Surprisingly, following Ray Andrew’s ON THE TRAIL OF CHARLIE HALL written twenty years ago, this is now the second valuable book devoted exclusively to English character actor Charlie Hall, someone almost never even credited on screen for his work. Mr. Hall is nonetheless well known to Laurel & Hardy fans as an important figure among the Hal Roach Studios roster of supporting stock players, and well worth such attention.
As we learn from both books, Hall worked in the motion picture industry across four decades pretty much anonymously. He served in a number of roles: assistant director, extra, carpenter, stunt man, gag man, bit player, production manager, grip, and, most importantly, as a character actor who specialized in being indignant and barking out his displeasure!
One has to believe he would be pleased, however, to hold in his hands THE CHARLIE HALL PICTURE ARCHIVE. Author Dean McKeown’s work is suitably titled, because the primary attraction is the book’s more than 200 unpublished or seldom seen vintage images. McKeown’s efforts in collecting them offer a welcome window into Hall’s private and professional life as reflected in these personal photos which he, himself saved.
In 2008 Hall’s own picture albums were consigned for sale to an auction house in England. Some of the scene stills, publicity photos, and unpublished family snapshots were captioned by Hall himself – in his own words, in his own handwriting. The winning bidder, turned author – Dean McKeown -- was happily willing to share his good fortune with us, and has now faithfully presented Charlie Hall’s life in this book using the record he kept. That is what makes the publication special.
Any serious or even not so serious devotee of Hal Roach comedies will want to add this softcover book to his or her library. I did. I was not disappointed.
The book’s shortcomings are the few regrettable grammatical errors and also misspellings of iconic movie star names that most casual fans would recognize as being incorrect: Spencer Tracy (as “Tracey’), Orson Welles (as “Wells”), and Ronald Colman (as “Coleman”). Less well known Hollywood names misspelled include Jeanette Loff (as “Loft”), William Burress (as “Burness”), and Bill Moore (as “More”).
Would Charlie Hall himself have spelled those names correctly?
Irrespective of the answer, Laurel & Hardy fans will devour and enjoy this volume. It is the next best thing to having known the diminutive chap from Birmingham, England, the one who advertised himself in casting directories as “(Little) Charles Hall.” He did so in order to distinguish himself from the similarly British-born art director and production designer Charles D. Hall. Evidently the two men were even born the same year.
This other Charles Hall – also known privately within the Hollywood community as Danny Hall – has long been the source of confusion. His credits included THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES (all for England’s Charlie Chaplin), FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE INVISIBLE MAN (all for England’s James Whale), DRACULA, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, THE CAT AND THE CANARY, MY MAN GODFREY, HATS OFF (the 1936 feature film), and almost every Hal Roach Studios feature film made after 1937. Both Charles Halls, for instance, worked on A CHUMP AT OXFORD and SAPS AT SEA. To the extent film historians have devoted coverage to either artist, their biographical information has often been mistaken one for the other’s.
Besides the illustrations in Dean McKeown’s book, and Charlie Hall’s own captions for them, I enjoyed the text. I learned some things I did not know, giving a better sense of who this man really was.
And right when so many of us believe there are no more Laurel & Hardy still photos yet to be unearthed, more surface. It seems there are always more to discover -- a good thing! On MEN O’ WAR (1929), for example, I thought I owned every single still ever shot, including all the scene stills, the candid pictures, the portraits, and even the killed shots with the corners torn off on purpose. Once more, I am wrong again! The two MEN O’ WAR stills used in the book – while close to shots I have – are photos I never knew existed.
And incidentally, the photo on page 122 of Ray Andrew’s Charlie Hall book was not taken in Hollenbeck Park during the making of MEN O’ WAR as stated in the caption. Rather, it shows Stan Laurel directing scenes at a private estate in Brentwood three years earlier for WISE GUYS PREFER BRUNETTES, a Roach two-reeler starring Helene Chadwick, Jimmie Finlayson, and a pre-Three Stooges Ted Healy in his first known film work. Laurel himself (who directed scenes wearing a white shirt, tie, and sporty hat) did not appear in the film, nor did Charlie Hall. The unidentified cameraman pictured with Laurel is Harry Gerstad.
Some few additional thoughts about the text and individual photos found in Dean McKeown’s worthwhile book. The author states, “Charlie Hall was not a great letter writer like Stan Laurel.” Had Hall lived long enough to be discovered by members of the SONS OF THE DESERT, we might have found out differently. Just a guess, but here is why. In the papers of George Stevens, there are several long and chatty “Dear Georgie” letters, hand-written by Hall to the filmmaker. All quite funny, full of English colloquialisms, with many self-deprecating jibes aimed squarely at the English! “Mostly all have dirty noses,” wrote Hall, “with a dew drop on the end, hardly ever use handkerchiefs, blow their noses by putting the finger alternately at each nostril, then blow, the idea is not to get any on your clothes.” He goes on for pages like that, some of which should is best not repeated!
Messrs. Hall and Stevens arrived at Hal Roach Studios about the same time, started at the rock bottom, and progressed through many job titles and film assignments together, leading into the early sound era. Stevens of course rose to be one of the most important filmmakers in the history of movies. The two men obviously remained friends across several decades. After leaving Roach, following the wonderful Boy Friends series in the early 1930s, Stevens would hire Hall for small parts in many of the increasingly fine films he made (including the best Astaire-Rogers musical, SWING TIME), until service in World War II changed the kind of pictures he wanted to do. SHANE (1953), GIANT (1956), and A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) were obviously not comedies.
These surviving letters Hall wrote Stevens are dated 1937, and were sent from (if I am correctly reading Hall’s handwriting) 33 Arley Road, Saltley, Birmingham, England. The correspondence reveals several interesting things, including time spent overseas with their mutual pal Edgar Kennedy and his wife:
“You could have knocked me down with a steam ’ammer, for sufferin’ snakes, I’ave done three days work in pitchers, with Ed Kennedy. For stone me up a gum tree, I got 75 bucks a day, so for strike me red, white and blue, I’ll be poppin’ in on you, and we’ll have a binder. Ed and I went to the Darby, for chase my aunt Fanny around the ’ouse tops, it don’t (indecipherable) rain, we were like two pieces of blottin’ paper. For stuff me with monkey nuts, a copper done a high pratfall, stepped on a piece of orange peel, and for strike me purple if Ed didn’t tell him to stop the clownin’. For Christ, we almost got pinched.”
The English film mentioned, made for Gainsborough Pictures, was released as HEY! HEY! USA (1938) and starred Will Hay. Hall plays a Chicago mobster. Hall also appeared in at least seven of Edgar Kennedy’s more than a hundred RKO shorts made over the years, most of them directed by other Hal Roach alumni such as Lloyd French, Alf Goulding, and Hal Yates. One of Charlie Hall’s two-reelers with Edgar Kennedy, WHAT FUR (1933) was helmed by George Stevens.
In another missive, Hall shares that he had just read Stevens would soon be directing GUNGA DIN (1938). Which turned out to be the finest adventure film ever made. “Well that’s great George,” Hall writes, “and should you need someone to play Din just give me a ring.” Sam Jaffe won the role when Sabu was unavailable.
He signed his letters as “Charlie Hall.” He signed his contracts with Hal Roach Studios as “Charles Hall.”
Back to the book. The unidentified heavy man pictured on page 36 is the unsung and almost never photographed L.A. French, long time senior executive at Hal Roach Studios, usually credited (if at all) during the teens, 1920s and 1930s in the capacity of general manager or production manager or studio manager. His “L.A.” initials stood for Lewis Albert French, and many around the lot called him Los Angeles French. Hal Roach called him Al French; they knew one another in the trucking business before either man entered movies!
French’s son, Lloyd French, worked on the lot almost as long – fifteen years. He rose to the position of director, with credits including THAT’S MY WIFE (1929), ME AND MY PAL (1933), MIDNIGHT PATROL (1933), BUSY BODIES (1933), DIRTY WORK (1933), and OLIVER THE EIGHTH (1934). Yet he, like his father, is seldom mentioned today in any discussion of the great comedies produced at Hal Roach Studios. So many of these people deserve credit they never received.
On page 83, the text states that Hal Roach was given his honorary Oscar in 1982 “for Pioneering Work in Film.” In fact, it was 1983, and the Academy bestowed the award “in recognition of his unparalleled record of distinguished contributions to the motion picture art form.” In fairness, even though I was there that night with the family, I had to look up what year it was.
Page 90 shows Charlie Hall’s mother standing in the front yard of, as is written in Hall’s handwriting, “Pola Negri’s home.” The accompanying text supplies information on the life and career of Pola Negri. Not mentioned is that the street address was 610 Beverly Drive, then soon to be the southern Colonial-style estate of Hal Roach from the mid-1930s into the 1960s. Built on two huge lots in the flats of Beverly Hills, the original owner of this enormous home was Priscilla Dean, who, when her career started slipping, starred in SLIPPING WIVES (1926) for Hal Roach, in which both Laurel and Hardy appeared. She sold the property to Negri who in turn sold to Roach.
Concerning the photo on page 93 of Stan Laurel with his pet Mynah bird, Yogi (who appeared in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL), daughter Lois Laurel Hawes identifies the locale as their Cheviot Hills home, and adds that Yogi was programmed to answer a question Stan Laurel was fond of asking in front of guests: “What about Ollie?” Mynah’s rote response: “Aw, nuts!” Lois also recalls that the bird could bite, and did bite her!
The unidentified photo on page 130 is from the Glenn Tryon short for Roach called MADAME SANS JANE (1926), and shows Lucien Littlefield and Fay Wray, with whom Hall would appear again in no less than KING KONG (1933).
There is a candid lunch-on-location photo from an unidentified film on page 135. The film’s correct title is MOVIE DAZE (1934), a most interesting behind-the-scenes entry in the Hal Roach All-Star series. One book review, however, offered to supply the missing title as IN THE DOUGH. Not so. Not exactly. Nor is YOU’RE IN THE DOUGH. Or YEAST IS YEAST, either. These were all only working titles for this subject. The photo shows Don Barclay, director Gus Meins, Charlie Hall, Douglas Wakefield, James C. Morton, and Billy Nelson. All but Meins and Morton were British. Roach was admittedly partial to British comedians.
The unidentified and very posed still photo on page 145 depicts a tangled scene from the Todd-Pitts two-reeler for Roach entitled THE SOILERS (1932). But do not look for information about it in Leonard Maltin’s book THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS because through an oversight the film is not listed there. Pictured are Zasu Pitts, Charlie Hall, Thelma Todd, Ernie Alexander, and James C. Morton.
The unidentified photos on pages 149 and 154 are from First National films both starring Jack Mulhall: THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN and LADY BE GOOD, both made in 1928 by Hal Roach grad Richard Wallace. Neither picture is listed in the book’s filmography; lots more film titles could be added. Charlie Hall made many movies! We may never have a complete list. But that should not discourage comedy fans from trying.
The unidentified photo on page 152 shows Miss Pitts and Mr. Hall in the Todd-Pitts series entry WAR MAMMAS (1931).
Finally, somewhere I have a video file copy of one of Charlie Hall’s at least two appearances as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s YOU BET YOUR LIFE television show, made during the mid to late 1950s. (The pilot for this popular series had been shot at Hal Roach Studios.) It had to be one of the last movies or TV shows Hall did. Stan Laurel happened to see one of these TV episodes and sent Hall a letter of congratulations. They were both still living in Los Angeles at the time, but about an hour’s drive apart. On the show, as I remember it, Hall gave his real name, but no specifics tying him to films at Hal Roach Studios. Lois Laurel states her father was “very fond of Charlie, and his wife, Foxie. When he went on TV with Groucho Marx he didn’t want to bring up his many films with Laurel & Hardy because audiences might think he used connections to get on the show.”
Something I remember about one of these appearances was how proud Hall was, to be able to speak English in almost a dozen different dialects. Which he demonstrated for Groucho. English actors from that period sought to master this skill. The irony is that Stan Laurel had Hall tone down his pronounced English accent in hopes American audiences would not notice and possibly object to how many English actors Hal Roach was fond of using in his pictures!
When Ray Andrew’s book first came out, I showed it to Hal Roach. He smiled, and said, “Little Charlie Hall was a very friendly sort of a guy. Very talkative. Always had a funny story to tell anyone who would listen. His personality was very much like you see in films. Around the studio we called him ‘The Little Menace,’ and ‘The Little Nemesis,’ because that was the kind of part I always wanted him for. He was a good friend of Charley Rogers and Stan Laurel, being English, and they used to confer often on how one gag or another they wanted to use had been performed back in the English Music Halls. I remember I engaged him as a gag writer on several Laurel & Hardy pictures when they needed some help.”
Fans wishing to purchase a copy of Dean McKeown’s book should visit this website:
-- Richard W. Bann --
Pictures provided by Dean McKeown