Short version of this notice: If you are serious about your interest in the films, the careers, and the legacy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you need to own and read this fine book. It is a serious book, highly recommended. Go buy it.
No matter that a forties film like NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1945), despite uncredited gag material furnished by Buster Keaton, is almost anything but entertainment, with even its title crying out to warn potential viewers. Or that, in my case, I hope never again to sit through anything more than a preview trailer’s worth of torture touting ATOLL K (1951). This was Laurel & Hardy’s only horror movie – author Ted Okuda’s favorable viewing experience quoted in the text notwithstanding.
“It was a terrible thing,” Laurel himself apologized, in one of the letters I have.
As mentioned, however, this is of no matter. How one regards these films is a side issue.
The important point is that reading the accounts of such abominations as A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) is nonetheless interesting, instructive and worthwhile. Actually Scott MacGillivray’s almost academic “film studies”-like treatment is of more interest than watching these later movies themselves. Any student of film history will be drawn into such well researched analyses of all the things that went so wrong in THE DANCING MASTERS (1943), THE BIG NOISE (1944), etc. Almost in the same sense that it is difficult to avert one’s eyes from a train wreck. Possibly that explains why the overall tone of the text – though pleasant -- seems to be less than affectionate. How so? Well, several of the dreary films being critiqued were, after all, manufactured under the harsh auspices of, in Laurel’s own words, “those Fox people.” This made it hard to generate enthusiasm, detailing such a nasty turn of events.
So if you care about the films that do matter (the earlier ones, introduced on screen with the words “Hal Roach Presents”), and if you are inquisitive about the many dramatic conflicts and challenges concerning what happened afterwards to the flesh and blood artists who starred in these films, then Scott MacGillivray’s book is essential. The author has delved deeply into his subject and brought many sad situations into sharper focus. Plus his reporter-like style of writing, though a bit dry, is easy to take.
This volume is a revised and expanded edition of the book first published by Vestal Press in 1998. It nearly doubles the now superseded original work’s content.
The new second edition is dedicated to Laurel’s only daughter, Lois Laurel Hawes. And she is quoted throughout. Lois was only on the verge of her teenage years when the curtain rang down on Laurel & Hardy at Hal Roach Studios, so it stands to reason that she would have more incisive observations to share regarding events from “the forties forward.” Plus she has given Scott’s book her blessing.
Another key recommendation: The team’s authorized biographer, John McCabe (now deceased), contributed high praise for the original edition.
It was always curious to me that for his own original book, MR. LAUREL & MR. HARDY, first published in 1961, Jack (as he was known to his friends) McCabe interviewed neither Lois Laurel Sr., nor daughter Lois Laurel Jr., nor Hal Roach. Nor Hal Roach Jr., for that matter.
Jack was such a great friend, yet it took me a long time to ask why he failed to conduct such interviews – just in the interest of fairness, and to offer a balanced view. For years I hesitated broaching the issue, not wanting to risk appearing to criticize someone for whom I had such deep respect. I knew Jack regarded Stan Laurel as an adopted father-figure, whose professional and personal reputation Jack vigorously protected. This was admirable.
Eventually the question did arise. Jack’s answer was less than satisfactory, but I never pressed the matter for fear of offending him. Jack’s explanation was that he had access to both Stan Laurel, and to a lesser degree, Oliver Hardy, and that was sufficient.
While Jack’s intent to always champion and elevate Laurel both personally and professionally was laudable, in fact, unfortunately, it also left an account that was one-sided, and did slightly but unfairly prejudice readers in favor of Laurel (whose film character was already so extraordinarily sympathetic) vis-à-vis his first wife, Lois; his same-named daughter, Lois; and his boss, Hal Roach. None of whom, to their credit, ever sought a forum to respond and explain events from their respective points of view. Neither Hal Roach Sr. nor Lois Laurel Sr. ever read Jack McCabe’s book. Neither was curious about it, neither cared. Finally Scott’s book shows the value, at last, in talking to daughter Lois Laurel about both her father, and the person she knew as “Uncle Babe.”
Incidentally, as of Thanksgiving 1940, Lois was 12, not 14, as stated on page 6 of FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD. And she is quoted saying that English-born director Edmund Goulding and Australian-born director Alf Goulding were brothers. I just asked over the phone where she learned this, and Lois recalled her mother said so. But the VARIETY obits for each artist give no indication of a relationship, nor is Alf Goulding mentioned anywhere in the biography published in 2004 of Edmund Goulding. Film historian Kevin Brownlow adds, “As far as I know, the Gouldings were not related.”
So the raison d’etre of FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD is to concentrate on the neglected later years of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- their lives, but primarily their careers, following the team’s disastrous departure from Hal Roach Studios. There is coverage not only of what the team did in those lesser last movies which we know, but also of the five films planned but never realized, as well as a couple of Broadway plays, and a pair of television shows the twosome worked toward, but which were never launched.
This is not, however, just a volume about projects planned or in fact made during the wartime period. The book’s title and cover art might lead one to conclude so. No. Best of all about this effort, I think, is the attempt to explain the subsequent labyrinthine and often misguided and mishandled ownership, exhibition, exploitation and stewardship of all the Laurel & Hardy motion pictures. And not only during the stars’ twilight years, but also throughout the early television era; the renaissance heralded by the Robert Youngson compilations; the revival period of interest since both men passed away on through creation of the Sons of the Desert organization; and the many retrospective series and tributes at prestigious film archives all over the world right up to today with the films’ re-release (or not!) on DVD. The highest compliment I can pay about this part of the text is that it reveals information I did not suspect anyone else cared about – or, for that matter, even knew.
Possibly casual fans won’t be interested in some of these tangents (there were hundreds of global transactions entered into, licensing the film library from the forties forward), but at this point most all of the Laurel & Hardy enthusiasts that I know are passionate, not casual followers. And those who are not aware of this part of the history … ought to learn some of it.
Another litmus test for any moviemaker biography or film history tome – does it induce the reader to seek out and discover or revisit the movies under discussion? The answer in this instance is affirmative, which is a good recommendation, given that for starters the pictures primarily under scrutiny are dreadful, with so much content aimed at children, and worse. Soon into just perusing this book, you will probably want to screen some of the films under analysis and form or re-evaluate your own opinions.
For instance I was inspired to search out and look at again the only 16mm print I have from among the post-Roach canon, AIR RAID WARDENS (1943). Made at M-G-M, it was full of HRS grads on both sides of the camera. I wanted so much to enjoy it, but regrettably concluded I could not run this picture for 90% of my own fan friends, unless the objective was to chase them out the door running for cover.
As Laurel wrote to a mutual pal, producer Sam Sherman, about these films, “Fully agree, they were very poor.”
Author, lecturer, teacher William K. Everson, who here in one of his last contributions to film history provided a warm reminiscence of movie-maker Robert Youngson, stated in his own book that Laurel & Hardy admirers were generally of the opinion that the post-Roach films “should never have been made…the decline was a painful one to watch.”
The fact is, the work product of Laurel & Hardy during the 1940s and 1950s was and is far less appealing and less interesting to most fans. But not to all fans -- a key point the author makes. In any case, Scott MacGillivray is one who believes Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy’s efforts during this period deserve more attention than they have received elsewhere. So he gives it to them.
For this we can be grateful. Stan Laurel was fortunate to have had the eminently worthy John McCabe as his biographer, as well as his defender and advocate. So, too, are we fortunate to have Scott MacGillivray examining and explaining here a time in the lives of Laurel and Hardy which was not so pleasant, and not so productive. It was a period of professional and personal decline. Few film history scholars would choose first or primarily to study this area, which is why little has been written about almost everything that happened to the team and their films after 1940. But because Scott did, his erudition has thrown some light upon a dark period and added important documentation for aficionados who want to go further and get a better sense of the complete story.
Any worthwhile book or film should leave the reader or the viewer wanting more. Generally the astute authors or directors understand this principle and know when it is time to summon “The End.” Whereupon we close the book or depart the theatre wishing the work could go on. But if it did go on, if the book, or movie, or movies had gone on, and then on some more – like the post-Roach films made by the comedy duo – in most cases we would quickly realize why “The End” appeared where and when it was used in the first place.
After the 1930s Laurel & Hardy were lost without Hal Roach and his guidance, and his protection, and his working methodology, and his studio. Oscar-winning director Gordon Douglas (the favorite of Frank Sinatra, Alan Ladd and Elvis Presley) both appeared in and directed Laurel & Hardy movies. Gordon Douglas told me once, at Roach’s house, for him to hear, “What Hal did, he gathered all the forces, all the raw materials, all the creative people, and he let you know he believed in you once he gave you the job. He created a great vibe for everyone to work under, and he watched out for you. I worked for every studio in this town, but his was my home. I was safe at home there.”
Gone from the home where Laurel & Hardy were born and raised, they were able to continue making movies elsewhere “from the forties forward,” although it was pretty much only out of inertia, trading on past glories, and only in what Scott aptly describes as “a rigid corporate culture.” One can sometimes see the despair in their later performances, as though they hardly knew what had hit them, or how to save themselves in what was, as it turned out, a helpless, hopeless situation.
By many accounts, the movies’ greatest comedy team was often dispirited and broken. Their morale low, they must have been in a kind of shock, in some sense like people raised in America who take such a great country for granted, until they find themselves trapped in any one of a number of oppressive cheerless societies elsewhere around the globe. Resigned to their fate, realizing at last what they had lost, Laurel & Hardy seemed to give up, and it is reflected in these woeful films.
Character actor Richard Lane appeared in A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO. Scott’s text reports on an interview Lane gave and how, as he said, he “was surprised by latter-day accounts of Laurel being a creative dynamo, because on this job he was quiet and withdrawn.”
I have a letter written by Laurel in 1955 after suffering a minor stroke in which he stated, “As soon as I am ready and able, I have four feature films to make with Hardy, we are going back to our old studio (Hal Roach), needless to tell you how happy I am.” This was to have been the color series of hour-long variety “spectaculars” for NBC, reminiscent of the English music-hall pantomimes Laurel knew so well. They were to be called LAUREL & HARDY’S FABULOUS FABLES. Due to the stars’ failing health, these programs were never made.
And while the story of what happened to the team after departing Hal Roach Studios is sad, it is of interest because we care about the men who gave us these characters in the films Roach produced for them. That is at the core of what draws us into this text; it cannot possibly be because readers couldn’t get enough of A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO. Could it? No. That would be some magic trick. Or GREAT GUNS? Good grief. Or best of all, THE BIG NOISE? With the casting geniuses at Fox borrowing Robert Blake from M-G-M’s cute-kid laboratory? If you say so.
One reason I enjoyed the informative and perceptive text is that so many old friends are quoted or acknowledged for contributions, most of whom I have known through the Sons of the Desert organization longer than it took for Laurel & Hardy to make all of their films together: the late Gordon Berkow, Larry Byrd, the late Bill Everson, Ray Faiola, George Feltenstein, Rich Finegan, Rick Greene, Ron Hall, Lori Jones, the late Al Kilgore, Leonard Maltin, John McElwee, Jack Roth, Lou Sabini, Randy Skretvedt, Tracy Tolzmann, and others.
Yet there was someone else who could have contributed so much to the book’s account of why and how and to whom the Hal Roach Studios film assets were licensed and sold around the world during the record period in which he worked there. Herbert R. Gelbspan was the only person continually employed by the studio from the mid-1930s through the mid-1980s. My friends Al Kilgore and Bill Everson knew Gelbspan. But I do not believe that anyone else in the Sons of the Desert besides founding member Chuck McCann had ever even met him. The enthusiastic, optimistic Gelbspan always had a twinkle in his eye, and a smile in his voice. He reminded Chuck McCann of the Wilfred Hyde-White character in MY FAIR LADY (1964).
Herb Gelbspan and I attended some of the earliest Sons banquets together, those staged at The Lambs Club in New York. Then more than a decade later he briefly addressed the huge ballroom banquet gathering at the Sons’ second international convention, “Hollywood 80.” Yet I doubt anyone but Hal Roach and his family at our table knew who Gelbspan was. But he knew who the good guys were, and also who the bad guys were.
The stories he could tell about some of these “characters,” as he called them, the many licensees of the Roach film library. Most of them simply raped the nitrate negatives, rather than creating their own duplicating negatives from 35mm fine grains or lavenders. That kind of shortcut enabled such operators to go cheaply into the business of reissuing, repackaging, re-titling, re-cutting, reducing and often generally wrecking the Laurel & Hardy films in different media, in different territories, across half a century. Gelbspan saw such desecration year after year. He knew everything. And everyone. Some of whom were impoverished but sincere cinema cognoscenti, and some few of whom were either opportunists, or phonies, and/or crooked as a barrel of snakes. In any case, as a consequence, priceless pre-print material from the key Laurel & Hardy titles took a beating.
“Laurel & Hardy … great; weren’t they great? Marvelous, those two,” he would say, time and again, ever smiling. “But they attracted all sorts of characters who wanted to exploit them, you know? The old man (Roach), he wouldn’t even talk to most of them. He’d send them to me. For every gentleman, there would be five characters and eventually I’d have to get after them with the attorney.”
From George Hirliman at Film Classics to Charles Tarbox at Film Classic Exchange, Gelbspan knew them all. From beautifully restored, flawless pictorial presentations in 35mm, to abominable, dirty, dupy, scratchy mutilations, some in the belittled dimensions of standard 8mm, he licensed them all. This gentleman might have told Scott plenty about what the author characterized as the “mishandling and neglect” of the precarious, precious old nitrate negatives and fine grains. I could not begin to recount some of the incidents Gelbspan shared concerning the fate of the Hal Roach library since the Culver City studio and its film vaults were torn down after the bankruptcy in the early 1960s. You could not make this stuff up. Or as the husband said to the wife in SONS OF THE DESERT, “Why, it’s too farfetched not to be the truth; isn’t it Stanley?”
Gelbspan was gone by the time Hallmark controlled the library in the Western Hemisphere – yes, that Hallmark, of Hallmark Cards. As an expediency, one time they pulled an “old” video master of SONS OF THE DESERT and de-colorized it to facilitate a DVD release. They really did. Does this summon to memory Oliver Hardy asking in high dudgeon, “What did you do that for?” Not even referring to this specific example, author Randy Skretvedt deserves credit for his assessment of Hallmark Cards’ stewardship in general, sent to me via e-mail: “When it comes to Laurel & Hardy, they don’t care enough to send the very best.”
Sons founding member Al Kilgore could draw amazing caricatures, and perform impersonations of anyone, including Gelbspan. I could only do Huntz Hall impersonating Ronald Colman, and I could do Herb Gelbspan. If from no one else, it was a guaranteed laugh from Al Kilgore, Chuck McCann, and Hal Roach!
Two things I would like to correct on behalf of Mr. Gelbspan, and more importantly, on behalf of the current copyright proprietors. The text contributes to the mistaken notion that SLIPPING WIVES (1927), WITH LOVE AND HISSES (1927), LOVE ’EM AND WEEP (1927), DO DETECTIVES THINK? (1927), FLYING ELEPHANTS (1927), SAILORS, BEWARE! (1927), LIBERTY (1929), BE BIG (1931) and PICK A STAR (1937) (as MOVIE STRUCK) are public domain subjects. In the words of Stan Laurel, “N-O, ott, not!” The subsisting, valid copyright of each subject named is a matter of public record, easily verified. In the event of a subsequent printing by the publisher, such errors should be corrected first and foremost. None of these films is copyright free, never has been, and as Gelbspan used to end most of his correspondence, sometimes as a cautionary note, “Be guided accordingly.”
And without recounting the whole story in the text concerning Louella Parsons, there is one relevant fact that evidently neither Lois Laurel nor Scott MacGillivray knows. Hal Roach and especially his wife Margaret were close friends of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. That automatically made them favorites of the powerful Hearst columnist, Louella Parsons. Her husband, Dr. Harry Martin, shared a birthday with the first contract actress Roach ever employed, his dear friend, Bebe Daniels (married to Ben Lyon, star of HELL’S ANGELS, who in 1955 hosted Laurel & Hardy in their final appearance as a team on a program for BBC-TV). Doc Martin and Bebe Daniels’ mutual birthday happened to fall on January 14. On which date Roach was born as well. So the threesome and their spouses staged big parties for decades to celebrate their natal anniversaries. The point is that Miss Parsons did, in fact, always know exactly what Laurel & Hardy were doing, and could be persuaded by Roach to promote whatever was in the studio’s best interest – either to boost, or to scold Laurel & Hardy. She, too, was guided by Roach accordingly.
Scott has done so much able research, is dead-on with almost everything he writes, so I hesitate to offer even these few minor emendations. But a couple more. Raymond Rohauer first met Buster Keaton in 1954, not 1952. And the NO MAN’S LAW Hal Roach made is a 1927 film, not 1925. That earlier same-named film was produced by R-C Pictures Corp.
One association disclosed in the text was a complete surprise to me. My whole life I knew the name Sherman S. Krellberg in connection with his almost immediate mid-1930s reissue of Paramount’s terrific first six Hopalong Cassidy feature films. I met the cantankerous old Krellberg in New York once, and I testified against his side on behalf of William Boyd Enterprises in some motion picture copyright litigation over the Hoppy films. I never knew until reading FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD of Krellberg’s offer to star Laurel & Hardy at his Belasco Theatre in a Broadway musical show.
One curious omission: the book skirts any reference, good or bad, to Larry Harmon.
Something else that piqued my curiosity: the 1949 RKO document speculating on whether or not Oliver Hardy would be a suitable replacement for the then just-deceased Edgar Kennedy in his “Mr. Average Man” series of domestic comedy two-reelers. I can well imagine how pleasing the continuation of that long-running series might have been.
Here are some of the author’s observations I particularly liked or paused at, because they offered a fresh insight, or they made me think a second time about beliefs previously held concerning the pair he well describes as “life’s innocent bystanders.” I did not always share Scott’s conclusions or opinions, but I do think it is good that he is both championing these later pictures, as well as trying to fill in some of the subsequent film history gaps. He does a nice job, e.g., clarifying the tangled production and distribution chronology of Laurel & Hardy films made in 1939.
The author quotes a classy review of UTOPIA in the LOS ANGELES TIMES which seems to grimace at the then-ill Laurel’s “cruelly emaciated” appearance. “It is all too plain,” the notice concludes, “that UTOPIA is destined to be the last of the Laurel & Hardy comedies. For the many happy hours they have given us, our grateful thanks.”
Hardy was always the better actor, and while not ill he was extremely heavy while making ATOLL K, which became UTOPIA for American release. Nearing sixty, his baby face gone, all that extra weight limited his range of expression. Hal Roach could be brutally frank, and did say that he foresaw this problem at the time he let the team go.
Former vaudevillians Abbott & Costello soared to the top during World War II in a series of comedies for Universal Pictures. A handful of their routines are timeless, but nearly all of their films dated fast and do not hold up well today. In his analysis of GREAT GUNS (1941), Scott explains that “those Fox people” hired Laurel & Hardy “not because they were Laurel & Hardy, but because they might be another Abbott & Costello. The people didn’t matter as much as the product.”
He accurately critiques Fox screenwriter Lou Breslow’s unsuitability for the comedy style of Laurel & Hardy, although Scott might have mentioned that Breslow (who I remember meeting at Hollywood 80) should have been familiar with how comedy teams worked at Hal Roach Studios, since his wife of 53 years was little Miriam Bilenkin, professionally known as Marion Byron. She was Buster Keaton’s diminutive leading lady in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928), and before that was briefly teamed by Roach with Anita Garvin in a distaff version of Laurel & Hardy. Breslow’s screenplays for our two time-tried heroes were terrible.
Something else no one ever mentions in connection with GREAT GUNS was that the film’s hated director, Monty Banks, starred in a few silent two-reelers made at Roach. Evidently, he learned little there.
Scott may not have had access to the pressbook, and in any case pressbooks are hardly a reliable source, but according to one publicity item contained therein, “A special privilege, one never before given to any star in the history of 20th Century-Fox, has been accorded to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the making of GREAT GUNS.
“They alone can end a scene of the picture. The camera must run until they call ‘cut.’
“The reason for this is that the boys, while doing a scene, occasionally come forth with a spontaneous bit of ‘business’ which is not in the script. They have learned that if they do not catch it the first time, it is not worth trying again.”
If any part of that is true, the story indicates the team had more control over these forties films than previously believed. Again, Scott does not mention that pressbook item, but he saw evidence of its point watching one of the many camera looks Hardy registers in THE BIG NOISE. “This looks suspiciously like an ad-lib that Laurel & Hardy tacked on after the scripted scene was supposed to be finished,” observes the author, “and director Mal St. Clair kept the camera rolling. (Off-screen laughter from the crew can be heard here.)”
Before that unpleasantness involving his second wife, I used to see Robert Blake often at the Playboy Mansion during the 1980s and 1990s. To that point in TV history, talk show hosts would have declared him the winner of any “Most Valuable Guest” award. He was unpredictable and compelling. Ratings always spiked. The final time he appeared with host Tom Snyder on his CBS program, Blake filled up an hour with a story he told me later was completely fabricated. The show needed him during a ratings period. Blake informed the producer he had nothing to promote and nothing left to talk about. They begged him to come on. So he made up a story about a lost love in New York. I, for one, stupidly believed it. So who knows when he was telling the truth? But one of several times I asked him about working with Laurel & Hardy in THE BIG NOISE, he said, among other things, “Laurel was cool, and when he was ‘on,’ everyone laughed. People on the lot would crowd around to see what he’d do just to amuse his buddies….I can’t even remember the ‘rummy’ who directed; I thought Laurel ran the show.”
So, more anecdotal evidence that blame for these forties films does not rest exclusively with powers-that-be at Fox and M-G-M. The stars had more control than some would like to believe.
Discussing A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO, although I am not entirely convinced by his thinking here, Scott rules the picture is “a definite B, running only 67 minutes,” but that “Fox stealthily tried to pass it off as an A picture by mounting the prints on eight reels instead of seven, as GREAT GUNS had been….This ploy worked in many situations; exhibitors counted the reels and gave the film A treatment, as a solo attraction or on the top half of a double feature.”
Still, whether seven “great” reels or eight, it remains six reels more than most fans have ever cared to watch. Plus, in either case, whether seven or eight reels, the total running time would be the same. Did no one figure that out?
Because we discussed it more than once, I know Bill Everson did not care for the anthology film called THE CRAZY WORLD OF LAUREL & HARDY (1967), but Scott MacGillivray did. So did I. Scott complimented what he described as the “full orchestra score by Jerry Fielding, who provided an ambitious accompaniment with contemporary jazz stylings.” For as much as we all admire the incidental music written for Roach comedies by LeRoy Shield and Marvin Hatley, I was surprised that I enjoyed the completely different background melodies furnished by Fielding. Although Scott does not mention it, curiously the composer then used these exact same music cues when scoring the popular 1960s CBS comedy series HOGAN’S HEROES, produced by Bing Crosby Productions, Crosby having been a Santa Anita and Del Mar racetrack pal of Oliver Hardy.
The author buries one of his keenest insights in the middle of a paragraph discussing the characters’ relative intelligence and state-in-life on screen. “Any moviegoer could feel superior to Laurel & Hardy,” Scott observes. “However, this feeling of superiority was intended for the audience, not the cast of characters in their films.”
There it is; that says it all. Thank you, Scott MacGillivray.
If only the superior geniuses at Fox and M-G-M had been guided by that one simple law, films made there by the Kings of Comedy might be regarded more favorably today. Screen any of these forties films through the prism of such a governing rule and see how they would be perceived differently.
How was it that no one at important studios like Fox and M-G-M understood this elemental principle known to everyone at HRS? Wouldn’t this doctrine be obvious to film execs with even room temperature I.Q.? How smart were they? Hadn’t they already seen what an inflexible manufacturing machine like Metro did to extinguish the comedy and appeal of brands such as Our Gang, the Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton?
Evidently they learned nothing from such artistic if not commercial failures. Perhaps some few people employed at those plants did see clearly what was happening, but who had the courage to risk his or her job by saying as much? Who would dare challenge the edicts of studio power brokers in light of the fact that three of these four different comedy units had nonetheless continued to generate solid returns on investment? Because, amazingly enough, that is what happened. Almost all those bad comedies which so frustrated the stars who appeared in them were (except for some of the Marx Brothers films) commercial hits – although not because they were good or better, but rather owing to how they were made and sold.
Another distinction that Roach grasped, but which was lost on brain-trusts at other studios: it is one thing to be child-like, to be believable innocents; it is another to be annoyingly stupid, to be embarrassingly dumb. Even pitiable. And not appreciating this difference, Fox and M-G-M plumbed new depths of uncomfortable imbecility and infantilism, stripping two formerly striving but child-like characters of their pride and their dignity. Audiences which had once laughed with Laurel & Hardy, were now laughing at them. If they laughed at all. Mostly it is a wave of commiseration that one feels watching gloomy, tasteless exercises like DANCING MASTERS.
Scott points out how bewildered and frustrated both Laurel and Hardy were that “the comedy-free Fox and M-G-M studios” were allegedly not interested in the stars’ ideas for improving their movies. Nor was the front office moved by complaints that the stories were not really about Laurel & Hardy. Or that scenarios were sometimes penned to take advantage of standing sets constructed for other, more important pictures. Or that the films primarily served to test younger potential stars, and secondarily to share the amortization of company overhead through the use of studio property, plant and equipment.
Babe Hardy grumbled to the LOS ANGELES TIMES in 1951 that Fox and M-G-M had attached no importance whatsoever to the task of crafting serviceable scripts for the team, or devising clever gags. “That’s a pitiful thing,” Hardy protested, “when they don’t think you have to have a story or a cast. Then they’d give us a young girl or boy who had never been in pictures, so that we’d be busy teaching them to act and trying to be funny ourselves at the same time!”
No matter. Because quality did not matter! Studio execs understood something that, evidently, the greatest of comedy teams did not. Their work product now represented a kind of small, old fish, in a large pond. Part of an ocean, actually, teeming with sharks. Theirs’ were B-grade pictures. They were not sold to exhibitors on the more favorable “A” picture terms. “A” pictures were generally issued to theatres as percentage engagements, while “B” pictures were usually flat rental “in advance” engagements. Thus the earning potential of “B” pictures was limited primarily as a function of how many bookings were sold up front (before moviegoers ever even saw the film), not by how many patrons actually, eventually bought tickets, later. Meaning studios generally did not participate in admissions sold at the box-office. Mostly studios took flat fees, up front. It was then the theatres which stood to succeed or fail on the merits of such B films.
All that Fox and Metro wanted and required of their matchless stars was to go through the motions and deliver units of product, on time, and under budget, in order to feed distribution channels and to amortize overhead. At this point studios as well as exhibitors were trading on the residual goodwill of Laurel & Hardy long established with the public during the Roach era. Audiences had fond memories of all the Roach comedies – since those films were entertaining -- and so moviegoers would cue up to see any picture starring their old favorites, “Stan and Ollie.” The studios knew that; they enjoyed the luxury of preordained grosses because of the way they were selling the Laurel & Hardy pictures.
In other words, consequently, Laurel and Hardy’s complaints (like Buster Keaton’s a decade earlier) about the pathetic quality of these films, were meaningless to studio executives. Why? Because, owing to the way these inexpensive pictures were so easily block-booked into theatres by two studios’ powerful distribution systems, they were guaranteed to be commercial successes before anyone could pass any kind of critical judgment! As far as the studios were concerned, reviews hardly mattered, and word-of-mouth hardly mattered. Moviegoers’ memories mattered. Goodwill (as earned for Laurel & Hardy by their Roach era output) mattered. Together these factors meant moviegoers would pay to be entertained by comedians they long had loved and who had made them laugh. Exhibitors bet on this equation. Studios depended on it.
Scott found a war-time interview Laurel gave the NEW YORK TIMES. “Nobody ever thinks of giving us a plot,” he complained. “All they do is tell us how funny we are and then push us in front of a camera. We go into the front office and beef, and the producers slap down a long list of figures that say we were smash hits at the box-office. So they want to know, why do we want to bother writing our own stuff?”
It was a heroic assumption if Laurel hoped to appeal to a studio executive’s pride in the company’s product! Laurel was either naïve, or he mistakenly believed the studio would have made more money being guided by his grievance.
Hardy’s earlier complaint about the failure to furnish any kind of compelling story arc was certainly justified, but yet these wartime films are filled with gags and routines and inside references to their Roach films’ work product. Where did all that material come from if not Laurel & Hardy themselves?
Fox and M-G-M regarded Laurel & Hardy pictures, according to Scott, as “entry level” assignments for new, young writers. Studio bosses then assigned old, and old-fashioned directors closing out their careers, to helm these projects. That meant rookie writers, has-been and tired directors, plus ever-smiling twenty-something actors making their film debuts. “Introducing, and saying goodbye to … Bob Bailey, as the juvenile lead.” Bob Bailey and others like him, all of whom seem to treat the Laurel and Hardy characters as little better than amusing house pets they must tolerate. This was some kind of sorry recipe for the stars of ANOTHER FINE MESS (1930) to have found themselves in -- or into.
A bubbly Fox press release for THE BULLFIGHTERS (1945) declared the picture was directed by Mal St. Clair, “veteran slapstick megaphoner.” He had once been a highly regarded practitioner of sophisticated silent films satire, but would make only two more movies. Scott cites Dick Lane as the source confirming that Laurel both wrote and directed “two slapstick set-pieces” himself, while St. Clair watched.
Mantan Moreland, well remembered for his side-splitting portrayal of the aggrieved chauffeur, “Birmingham Brown,” in the Charlie Chan films, worked with Laurel & Hardy in A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO. Scott quotes a few lines from the interview Mr. Moreland granted the Way Out West periodical, PRATFALL, in 1968, but not these: “It was a wonderful thing to be around (Laurel and Hardy)….We were ad-libbing on that train – the three of us started ad-libbing, I think Stan started it, and then Hardy, and we kept on,” Moreland recalled. “They decided to leave it in. We were just kidding and they kept it in….The script was there all right, but we’d get ready to shoot a scene, and if (Laurel and Hardy) had something in the script that wasn’t really funny, Stan would say, ‘Wait a minute. Why don’t you try this?’”
So Laurel & Hardy, regrettably, must absorb some of the blame for films they acted in, as well as for written and remembered material they improvised and/or provided, and for scenes in which Laurel either directed the director, or directed without the director. But above all, the primary blame that accrues to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was for spoiling their deal at Hal Roach Studios in the first place and failing to realize what was happening at other motion picture plants in their industry. Roach had protected them too well all those years.
Mantan Moreland never made a movie there, but even he knew that when Laurel and Hardy “were working for Roach he gave them everything they wanted.”
Back to the big studio business model the team evidently failed to grasp. What good did it do to complain, as mentioned, when these dreary pictures made lots of money? It did no good. Scott offered the explanation: “A Laurel & Hardy film of the 1940s (like any B picture) was rented to theaters for a fixed fee, so its earning potential was relatively limited. It didn’t make sense for the studios to spend extra money on a product that wouldn’t bring in any extra money. Fox could make a Laurel & Hardy feature for $300,000 and sell a million dollars’ worth of tickets with it. The pictures were guaranteed hits already. Why raise the budgets and cut into the profit margin?”
Incredibly, even though as a “B” picture NOTHING BUT TROUBLE was sold primarily on the basis of flat rentals, at a time when ticket prices averaged 35 cents, it generated a whopping worldwide film revenue of $1,540,825. (I checked with the source who provided financial data credited to John McElwee, who has since revised the figure up from the number Scott used of $1,496,000.) What it meant was that even though Laurel & Hardy were coming to the end of the line as a film attraction, exhibitors knew that their own neighborhood patrons loved this comedy pair and would pack local theatres to see them. And to see them do anything, or as here, pretty much “nothing.”
Scott also quotes a later newspaper interview in which the admired, warm, iconic, genial, generous, genius Laurel, then retired, recalled, “We tried to tell them, if a bad one makes money, what would a good one do?” He still did not understand that it made no difference! He didn’t understand how good he had it at Hal Roach Studios, he didn’t understand how other studios operated as movie factories, and he didn’t understand how the products they manufactured were distributed, booked into theatres, and earned profits for both exhibitors and the production companies.
Yet he wanted to function, as Charlie Chaplin did, as his own producer? Sadly Roach was correct when he explained – though I knew it pained him to do so -- how Laurel was stricken by his “Chaplin complex.” Chaplin could and sometimes did function effectively at every job there was to do at a studio, from producer to gaffer. Writer to star. Composer to director. Though supremely gifted in several ways, the beloved Laurel’s talent was restricted to fewer areas than his dear friend Chaplin. Which could also be said of everyone else in Hollywood, so it was no shame to fail to measure up to Chaplin. Because who did? Who does?
A true test of Stan Laurel’s ability as a film producer can be determined by screening one of the poverty row, states-rights westerns he made, SONGS AND BULLETS (1938) starring “The Silvery-Voiced Buckaroo,” Fred Scott (as “Melody Hardy”), with comedy sidekick Al St. John, and Laurel’s off-and-on girl friend over many years, Alice Ardell. “An unstylish stout” is how VARIETY described her in its review, which savaged the picture. In an attempt to re-cut and save the film, Laurel asked Hal Roach to attend a preview with him and render an opinion. When Roach told me this story, and how bad the picture was and why, it was apparent he was genuinely sorry for Laurel.
SONGS AND BULLETS, like WAY OUT WEST, carried the credit line, “A Stan Laurel Production.” But one of these two pictures was made without the business skill, creative input, and guiding control of Hal Roach.
Besides dealing with the specific films of the 1940s, the book offers chapters titled THEATRICAL REISSUES, INTO THE FIFTIES, ROBERT YOUNGSON, HOME MOVIES, THE FILM LEGACY, and SONS OF THE DESERT. Except for coverage of the Sons organization, although there is some interest in these areas, they have received but little attention from researchers and authors elsewhere. Probably because the task represents hard work – lots of heavy lifting.
In the 25 years I knew Hal Roach, I could never satisfactorily explain to him why so many people were deeply interested in not only revisiting and collecting his “old pictures,” but also in academic and critical analysis, even to researching the production and distribution of his films. This kind of historical focus puzzled him. But then, this man created these movies, so he was not curious about them, nor did he live in the past. Nor did he feel any need whatsoever to impress anyone. I guess he took it all for granted. That film library, together with Santa Anita Park and a few other projects, these things were his life’s work. So as such, as real work, there were also the concomitant real-life problems, and pressures, associated with developing and owning and retaining these balance sheet assets across most of his hundred years.
We, on the other hand, enjoy these treasured films today as simple, escapist entertainment. We cannot know how difficult it was to finance and pre-sell and create and cast and shoot and cut and preview and distribute and reissue and maintain and store and hold onto these pictures from then until now – besides meeting a payroll every week -- because we were not there. But when Hal Roach responded to fans’ questions who had read Jack McCabe’s book, Roach remembered (or chose not to remember) all the blood, sweat and tears he endured making these movies, while meeting payrolls for decades, and allowing the artists who worked for him to pay their bills as well, raise their families, and who all looked back years and decades later and uniformly described him as the best boss they ever knew, or knew of.
So neither Hal Roach nor Stan Laurel perceived these films the way we do. They made them, as a job. What a great job it often was (so they said), but a job nonetheless. With financial, creative, labor, technical, personality and other difficulties. Plus deadline pressures. People like Roach and Laurel recalled these problems and pressures and obstacles with both pleasant and unpleasant physical and also psychological memories that the rest of us were never privy to, because, once more, we were not there.
Several times I tried to tell Hal Roach how much fun I imagined it would be to have been involved in some capacity with the original production of Hal Roach Studios film properties during the 1920s and 1930s.
“Why?” he would ask, poker-faced.
Because, as I attempted to no avail explaining to him, besides being so funny, viewing those movies transported me to an idealized place and feeling and landscape and state of mind and world that I could neither access, nor get to in any other way. Of course I perceived none of it through the real-life prism of problems Roach recalled. He would briefly indulge me, then sort of laugh, shake his head, and change the subject. “Well, let’s get back to the present,” was a remark I heard often.
Obviously achieving that kind of wish fulfillment was out of the question for movie lovers my age. Time travel to Culver City in the 1920s was beyond our power! In retrospect, however, I did manage to graft myself onto the latter-day history of these films nonetheless, without realizing I was doing so at the time. I could not have been there to help make these movies, it was too late for that dream. But I could write about them, help distribute them to new audiences (for starters through Blackhawk Films), and I could help to restore and preserve them for future generations to discover and enjoy (through KirchMedia and its predecessor companies).
Right after Stan Laurel died in 1965 I started phoning and interviewing Hal Roach Studios alumni. These interviews have been excerpted on occasion, but never published.
In 1969 I inherited and ran the largest Sons of the Desert chapter – Block-Heads, oasis number three – there has ever been. In his book, by the way, Scott refers to it as a “Minneapolis-St. Paul” tent. But it was “foundered” by St. Paulites. This matters to no one except the fine people living in St. Paul, but to them it does matter, and a lot. Unfortunately its twin city of Minneapolis invariably gets credit for everything that happens in Minnesota’s state capital across the Mississippi River border, which is not Minneapolis. We never minded the Block-Heads tent being described as the chapter located in “St. Paul-Minneapolis,” but please take note of the billing. Anyone who attended the magnificent 1988 Sons of the Desert International Convention in Minneapolis, however, missed the whole show. They took, in Stan Laurel’s words, “a wrong turning.” For that affair, was, and truly so, held in St. Paul.
In 1974 I went to work in Davenport, Iowa for The Eastin-Phelan Corp., popularly known under its trade name of Blackhawk Films, as covered in FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD. This company was the non-theatrical licensee of Hal Roach Studios. As my colleagues David Shepard and Bill Lindholm can confirm, everything about that wonderful experience did constitute time travel. What our product was, where we worked, for whom, how we worked, the old-fashioned river town, the ancient building with countless subterranean tunnels and located but ten feet from an active railroad track – we may as well have been transported back to the 1920s, or before. Honestly. Driving to work the biggest radio station everyone listened to was WOC. Future President Ronald Reagan once worked there. The music they played all day revolved around the even-then long deceased, legendary local musician Bix Beiderbecke. In fact the whole town revolved around Bix Beiderbecke, and nothing else.
The company was co-owned by founder Kent D. Eastin. He was “Mr. Eastin” to every one of us except for his partner after World War II, Marty Phelan, now happily retired in his mid-nineties. Mr. Eastin did replace all the original titles on Hal Roach subjects we released, but not for the reason cited (to guard against piracy) in FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD. We wanted to and did issue films with the original main and production credits title cards whenever possible (such as for all copyright-free subjects where the coveted title sections were extant). The Eastin-Phelan Corp., however, was contractually bound by its agreement with Hal Roach Studios to replace all those beautifully designed title sections reflecting such subsisting registered trademarks as those for Loew’s Incorporated, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, etc., so as not to violate anyone’s rights. Mr. Eastin was steadfast on this point. I saved all of our memos and correspondence on the subject.
When he had time, Eastin would come into the production room and handle film simply because he enjoyed it. Working from 35mm nitrate prints, fine grains, or lavenders, we would generate 16mm reduction dupe negatives. Or from nitrate original or dupe negs, we would print new 35mm fine grains, and then generate reduction dupe negs. All these elements had beautiful, imaginative M-G-M title card artwork, or at least the lesser but still interesting Film Classics designs. Sitting there, Eastin would then wind into the first reel in order to dispassionately cut the original title sections from these 16mm dupe negatives, and replace them with those famously dull, drab Blackhawk titles. Which I forever complained to him about, to no avail. Into the waste basket the originals would go. As would both Bill Lindholm and I, to retrieve the discarded treasures, as soon as Eastin went back to his office!
By the way, Bill Lindholm is another Laurel & Hardy enthusiast who heartily endorsed the original edition of FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD. I just reported news to him about the latest edition, and Bill, who surveys the DVD market, tells me, “All of the post-Roach films are available on DVD. They are selling very well. I have seen them all and the quality is excellent. Well, that is to say, the quality of the picture and sound is excellent, not the quality of the films themselves.”
Nevertheless do see or revisit the films. Read the book. Make up your own mind.
Scott does get this wrong (who would get it right?), but when what was commonly known as Blackhawk Films was in effect dissolved, over time, renowned film preservationist David Shepard bought the prime assets. The corporate shell, however, meaning the shares of the company, were sold eventually to another friend, Hugh M. Hefner. The remaining assets (which included the registered trade name “Blackhawk Films”), and the corporate stock, went to interests controlled by Hefner, specifically, Playboy Enterprises International.
So it was incorrect to state in FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD: “Shepard finally closed Blackhawk Films on August 15, 2007.” David could not close what he did not control. The action he took, in fact, was to cease printing the 16mm negatives formerly owned by The Eastin-Phelan Corp.
Except for during the major parties, day or night anyone visiting the Playboy Mansion over the past few decades would have heard only the 1920s and 1930s music of just three artists playing across the property’s speakers – Al Bowlly, Oliver Hardy’s aforementioned pal Bing Crosby, or Davenport’s Bix Beiderbecke. One year attending a Cinecon in Hollywood I introduced Mr. Shepard to Mr. Hefner and explained how we were all related, even down to the jazz ballad stylings of Bix Beiderbecke!
Five years later in 1979 I was fortunate to meet an amazing entrepreneur, a private person few people knew, Hans Andresen. He was the co-founder with Dr. Leo Kirch of what evolved into KirchMedia GmbH & Co., along with many related privately-held production, distribution, and rights trading European companies, primarily in Germany. And just to tease one thing, without these men – in a story that has never been told – the revival of interest in Buster Keaton and the preservation of his classic films might never have taken place. If Raymond Rohauer were alive, he could confirm as much. Although whether or not he would want to do so is another question.
Operating out of Munich, Messrs. Andresen and Kirch had been a licensee of Hal Roach Studios since the late 1950s, but in 1971 through CCA they became owners and licensors of the library. They acquired the copyrights in the film library as the studio’s new proprietor throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. It is too complicated to explain, but companies they established to own and distribute the Hal Roach library are in fact the corporate successor-in-interest to Hal Roach Studios everywhere in the world except North and South America, and they have been, continuously, although quietly, for the last forty years. Today CCA is controlled by Klaus Hallig, long-time close associate of Kirch and Andresen.
That is why it is misleading to read in FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD that in 1992 “the Roach library had been acquired by Robert Halmi (RHI)” without qualifying the territorial limitation as being only for North and South America. Scott also errs when he states, “In 1993 the Laurel & Hardy library was purchased by Virgin Video.” Not so. Virgin Video was our licensee. Big difference. Also incorrect is the declaration that RHI owned or controlled any part of Video Treasures; they were unrelated, arms’ length companies.
Hal Roach met Leo Kirch as well as Klaus Hallig once in Berlin. Hal knew and liked especially Hans Andresen, whom he saw often at his home in Bel-Air. From the time I met Hans in 1979, Hal would often ask me for the current whereabouts of this globe-trotting film buyer and producer.
Although not the forum to expound on and detail any of this, since Scott attempts to deal with the labyrinthine ownership and distribution of the Laurel & Hardy films following their deaths, I feel obliged to say at least something about one matter – the restoration and preservation of those films.
Thanks to Hans Andresen, Klaus Hallig, and Leo Kirch, during the 1980s and 1990s I was able to supervise the expenditure of millions of dollars restoring, converting and preserving the nitrate film elements in the Hal Roach library. We are the only company or institution or archive anywhere in the world which has ever undertaken to restore and preserve the surviving film materials that constitute the entire post-bankruptcy library of Hal Roach Studios. The work was performed at a laboratory in Los Angeles, Film Technology Company, with that same trusted colleague from the Blackhawk Films days, Bill Lindholm.
No one seems to be aware of this. The reason being, I suppose, in keeping with the discreet nature of a privately held (though gigantic) set of corporations, we never sought credit, we never circulated publicity about the task. But it is worth mentioning, at the very least, in order to enable worthy writers and historians like Scott MacGillivray to get the facts straight.
Fans at last ought to be apprised how reissues through television, through VHS, and through DVD formats, by such companies as Cabin Fever, Universal, Turner Classic Movies, Kinowelt, the Hallmark Channel, etc., were either our licensees, or were serviced through the restored, preservation state-of-the-art fine grains we manufactured and provided to RHI, as an accommodation, at cost. That was all our work. When even the scholarship of Scott MacGillivray fails to disclose this situation, we need to embark on some kind of public relations campaign.
Finally, since we believe in limiting reviews to running no longer than the length of the book itself, as Oliver Hardy stated in SONS OF THE DESERT, “That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.”
Except to state, in sum, as declared at the outset, FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD is highly recommended and essential reading for those who love classic comedies – even though films made from GREAT GUNS through ATOLL K are hardly classic comedies. They are barely comedies at all. I realize Scott and some few others disagree with that position. We all make errors, some more than others. I make plenty. Franklin P. Adams said, if I remember it correctly, “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.”
Who could argue with that?
Nevertheless please do send in any contrary opinions or corrections on this review, or our website. How else can we learn from our mistakes? Just as Oliver Hardy had not learned when he explained, “Buying that bridge was no mistake.”
One mistake we did not make was restoring and preserving the films Hal Roach made, thus enabling Laurel & Hardy to continue entertaining future generations “from the 2010s forward.”
--Richard W. Bann--
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