Hal Roach: King of Comedy, 1924-1929

FAST COMPANY (1924)
Directors Robert F. McGowan, Charles Parrot (Charley Chase, uncredited)
Cast Mickey Daniels, Walter Wilkinson, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon, Joe Cobb, Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Mary Kornman Production Hal E. Roach Studios
 
JUST A GOOD GUY (1924)
Director Hampton del Ruth
Cast Arthur Stone, Olive Borden, Katherine Grant, Kewpie Morgan, Fay Wray, Noah Young Production Hal E. Roach Studios
 
THE BOY FRIEND (1928)
Director Fred Guiol
Cast Max Davidson, Gordon Elliott, Marion Byron, Edgar Kennedy, Fay Holderness Production Hal E. Roach Studios
 
MOVIE NIGHT (1929)
Director Lewis R. Foster
Cast Charley Chase, Eugenia Gilbert, Edith Fellows, Spec O’Donnell, Tiny Sandford, Anita Garvin Production Hal E. Roach Studios
 
Presented at SFSFF 2007
Print Source
(all films): UCLA Film & Television Archive
 
Musical Accompaniment Donald Sosin on grand piano
 
Essay by Shari Kizirian
 
Gold prospector, mule skinner, construction worker, ice cream man. These are the qualifications of one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers, and all the experience that was needed to enter the movie business in 1912. When Hal Roach came to Southern California at the age of 20, he had reached the tail end of a four-year trek across America, which took him from his hometown of Elmira, New York to Alaska, and down the Pacific Coast. Along the way, he picked up the know-how necessary to land work as an extra in a J. Warren Kerrigan western, which was being filmed on location in the desert. It was here that he first met fellow player Harold Lloyd, the first of many talents whom Hal Roach would nurture and build a fortune on. During the filming of a roulette sequence, Roach got himself promoted to the position of technical advisor by pointing out that the ball has to travel in the opposite direction of the wheel – knowledge he had gained in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. As a producer, Roach would weather not only the transition from silents to sound, but also the switch from slapstick to story-driven comedy, one and two-reel shorts to feature films, and movies to television. By the time the buildings were razed in 1963, the likes of Fay Wray, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Jean Harlow, George Stevens and Cary Grant had worked for the studio known in Hollywood as the Lot of Fun. But glamorous stars and high-tone directors were not Roach’s bread and butter. His house was built on laughs.
 
When Pathé-Frères accepted one of nine Rolin Film Company productions to distribute in 1915, Roach and his partners Dan Linthicum and Dwight Whiting experienced their first success. The film, Just Nuts, was a one-reeler starring Harold Lloyd as Willie Work, a character inspired, like many others of its day, by Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Distributors then, as now, held great power over filmmakers, and Pathé agreed to distribute more Willie Work films only if they could pre-approve every scenario. Upon the success of Lloyd’s subsequent character, Lonesome Luke, Roach and company were freed from this restriction, and their scripts became “a loose string of scribbled ideas.” Everything was improvised on set.
 
During Hal Roach’s years as a fledgling producer, the movie business underwent great changes. The all-powerful Motion Picture Patents Company, which had maintained a stranglehold on the making and distribution of movies in the east, faced challenges from upstarts like Carl Laemmle (who would found Universal Pictures), and defections from partners like Pathé-Frères. Production houses left hubs like Chicago, Florida and New York City for the sunny, remote climes of the Southern California desert. Savvy studio heads were consolidating the production, distribution and exhibition processes, first with block-booking, a practice that forced theater owners to accept all proffered product no matter what the caliber, and finally with studio-owned theater chains. Stars began to assert their box office power by demanding name recognition, which had previously been subjugated to that of the studio, along with bigger salaries and the right to cherry-pick the best projects, writers and directors.

Audiences too were changing. They had become accustomed to the nearly 20-year-old medium and were no longer impressed with the novelty of the nickelodeon. They expected a polished narrative, which they could watch unspool in the air-conditioned comfort of a genuine movie palace. Short films, even of the comedic variety, had to reflect a certain sophistication to gain acceptance with this new, discerning audience. By 1920, when Roach bought out his two Rolin Film Company partners and moved his newly-dubbed Hal E. Roach Studios into an expansive Culver City facility, only four independent production-line comedy studios were still in operation. The movie business was beginning to solidify into the mogul-dom that it is today.

Roach held his own during all this upheaval by constantly trying to upgrade and diversify the films he produced. He created an all-animal series - the Dippy Doo Dads - and branched out into the serial market, producing two of Ruth Roland’s multi-episode cliffhangers. Aware of how dangerous it was to depend solely on Harold Lloyd to keep the studio in the black, Roach pilfered ideas from the more well-known comedy producer Mack Sennett. Beatrice LaPlante was modeled after Mabel Normand, and Dee Hampton’s Skinny Comedies played off the success of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

To groom talent and test audience appeal, Roach would dip into his stable of contract players and assign them to series of their own. Snub Pollard, the Australian-born Harold Frasier who headlined with “Pollard’s Lilliputians” on the vaudeville circuit, was given his own series after Harold Lloyd was sidelined in an on-set accident that resulted in the loss of two fingers. Alongside Pollard, Roach cast Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, an African American child actor, and he also tried him out in his own series. After one film, The Pickaninny (1921), the series was abandoned at the insistence of the California Pathé’ representative, who thought films starring children were “box-office poison.” Roach would soon prove him wrong. In 1923, Ernest Morrison premiered in a new series featuring a pack of “regular” kids – Hal Roach’s Little Rascals, which quickly came to be known as the Our Gang comedies. The popularity of this series, along with that of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, buoyed Roach throughout the transition to sound and the Great Depression.
 
Feature-length comedies starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy also made it possible for Roach to meet the exhibitors’ new policy of double-feature booking. He had produced his first feature-length film in 1920 – Harold Lloyd’s A Sailor-Made Man –and he indulged his love for the great outdoors by turning out four adventure films starring Rex the Wonder Horse. The first in the series, King of Wild Horses, was voted one of the top ten films of 1924 by exhibitors.

During World War Two the Lot of Fun went through its leanest years. Roach served as an honorary major in the Signal Corps, and he taught filmmaking on the east coast. The studio was rented out to the Army - it was known as Fort Roach - and he brought in extra income by loaning his contract players out to other studios at exorbitant rates. Television proved to be a boon for Roach, and he devoted his entire studio to the production of such popular programs as The Stu Erwin Show and My Little Margie.

He invested in a Chevrolet dealership and a string of jewelry stores, and profitted handsomely from reissues of the Our Gang comedies, first for television and then the home video market. When the studio was finally demolished by new owners in 1963, a reporter asked Roach if he had any regrets. “It’s just bricks and mortar,” he replied. Then in the next breath, offered, “They could invest in making comedies and make a million a year. They won’t make that kind of money in markets or apartments.'