"Flying Deuces" and "Utopia" are among Laurel and Hardy's later films. Indeed, "Utopia" is the very last of their feature films together. These films are also unique because they were NOT produced by Hal Roach, who first teamed them back in 1926 for a series of short films.
In 1939, Laurel and Hardy's future with independent producer Hal Roach had become increasingly uncertain. Roach had moved into more sophisticated films including the "Topper" series and even "One Million B.C.," which was partially directed by the legendary D.W. Griffith. Roach, who had admired the comic talents of Laurel and Hardy, complained that he had more than his share of confrontations with Stan Laurel, who was the real brain behind most of the Laurel and Hardy films.
Laurel and Hardy only made two more films for Hal Roach after "Flying Deuces": "A Chump at Oxford" and "Saps At Sea." They then formed their own production company, only to find themselves working for 20th Century Fox and MGM, who limited their creative freedom and put them into second features with rising young stars. Laurel and Hardy often found themselves as the comic relief in lightweight romantic stories. The big studios tended to recycle Laurel and Hardy gags that had worked in the past, while also trying to modernize Laurel and Hardy's onscreen appearances. The films released between 1941 and 1945 were generally disappointing, except for some of the scenes in "Jitterbugs," one of their 20th Century Fox films.
However, "Flying Deuces" is generally a very entertaining film. It was released in 1939 by RKO. Although RKO was a big studio, Laurel and Hardy were given considerable freedom in developing the gags. The results are generally funny as Laurel and Hardy join the French Foreign Legion as Hardy tries to get over his unrequited love for a beautiful woman. They soon find themselves in very unpleasant and even dangerous situations since their commander (played by Charles Middleton, who was best known as the Emperor Ming in the "Flash Gordon" serials produced by Universal from 1936 to 1940) is a very stern and unrelenting man who is determined to maintain discipline at all costs. They soon decide they want no part of the Foreign Legion and try to desert, even using an airplane with disastrous results. RKO reportedly utilized sets for one of its big budget films, "Gunga Din," so the film has a big budget appearance at times.
"Utopia" proved to be Laurel and Hardy's final film. After the team's contracts with 20th Century Fox and MGM expired, Hardy appeared without Laurel in two feature films, Republic's "The Fighting Kentuckian" with John Wayne (as the Duke's sidekick) and Paramount's "Riding High" with Bing Crosby (in unbilled cameo as a gambler at the Tanforan racetrack).
The opportunity came for the team to work together with an international cast in France. The only real problem was language since many of the cast members did not understand each other. Laurel and Hardy had actually made foreign language versions of some of their early sound films for Hal Roach, in which they spoke their lines phonetically. This time it was determined they would only speak English and many of the others would be dubbed.
The premise of the film was that Laurel and Hardy have inherited a boat, which is not in the best shape and which subsequently drifts out to sea during a storm. They are shipwrecked on an island which has suddenly risen from the sea. They set up a virtual utopia, thinking they will lead a life of leisure. All goes well until uranium is discovered. Subsequently, many people want to come to the new island to share in the wealth and Laurel and Hardy find themselves facing increasing problems.
It all sounded quite promising until Stan Laurel became very ill. Consequently, production of the film was delayed for many months and it was about a year before it was finally completed. Production values were not very good and the practice of dubbing many of the supporting stars probably didn't help things. Due possibly to its director's uncertain political affiliations during the blacklist era, the film eventually saw very limited release in the U.S., mostly in a heavily edited version, and it was many years before the full length version became available.
The film is generally entertaining, even if it is not up to the best of the Laurel and Hardy films. It is certainly better than their films for 20th Century Fox and MGM. One of the bad things, of course, is Laurel's gaunt, frail appearance in many of the scenes. The quality of most surviving prints is rather disappointing since the film was not released by a major studio.
Remarkably, Laurel's health did improve and he was able to continue touring Europe with Oliver Hardy for a number of stage appearances until 1954. They even appeared on "This Is Your Life" in 1954. Then, Oliver Hardy's health deteriorated and Laurel had more problems. Plans for a series of television specials, to be filmed in color for NBC, were scrapped. Hardy died in 1957, ending all possibilities of their making any further films or appearing on television. Laurel lived until 1965, welcoming numerous fans and fellow comedians at his home in Santa Monica, California.
Both of these films are interesting to see because they are unlike any of the other Laurel and Hardy films. They certainly have a number of fine comic moments, too.