so a temporary solution was found, one that seems incredible now: at the major studios -- and some of the smaller ones, such as the Hal Roach lot -- a movie deemed important enough to justify the extra expenditure would be made repeatedly, in French, Spanish, Italian, and/or German. The best known surviving example is the Spanish Dracula, made by a different cast and crew on the same sets used for the Tod Browning-Bela Lugosi production. Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier, and other bi-lingual stars remade some of their vehicles in other languages, but for the top comedians the situation was different. No one could step in and replace the likes of Laurel & Hardy or Buster Keaton, so these stars, who spoke only English, made their own foreign language films by learning their dialog phonetically, and using off-camera chalkboards to assist.
Until recently I'd seen only a handful of the Laurel & Hardy foreign releases, but happily an unexpected discovery in a Moscow archive in 2004 has brought a "new" comedy to light. Spuk um Mitternach was the German language version of two short films, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and Berth Marks, which were combined to make a featurette. Originally the running time was around 50 minutes or so, but unfortunately the rediscovered print is missing footage at the mid-point. Archivists at the Filmmuseum München have restored the film, and they chose to insert scenes from the American release, subtitled in German, to fill in the missing section. It's a little distracting, especially since we have to adjust to two different actors playing the same role, but I suppose this version (which runs about 38 minutes) will be the definitive one unless a complete print turns up. As it stands, and despite some vertical scratches in the image, the restored film is quite entertaining.
As in the familiar version of The L-H Murder Case this one begins at a pier where Stan is fishing while Ollie attempts to sleep. There's some typical visual comedy involving Ollie's hat getting snagged by Stan's hook, etc., all played in silence accompanied by jaunty music underneath. When a newspaper gets wrapped around Ollie's face, and he pulls it away to glance at it, the plot proper kicks in. There's a notice saying that a man in Chicago named Ebeneezer Laurel has died, leaving three million dollars. As the boys discuss this matter in their odd-sounding German we hear a joke that isn't found in the American version: Ollie asks Stan about his relatives, and Stan says he has an uncle at the university in Berlin. Ollie asks if he's a professor, and Stan replies No, he's in a glass jar! (That probably got a big laugh from the Berliners.) The guys decide to travel to Chicago to collect Stan's inheritance, and what follows is a section from the 1929 short Berth Marks, set on a train.
Interestingly, the transition from the 'Murder Case' plot to the material from Berth Marks was specially filmed for the foreign releases: it's an entirely new scene in which Stan and Ollie explain the purpose of their journey to the train conductor. (In Spuk im Mitternacht the conductor is played by character actor Otto Fries, who was fluent in German.) Viewers familiar with Berth Marks will notice right away that the boys are NOT carrying the big bass fiddle that was central to the plot of that film, but which was written out of this one. The scene in the cramped berth which follows is essentially the same as the familiar one, except that Ollie's repeated admonitions to stop crowding are in a different language. Stan weeps with frustration, but doesn't speak otherwise. Frankly I never found this routine very funny in the first place, but hearing Babe Hardy deliver his lines this way is amusing in itself. Incidentally, although Ollie is definitely speaking German in the close-ups, in the medium shots when the boys are climbing up into their berth it appears that his voice was overdubbed onto takes from the American version.
The arrival at the spooky Laurel mansion marks the point where footage is missing, i.e. the exposition scene when detective Fred Kelsey announces to the assembled relatives that he believes Ebeneezer Laurel was murdered, and they're all suspects; as noted above, in the restored version this missing sequence has been replaced with a subtitled (and truncated) version of the familiar one. When Stan and Ollie arrive the German footage resumes, which means that the detective who confronts them is played not by Fred Kelsey but by Lucien Prival, wearing an identical costume and speaking German. It's a little jarring, but we adjust. And from that point onward we encounter all the familiar bits from The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (the black cat dashing across the bed, the bat in the pillowcase, etc.) with minimal deviation, mainly because so much of the dialog consists of exclamations of "Aaaaaugh!" No need for translation, there! Notably however, the moment when the butler leaves the boys alone in their bedroom marks a key moment in the team's screen history, for this was the first occasion Ollie turned to Stan and said: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" One good reason for fans to track down Spuk im Mitternacht is to hear this immortal line rendered in German.
Obviously this film is a specialty item, and not something everybody will want to see, but for Laurel & Hardy buffs it's a real treat. Even if a complete print is never discovered what's been found and restored is fascinating and great fun to experience.
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