In 2012, John Ullah, Son of the Desert, Grand Sheik and founderer of the Laughing Gravy Tent of Birmingham UK wrote his labour of love – ‘This Is More Than I Can Stand’ – a biography of his fellow Brummie, Charlie Hall.
Considering the fact that Hall was never a big star and therefore perhaps inevitably, little was written about him, it is quite remarkable to see how much John managed to uncover. Diligent research and his love of Laurel and Hardy drove him forwards and the book consequently contains a load of information on Charlie with a significant focus on his undeniable part in the success of Stan and Babe.
A particular highlight – and a laugh out loud moment – is the story of Charlie’s mother hanging his washed socks and underwear as far down the garden and away from the house as possible. The story goes:
When Charlie planned to visit the UK in 1937, he knew that Stan had been as recently as 1932 so he asked Stan what people were wearing back in England. Stan told him that everyone was dressed in bright colours, so Charlie dressed accordingly… He must have stood out like a sore thumb amongst the crowd as he walked the streets of his home town. His waistcoat (Now in the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston) was bright red and his relatives all recall him wearing fluorescent socks and flashy shoes.
Charlies mother was so embarrassed by his colourful socks and underwear that she used to hang them out to dry at the very bottom of the garden so the neighbours wouldn’t see them! You can just imagine Stan getting more than a chuckle at that!
Another standout is a lengthy interview Charlie gave to The Weekly News in 1938; the first of two parts of which follows.
Part one of the full interview, which is absolute fascinating, is reproduced below though we’ve added a few relevant images. As you read through, you’ll notice a few inaccuracies from Charlie, possibly coloured with time-addled memory, rose-tinted glasses and Charlie’s intake of the odd drink or seven (or nip, as he called them).
Anyway, our friend David Wyatt considers these at the end of part two with some ‘Charlie corrections’, rumour reorganisation and of course some useful insights and further information.
CHARLIE’S INTERVIEW WITH THE WEEKLY NEWS
John Ullah: Before Charlie Hall left the UK, he gave a very long and detailed interview about his life to the Weekly News newspaper. It is an incredible interview, and although not all of what Charlie says is entirely accurate, it is a fascinating story of our ‘Little Menace’ from Ward End in Birmingham, which covers the transition from the silent films to The Talkies, amongst many other things.
You can tell from the interview that Charlie holds Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy with great warmth and affection.
`THE WEEKLY NEWS’ September 1938
Probably the last thing in the world that Laurel and Hardy would have expected to achieve was the launching of a tune that would be almost as world famous as any other melody of all time.
That signature tune means just as much in the Federated Malay States and the Coral Islands of the Pacific as it does in the Orient or far flung Peru. It. has also had the honour in America of being played as a National Anthem, when the band at a garden party were unable to get the music parts of the official anthem of an obscure Eastern ruler who popped in for tea!
I’ve been gagman to Laurel and Hardy, co-director — not forgetting the “menace” part in most of their films — for years and years. You know the guy I mean — that tough piece of goods who usually appeared as the husband of the girl with whom Laurel has an innocent date because his own wife had gone with Hardy’s to the pictures. (The same girl that Hardy was also making a pass at.)
All of this was at Hal Roach Studios, Hollywood, and some of the people who went through there and whom I am going to tell you about, include many of the great stars in their early days.
THAT SIGNATURE TUNE
To go back to the signature tune and how that came into existence. During the making of their first picture together, “The Battle of the Century”, there was a young chap working around the studio named Marvin Hatley. Everywhere he went he whistled the same tune over and over again. This went on for several days, and at last Stan could stand it no longer.
“What the hell is that tune you keep whistling?” he shouted.
Marvin said he didn’t know. Stan asked him where he heard it.
“I didn’t hear it,” he said. “It just came to me.”
Just at that moment Hal Roach came in. Stan gave us the cue, and we whistled it in step with Hal’s entrance. It made Hal laugh so much that we decided to use it as our trademark.
And now I apologise for mentioning myself for a minute. I was just an interloping Englishman from Birmingham when I hit Hollywood, having gone there to try my luck in the great movie racket. I had to rough it going over, having just enough cash to make the trip and get through New York to the coast.
Hollywood was nothing but cornfields. I was terribly disappointed. I imagined a beautiful little place surrounded with a high wall. It was just the reverse. You were out in the wide-open spaces. At that time Hollywood Boulevard, now the city’s centre, was just a crossroads. I walked down towards Sunset Boulevard, and there was my first studio. “Lasky’s”. ‘There was not much to it: just a wooden building.
Later that afternoon I saw my first Motion Picture Company at work. They were in front of a five-storey building. Everyone was sitting around talking, most of them sitting on the pavement, so I decided to sit by them and hear their talk. Much to my surprise at the time they talked like human beings. I found out they were from the Mack Sennett Studios and they were making a two-reel comedy.
After sitting around for half an hour, I asked one of the company when they figured on going to work. He told me they were waiting for the sun. I just laughed at him and said,
“Surely you don’t expect the sun to come out any brighter than this?”
He said: “No. You see we have to wait until the sun is at a certain angle, then we go to work.”
I asked him what was his job with the company, and what did he have to do. He told me that he was being co-featured with Slim Summerville, and that his name was Bobby Dunn.
He gave me an introduction to Slim. They told me to come to the studio next morning at 8.30 as they were using some extra people in their picture, and that I would receive the sum of £1 for my services.
I couldn’t sleep that night for the thought of working in my first film. I was up bright and early the next morning, and arrived at the studio at seven o’clock, being just able to gulp down some coffee, but too excited to eat. Bobby Dunn invited me to the dressing room that he shared with several other comics: Andy Clyde, Jimmy Finlayson and Billy Bevan. Between them they made me up, put a moustache on me, and so to the set.
I did not do a thing all morning. I kept asking Bobby: “When do I get in front of the camera?” Bobby sent me to the director. I asked him. He gave me a funny look. I found out later that I was being framed, for directly after lunch I was called on the set.
The director asked everyone to leave the set as he was going to give me a test. He then placed me in front of the camera and told me to do something funny. I did not have to, for at that moment I was hit by mushy pies from all directions. Then everyone came from their hiding place and laughed.
The director told me to go round and get cleaned up, so I started for Bobby’s dressing room. Just as I was about to go through a door another man came through in front of me, and the first thing I know he had a tub of water go all over him. The tub itself went over his head. This, I learnt later, was meant for me.
It struck me as very funny at the time. In fact I laughed till 1 cried as he struggled to get the tub off his face. Seeing me all alone and laughing, he naturally thought I had done it, for all the others had disappeared. It was Mack Sennett, and also the termination of that period of employment.
The public taste runs in cycles. Crazy slapstick was the most successful humour for years in pictures. And in my opinion no heartier laughs are earned today anywhere than by some of the oldest of stock humorous situations.
And now we have Bill Powell and Myrna Loy going in for the slapstick of slapsticks in “Double Wedding”.
A week later I got a job with Larry Semon, who then was the big shot comic of Hollywood. Larry, as you know, always made thrill comedies. This particular one had a streetcar sequence in it. I was to be one of the several passengers. We went off on locations and Stan Laurel was acting a comedy part in it.
Larry had a gag where Stan kept falling off the streetcar, and I will say in the course of two days Stan must have done fifty comedy falls. Oliver Hardy at that time was Larry Semon’s “heavy”.
Stan Kept Babe In Stitches
He would watch Stan go through his routine and laugh immensely. So did I. Larry happened to see Babe laughing (Babe is Hollywood’s name for Oliver Hardy) and asked him, “What’s funny now?”
Babe pointing at Stan said: “There’s a funny comic if ever there was one; some day he will get somewhere in this business or I’m crazy. You had better watch out, Larry, or he’ll steal the picture.”
At the end of the second day when they saw the ‘rushes’, Stan got more laughs than Larry, so Larry went into conference with his top gag-men, and they decided to tie Stan to a telegraph pole for the rest of the picture as no-one can be funny tied to a telegraph pole for long! Stan, Babe and I got very friendly. And told each other our histories.
As you all know, Stan is English, left England in 1910 with the Fred Karno company. In the troupe was Charlie Chaplin and Fred Karno junior. They got bad press notices in New York on their opening night, for the boys put on a new show, which they had rehearsed on their way over in a cattle boat.
Alf Reeves, Billy Reeve’s brother, was managing the show. He is still with Chaplin as studio manager. He wired Fred Karno, and told him the show was a flop, and that the Press called them a “blithering, blathering bunch of Englishmen”. Karno wired back to get the scenery out of storage of the old stand-by, ‘A Night in an English Music Hall’, known in England as The Mumming Birds’.
The show went great and the boys played all over Canada and U.S.A. for several years. Finally it folded up and Chaplin went to Hollywood with Sennett at the enormous salary of £15 a week. Stan found a partner and kept in vaudeville for a while. I always found him then a very unassuming little fellow, always ready with a laugh, with a grand sense of humour, very kind and always ready to help anyone. He is the same today and I can’t imagine him anything else.
As for Babe, he was born in Georgia, U.S.A., played vaudeville, sang in a quartet and is a good singer. He first started in pictures in Florida, so you see he is a real pioneer. A grand fellow in every sense of the word, jovial and happy-go-lucky. Little did we dream then that some day they would he a great comedy team, and that I would be an important part of their outfit.
Disgusted With Films
We wished each other good-bye at the end of that short engagement and casually hoped some day we would work together again. Babe remained with Semon for many years. Stan made a one-reel picture called ‘Mud and Sand’, finally drifted back in vaudeville, for he was disgusted and very disheartened with films.
It was Charley Chase who brought Stan Laurel back to films. Charley had always been an actor, and had worked around U.S.A. and Canada in vaudeville for years. Like most vaudeville actors in America in those days he tried his hand at films and also, like most of them, he teamed up with Hal Roach.
Hal, seeing his possibilities, put him at once into one-reelers, and then promoted him to two-reelers. For twelve years on end he made eight pictures a year.
During Charley’s reign as studio manager he saw Stan Laurel playing at the old Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. He thought him extremely funny, and brought him up straight away to the studios for a test. Roach was of the same opinion and immediately signed him up for a series of two-reelers. They were not, however, a big success, and after the contract had expired, Roach did not renew his options. In those days Stan wore the usual comic clothes, ample and baggy, with his hair parted in the middle and well plastered down, having none of the individual style which is his today.
After leaving Roach, Stan signed up with Joe Rock. Joe is, of course, now making films in England, but in those clays, he was working for Universal Studios in Hollywood. But Joe did not make the sort of films that Stan had been used to with Hal Roach, and therefore the few steps that he had climbed with Hal he now fell down, and in next to no time he was looking for a job.
After The Same Job
I next saw Stan in the office of the De Mille studios, both of us being after the same job. Stan did not get the job, but I can’t crow, because for that matter neither did I.
But you can’t keep a good man down, and the next trip was back to Hal Roach where Hal was featuring Clyde Cook. Stan was then employed at £15 a week at the very studio where he latterly made £20,000 a picture. As luck would have it, Clyde did not like the director he was working under, and asked for a new director. Hal Roach asked Stan if he would take on this job. Few people are aware that Stan Laurel was a director in pictures long before he was a famous comic, but undoubtedly this experience had stood him in good stead in the making of some of their best efforts.
It was just at this moment that Clyde needed a heavy, and Stan’s mind went back to the Larry Semon days. He immediately got in touch with Babe. After that he used him in all Clyde’s pictures. They became firmer friends and have been inseparable ever since, until this rift broke their film partnership.
One day Hal was directing an all-star picture, and he asked Stan to step in, put on the grease paint and do a short routine with Babe. They worked so well on this, that Hal more or less wrote the next picture for them. When the New York office saw that film they went wild with joy. It was the official start of the Laurel and Hardy team, for though they were actually to arrive as far as the public were concerned a bit later, a very important event was to happen before that.
It was the old stuff in a new setting. The Laurel and Hardy team has thrown thousands more pies and made thousands more laugh. Honest to goodness slapstick is welcomed by the general public.
Hal Roach was born at El Mira, New York, and migrated as a young man to Alaska. He owned his own truck. One day he had a job to deliver some goods to Southern California, and that gave him his first glimpse of people making pictures.
This, thought Roach, is decidedly more congenial than truck work, and he made up his mind then and there on the spot, that was going to be his business. He promptly sold his truck and joined the staff of the Universal Studios as a stock cowboy at a salary of £5 per week.
Harold Was A Cowboy
It was at the Universal Studios at that time that Hal Roach first met Harold Lloyd, who was also engaged as a cowboy on the lot.
With the money from the sale of his truck and some savings, he decided to become a film producer.
I think the first film that Hal Roach made – all you needed at that time was one camera man, one assistant director and one prop man – was called ‘Lonesome Luke’. It was a short comedy, and it was made with Harold Lloyd. The picture was sold, and Roach got a contract to make a series of the ‘Lonesome Luke’ comedies.
At that time all comics were trying to be Chaplin’s. You know, with the baggy trousers, big broken cracked shoes, and the ‘muff ‘ which I should explain is the Hollywood name for a moustache. And during this series of comedies happened an accident, which resulted in Harold changing his style altogether.
Harold was posing for some special ‘stills’. He thought he had a property bomb in his right hand, and as the fuse burned merrily Harold was lighting a cigarette with the flame. Someone had let a real bomb that had been used as a pattern get in with the others, and it might have been a tragedy. It was only a light kind of bomb, but nevertheless Harold lost part of his hand, and it was during his convalescence that Hal thought of the new and sensational character who was literally to shake the film world.
It was this accident that produced the Harold Lloyd that we know. Hal discarded Lloyd’s misfit clothes, fashionable to comics just then, and dressed him up smartly, at the same time covering up the disfigured hand with a rubber glove. He finished him off with those famous glasses that never had glass in them and gave him such stories as ‘Grandma’s Boy’, `Sailor Made Man’ and ‘Safety Last’.
I venture to say Harold has not made such good pictures since he left Roach. Everyone in the motion picture industry likes to work for Hal Roach. From top star to labourer, they’re all his pals, and they feel that he is theirs. He maintains that each one is as vital as the other and that they are all part of the complete organisation, and all essential in their own ways to make good pictures.
He always pays top wages, and insists on closing the studios on Saturdays at noon. He gives a big party at Christmas and presents are distributed to his workmen and their families, and it was only right that during one of those parties Hal got the idea for the famous ‘Our Gang’ comedies.
It was like this! He noticed some kids playing together and could not help standing near them for quite a time listening to the conversation. It amused him so much because it was all so serious that he made up his mind on the spot that the public would enjoy such natural humour. Those kids were the original ‘Our Gang’ kids.
He told the fathers to have the wives bring the kids to the studios the next week, as he was going to make a film comedy of them. Everyone thought he was crazy, and as a matter of fact he almost went crazy doing it, but patience succeeded, and he hasn’t stopped making ‘Our Gang’ pictures since.
Mickey, the freckled face kid, was a labourer’s son; the father of Joe Cobb, the fat boy, worked in the office; Mary Kormand was the daughter of a photographer; the fathers of Sunshine Sammy and Farina were janitors. Hal personally plays Santa Claus to the Gang each year and hands them the presents.
The situation was that those kids were suddenly earning a lot more money than their fathers. But it hasn’t disturbed any family relationship to my knowledge. Of course, kids will grow up, and, consequently, the Gang has changed quite a lot. For instance, Johnny Downs, now a juvenile lead at Paramount, was an ‘Our Gang’ kid 14 years ago.
Meantime, Laurel and Hardy were getting so well known, and, in fact, almost celebrities. They began to be invited to all sorts of public and private functions. Hospital and Christmas funds, dinners, premieres, and so on.
Nobody before or since, to my mind, suggested the perfect vamp like Theda Bara. She fairly oozed wickedness. Mabel Normand was, of course, world famous in Chaplin successes and was featured in the first five-reel comedy called “Tilly’s Punctured Romance’, a big success.
Lionel Barrymore was another great star whom Roach featured in a two-reeler, and believe it or not, I’ve seen that great and glorious actor do a fall into an ice cold fish pond at three o’clock in the morning.
Incidentally, Gary Cooper was an extra in that picture, getting thirty shillings a day, and without any thoughts of one day making ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’ and many others. What a man is Gary! One thing I can tell you. He is the same personality now than when he was as an extra. That’s the test.
The ordinary stock girls at the Roach studio included: Janet Gaynor, Molly O’Day, Fay Wray, Olive Borden, Lupe Velez, Sally O’Neill, Jean Harlow and Sally Rand. Sally was not doing the famous fan dance then.
Should there be anybody who does not know exactly what that is, it is a dance in which Sally’s only protection from the cold, cold elements is a fan which, ingenuously moved about to all her movements, provides at the right time adequate clothing (more or less!).
Beautiful Fay Wray’s first job in pictures was doubling a cross-eyed comic who was acting the character of a bootlegger in a café sequence, dressed as a cigarette girl.
They used Fay for the long shots because of her pretty figure and handsomely neat legs. ‘They also used a lion in that picture, and when she first heard it was to be included, was she scared? She thought they were joking, and I truly believe she didn’t sleep a wink all night.
Her scare was nothing to mine. I had to take the part of an artificial lion that was always getting mixed up with the real one. I imagined that at any time it might take a too active dislike to my face.
Jean Harlow was always the best of troupers. She seems to have been pursued by some unfortunate destiny right from the beginning, and it is all the more tragic that, with it all, her personality was one practically continuously bubbling over with cheerfulness and courage and laughter. I know how much her cheerfulness is missed on the M.G.M. set.
Hal Roach, by the way, releases his pictures through M.G.M., and I think that I am right when I say that they made the first colour picture starring Lawrence Tibbett, the famous baritone of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. This was directed by Lionel Barrymore. Laurel and Hardy supplied the comic relief.
Stan and Babe were always very loyal to their own gang, and more or less the same lot have been in their pictures as when they started. When M.G.M. wanted them for this picture, they took their own little crowd along and worked on the M.G.M. set as their own unit.
The film was eventually shown for its premiere at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood. A premiere in Hollywood means providing a show in a theatre, with searchlights all round it, at ten times the price that you would usually have to pay. There are thousands of people waiting on the sidewalks for a glimpse of their favourite star.
When Laurel and Hardy got back from San Francisco to Hollywood, Hal Roach had hit on another of his brainwaves. We were to make Spanish, French, and German versions of all our films. Hal has a schoolroom on the lot that he uses for the “Our Gang” kids and this was turned into a night school, and the sight of Stan, Babe (Laurel and Hardy) and I sitting at kids’ desks doing our lessons would have delighted Laurel and Hardy fans. The teacher wrote the words on a blackboard, and we copied them out on to our paper and then rewrote them as they sounded to us.
One day Stan nearly caused a riot by raising his hand and saying, “Please teacher, may I leave the room?”
This schoolroom scene provided the idea for the opening sequence in the picture that followed. It was the convict story you probably remember. A burlesque of “The Big House”. (the film Charlie is referring to is `Pardon Us’.)
“In The Can”
It was originally designed as a two-reeler, and, before we knew it, we had “in the can”, as they say, more than the required length of showable film. Everything seemed to come out well, and to start a lot of ruthless cutting would spoil the continuity of the film. Stan went into conference with Roach, and they decided to make it into a featurette, which is a three-reel picture or just over. We completed it, and when it was finally cut (edited) it was found to be just over four reels, which is too long for a featurette and too short for a feature. More headaches. Hal Roach, Stan, and Babe ran it over and over in the projection room, and were unanimous that it was too good to take any scenes out, because it was a riot from beginning to end.
It could not be cut without spoiling, so Roach decided to make a feature of it, which he did, and that’s how Laurel and Hardy got into full-length feature pictures.
Some of the best fun we had was in the making of ‘Hollywood Party’. In this film, Lupe Velez had a tremendous egg-sequence with Laurel and Hardy. While the picture was being made, Lupe, Stan or Babe would start talking to different people on the set while another slipped an egg to a pocket. The appropriate tap would soon be obligingly delivered, and not a day passed without broken eggs being cleared out of somebody’s pockets.
In this connection I have always admired the story told about Enrico Caruso, the great tenor. He and Scotti, the baritone, were always playing practical jokes upon each other during the actual performance of the opera. There is a particularly dramatic moment in the opera, The Force of Destiny’, by Verdi. Before they sing their big duet, ‘In this solemn hour’, they have to shake hands, and Scotti had to hide his embarrassment one night when he found that in the palm of his hand Caruso had placed an egg, and as the duet began they were both clasping a most unholy mess!
When a Laurel and Hardy film is being ‘shot’, it’s our boast that it would be in the film and not on the cutting-room floor. Laurel and Hardy do not shoot unnecessary feet of film, neither do they have five or six retakes of any one scene like many established and famous directors have to do. if anything, they’re exaggeratedly careful. They don’t go before the camera until they’re absolutely certain they’ve got every bit of comedy out of that particular scene.
It Really Is Mud!
It is interesting to know that Laurel and Hardy always use the real things to get the full effect. Pies, cakes, cheese, honey, flour, whitewash, oil, vases, chairs, lamps, and pianos, and even mud holes. Only the genuine article need apply.
I ought to tell you about Laurel and Hardy’s hobbies.
Stan is a real stay-at-home, and likes to fuss round the garden and greenhouses for hours and days on end. He’s won medals for amateur gardening, and grows all his own vegetables. Babe has a large chicken farm, where he spends a lot of the time that he isn’t either working with Stan or away on one of his marvellous trips into the wilds of the country living the real simple life, and maybe he was getting one back on Stan when he told him that he was feeding his hens on tomato ketchup so that they would lay seasoned eggs.
Stan is still about as British as anyone could possibly be, in his home, his style, and his dress. He eats bacon and eggs for breakfast, and this with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and lamb and mint sauce comprises his favourite trio of meats. He drinks gallons of tea, and finds it a great inspiration.
He’s crazy, too, on deep-sea fishing, and has just about the fastest boat there is around those waters. His fishing equipment alone cost over £2,000, but if you could see it you’d realise that it was worth every penny. We have trawled together for days out on the glorious Pacific Ocean, around Catalina Island.
You Wouldn’t Believe It!
The expensive tackle is for swordfish, and if you haven’t seen pictures of the swordfish they catch over there you’d never believe me when I say that last year he got one that weighed over 200lb. You may have heard some tall fishing stories in your time, and I know that you’ve heard of the immense tunny that are caught over here, but Stan Laurel with a 200lb swordfish on the end of his line is a sight worth seeing. It took him almost two hours to land it. No one is allowed to assist in the catch because it would mean disqualification from the contest for the medal that the Catalina Yacht Club present.
To land that fish you have to be strapped in a swivel chair with your fishing rod, in a harness, which is attached to you. In no other way would it be possible to get those hefty monsters.
Stan can never get over his longing to clown about and kid people, but in spite of this he is always kind and considerate, and his jests at the expense of others are always playful ones. He is ready at any time to help others, and has a great regard for the under-dog.
Both he and Babe abominate hypocrisy of any kind, and have no hesitation in holding it up to ridicule. To look at him on the screen you wouldn’t think he had an idea in his head, but believe me his mind is racing on all the while, and in my opinion there isn’t a brainier comedian in the business.
One of the big secrets of the success of Laurel and Hardy was harmony. Neither one cared a scrap who got the laughs as long as the picture did. They’re just the same now as they were when they were nobodies, as far as their personalities are concerned.
That’s all there is, there isn’t any more… Actually, there most certainly is more!!
To get to the second part of this illuminating interview please click here, and it includes Charlie on the boys’ 1932 visit to the UK, more on the early days, esteemed SoD, David Wyatt’s views on some of Charlie’s ’embellished’ recollections and a real erm, ‘highlight’… A transcription of a filmed interview that Charlie’s younger brother, Frank, gave to a young Mike Jones at the Sons of the Desert UK Convention in Blackpool way back in 1986!
As mentioned, the above is a transcription of the interview – given in 1938 – that appears on John Ullah’s meticulous biographical tribute of Charlie, and full details on this special book can be found here.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read Charlie Hall’s thoughts, and our gratitude again to John Ullah for giving his kind permission go reproduce them. If you have any thoughts or comments on any of this, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the reply / comments section below. We’ll make sure John sees them, and you will receive a response,