Friday, August 5, 2016

CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON: Hal Roach and The "Lot" of Fun


Hal Roach
January 14, 1892 - November 2, 1992

When Horace Greeley, in an 1865 editorial, exhorted the young men of America to "go west", generations took it to heart.  Hal Roach left his hometown of Elmira, New York and worked as a wrangler and as a gold prospector in Alaska.  However, it was in California that Roach would realize his dreams of success and in a relatively new industry - motion pictures.

Of the many attempting to get a foothold in the burgeoning world of films, there was a young man named Harold Lloyd who came to California with his father and brother to get into the acting game.  Harold was stricken with stage fever and had appeared in stock companies until financial security issues forced him to look to the movies.  At the Universal lot he met a fellow "extra" in Hal Roach.  Roach's ability to ride had given him an "in" for the many westerns the studio produced.


Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach

Hal didn't remain an extra for long at Universal.  He was promoted to assistant director which opened his eyes to the many functions of a studio and the possibilities of success for an enterprising young man.  He formed the Rolin Film Company in 1914 in partnership with Dan Linthicum, a fellow actor.  During that first year the firm released four short comedies directed by Roach and featuring his friends including Harold Lloyd.  Harold at this time still considered himself a serious actor, but obliged Roach with a foray into slapstick comedy from which he would never leave.




At this time Roach became associated with film distributor Pathe, an uneasy teaming that would last until 1927. The French firm initially turned down the product from Rolin, but expressed an interest in the work of Harold Lloyd who at the time appeared as a character named Willie Work.  Eventually, his Chaplin-like Lonesome Luke would be a winner for Rolin and for Pathe.



In the second half of the decade Hollywood solidified itself as the centre of the movie business.  Roach longed to make features and every sort of film, but was finding his comedies to be his most successful product.  Lonesome Luke and Harold Lloyd had really taken off.  Comedians such as Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle and Lloyd were creating their own personas and improving the quality of their pictures with plot and characterization.  Shorts still ruled the screen with the public demanding more and better.  With Lloyd as his star and distribution assured, at least for his comedies, Roach set about creating a studio and a standardized process.  Roach also determined that the public was tiring of the purely slapstick so he, his directors and stars moved into more character-based comedy.  Hal Roach took pride in the quality of product they presented to the public.  He took equal pride in providing a working environment that brought out the best in all.  Early rental spaces for the Lot included Santa Monica Boulevard, Olive Street and the Bradbury Mansion on Court Street.  In 1920 they would find a permanent home in Culver City.



By this time Harold Lloyd, the most successful actor in the stable, was anxious to exert more control over his screen persona.  "The glasses character" was waiting to be born and would not be put off.  It took a while to take the edge off the initially hyperactive fellow, but he struck a chord with the audience.


Harold's 1919 accident with a prop bomb which caused facial burns and the loss of part of his hand and thumb meant a long convalescence.  The studio was particularly dependent on Harold's output, but in backup Roach began a series starring Snub Pollard.  He also signed Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, who was part of Lloyd's stock company.  The African-American child actor got into show business through his father who worked on the crew of film companies.  A happy, non-crying baby (hence the nickname "Sunshine") was a boon for filmmakers.  A standout in the Lloyd films, "Sunshine Sammy" received top billing in Roach pictures and was the first of the "Our Gang" kids to be signed.  Later he performed in Vaudeville, was part of the Step Brothers, the East Side Kids and led a band.  A soldier in WW2, he eventually found work in military plants after leaving show business. 

Harold Lloyd returned with perfect autonomy over his product and after successful features such as Grandma's Boy and A Sailor-Made Man, Lloyd and Roach split company, on friendly terms, in 1923.  Harold was now his own boss.  It was a double-edged sword for Roach not having the successful franchise and its profits under his banner, but now could spread his wings for the dramatic features he always envisioned.  However, the movie Fates seemed to want Hal to stick to comedies.



The next successful series for the studio was Our Gang.  Hal would often regale people with the story that one day he watched a group of kids playing in a lot and fighting over a stick.  He realized that he was fascinated with watching the interactions and - well, really, who wouldn't?  Our Gang was born, although their original title was Hal Roach's Rascals.  Roach, director Robert F. McGowan and writer Tom McNamara set about casting the series.  They already had "Sunshine Sammy" and added Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon and Joe Cobb.  The popular series would last for years with younger actors transitioning into the gang as older cast members "aged out".  Over the years fans would meet Mary Ann Jackson, Jean Darling, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins and Harry Spear.



Pete the Pup, an American Pit Bull Terrier joined in the fun.  In the talkie era audiences met Norman "Chubby" Chaney, Dorothy DeBorba, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Donald Haines and future Oscar nominee Jackie Cooper.  George "Spanky" McFarland was only three years old when he joined the group.  Scotty Beckett and Dickie Moore spent time in the gang.  In 1935 Darla Hood, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer and Eugene "Porky" Lee became stalwarts and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas took a larger role in the fun.

The series remained popular, but shorts weren't the money-maker they once were and late in the 1930s Roach considered putting an end to the series.  However, his distributor at the time, MGM, offered to buy out the series including all rights in 1938.  Roach made the deal and refocused his studio to features only.  MGM, with its glossy production values and prim view of American life, took the heart right out the freewheeling Our Gang.


Unable to find that one big star to build the studio around in the 1920s Roach took the ensemble approach producing the Roach Comedy All-Stars:  Charley Chase, James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy,  Oliver Hardy, Max Davidson, Clyde Cook, Mae Busch, Anita Garvin, Eugene Pallette, Edgar Kennedy, Noah Young, and Stan Laurel.  Somewhat faded stars such as Mabel Normand and Theda Bara would appear, along with Lionel Barrymore whose career was in transition at the time.  Something magical was about to happen at the Roach "Lot of Fun".


English-born Vaudevillian Stan Laurel had been trying to break into films as a performer for sometime.  Circumstances, opportunities and lack of a focused individual characterization had been constant obstacles in his path.  Eventually he ended up working at Roach Studios as a gag man and he had found his niche.  While working out gags for others and learning about directing film Stan found a true sense of purpose and happiness.

"There just wasn't a nicer job in the world than getting together with a great bunch of people and working your whole day so you could make people laugh, thousands of people to laugh.  I used to love going there every morning, and at night I always hated to leave."
- Stan Laurel


Georgia-born Oliver Hardy entered the movie business via Florida and New York City.  By the 1920s he was a stalwart in the Hollywood picture business as a reliable heavy or comic, and well-known scene-stealer.  He was one of Roach's All-Stars at the time Stan was phasing out the performing part of his career to concentrate on behind-the scene activities.  When a kitchen accident prevented Oliver from appearing as a butler in the 1926 production Get 'Em Young, Stan, with a raise in pay, was prevailed upon to put his mug in front of the camera once again.

Both Stan and Oliver were important components of the All-Star ensemble, but there was no bolt of lightning that paired the two.  It was a natural progression of appearing in a films here and there, such as 45 Minutes from Broadway in 1926 to Duck Soup in 1927 (based on a skit written by Stan's father) when everyone at the studio, even the actors themselves, started to accept that here was indeed a team.


Hal Roach, Leo McCarey

Hal Roach's assistant, Leo McCarey became obsessed with the fellows.  Everywhere he looked he saw story opportunities for the dimwitted, yet likable pair of characters that Stan and Ollie were creating.  The future three time Oscar winner wrote, produced and/or directed many of the shorts that made Laurel and Hardy immortal including Putting Pants on Philip, Two Tars, Big Business, Blotto and Liberty.  Before anyone realized it, audiences and exhibitors knew that the Roach All-Stars had found genuine stars in Laurel and Hardy.


The advent of sound or talking pictures was no impediment to the popular team or to Our Gang.  Roach also had popular stars like Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly under contract.  Previously silent pictures had no barrier to foreign markets.  Learning or reading their lines phonetically displayed on a chalkboard, and with different supporting casts, Laurel and Hardy remade their shorts for Spanish, German, French and Italian audiences.  This expensive, and I'm sure tiring, experiment did not last long, but perpetually endeared the stars to their worldwide fans.

Although not credited as a director on the Laurel and Hardy films, Stan was always the welcome support to James Parrott, James Horne, Leo McCarey, etc.  He knew the characters, he knew gags, he knew what worked.  The staff would preview the films within an inch of their lives, timing the laughs so they could edit to the second.  Quality tells.

The sheen was coming off the short film products as the 1930s wore on.  Animated cartoons began filling that slot in a movie night lineup.  Hal Roach moved into more feature productions, even for the masters of the short film, Laurel and Hardy.  Roach had longed to make this move for sometime.  His features of the 1920s, westerns and adventures, did not have the backing of his distributors nor the success of the shorter films.  Laurel and Hardy's features are a mixed bag.  Some of the feel of being padded the extra reels while others are classics from Babes in Toyland to Way Out West to Sons of the Desert.  Stan and Oliver, always under separate contracts to Roach, had decided to leave the studio in search of greener pastures which they would not find at Twentieth Century Fox or MGM.  Stan would later admit that it was a mistake.  Whatever issues with money or credit or interference that Stan and Hal had run into, at least Roach had always let the boys have their way.



Hal Roach, Jr.

So too are Roach's non L&H features a mixed bag, but any movie buff is sure to find a favourite from among Topper, Turnabout, One Million B.C. and Of Mice and Men.  Shortsightedly, after purchasing  the rights to Of Mice and Men from John Steinbeck, Roach turned down an option on The Grapes of Wrath.  The competition between the two motion picture versions would not work to the Roach Studio's advantage.  One Million B.C. has co-directing credits for Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., who was stepping into his father's shoes at the company, and a good thing too.  For Hal Roach Sr. was about to be drafted!  Exempted from WWI as an employee at Rolin, Roach accepted a commission into the Signal Corps. during the 1920s.  He had resigned shortly before the 1940s, but a clause of calling up members during an emergency saw the 50-year-old Hal Roach denied a deferment and transferred to the Signal Corps. base in Astoria where he ran the studio long distance.  The studio at this time made its money mostly from renting the space, catalogue availability and the loan out of valuable properties in Patsy Kelly and William Bendix.

After the war Hal Roach Jr. brought the studio into television production for syndication.  Like his father, this Hal seemed to have a sense of where the industry was going and what the audience would accept.  My Little Margie starring Gale Storm and Charles Farrell, The Stu Erwin Show, Racket Squad and Public Defender with Reed Hadley, Blondie with Arthur Lake and Pamela Britton and the horror anthology The Veil hosted by Boris Karloff are still familiar to television fans.

Sadly, what may have been his program was not to be.  Hal Roach Jr. had an agreement with Laurel and Hardy for a series of television specials setting the boys in a Fairy Tale environment.  Sadly, Stan had a stroke before they went into production and after his recovery Oliver was felled by the stroke in 1956 that left him paralyzed, and he passed in 1957.

The Roach Studio would not survive the tumultuous years of the 1950s.  Bankruptcy and sale would be the sad end.  In 1963 the site was demolished for a modern commercialization.  However, when you stop to consider that much of the output of a studio begun in 1914 and lasting almost 50 years - thousands of reels of films - have left the world with fond memories transcending centuries, it is quite an accomplishment for the adventurer from Elmira.

Hal Roach Studios at the Oscars


1932 The Music Box
Best Short Subject, Comedy

1936 Tit for Tat
Nominated: Best Short Subject, Comedy

1936 General Spanky
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse

1937 Bored of Education
Nominated:  Best Short Subject, One Reel

1937 Topper
Nominated:  Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Roland Young
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse


Marvin Hatley

1937 Way Out West
Nominated:  Best Music, Score, Marvin Hatley

1938 Block-Heads
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Score, Marvin Hatley

1938 There Goes My Heart
Nominated:  Best Music, Scoring, Marvin Hatley

1938 Merrily We Live
Nominated:  Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Billie Burke
Nominated:  Best Cinematography, Norbert Brodine
Nominated:  Best Art Direction, Charles D. Hall
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Song, Phil Charig and Arthur Quenzer, Merrily We Live


Elmer Raguse at work

1939 Of Mice and Men
Nominated:  Best Picture
Nominated:  Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse
Nominated:  Best Music, Scoring, Aaron Copland
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Score, Aaron Copland

1940 One Million B.C.
Nominated:  Best Effects, Special Effects, Roy Seawright (photographic), Elmer Raguse (sound)
Nominated:  Best Music, Original Score, Werner R. Heymann

1940 Captain Caution
Nominated: Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse

1941 Topper Returns
Nominated: Best Sound, Recording, Elmer Raguse
Nominated:  Best Effects, Special Effects, Elmer Raguse (sound), Roy Seawright (photographic)



1984 Honorary Oscar presented to Hal Roach
In recognition of his unparalleled record of distinguished contributions to the motion picture art form.

Hal Roach's Honorary Oscar was introduced by Our Gang alumni Jackie Cooper, presented by George "Spanky" McFarland, and the standing ovation from the audience started by Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison.

"...he (Hal Roach) was always a good man to work for."

- Charley Rogers, director
The Devil's Brother, Babes in Toyland, The Bohemian Girl 


Sources:
A History of the Hal Roach Studios, Richard Lewis Ward, 2005
Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, John McCabe, 1961
The Comedy World of Stan Laurel, John McCabe, 1974
Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy, John McCabe, 1989
Harold Lloyd - Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, 2009


The Classic Movie History Project annual blogathon runs from August 5 - 10th.
Day 1: Host, Fritzi at Movies, Silently - The Studios, The Publicity Department
Day 2: Host, Ruth at Silver Screenings - The Films - The Production Code, Animation
Day 3: Host, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen - The People - Groundbreakers, Before They Were Stars
Day 4: Host, Fritzi at Movies, Silently - The System - Technical, Costuming
Day 5: Host, Ruth at Silver Screenings - The Films - Movie Disasters, Color
Day 6: Host, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen - The People - Family Business, Foreign Affair












15 comments:

  1. Whoa! Look at all those Oscar nods! I had no idea.

    I didn't realize the Hal Roach studios were around for nearly 50 years. That is an impressive record, and I was actually feeling sad when you described the site demolition.

    This is an impressive tribute to an important piece of film history. Thank you for joining the blogathon!

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    Replies
    1. It is my great pleasure to join in the blogathon. A big thanks to you and your partners in crime for hosting this special event.

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  2. Great tribute to Hal Roach and his impact on American cinema. I have fond memories of the Our Gang shorts, which were filler on local TV stations when a movie's running time was too short for its slot.

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  3. Thanks.

    A lot of us anticipated those "Our Gang" fillers more than the regular programming. In terms of entertainment, Hal Roach's legacy is assured.

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  4. Hi Caftan Woman. That was a great study of the Hal Roach Studio. Making comedies is not a laughing matter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True, but if anything is worth it, that thing is comedy.

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  5. I thought I'd bring that "particularly loud huzzah" for this post over here from Movies Silently. Long, long time Roach fan received her instant gratification reading your wonderful post yesterday morning. Merci mille fois!

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    Replies
    1. A lovely compliment. Merci mille fois.

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  6. As always, well researched and well written - and fabulously entertaining. Always just below the top tier, Roach knew how to make us laugh. And, if for nothing else, we bow to him for Stan and Ollie.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks a lot.

      Yes. Perhaps nowhere else but on the Roach Lot would Stan and Ollie have come together to be with us still today.

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  7. Bravo! Only now I realized that Roach lived to be 100!
    I learned a lot with your post, and every picture made me smile: it was like meeting an old friend in every photo.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. Your lovely comments make me very happy.

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  8. I had no idea Hal Roach Studio had made so many feature films (Topper, Of Mice and Men). That's a much more impressive list than I would have guested, since all I knew about were his comedy shorts.

    But what an even more impressive list of comedians! I was actually recently thinking I needed to learn more about Hal Roach and then I saw your post. The perfect introduction - thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you. My overview is filled with affection for the studio and its output. We all appreciation those folks who make us laugh.

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