"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 I used to love going there every morning, and at night I always hated to leave." -- Stan Laurel
Born in Elmira, NY in 1892, Harry Eugene Roach became an
influential producer of comedy films almost by accident. As a
young man, Roach took jobs wherever he could find them, such as
mule skinning in Alaska and driving an ice-cream truck in Seattle.
In 1913, answering a newspaper ad, he went to Hollywood to work
as an extra where he met a new friend in Harold Lloyd, himself
seeking fortune and fame in the movie business.
Roach quickly moved up from extra to bit-part player to assistant director, and his pluck and determination eventually lead him to film and directing Lloyd in a half a dozen improvised short films. "Just Nuts" (1915), in which Lloyd played a comedy character named "Willie Work", became a fluke hit, and distributors contacted Roach to make more just like it. Encouraged by this, Roach and a partner, Dan Linthicum, founded the Rolin Film Company in Culver City, California.
Calling on Lloyd again to be his star, Roach began making
new comedies, with Lloyd playing a new character called "Lonesome
Luke". In hindsight, these were initially little more than
second-rate knockoffs of Charlie Chaplin films, but they were
successful. Roach soon made enough money to buy out his partner
and renamed his company the Hal Roach Studios.
Like Mack Sennett, the most famous comedy producer at the time, Roach started out by making quick knockabout comedies, but Roach's comic and business sensibilities led him to become much more of a "comedy developer" than Mack Sennett would ever be. Sennett invented a rapid-fire formula for pacing his films and would rarely stray from it
But Hal Roach had a different philosophy. Instead of ruling his kingdom with an iron hand, and milking one comic formula over and over, Roach invested in talented directors, good writers, and above all, creative comedians and let them develop the films. With comedians and their writers responsible for the content of their own films, guided by sympathetic directors, Roach Studios produced comedies that were some of the most sophisticated and personal short comedies coming out of Hollywood in the silent years.
Roach would still keep a hand in directing and writing, and his contributions at gag sessions were fondly recalled by some later in life. Roach had a habit of pitching a gag idea and, just before getting to the payoff, trailing off with "Well, you know what I mean", leaving fellow gag-writers scratching their heads in bewilderment!
Roach knew that knockabout slapstick was funny, but human
nature was funnier. Characters were simply more realistic in Roach
films than in some other comedies of the period. Harold Lloyd,
for example, eventually exchanged the grotesqueries of his Lonesome
Luke costume for a simple pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a move
Roach initially discouraged. But Lloyd was just as funny wearing
a pair of glasses as he was wearing a vaguely Chaplinesque costume,
and the simple change in costume put Lloyd and Roach on the path
to better, more mature Lloyd comedies, leading to a series of
classic feature comedies that made Lloyd the most popular comedian
of the 1920s.
Roach was in the movie business to make a profit, and if a short film was going well but had strayed beyond the standard length of two reels, Roach was not adverse to allowing the film to go longer, as long as he felt the additional footage made for a better film. He did this knowing he would still only be able to sell a longer film at a two-reel price, essentially giving away extra reels for free. But for Roach, the long-term investment was more important -- each successful Roach film made the Hal Roach name more valuable in the long run.
Much later in life, and perhaps looking through rose-colored glasses, Roach revealed that he never worried how much money a film would make. If people laughed at one of his films, he was happy. If people didn't laugh, he was miserable.
It was this attitude that lead to Harold Lloyd's first extended
film, the four-reel A SAILOR-MADE MAN (1921), considered to be
Lloyd's first feature film. The success of the film convinced
Roach and Lloyd to move Lloyd's character into features only,
and together, Roach and Lloyd made some of the best full-length
comedy features of the era, including the comedian's best-known
film, SAFETY LAST (1923).
An intriguing disagreement developed over Lloyd's feature GRANDMA'S BOY (1922), a disagreement that sheds some light on Roach's working methods. In the film, a comedy, of course, there was a lengthy Civil War flashback sequence. The sequence, important as exposition, was filmed straight, without gags. Roach thought that it stopped the picture cold and wanted it cut, while Lloyd thought it was essential to the film's story. Roach felt that audiences would stop laughing during the flashback, and it would take too long for them to warm up to the comedy scenes that followed. Lloyd was adamant that the sequence was important for the picture. Both men were correct, but rather than pull rank as producer and have the sequence ejected over Lloyd's objections, Roach and his star worked out a compromise -- they would film little gag scenes that could be spliced into the sequence without disrupting the flow of the story. This compromise was exactly what the film needed, and it went on to be a huge success.
Harold Lloyd was Roach's biggest star, but he was not the only actor in Roach's stable. The mustachioed Snub Pollard also worked for Roach, at first co-starring in Lloyd shorts and later branching out into his own series of films. The unjustly forgotten Charley Chase perfected his own unique brand of sophisticated comedy of embarrassment in a series of delightful short films. Chase, like Lloyd, eschewed any funny costumes and let the gags and stories get the laughs. Other fledgling comics, such as Stan Laurel, would drift in and out of the studios at various times.
There was also Our Gang, better know to television fans as The Little Rascals. Roach's pet theory was that comedians behaved like children, and Our Gang was to be a series of comedies starring children. In 1922, Roach put together a group of handpicked ragtag moppets, including "Sunshine" Sammy Morrison, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, chubby Joe Cobb and group leader Mickey Daniels. The earliest Our Gang films, such as "Our Gang", "Firefighters" and "Saturday Morning", were supervised by Charley Chase (under his real name of Charles Parrott) and directed by Robert F. McGowan. McGowan was a longtime fixture of the series, directing most of the films from 1922 to 1933.
Hal Roach kept his hand in everything that went on at his studios, pitching a gag here, directing a short there. But Our Gang was his pet series, and he took special interest in keeping it fresh. Most, if not all, of the new Our Gang members over the years had to be specifically approved by Roach himself, and so choosy was he that both Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney failed to pass auditions. It was this personal attention to the films that kept Our Gang consistently funny and popular through the years. In total, Roach produced 168 Our Gang shorts from 1922 to 1938.
It was Roach's devotion to Our Gang that was at least partly responsible for Harold Lloyd seeking greener pastures after the 1923 feature WHY WORRY? The parting was amicable, but there was no way around the fact that Hal Roach had lost one of the most popular movie stars in the world.
Undaunted, Roach kept going, coming up with fresh ideas and new series. Charley Chase continued to make his excellent comedies, and a series starring Jewish comedian Max Davidson was also popular. From 1923 to 1924, America's favorite cowboy humorist, Will Rogers, made a series of short films, some of them clever parodies of other films and stars.
One of Roach's more bizarre notions was to hire stars that were on the decline, such as Priscilla Dean and Mabel Normand, and put them in short comedies. Sometimes things didn't work out, but in the case of Mae Busch, her association with Roach brought her screen immortality as a comedy character actress who will always be remembered, not for the dramatic films she appeared in when she was a star, but for her characterizations as the razor-tongued Mrs. Oliver Hardy in talkies like "Unaccustomed as We Are" (1929), "Their First Mistake" (1932) and SONS OF THE DESERT (1933). In the sound era, Roach unsuccessfully tried to revive the career of Harry Langdon, who crashed and burned after only a handful of silent features. Langdon later went on to be a writer and gagman at the Hal Roach lot.
Roach was always on the lookout for new comic talent and featured many of them, such as James Finlayson, Oliver "Babe" Hardy and Stan Laurel, under the umbrella title of The All-Stars, a nomenclature designed to cover the fact that none of these contract players had yet achieved anything approaching real stardom.
In 1926, Stan Laurel wrote the script for a two-reel comedy based on a sketch written by his father. The sketch featured a pair of hobos posing as a respectable homeowner and a maid. Laurel himself was to play the "maid," and Roach player Syd Crossley was chosen to play the "homeowner". Partway through the filming, Crossley was replaced by Babe Hardy. Although the resulting film, "Duck Soup", was not billed as a "Laurel and Hardy Comedy," it certainly showed that these two men had an instant, almost subliminal, rapport. It wasn't long before director Leo McCarey began supervising the pair, helping them hone in on the slow-moving, childlike characters they would play for the rest of their lives. By the end of 1927, Roach finally had a star -- or rather, two stars -- that would be as popular as Harold Lloyd. Laurel and Hardy soon became the silent screen's most beloved comedy team.
Roach saw that the teaming of these two men was a splendid
idea, and he allowed McCarey and Laurel (as writer and sometime
de facto director) wide latitude to develop the series.
Along with Our Gang, the Laurel and Hardy films are what
Hal Roach is most remembered for today. A few of the silent Laurel
and Hardy films such as "Battle of the Century" (1927),
"Two Tars" and "Big Business" (both 1928)
are among the most-famous comedies in film history. They featured
outbreaks of mass violence, including the "pie fight to end
all pie fights" in "Battle of the Century," but
there was an inner logic and pacing to the films that was the
hallmark of Hal Roach movies.
The Roach studios launched Leo McCarey's career. After leaving Roach, McCarey went on to direct such classics as the Marx Brothers' DUCK SOUP (1933) and the Oscar-winning films THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) and GOING MY WAY (1944). Another fine director, George Stevens, would later make some of the best films of the 1950s such as A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) and SHANE (1953). Both men looked back fondly on their years with Hal Roach as one of the best times in their lives, a not-uncommon reaction from those who worked at the studios in the 1920s and '30s.
In 1929, Roach rewired his studios for sound and, without missing a beat, continued making quality short comedies. Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy -- all made relatively smooth transitions from silent films to sound. Out of all the silent stars, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had probably been most blessed with voices that suited their screen characters perfectly, and the addition of frequently absurd dialogue and well-known catchphrases such as Hardy's "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" brought "The Boys" even greater popularity worldwide.
1930 to 1935 was probably the "golden age" of Roach comedies. Laurel and Hardy were making classics such as "Helpmates" (1931) and the Academy-Award winning "The Music Box"(1932), Charley Chase continued to indulge in his imaginative flights of fancy, and Our Gang rolled along with an ever-changing cast of adorable ragamuffins. There was also the female "Laurel and Hardy" team of beautiful Thelma Todd and goofy Zasu Pitts (later Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly), a quasi-teen version of Our Gang known as The Boyfriends (starring former silent Our Gang stars Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman), and The Taxi Boys, starring a variety of Roach second bananas.
Roach comedies were not only popular in America, but also overseas, something Roach capitalized on in 1930. Some shorts, such as Laurel and Hardy's "Blotto" (1930), were filmed and edited, and then the cast and crew would remake the entire short in Spanish, German and Italian, with the main actors reading their lines phonetically while supporting actors were replaced by native speakers. This arduous and expensive process only lasted about a year, but it showed how serious Roach took his comedies. In some case, separate shorts were combined into films that played as features overseas.
The Roach lot was a busy place, and you never knew who was
going to show up for work. Paulette Goddard and Boris Karloff
are just two examples of performers who got some quick work at
Roach's before moving on to stardom. There was also a spirit of
community and camaraderie unlike any other studio of the era.
If Laurel and Hardy were finished for the day, they might visit
the Our Gang set, or Charley Chase would drop by the Laurel
and Hardy set, and comedians would suggest gags for each others'
films at the drop of a hat. Between takes, impromptu singalongs
were the norm, with Chase, Laurel, Hardy, McCarey and others singing
three and four-part harmony while Roach musical director T. Marvin
Hatley (composer of "Ku-ku", the famous L&H theme
song) pounded the piano or played any instrument that was handy.
Hal Roach built his reputation on short comedies, but in the latter half of the 1930s, when market forces made short films less popular with distributors, Roach had no choice but to move into features. Charley Chase did not play well in longer films, and Roach and Chase agreed to part ways. Laurel and Hardy, who had tested the waters with several popular feature-length films from 1931 through 1934, abandoned the short film format completely in 1936. Although Laurel regretted the move, the team nevertheless went on to star in several highly enjoyable features, including the classics WAY OUT WEST (1937) and BLOCK-HEADS (1938).
Only Our Gang, by now featuring the inspired pairing of George "Spanky" McFarland and newcomer Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, continued in shorts, trimmed from two-reels down to one. The disappointing GENERAL SPANKY (1936) was to be the only Our Gang feature Roach ever produced.
All good things do come to an end, and Hal Roach sold the
Our Gang franchise to MGM in 1938. Laurel and Hardy continued
to work for Roach until 1940, but they were receiving less attention
from Roach than ever, and their final film for the studio, SAPS
AT SEA (1940) looked like what Roach probably considered it to
be -- a cheaply-made (albeit still amusing) B-picture. Following
the film's release, the team left Roach and signed with Fox.
The loss of Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy did not concern Roach much, as he had been attempting to make more prestige pictures such as OF MICE AND MEN (1939), as fine a drama as anything that ever came out of one of the bigger studios. Other later Roach films fondly recalled today include the ghost-comedy TOPPER (1937) and the dinosaur epic ONE MILLION B.C (1940).
During World War II, The United States Government used Roach's
studio to make training films (while Roach, now in his fifties,
rejoined the service and was stationed overseas as a lieutenant
colonel.) After the war, Roach continued to make features, but
his heart was no longer in it. He switched to television production
in 1948, with Amos and Andy, Groucho Marx and Abbott and Costello
just some of the popular performers who filmed their shows at
Roach. Roach retired in 1955, and, under the poor management of
his son, Hal Roach, Jr., the studio went bankrupt in 1959. An
era had passed. Hal Roach Studios -- "The Lot of Fun"
-- was no more.
Hal Roach himself outlived his own studios by several decades. In 1984 he received an honorary Oscar for his pioneering work in film comedy. Ex-Our Gang members Jackie Cooper and Spanky McFarland were on hand as presenters, and film clips featuring Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang, as well as scenes from the TOPPER series and OF MICE AND MEN, superbly highlighted just how much Hal Roach and his "little" studio contributed to the art of motion pictures.
In November of 1992, having lived long enough to know how much his work had been appreciated by the world, Hal Roach died. He was 100 years old.
copyright John V. Brennan, 2002. All Rights Reserved.
Return to Articles and Essays page
Return to home page
Background photo (see below): Clockwise from top left - Charley Chase, Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy