Here's another fine mess Hollywood's gotten itself into: Without the help of a single Ouija board, some long-dead comics may be headed back to a movie screen near you.
In the works are new slapstick adventures starring the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers--or more accurately, actors assuming their likenesses, thanks to filmmakers and family members who are convinced the comics' personas are enough to power new motion pictures.
With a long-running Three Stooges lawsuit finally resolved, Columbia Pictures is now developing a feature based on the trio with the blessing and partial involvement of several Stooge relatives.
Former Bozo the Clown Larry Harmon, who owns the copyright on the images of Laurel and Hardy, is writing a new movie tale around the duo with director John R. Cherry III (veteran of the Jim Varney "Ernest" series). And fresh from depicting David Letterman and Jay Leno in the HBO movie "The Late Shift," producer Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Dave") is toiling on a "new" Marx Brothers movie.
In an era of unexpurgated, in-your-face comedy, why the rush to invest millions in re-creating a more innocent style of humor? Most parties involve cite the enduring--and international--appeal of the characters.
"We can't bring you the real Laurel and Hardy," says Cherry, who's developing the $20-million independent feature, called "Jungle Bungle." "What we can bring you is the good clean fun, the love between these two poor guys on the bottom of the heap."
Harmon, who befriended Stan Laurel in the late 1950s and who acquired the character rights a few years later, admits Laurel was opposed to other actors playing the duo, sanctioning only an animated series Harmon produced.
But Harmon says Laurel did give permission for a skit on TV's "Dick Van Dyke Show," featuring the show's eponymous star as Stan. Soon after, "I could hardly get into his apartment," Harmon recalls. "The whole living room was stacked with hundreds of letters from all over the country. And he was thrilled to think people still loved him."
Three Stooges heirs and executors can cite a more recent precedent for the launching of a new Stooge feature. A live stage show based on the trio has been a hit at Las Vegas' MGM Grand for the last three years.
"When we first made the presentation, MGM was overwhelmed how much the actors looked and acted like the Stooges," show producer Fred Moch says. "And audiences love the show. They accept the characters as imitators of the Stooges; it really captures their spirit."
But all those interviewed say that imitating a comedian is one thing; reproducing their timing and style on-screen is another. "The most important thing is to find two very funny people who relate to each other, not just good actors," says Harmon, who says he has Tom Hanks and John Goodman on his Stan-and-Ollie wish list, although they emphasize casting is at a preliminary stage. (In an effort to soften comparisons to the original, the film script identifies its lead characters as the nephews of Laurel and Hardy.)
Like last year's hit "Brady Bunch" feature, the Harmon project will transport its characters into the 1990s, with the Stooge film probably doing the same--though both movies' makers insist they won't include concessions to the cruder tone of many modern comedies.
Still, at least one classic comedy buff says he won't be in the audience. John Duff is a Universal Studios film editor who heads the Los Angeles "tent" of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy fan club.
"You can't recapture the innocence of the originals, or the chemistry," explains Duff, who says he also avoided Universal's recent movie of "The Little Rascals." "The films are still out on videotape, film, American Movie Classics, the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax. How can anybody improve on them?"
Past attempts to re-create comedians on-screen have usually been in earnest biographical films that with one exception ("Lenny," the Lenny Bruce bio) sparked less than uproarious box office.
The casualties include 1992's "Chaplin," 1989's "Wired" with Michael Chiklis as John Belushi, 1976's "W.C. Fields and Me" starring Rod Steiger and 1957's "The Buster Keaton Story," with Donald O'Connor as the Great Stoneface.
But Harmon insists the worldwide appeal of the late duo is no laughing matter. "For four decades, people have not been able to go to a theater and see a Laurel and Hardy picture. Millions around the world don't know them from the cinema. Wouldn't you want to see them in wide screen and Dolby?"
Meanwhile, director Cherry has his own, less rhetorical thoughts on the challenge that lies ahead: "If anybody has a good idea for casting . . . call me."