BY POPULAR DEMAND?
A: I live in Los Angeles now. That's going to be my testimony. And I quote Hugh Hefner to explain why both of us moved here, which is, as he says, "Because it's the source of all my dreams." I grew up in St. Paul, far away from Hollywood. My real passion then was playing baseball and basketball and following the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers. Yet I never got to see them play in Los Angeles until I was an adult. Getting here, from there, was a formidable challenge.
So, as an adolescent, meeting Hollywood movie stars was as remote a possibility for me as inspecting soil samples on the moon. Besides, both Messrs. Laurel and Hardy died before I graduated high school. I did not have a serious interest in film until I entered the University of Minnesota. So I never even considered trying to meet them. Therefore, no, I never met them.
Richard W. Bann with Hal Roach in 1992.
I got to know their widows. And once I got started, I either interviewed or became good friends with almost everyone who did anything of any importance at Hal Roach Studios, both in front of and behind the cameras, who lived into the mid-1960s. That's easily in excess of one-hundred people. I wouldn't trade the experience of having known so many of these remarkable people, as close friends, for the sum total of the exorbitant current annual payrolls of both the Dodgers and the Lakers, squared!
Friends are always asking, "When are you going to finish your book on Hal Roach?" That invariably sets off the pain receptors in my brain. If they knew, the depth of as yet unfiled documents, correspondence, advertising accessories, etc., that I have to deal with, and try to manage, on the history of this studio, and if they could see the mountain of recorded interviews with people on that payroll lasting nearly a century -- which have never even been transcribed -- then they might better understand what is involved in this daunting task. I am writing essays now on all the Laurel & Hardy films for the web-site. Virtually every one of these will have to be expanded and updated later as I work my way through relevant interviews (some of which, again, go back to the late 1960s), as well as other written documentation relating to the production and distribution histories of these films. There is plenty yet to do, I am afraid.
Now that we have established these facts, I think I was lucky to have been a kid growing up in the 1950s, because television at that time was filled with all the film library product of the 1940s, 1930s, and to some extent the 1920s. All at once. I didn't have to spend three decades to catch up with all those films. They were simply resurrected as a group -- old movies -- and dumped onto television at one time. My time! As a kid. There they all were.
Today we have hundreds of TV channels; just try to find some of the things we were fortunate enough to have seen and be influenced by as American kids in the 1950s and 1960s. The best of these programs are still shown today on specialized channels, but can kids find them? If so, with all they have to choose from, will they select these classic films of the past to watch? If not, what are these kids watching instead that will constitute programming they will be nostalgic for when they grow up? If any. If they even grow up.
Like every other American kid at that time, I watched these films casually, and enjoyed them. It wasn't until I entered college that I discovered film societies, and that there was a legitimate outlet for someone with a serious interest in film. Which I didn't realize I had, until I got to the University of Minnesota, the third largest college campus in the country. It was there I met Ron Hall, who introduced me to Leonard Maltin, who introduced me to Al Kilgore, who introduced me to Bill Everson, who was the mentor for everyone, worldwide, who knew and cared about great films of the past.
Quickly I learned about Blackhawk Films, where I eventually went to work. They had a license from Hal Roach Studios to sell 8mm and 16mm prints for non-theatrical use to film collectors. I became one! From there I started going to Cinecons, plus the Sons of the Desert had just been founded by Jack McCabe. In 1969 I was elected Grand Sheik and Exhausted Ruler of the third oldest chapter in the organization, the Block-Heads tent. It was fun, I liked the people. Then I was fortunate enough to turn an avocation into a career. Because I soon abandoned public accounting, as a CPA, in what now seems like another lifetime ago.
You asked, "If you were a great fan of L&H as a child, how did this help form your education as a writer?" I have no education as a writer. I took one journalism course in graduate school as an elective because I thought it would be easy. I never took a film course, of any kind.
As a young adult I sought to trace the roots of this interest. I seemed to remember, as a kid growing up camped in front of a television set, I liked the comedy shorts of Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase. Then when I discovered they were all made at the same place, by the same man, Hal Roach, I got interested in knowing all about who he was, and what kind of a place he'd created which gave us such wonderful entertainment.
Q: How did you first connect with Hal Roach?
A: It was1966, the year after Stan Laurel died, and I had entered the University of Minnesota. I simply called directory assistance in Los Angeles and asked for his phone number. I called him at home, and started asking questions. Somehow we became great friends, and I knew him for the last quarter of his life, twenty-six years. We did so many amazing things together that sometimes people thought I worked for Hal Roach. Never did. We were just friends.
I saw the loyalty he commanded from people who did work for him. To a man, and to a woman, the universal response was that "Hal Roach was the best boss I ever had in my life and I had so much fun at his studio that I was practically ashamed to take the money!" And this was from people who, in most cases, had left his employ before I was born!
Hal Roach was easily the most interesting person I ever knew. I can't think of anyone else in the history of mankind who would hold greater interest for me. I could talk about what I learned from him, and the incredible things he did in his life -- which even most film fans don't know about -- until you're sorry you started this. I know that's true because sometimes I get those sentiments back from his three gorgeous daughters, who are my age and younger.
Right away it was easy to see that Hal Roach was like a lot of film pioneers. None of them gave any thought to film preservation. The residual value of a film library was inconsequential except insofar as pledged assets for financing new production. Film pioneers like Roach charted a course into the future, they didn't look back. Roach's attitude was always this simple: If you're on my side, fine, if not, get out of the way. He lived his life the way he played polo -- fast and aggressive. He was neither nostalgic, nor sentimental, but instead looked to the future.
One thing Hal Roach and I did not have in common was any sort of fondness for discussing the films he'd made. He enjoyed making them, but not looking back on them -- unless it was for the purpose of illustrating some point he wanted to make. Or that he wanted to entertain an audience. Screening his own films made twenty or eighty years ago held zero interest for him! Zero! Unless the exercise was useful to him, again in some way relating to his current activities. Consequently, since in addition he saw little residual business value in them, he never made any attempt to preserve his own films, nor did any of the other early movie moguls of big and little film studios alike.
I never worked for Hal Roach or Hal Roach Studios. Today Hallmark Entertainment owns the film library (and is successor interest to the name Hal Roach Studios, which it has effectively retired) in the Western Hemisphere. The KirchGroup owns the film library in the Eastern Hemisphere. So while the opportunity for being connected with Hal Roach Studios has passed, there has been the opportunity to sustain the legacy of Hal E. Roach and his "lot of fun" by preserving and restoring and distributing and promoting his films. And I am grateful for it. I feel obligated to do it. I didn't make these films, but I can contribute in the sense of insuring that they survive to entertain and inspire new generations of fans. I think those of us engaged in this endeavor with the KirchGroup owe that to the people who did create these films. This is one way we can thank them, by preserving the films and sustaining their work product. And of course by showing and sharing these great films!
Q: What are your favorite films, and not necessarily those made at Hal Roach Studios?
A: You may subsequently wish I could have offered a short, evasive answer to that question.
Visiting a desert island, with electricity, with respect to the universe of feature films, I would be hard-pressed to live without endorphin-elevating 16mm prints of W.C. Fields' THE BANK DICK, James Whale's REMEMBER LAST NIGHT and also Whale's THE OLD DARK HOUSE, Buster Keaton's SEVEN CHANCES, Bill Boyd's HOPALONG CASSIDY, Errol Flynn's GENTLEMAN JIM, Ernst Lubitsch's TROUBLE IN PARADISE, Tom Mix's RIDER OF DEATH VALLEY, Jean Harlow's BOMBSHELL, Warner Oland's BLACK CAMEL, Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, Ken Maynard's IN OLD SANTA FE, Ronald Colman's BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK, Woody Allen's MANHATTAN, George O'Brien's WHISPERING SMITH SPEAKS, Harold Lloyd's FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, George Stevens' GUNGA DIN, Roy Rogers' HOME IN OKLAHOMA, Jimmy Cagney's FOOTLIGHT PARADE, Raymond Griffith's PATHS TO PARADISE, Bing Crosby's HOLIDAY INN, John Ford's STAGECOACH, Robert Montgomery's HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, Bill Powell's THE THIN MAN, Clark Gable's RED DUST, Sir Alec Guinness' MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, Tracy & Hepburn's WOMAN OF THE YEAR, Astaire & Rogers' SWING TIME, and Laurel & Hardy's BLOCK-HEADS. Or, maybe THE DEVIL'S BROTHER (FRA DIAVOLO). And of course PLAYBOY'S WET AND WILD VOLUME FIVE.
Just kidding. Or, maybe not.
Among most of the direct-to-landfill movies made in the last two decades, besides all of the Woody Allen films, the only one I could screen over and over again is BACK TO THE FUTURE. As for the rest, I often feel the need for pharmaceutical enhancements to sit through them even once.
Q: What about Laurel & Hardy shorts, what are your favorites?
A: In the same spirit, offered as only my personal opinion, for the customary price, free for nothing and guaranteed to be worth it, among silent films, I would say BIG BUSINESS and TWO TARS. Now who could argue with that? No vortex of controversy there. I suppose everyone would agree with those choices. Among sound shorts, my favorites -- not necessarily the best, but my favorites -- are HOG WILD and ANOTHER FINE MESS. Maybe TOWED IN A HOLE. MEN O' WAR. HELPMATES. BRATS. COUNTY HOSPITAL. PERFECT DAY. Who can say for sure one's favorites on any given day?
These films, and so many more, have enriched our lives, shaped our values, entertained us, even programmed things we say and think. I have so many friends who are fans of these films, particularly the Hal Roach films, and we find ourselves talking to one another, unconsciously using what amounts to "H.M. Walker Verbal Shorthand" to communicate! He is so long dead, but H.M. "Beanie" Walker indeed lives on through us, at least some of us, because we are still expressing ourselves by drawing upon clever expressions he invested with these great films!
Among those many fans who really know and care about these films, where would be without them? We'd be lost, wouldn't we? Aren't we fortunate to have them? How lucky are we? Isn't preserving them and showing them the best thing we can do to repay the original filmmakers? Don't we want to afford future generations the same opportunity to discover these wonderful films? What better way can we spend our time? What better gift can we deliver to others? And perhaps, if you are just now discovering these films, then what better gift can we deliver to you!
Finally, as an American, and having recently screened GOING BYE-BYE!, I assert my Fifth Amendment privilege with respect to all other questions. Thank you for your interest.
-- Richard W. Bann --