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HAL & HAROLD & LAUREL & HARDY

 

            Hal Roach, circa 1935, left, and in the 1980s.

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: In ‘Stan & Ollie,’ the excellent comedy-drama about the beloved comedy team of Laurel & Hardy, which is now in local theaters, Danny Huston plays the role of Hal Roach, the film mogul who paired Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the 1920s and produced the team’s best shorts and features through the 1930s. Roach died in 1992, just two months shy of his 101st birthday, and I was fortunate enough to interview him seven years earlier when he made a stop in Salt Lake City. The story was published in the Deseret News on July 7, 1985, under the headline: ‘Hal Roach: A fountain of wisdom.’

Airport officials brought a wheelchair to the gate. Standard procedure probably but it quickly became apparent it wasn’t necessary.

Hal Roach stepped off the plane and came down the ramp. He had traveled from Los Angeles alone, and when he walked into the Salt Lake International Airport terminal he looked about 35 years younger than he is.

If I looked 35 years younger than I am I’d be a toddler.

Hal Roach is 93.           

He began his motion-picture career when the film industry was in its infancy, and he helped shape the face of movie comedy by giving us such hilarious institutions as Harold Lloyd, Our Gang (also known as the Little Rascals), and, of course, Laurel & Hardy.

Roach was more than a movie producer as we think of them today. He was a writer, a director and one of the world’s foremost gagmen.

But Roach isn’t just a fountain of anecdotes. He’s also a fountain of wisdom, and his views on the state of the art today are as entertaining as his stories about the old days.

And he still gets an awful lot of mail.

“I haven’t made a picture for 40 years,” he said during an interview at the airport Tuesday. “But with the Our Gang, and Laurel & Hardy pictures (showing on television), and the fact that I got the Oscar (the Life Achievement award two years ago) increased the mail.”

Roach was passing through Salt Lake City on his way to Ogden where he appeared Wednesday night on behalf of the Egyptian Theater’s 61st birthday, a fundraiser for the Friends of the Egyptian Theater as part of its effort to organize a restoration project.

“When I started, you had the Nickelodeon,” Roach said. “For five cents you saw three or four short pictures.

“Then the Griffiths and DeMilles came in and started feature pictures. Then came the motion-picture palace, very beautiful theaters that seated a thousand people. Now you made pictures for a big audience instead of a small audience.

     

Harold Lloyd without his glasses, left, and Hal Roach on a 1920s movie set.

“The biggest picture we made with Harold Lloyd was ‘Grandma’s Boy.’ But when we previewed it the first time it died because we had two bad things in the picture. I said, ‘We make two retakes and the picture will be great.’ ”

He did and it was.

Roach said he sat down his team of writers the next day and demanded at least one good gag from each to help in those two retakes. Then the retakes were shot, the picture was previewed again, and this time it was a hit.

Ironically, Roach said that screening Lloyd’s pictures was essential because they played very well with large audiences but weren’t received quite so well in small screening rooms with just a few people.

“Harold Lloyd started with me at $5 a day. The last year he was with me he got $1 ½ million.

“Harold Lloyd was not a comedian. He was a very fine, dedicated actor. He actually imitated other comedians in the beginning. And then we put the glasses on him and he did the young man, and that’s when he became, next to Chaplin, the biggest comedian in the business. And he made a lot of money for himself and for me.”

And it was no coincidence that Lloyd challenged Charlie Chaplin at the box office. That was Roach’s plan when he groomed Lloyd to compete with Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.” And compete he did, all through the ’20s. “But, unfortunately, he (Lloyd) so worked on that one character, that young character, he couldn’t age that character. So I had to let him go; he was just getting too old to play that character.”

But Roach said Laurel & Hardy were another matter. Their films got big laughs in big theaters, but they also got big laughs in small screening rooms. Everybody seemed to love them, which explains their enduring success on television today.

“Hardy was working for us as a heavy comedian, he was under contract. I saw Laurel at a vaudeville show and he was very funny and I made a contract with him that night at the vaudeville theater, a seven-year contract.

“And when he got to the studio we made a test of him and his eyes were so light (they wouldn’t photograph). That was the old film. So I made him a writer. Then panchromatic stock came in, and we made another test of him, and his eyes photographed all right.”

After appearing in a few films together, but not really as a team, Roach and writer-director Leo McCarey had them play off each other in “Putting Pants on Philip.”

“It was an immediate success. And they were a team.” As for their contracts, Roach added, “It was to my advantage in a way, because their contracts were not together. All the time they were with me, one expired at one time and another expired at another time. It was to my advantage that I didn’t have to deal with them as a team. I don’t think I cut them too much but I probably did a little bit.”

     

      Stan Laurel, left, Hal Roach, Oliver Hardy, circa 1929

As for modern films, Roach said he saw Steven Spielberg’s “The Goonies” Monday and his reaction was less than enthusiastic. And he wasn’t thrilled that some critics have called “Goonies” the Our Gang of the ’80s.

“It’s a very odd picture. I was a little confused with it. And there’s a part in there I think is inexcusable (the statue scene). Those things are not necessary; they don’t have to do those things. Here’s a picture that’s supposed to be for children.

“I think that the worst thing about comedy today is lack of it. The oddest thing, we were watching this ‘Goonies’ picture and this friend of mine was laughing three or four times and I still don’t know what he was laughing at.”

Roach also has some very strong feeling about film content in general today. “Personally, I think the deplorable thing about movies made today is the profanity, the nudity and things that shouldn’t be on television for the general public.

“But some things I just can’t understand. I believe that (Eddie Murphy) in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ would have got the Academy Award if he hadn’t used the profanity that was in it.

“I think the public likes acting. It’s so easy to all a person a dirty name instead of acting out the fact that you’re mad at him or hate him or whatever it is. There’s so much that you don’t even pay any attention to it. I think over 70 percent of the people over the United States and all over the world like decent things.

Roach also has some sensible thoughts concerning the imminent release of some of his old black-and-white movies on videocassette, colorizing through a computer process so that they appear to be in color.

“That has nothing to do with me. I sold the company; I sold my library to get enough money to live happily ever after. I’ve done everything that a rich man can do; now I’m too old to do it.

“It is my opinion that you see the funny papers in the newspaper, black and white, six days, and on Sunday you see it in color. And I think it’s a question of how funny it is in either one of them. I don’t think the color makes a lot of difference. It is rather expensive to do this color process and I doubt very much … I mean, you look at Laurel & Hardy to laugh. And there’s nothing about color that is going to make you laugh any more or any less.”