BERLIN – Laurel and Hardy (search), masters of foreign languages?
German film historians have tracked a long-lost copy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's early sound work to an archive in Moscow housing a 1931 film the comedy duo performed entirely in German, the Munich Film Museum (search) said Monday.
But lest anyone get too impressed, Germans who have seen clips from the film are far more approving of the comedy — some of it unintentional — than by the pair's accents.
"It's important as a curiosity," said Klaus Volkmer, a spokesman for the Munich Film Museum, which discovered the film. "You can't actually understand what they say. It's funny."
The mismatched team shot their 1930s films first in English, then reshot them with the same dialogue translated into German, French and Spanish — which they spoke phonetically — because it was so difficult to synchronize voices and actions in the early days of the talkies.
It is an artifact from the early years of Hollywood, when such stars as Greta Garbo (search), Edward G. Robinson and Buster Keaton would act their films in several languages to be shown around the world.
The German-language film, "Spuk um Mitternacht" ("Ghost at Midnight"), is pieced together from two other Laurel and Hardy shorter films, "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" and "Berth Marks," the Munich museum said.
It will have three showings in Germany — Aug. 14 in Bonn and two at the Munich Film Museum on Oct. 26 and 27.
The movie was billed as the first German-language talkie when it premiered in Berlin, complete with a visit by the pair, on May 5, 1931.
They were known as "Dick und Doof" ("Fat and Dumb") in their original incarnations in Germany, and were immensely popular. That acclaim has continued in Germany and the rest of Europe, far more so than in their homeland, said Wolfgang Guenther, who runs the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Solingen with his wife.
"I'm getting e-mails from all over the world from people who want to see the film," he said.
"Laurel and Hardy are the most important film comedy pair, especially in Europe," Guenther said. "They were always human. They always remained friends."
The two were first paired up in 1927, and went on to make more than 100 films together, with round, bossy Hardy frequently reducing dim Laurel to childlike tears. Hardy, a Georgia native, died in 1957; Laurel, who was born in England, died in 1965.
The surviving print runs 31 minutes and is missing some scenes, including one set in a train sleeping car and one in a haunted house. The Munich museum, which retrieved the film from Moscow, expects to restore it to its full 40-minute length and make it available for future screenings and a DVD release.
The film's jokes were translated, but the German version included special references. In one sequence, Laurel boasts that his uncle is at the medical facility of the University of Berlin — though he has to acknowledge, not as a professor, but "preserved in a bottle with alcohol."
The duo mostly worked from cue cards and just had "a little German in their heads," Guenther said.
"Their German is really broken," he said. "That's the laugh effect. They didn't know German at all."