Laurel and Hardy in Spanish and French? Just try translating "Laughing Gravy" to get a laugh

In one of his lifemanship books, Stephen Potter recommends that if the person next to you on a plane asks what you're reading, if you have a newspaper you should reply: "Do you read your press cuttings?" Or, if you have a book: "Proust. In Spanish. Much funnier."

Well, this week I was watching Laurel and Hardy in both Spanish and French. Ho-hum, you say, or whatever kids say nowadays. Who cares about a couple of old dubbed films? But they were not dubbed. It's more interesting than that. A bit more interesting.

One of the consequences of the digital revolution is the staggeringly increased capacity to make information available. CDs contain more information than LPs; DVDs contain more information than videotapes; and the Internet contains more information than everything else put together. This is my continuing problem with using the net as a source of information. Using it, I feel like someone who asks for a glass of water and has Niagara Falls poured over his head.

I recently bought a DVD that contains two Laurel and Hardy shorts, Be Big and Laughing Gravy (the latter is one of their best films, in which they try, disastrously, to conceal a dog - called Laughing Gravy - from their landlord). But the disc also features versions of the films that were prepared for the Spanish and French market - and these are really weird. One of the many great things about silent movies is that they could be shown anywhere in the world with just a few trivial changes to the captions. But what could they do with sound films?

I have been a fan of Laurel and Hardy for most of my life, but until I got this DVD I had never heard of the bizarre idea that their producer, Hal Wallis, had for dealing with this problem. No redubbing or anything technically complicated like that. He shot versions of the films in Spanish and French. This was not as difficult to do as you might think. There were almost no other actors, and the only two other characters who had much to say were replaced in the other versions by Spanish and French speakers. Obviously, Laurel and Hardy did not know either language, but they learnt the lines or read them off cue cards.

The result is one of the strangest things I have ever seen on screen. Partly it shows what great troupers they were. Oliver Hardy, in particular, is delicately different in style playing the same scene with three very different actresses. The line I always remember from Laughing Gravy comes when the landlord throws the dog out into the snow and Laurel starts to cry "Poor little Laughing Gravy". In the French version this becomes, wonderfully, "pauvre petite Sauce Qui Rit".

Watching these unexpected remnants is weirdly, improbably entrancing, and it is hard to think of anything comparable. In the early days when the Beatles did what the moneymen told them to do, they re-recorded a couple of their hits for the German market. Volume one of their "Past Masters" compilation features "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand" and "Sie Liebt Dich" (I'll leave the translation to my cosmopolitan readers). And there is a delightful scene at the end of Woody Allen's recreation of the Hollywood musical form, Everyone Says I Love You, in which a Marx Brothers song from Animal Crackers is performed in French.

The DVD also includes yet another lost bit of Laurel and Hardy. The version of Laughing Gravy that I knew ended with the landlord evicting the pair when a policeman appears and tells them that the house is under quarantine and nobody can leave for three months. The landlord shoots himself. Originally, however, there was a long scene in which Laurel and Hardy separately consider leaving the other. The scene was presumably cut because it was not funny enough, but I wonder if there wasn't something else as well. There was something almost eerily unproblematic about these two men who lived together, slept in the same bed and, in one film, even adopted a baby. In this cut scene, Laurel is as childlike as ever, but Hardy - always much the greater actor - is almost too raw in his sense of jealousy and betrayal.

One part of growing up is when you look back at relationships with new eyes: Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in their cosy rooms in Baker Street; Bruce Wayne (alias Batman) and his "ward", Dick Grayson (alias Robin). Ward indeed. And I don't even want to get started on Biggles, Algy and Ginger's menage a trois.