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Laurel & Hardy in Color

Updated on January 20, 2012

Shortly after the motion picture was invented there were attempts to produce color movies. First by hand dying the individual film frames, then by the 1890s experimental film processes that recreated limited color. Technicolor was invented in 1916 and became the industry standard for several decades. But it would not be until the late 1950s that the film industry began to shift completely to color. Up til then all color film processes were seen as an extra expense and only applied to major releases with most films still being shot on cheaper black & white film stock. But with the arrival of television followed by color television the film industry had no choice but to make the expensive upgrade. By the 1970s black & white films were rarely made.

Prior to the '50s and even as late as the mid '60s studios refused to release any comedies in color, not seeing them as major releases even when their stars were major box office draws. One example was Abbott and Costello who after saving Universal Studios from bankruptcy with their hit films, still needed to go outside the studio to self produce their only two color movies. Most of the classic screen comedians, such as The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges and W.C. Fields, have either only appeared in black & white films, or only appeared in less than a handful of color productions. For Laurel & Hardy fans it was always assumed that they had only appeared in one color movie, 1932's M.G.M. musical Rogue Song where they served as the comedy relief. That film was considered lost since the 1950s, and so it was believed no color Laurel & Hardy movies still existed.

Rogue Song was one of those major releases that warranted Technicolor. Laurel and Hardy were cast after the film was completed. Studio head Irving Thalberg felt that the movie was a bit too dark and in need of comedy relief to lighten things up, so scenes were created for Laurel & Hardy that could easily be edited into the existing movie. This seems to have worked. Rogue Song was a box office hit worldwide. But that did not prevent it from becoming a lost film a couple of decades later, the only evidence of it's existence being black and white publicity photos, and with it any hope of ever finding any color picture of Laurel and Hardy together. Technically though, Laurel & Hardy did appear in two more M.G.M. movies listed as color. Occasionally to save money studios would release films where only some reels were color, the rest in black & white. Hollywood Review of 1929 was yet another M.G.M. movie that Laurel & Hardy were cast in after it had initially been completed. Once again Thalberg felt that the movie needed more comedy, and Laurel & Hardy were brought in to shoot a scene that would be edited into the completed film. Hollywood Review of 1929 had reels filmed in Technicolor, including the grand finale where the entire cast returned to sing, but not Laurel & Hardy who would not join the film until after these scenes were filmed. Thalberg also asked Laurel and Hardy to appear in Hollywood Party (1933), a film that also included a Walt Disney cartoon short called Hot Choc'lit Soldiers. Disney insisted on filming his cartoon in color, so for that single reel the film changes to Technicolor.

It was not as if Hal Roach did not want to release a Laurel & Hardy film in color. in 1934 Roach planned to film Babes in Toyland in Technicolor, but could not convince distributor M.G.M. to spend the money on color prints. Rumors persist that Swiss Miss (1937) had been filmed in color and inevitably distributed in black & white, although no evidence of this has as yet surfaced. Roach did plan for the movie to be shot in color, but once again M.G.M. was not interested. By the time Roach found a distributor willing to release his films in Technicolor, Laurel and Hardy had left the studio. They would move on to 20th Century Fox who also had no interest in spending money on Technicolor comedies. During the '80s Roach finally had the opportunity to release Laurel & Hardy films in color, using the controversial process called Colorization. Here a computer program was able to add some colors over black & white motion pictures, and for the first time many Laurel & Hardy features including Babes in Toyland appeared in color.

But for true color footage of Laurel and Hardy, there was the rediscovery of a little known color industrial film from 1941 called Tree in a Test Tube. Given a limited release and quickly forgotten, the short features Laurel & Hardy unpacking their suitcase to show the films narrator all the household products made from wood or wood byproducts. Rediscovered by Richard Bann in 1967 it quickly became the only known color footage of Laurel and Hardy, that is until Stan Laurel's daughter released home movies of her father and Hardy that were shot in color. More recently a film fragment from Rogue Song featuring Laurel & Hardy has been discovered allowing for at least a half minute of color footage of the duo from that movie.

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