Alfred Hitchcock, Laurel & Hardy and Cutting-Edge Cinema

Battle of the Century-2a-680

The Telluride Film Festival is actually many festivals rolled into one. You can pursue world cinema and see the work of up-and-coming filmmakers, concentrate on documentaries, focus on revivals (including silent films with live musical accompaniment), or get the jump on the hottest films of the fall season. Making choices over the jam-packed Labor Day weekend event is always a challenge and this year was no exception.
Although I did see some high-profile films and got to interview director Danny Boyle onstage before a screening of his dazzling Steve Jobs, the two programs that meant the most to me were Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut and Serge Bromberg’s presentation of restored Chaplin and Keaton shorts, along with the world premiere of the long-lost Laurel and Hardy comedy The Battle of the Century. Everyone I spoke to who attended these shows agreed that they were highlights of the festival.

Serge Bromberg wears many hats: archivist, scholar, distributor, pianist, and showman. All were on display as he treated the audience at the Sheridan Opera House to meticulous restorations of Charlie Chaplin’s The Bank (1915) and Buster Keaton’s Daydreams (1922). He demonstrated how he and his colleagues compared multiple prints of each short in order to pick the best-looking shots—and sometimes the best frames—in order to achieve optimal results. He also treated us to recently discovered Keaton footage from The High Sign and Hard Luck.

Then came the pièce de resistance: the first public screening of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century (1927). Renowned for its epic pie fight, it became famous when Robert Youngson excerpted it in his landmark feature The Golden Age of Comedy (1958)…but that tantalizing extract was all that seemed to survive.

The Battle of the Century pie fightIn introducing Serge I explained that I almost made history with this film in 1976, when I was curating the Museum of Modern Art’s salute to American comedy. To my astonishment, I discovered that MoMA held a 35mm nitrate print of Battle’s first reel in its vaults. It was sitting there for years but no one realized it. I practically burst with excitement as I watched it and programmed it for a Sunday showing with other comedy shorts. But that Sunday the projectionist was fearful that a torn sprocket could ignite the highly flammable film. He refused to run it, which was his prerogative—but also a great disappointment. At least Reel One was now spoken for and subsequently preserved. 

Then, this summer, film collector Jon Mirsalis discovered the complete Reel Two among the titles he purchased from the Gordon Berkow estate—including prints he acquired from the collection of The Golden Age of Comedy’s producer, Robert Youngson. It seems Youngson struck at 16mm print for himself while he had access to the 35mm negative in the 1950s. 

There is still some missing footage from the end of Reel One in which Eugene Pallette sells Oliver Hardy accident insurance on his pal Stan Laurel. Years ago, Blackhawk Films covered this gap with a pair of stills and two title cards when they released the incomplete film on 16mm. 

Reel Two, however, is intact—and was well worth waiting a lifetime to see. Youngson chose the shots he liked best for his compilation feature and did a seamless job of editing, but the complete pie fight is longer and funnier. What a glorious comedy this is. (It’s also notable for its credentials—including supervisor Leo McCarey and cameraman George Stevens, both of whom went on to stellar filmmaking careers—and the incidental presence of a young Lou Costello in the front row of spectators at Stan Laurel’s prizefight.)

Seeing The Golden Age of Comedy at the age of 7 changed my life and sent me to the library to read everything I could about the silent film era. A decade later, the publication of Hitchcock/Truffaut had a similar impact on me and many other film buffs of my generation. This book-length conversation between the brilliant auteur François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock explored every film by the Master of Suspense in exquisite detail.

François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock-680Now, almost fifty years later, the man who collaborated with Martin Scorsese on the notable documentaries My Voyage to Italy and A Letter to Elia has made a heartfelt film about the Hitchcock-Truffaut enterprise. Kent Jones draws on the original audiotapes, Philippe Halsman’s photographs of their interview, and generous excerpts from Hitchcock’s films. He then enhances this raw material with articulate observations from some of today’s leading directors who grew up with that influential book, including David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, James Gray, and Scorsese, among others. The result is a joyous experience for any movie lover, especially if you love Hitchcock. It’s also heartening to know that so many of today’s finest filmmakers carry a deep knowledge of (and appreciation for) Hitchcock’s work with them.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, written by Jones and Serge Toubiana, will have a long life, I’m sure, following its film festival exposure and theatrical release. Coproduced by Cohen Media, it will undoubtedly be released on DVD and Blu-ray and become required viewing, just as the book that inspired it has become a standard work. A filmmaker friend who saw the documentary at Telluride told me that it fired him up to start working on a new script, right away.
That’s the beauty of the Telluride Film Festival. It’s not a marketplace or a paparazzi haven: it’s a magnet for movie lovers of all stripes, including moviemakers. Later this week I’ll share some of my snapshots and thoughts about some of the contemporary films I saw, when I wasn’t caught up in the beauty of that Rocky Mountain village.

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July 2024