During World War II, American moviegoers were flooded with endless propaganda films produced by the federal government in association with major Hollywood talent. Some of these films, such as Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series and documentaries including “The Memphis Belle” and “The Battle of San Pietro,” have become classics and can still inspire a host of emotions for their artistry and daring.
Then, at the far end of the propaganda spectrum, is an inane 1943 one-reel movie made by the Forestry Division of the Department of Agriculture to celebrate wood-related products. The film is called “The Tree in a Test Tube” and it would have probably been completely forgotten except for the unlikely stars of this endeavor: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in their only surviving color film.
“The Tree in a Test Tube” was not originally intended to wave the flag and inspire moviegoers to kick Hitler in the Axis. Production actually began prior to the American entry into the war and the film was planned solely as a non-theatrical educational film release. Why Laurel and Hardy were cast is not known; perhaps the Forestry Service imagined people would pay more attention to the subject of wood’s versatility if the comedy team were on hand to have some fun with a decidedly unfunny subject.
Very little effort seems to have gone into the Laurel and Hardy footage. In fact, their input was captured in a single Saturday afternoon in late November of 1941 on the 20th Century Fox backlot; the studio had no involvement in this production beyond allowing the Forest Service camera crew to film there for one day. The lackadaisical environment surrounding their performances was so pronounced that the comics didn’t bother wearing make-up. Aside from their trademark derbies, they were also wearing their own clothing (Laurel’s daughter Lois Laurel-Hawkes would later recognize the raincoat her father wore for this movie). Even stranger was the team’s lack of dialogue. For their time on screen, Laurel and Hardy performed entirely in pantomime response to a pre-recorded narration by Pete Smith, a caustic commentator who had a popular series of short films during this period.
But the weirdest thing about “The Tree in a Test Tube” was the fact it was shot in color. Almost all non-theatrical releases of that era were made in black and white, but this film was photographed in 16mm Kodachrome. This was the second and last time Laurel and Hardy appeared in a color film. Their first color flick was the 1930 musical “The Rogue Song,” but no extant print of that film is known to exist. Thus, this is the sole surviving Laurel and Hardy color movie.
And what a movie! “The Tree in a Test Tube” has narrator Smith stopping Laurel and Hardy as they walk down the street carrying suitcases. Smith asks if they were aware of the number of articles they possessed that were made of wood. Laurel and Hardy pull out items from their pockets and then from the suitcase, and nearly everything has a wood genesis. Some are fairly obvious (newspapers, matchbook, pipe) and others are not (wallets made of imitation leather–wood product called cellulose acetate–fountain pens and eyeglasses made from plastic–60% of plastic is wood flour). Laurel and Hardy wind up offering the camera everything for display, from Hardy’s oversized underwear to a pair of stockings pulled out Laurel’s wallet (belonging to Mrs. Laurel–don’t worry, Stan and Ollie did not experiment in alternative lifestyles).
Throughout the course of the exchange, Smith repeatedly insults Laurel and Hardy by calling them “mugs” and “kiddies” and refers to the belongings as “junk.” The duo, in turn, try to act cute by making coy faces and engaging in silly gestures (Stan pretends to cut his finger on a razo, Ollie knocks on Stan’s head to see if it is wooden). At the end of this lesson, the duo put their suitcases on a bumper of a car which abruptly drives off. They run after the vehicle and narrator Smith chuckles: “Oh well, they need the exercise any way.”
A week after this was filmed, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and American life changed. So did “A Tree in a Test Tube,” which was put on hold and then brought back with a new mission to show how lumber can help American win the war. A different narrator (Lee Vickers) abruptly picks up where Laurel and Hardy left off and begins to harass the viewer with a booming and unintentionally funny vision that research laboratories were finding new uses for wood to aid in the war effort and the postwar peace. Mentions of Valley Forge, San Juan Hill, Chateau-Thierry and Pearl Harbor are inexplicably raised and then the “men at the forest product laboratories” are praised as being “the men behind the men behind the guns.” Incredibly, all of this plus Laurel and Hardy took up a compact seven minutes running time.
“The Tree in a Test Tube” was released for non-theatrical viewing in 1943; whether it played theatrically is not certain and no 35mm prints are known to exist. After its unheralded release, the film was promptly forgotten until historian Richard W. Bann unearthed the film in 1967. The Department of Agriculture was bombarded with requests from movie buffs to see the hitherto unknown Laurel and Hardy movie. Up until the early 1980s, the department made a tidy profit by selling new prints made from the original negative to 16mm collectors.
Unfortunately, some of these collectors turned around and created bootlegged dupe negatives which they, in turn, used to make pirated prints for sale on the 16mm market. This was not a legal problem, since “The Tree in a Test Tube” was a public domain title, but it was an artistic mess since the bootlegs were printed in Eastmancolor, a decidedly inferior process, rather than the original and more expensive Kodachrome. The bootlegged prints were easy to spot: the colors were faded, musty and downright ugly. And as luck would have it, those bootlegged prints were used on videos issued by collector-to-collector labels (which often had no interest in preserving visual quality) and also in TV syndication of programming consisting of wartime propaganda films.
“The Tree in a Test Tube” is no more than a curio in the Laurel and Hardy canon, but thanks to bootleggers the film is a chore to watch because the quality of the bootlegged prints is atrocious. Since it is only a one-reel public domain title, no one has any interest in paying to fully restore the movie and present it in its original crisp Kodachrome format. Thus, we are stuck with Stan and Ollie and a lot of wood by-products in grimy, grain, pirated color. Talk about being in another fine mess!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE”
- THE STAN LAUREL COLLECTION (DVD)
- THE JOURNEY TO “ATOLL K”
- FILM THREAT’S TOP 10 LOST FILMS
- LAUREL AND HARDY FILM MARATHON
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