Let’s get the most obvious debit out of the way first. It’s well-documented that during the filming of Utopia (also known as Atoll K), Stan Laurel was sicker than he’d ever been before or since. So do a bit of Stanley-like white magic while watching this, and keep reminding yourself that that guy on the screen is a comic genius and not just some sickly old man whom Ollie keeps batting around. After repeating this formula, you can just about convince yourself.
Even in his feeble state, Stan comes up with more miraculous comedy than should be expected from this sorry movie. It takes a long time to come, but when a full-fledged comedy routine finally pops up–Stan unknowingly feeding a stowaway with his own dinner–he pulls some superb pantomime. And when he gets accidentally knocked out in the film’s climax, the dazed look and akimbo body show what he could still do. It makes one long for the L&H fairy-tale pastiches that Stan had planned to film for TV before ill health finally did him in.
Indeed, the opening scene, where Stan inherits his late uncle’s fortune and then gets the majority of it swallowed up by taxes, offers some amusement and hope for things to come. After that, though, it takes a long time for anything remotely funny to happen on-screen. When Stan and Ollie are inspecting their ramshackle boat, the comedy is so sparse that Stan, in an unprecedented move for his screen character, actually resorts to making a crack about Ollie’s weight. And you think to yourself, When did they import the 20th Century-Fox writers for this movie?
By the time Stan and Ollie have finally made it to their deserted island, they’ve been saddled with a stowaway, a “stateless man,” and a supposed femme fatale who comes off more like the female version of Bob Bailey. From here on in, the film looks and plays as though your kids were doing a summer-project version of a Laurel & Hardy comedy. (Every time the movie wants to depict a vicious storm, it shows some waves floating around in slow-motion in a tank. Back to Lake Laurel & Hardy for re-takes, everyone!) And the movie takes its pedestrian attempt at political satire far too seriously, considering that President Ollie is willing to let some major cutthroats onto the island before deciding to enact some actual laws.
Then there’s that narrator. Hard to believe it’s Paul Frees, who went on to greater fame as a cartoon voice-over specialist and narrator of the intentionally funny cartoon series “George of the Jungle.” If I had to hear him say “Our two heroes…” one more time, I would have stranded him on a desert island.
(Oh yeah, and there’s that priceless moment where the cook offers Stan and Ollie some wine, followed by a horribly intercut shot of the cook reaching for a bottle of Welch’s Grape Juice. And Stan Laurel used to get mad when his old comedies were used to sell alcohol on TV!)
Like the proverbial train wreck, Utopia offers enough morbid fascination to be viewed at least once. Then go on to a re-run of Helpmates, where Stan and Ollie’s plight is enough to make you laugh, not cry.
Here’s a link to the entire movie, if you can bear to watch it. (Don’t pay attention to the opening credit. Someone with a perverse sense of humor stole the “Hal Roach Presents” credit from Block-Heads and tacked it on to the front of this print.)