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Laurel and Hardy never looked so good: film fest unveils restorations of comedy classics




Screen grab from side-by-side comparison of restoration of
Screen grab from side-by-side comparison of restoration of "Their First Mistake"

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This weekend, the American Cinematheque is celebrating the masterful restoration of seminal comedy films.

The series, called "Another Nice Mess: The Restored Laurel and Hardy," screens a dozen shorts and two features, all restored from the original nitrate elements and cleaned digitally.

Side-by-side restoration comparison: "Their First Mistake"
 

It's the work of archivist Jeff Joseph, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress, which required painstaking reconstructions from elements found in diverse archives. You can read all about the restoration process here.

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel
Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel
Hal Roach Productions

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy pair made 107 films together between 1927 and 1950 and have inspired countless performers, including actor and comedian Mike McShane.

To McShane, best known for appearing in the British "Whose Line is it Anyway?," watching the duo is like getting an improv masters class: "They speak to me because of their specificity in movement and their handoff. Complimenting each other, making the other person look good, taking the backseat when you need to and then taking the front seat when you have to. That exchange keeps a duality in a performance relationship fresh."

I met McShane in Silver Lake...

KPCC's John Rabe and actor/improvisor Mike McShane, at the famous Music Box Stairs in Silverlake, where Laurel and Hardy filmed their Oscar winning short in 1932.
KPCC's John Rabe and actor/improvisor Mike McShane, at the famous Music Box Stairs in Silverlake, where Laurel and Hardy filmed their Oscar winning short in 1932.
John Rabe

... on the spot where Laurel and Hardy filmed one of the shorts being screened this weekend, "The Music Box."

A scene from
A scene from "The Music Box," starring Laurel and Hardy, filmed in Silverlake.
Hal Roach Studios

In "The Music Box," Laurel and Hardy are workmen facing a ridiculous task: Dragging a full-size piano up an endless flight of stairs. McShane says the bit has all the duo's hallmarks: "Diversion, collapse, mayhem, disappointment, anger, recrimination and just laugh-out-loud slapstick physical comedy."

Laurel and Hardy hold up when other comedy from the same era often doesn't, because their work compresses the entirety of human suffering into a few reels of black and white film. "The Music Box," McShane says,  "is Sisyphean in its scope. That's why Samuel Beckett was a huge fan of Laurel and Hardy.  It's existential candy."

Or you can just sit back and laugh.

"Another Nice Mess: The Restored Laurel and Hardy" runs Friday, May 6 through Sunday, May 8 at the American Cinematheque's Aero and Egyptian Theatres in Santa Monica and Hollywood. "The Music Box" screens Friday night at the Egyptian.