Bowler Dessert Revisited

Willie McIntyre, Bowler Dessert editor extraordinaire and Call of the Cuckoos Grand Sheik and Beau Chumps Grand Sheik, Mike Jones, go back a looooong way. “Too long” if you ask Willie, but in spite of this, he was happy for the Chumps Website to look back at the illustrious history of the publication that has been a mainstay of the UK Tents since Laughing Gravy was but a ‘twinkle in his pop’s eye‘.

Bowler Dessert was for many years a quarterly and then six-monthly magazine which went online in April 1999 at https://www.bowlerdessert.com/ There is so much good stuff that went in the magazine over the years, it would be such a shame if it wasn’t to be seen by this and later generations of Sons, so Willie and Mike got together and the first of what we hope will be many reruns follows.

In this then, we focus on two pieces on Hal Roach. The first, from Bowler Dessert #26 – May 1987, is an amalgam of reports by Angela Brooks in TODAY, David Robinson in SIGHT AND SOUND and Garth Pedlar in CLASSIC IMAGES. The second, from Bowler Dessert #55, Winter 1998, features an interview with Roach from 1928 (though the Source is unknown).

Hal Roach with Stan and Babe in the 30’s

Bowler Dessert #26 – May 1987

Hal Roach is the sort of man who refuses to act his age. Five years shy of a century, the man responsible for teaming Laurel and Hardy has a firm handshake and all his marbles, thank you very much. In London last October to launch Virgin Video’s release of his film classics, Roach had been brought over from Los Angeles to give an expensive puff to the audio-visual giant.

A young Hal Roach

Roach got his first job in movies the year the Titanic went down. It was 1912 and Roach thought he’d hit filthy lucre when he was one of seventeen picked from three hundred and offered a dollar a day, a banana and car fare for work as a film extra. The money didn’t make him rich, but the banana helped. By the time his stable of Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers and Our Gang was in full swing, it had become the favourite comic prop.

“You always tried to make the bad guy slip. Harold Lloyd never slipped once but Oliver Hardy never stopped.”

His career since is the stuff of legends – he directed, produced, ran his own Hal Roach Studios, made the transition to talkies and, against a tide of protest, successfully marched his studio into the era of television.

Over the years he has made his millions and, just as easily, lost them. Now he lives comfortably in his Bel Air home, plays cards at the country club and dreams his dreams.

A very early aerial photo of the Hal Roach Studios, believed to be taken in 1921.

He swims every day, his passion for exotic food is catered for by his live-in cook and he quietly relishes the laughter of his grandchildren as they watch grandpa’s old films on their ritual Sunday visits. He says of the oldies: “There was no magic. I made a lot of pictures. I was ashamed of the bad ones. I was pleased with the good ones.”

Roach is not cowed by the thought of meeting his maker. “I’m more interested in the here than the hereafter. I suppose I’m religious, but not in the traditional sense. At my age, I’m going to die soon. I was at my club the other day and a bunch of us were sitting around the card table and I said: ‘There’s one thing I don’t want and that’s to be an angel for the rest of my life.’ “

Harold Eugene Roach analyses the particular appeal of each of his stars with great shrewdness and has his own explanation of why Laurel and Hardy were never so successful after they left his studio. “Laurel was a fine comedian and a wonderful gagman; but when it came to stories, to picking stories, he was childish.”

He regards Charles Parrott, alias Charley Chase, as the best comedian and comedy director who ever worked for him. “He had a big problem: booze. He never drank at the studio or when he was working, but booze was his downfall.”

Unlike Sennett, Roach never worked before the camera as a comedian. Strangely, because as a raconteur his style and timing is still impeccable. At his Guardian lecture at the NFT he showed he could bring the house down with a pause, masterly in placing. The audience loved him and he was clearly delighted to be mobbed and cheered and pestered for autographs, though he felt impelled to reproach them: “You’ve been a nice crowd, but I’m disappointed. You only want to talk about the past. The past boxes me. I’m more interested in tomorrow.”

A Roach Studio publicity still for Putting Pants on Philip

However, asked how he came to bring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together, Mr Roach replied, “We made a test, several tests, on Stan’s eyes, but they were too light. Eventually panchromatic filmstock was introduced and suddenly we could see Stan’s eyes in the tests. Then Leo McCarey said he’d like to direct him with Hardy. It was Putting Pants on Philip and after, when we looked for it, I turned and said, “Leo, we’ve got something.”

Mr Roach opined that comedy couples “usually consist of one funny man and one straight man.” Laurel and Hardy were each funny and straight; one’s comedy complimented the other… “They would tease and fight each other, but if anyone started a fight with one of them, the other would go to his rescue and the audience liked this reassurance. And you could get two or three shots out of each funny situation by taking a shot of each afterwards, showing their different response!”

In reply to a question about the process of colouring some of his films he commented that the process is inferior and “they can see they are just as well off with black and white. It doesn’t make the film any funnier.”

Fascinating stuff indeed. While unconcerned about it when interviewed, Hal E Roach did indeed meet his maker on November 2nd 1992 aged 100 years.

Bowler Dessert #55, Winter 1998

From an unknown source, this piece is based on the onset of the sound era and the early thoughts of Hal Roach on the innovation. His forward-thinking put his studio at the forefront of movie production in 1929 and delivered handsomely for him where he just left many of his competitors in his wake. The initial success was of course largely down to how well his star team, Laurel and Hardy, adapted to the new medium, in taking their comedy to a new level.

Hal Roach had something to say in August 1928. Bob Spiller found the article but the original source in which it was published was not recorded.

The two-reel comedy, far from being a rickety and unimportant relic of “custard pie” days, now is likely to take a bigger place in the sun than ever before, according to Hal Roach, producer of comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who arrived in New York recently to confer with Eastern executives.

‘The Boss’ at the Studio in 1926

Mr Roach, who has a football build, a cheery, smiling face and is known on the Coast as an excellent polo player, has done a considerable amount of globe-trotting since last December. At that time he and his wife set out from San Francisco for the Philippines and Japan. They visited China, the Malay Peninsula and India, and then went on to Italy, France, New York City and the Coast. Now, after starting his studio off on its production schedule of forty comedies for 1928-29 he finds himself back in the East.

In discussing what he believes to be a new rise in the popularity of the two-reel comedy, Mr Roach laid stress on quality and originality.

“The short film,” he said, “requires just as careful planning, in its way, as the long subject. Experience has shown us that it is fatal to try to turn out half a dozen comedies on one clothes- horse. The average person might he surprised to learn that the well-planned two-reel comedy takes more time – in proportion to its length – than the eight-reel feature.”

Sound is welcomed by Mr Roach as a highly interesting innovation and one having a special bearing on comedy production.

Sound equipment arrives at the Roach Studios in late 1928

“There may be some speculation as to the ultimate place of sound effects and dialogue for full-length pictures,” he said, “but I don’t see any question about the value of sound in the one-reel or two-reel film. There you have a fine opportunity to try all kinds of novelties without getting the public tired. It’s easy to imagine the variety of humorous and farcical effects possible for a sound comedy. And a good dialogue comedy might he compared to a vaudeville skit, with the extra action that the screen can give. The public has already shown unqualified approval of the short sound pictures, the Movietone newsreel and the like.”

It is Mr Roach’s opinion that sound will exert an important influence in cutting down metropolitan stage presentations in film houses. He looks for a rebound from what he calls the present “overbalancing” to an accepted all-picture program, with sound providing the novelty sought by city showmen who went in heavily for miniature musical comedies to supplement their cinema programs.

Stan and Babe explain – in detail – the intricacies of the new equipment to the Our Gang kids! Sound engineer Elmer Raguse looks on from the van, perhaps understandably concerned for the safety of his new equipment…

“I feel sure,” said Mr. Roach, “that the public, as well as the theatre manager, is getting a little jaded with these top-heavy stage programs. It doesn’t reflect much credit on the strength of a feature picture to devote less time to its showing than to a supplementary bill of ballet work and assorted stage bits. Motion pictures, as I see them, represent a definite and popular form of entertainment that can stand on its own feet. Why not have the surrounding program made up of short films instead of repetitious presentation acts?”

The comedy producer speculated on the possibility of establishing a Broadway house where nothing but short subjects would be shown.

“I have often wondered,” he remarked, “what would be the result of an experiment in which a big theatre could be turned over to the exclusive showing of short feature material. What would be the public reaction? Would there be enough patronage to insure a fair profit? I believe so. Anyone can see how comprehensive the field is by just glancing at the current schedules of the leading producers. More comedies were turned out last year than ever before. Forty per cent more two-reel films are shown in first-run houses than was the case three years ago. The UFA ‘Oddities’ have proved popular and then there are the Technicolor specials, nature studies, the Music Master series, lessons in bridge – in fact a variety that seems to increase all the time.

“What reception would be given to a program made up, for example, of short features totalling eight or ten reels altogether; perhaps two-reel comedies, a newsreel and a number of one-reel novelties? I’d certainly like to see.”

Elmer Raguse again, the man responsible for the sound installation and Head of the Sound Department with Roach in 1929.

One of the things which was most impressed upon him during his recent foreign trip, the comedy producer said, was the necessity of careful discrimination in sending two-reel pictures to the Orient. The Chinaman, for instance, utterly fails to appreciate many stock American jokes. The iceman and the bill collector are thoroughly meaningless figures to him and comedies centring their appeal on such characters are likely to fail dismally in their purpose. Sub-titles must be discounted as a means of conveying humor, since in translation they often lose all their wit, especially if a slang expression is involved. Thus it takes a discerning person and one acquainted with the Oriental temperament to pass judgment on what will and what won’t cause a laugh.

We thank Willie again for his permission to reproduce these, and sincerely hope that you enjoyed reading them. Willie still has many old issues of Bowler Dessert for sale and Mike has one or two duplicate copies, so if you need an issue or two to complete your collection, why not get in touch. If you haven’t already, please get Bowler Dessert added to your favourites list.

A mini Biography of Hal Roach with many pictures can be found in the features section of the main website or by clicking here.

If you have any thoughts or comments, please leave them in the reply / comment section below. We’ll be very happy to hear from you and you will receive a response.

Categories Uncategorized

4 thoughts on “Bowler Dessert Revisited

  1. Well done. A great article, Hal Roach was an amazing man. Meeting him was one of the highlights of my time in the Sons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Marion

      Thanks so much for visiting and we’re glad you like the article.
      Yes, meeting the great man must have been a real thrill, I wish I’d had the chance to meet him myself.

      Take care
      Mike

      Like

  2. Interesting what Mr Roach says about Charley Chase being the best comedian and comedy director he worked with. He’s great in Sons of the Desert. I’ll have to have a look at more of his films on Youtube.
    Also, Hal Roach saying ‘There was no magic. I made a lot of pictures…’ shows that he viewed it above all as a business. There’s a quote from Edison that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and I think it’s true in this case. Mr Roach’s aim was to make money and I think he would have viewed the continuing appeal of Stan and Ollie as a ‘happy accident’.
    And thirdly, I think that kid on the left from Our Gang has pinched Ollie’s bowler.

    Like

  3. Hello Andrew and thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Yes, Hal Roach did indeed set out to make money, but not at the expense of quality. It was not unusual to release three and sometimes even four-reel comedies if they were too good to cut (Beau Chumps bring an example) even though the returns would be at the same level as two-reelers.

    I think the kid with the derby you noted is Harry Spear, though Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard would also wear a bartered derby regularly. I rather suspect that ‘used’ Stan derbies made their way to Our Gang. Babe cast-offs would have been too big?

    Thanks again And take care

    Mike

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close