Archive for Hal Roach

The Sunday Intertitle: Gas-s-s-s Again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2018 by dcairns

You don’t expect the disturbing from Harold Lloyd, the sunniest of the great silent comedians. The darkest business I knew of before watching RING UP THE CURTAIN was the menacing hobo in GRANDMA’S BOY, played by Dick Sutherland with considerable subhuman meanness. Critic Walter Kerr actually identified Lloyd’s unproblematic outlook as a problem: he risked blandness by being so All-American and nice and positive. The glasses helped suggest vulnerability, but as Kerr says, Keaton and Chaplin carried a shadow within them. So to avoid things getting too comfy, Lloyd heaped troubles on his character: hence those tall buildings.

RING UP THE CURTAIN is an early knockabout, when Lloyd hasn’t fully determined the parameters of his character or approach, I’d say: there was considerable flexibility in what Lloyd could embody (city swell or country boy) but he wasn’t generally loutish. In this one, he’s dressed all droog-like as a stage-hand, knocking over little people left right and centre. He tramples a dwarf, like Mr. Hyde carelessly knocking down that urchiness. There’s a romance (with Bebe Daniels) but it’s pursued with competitive toughness (Lloyd is often fiercely competitive, even later), which certainly doesn’t prepare you for him KILLING HIMSELF at the end.

Lloyd could do gags about attempted suicide and make that work fine with his persona, as did Keaton. Buster even succeeds at the end of COPS, which is a little dark and disturbing even for him. But in that case, the situation is comic and the neat structure establishes some kind of framework of APPROPRIATENESS. The Lloyd ending is just one of those random “how do we finish it?” jobs, with somebody saying, “Would it be funny if…?” and nobody else thinking of a better idea that week.

But really, Harold (and producer Hal Roach and director Alf Goulding), having your hero put his mouth to the gas nozzle and asphyxiate himself is not a socko finish.

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Stan & Ollie & Leo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2018 by dcairns

The mystery of who teamed Laurel & Hardy is probably insoluble. Leo McCarey claimed credit. Hal Roach claimed credit but allowed Leo some, too. And there are a couple of other names that should be mentioned.

McCarey deserves his place at the table because he supervised most of the silent collaborations and directed a couple and contributed lots of the best story ideas. And he was capable of modesty, insisting that he learned everything he knew from Tod Browning, whom he assisted, and Charley Chase, whom he directed. McCarey said CHASE was the real director on those films. That kind of giving away of credit is rare, so when McCarey says “I teamed them,” he has some credibility.

Roach seems to lie a lot, or at any rate say things that don’t make sense. He presided over the studio where Stan & Ollie appeared in numerous films together without anybody noticing the chemistry between them. I think he lucked into the greatest comedy team of all time and his splendid contribution was to mainly leave them alone to get on with it. Some of the films he has a director credit on are good, but the director is not that important a figure in these films, where there’s a highly creative star/writer, and also a supervisor charged with overseeing the whole process.

A Roach studio employee recalled that when Roach pitched an idea, nobody could ever understand it. And the ideas Roach describes in Randy Skretvedt’s book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies conform to that pattern, especially his nonsensical storyline proposal for BABES IN TOYLAND which makes me tired and ill just thinking about it.

I just watched HURDY GURDY, which was Edgar Kennedy’s first talkie, to see if he has “a voice like a sissy” as Roach alleged. Roach claims he got Kennedy to talk deeper after seeing this movie. But Kennedy in HG is the same bellicose sea-lion he ever was. MAYBE the fault was corrected before the film was finished, but there are plenty of other Roach statements that seem questionable. So I’d say Roach is an unreliable narrator who happened to outlive everyone else and got to repeat his lies more often and more recently than his competitors. He always insisted that Stan couldn’t think up gags, he just remembered them from the music hall, and had no sense of story, allegations denied by absolutely everyone who ever knew Stan.

The other trouble with Roach is that he wasn’t satisfied with having sort of presided over L&H’s union, or giving them the freedom to make their magic. He wanted to get involved and prove that his ideas were as good as anyone else’s. This was fatal.

Stan, of course, was the primary creative force in the film-making, and as long as he had authority the films were good, though he obviously needed collaborators, gag men, a director, and Babe Hardy. But Stan didn’t want to form a double-act and was planning to head behind the camera when the team-up was more or less imposed on him, so the actual idea of Laurel & Hardy can’t go to him.

But the other name deserving of mention is Fred Guiol. He directed DO DETECTIVES THINK?, which is the first film pairing Stan & Ollie in their trademark hats with their trademark personalities. Skretvedt has seen his original draft of WHY GIRLS LOVE SAILORS, an earlier short, in which Guiol proposed casting the boys as inseparable partners. And he directed THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, which plants the boys in the same cell, providing one of the few practical reasons ever provided for their sticking together.

It’s notable that Leo McCarey’s first story credit on an L&H film is PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, in which the boys do not have their traditional costumes and personalities.

So Guiol — a talented gag man, moderate director, and for decades after a producing partner to George Stevens, was right there on three key occasions where the boys developed their act. He wouldn’t have had the authority to declare them a team and make other directors use them as such — Roach and McCarey were surely involved in that decision.

Incidentally, lost bits of Stan’s solo movie DETAINED have just been found, and we can see Stan trying out gags that recur in THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS.

One thing we can safely conclude Leo contributed to the team-up was the escalating tit-for-tat gag, which seems to have multiple antecedents in his own life, from his father’s staged riots in the boxing ring, where all the local newsboys would throw in their shoes and fight to retrieve a matching pair, to an incident with a bow tie started by Mabel Normand, escalating into a clothes-ripping frenzy that destroyed the collective evening dress of an entire New York night club. Even if the slow-burn comedy of retaliation were McCarey’s sole contribution to L&H, that would be enough to earn him immortality.

Gas-s-s-s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2018 by dcairns

 

UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE (1929) was the first Laurel & Hardy talkie — I’ve been reading about their career in Randy Skretvedt’s magisterial Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies. Leo McCarey had left Roach to do features, but he left behind a backlog of story ideas which the boys continued to film for some time after his departure.

This story is one of Leo’s “My God! My husband!” farce plots, but it plays a little differently because it’s all much slower. L&H, under Leo’s tutelage, had already slowed their pacing right down, but this is pure early talkie drag here, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Lewis R. Foster & Hal  directed, no doubt with considerable input from Stan. Four cameras rolled on every take, their perspiring operators sealed with them in sound-proofed boxes. The results are inevitably static as well as being slow, the viewer always situated outside the set, looking in. But there’s a spirit of innovation nonetheless.

Always shield the genitals when talking to the wife.

Improvisation! From the start, the boys mistrusted the scripted lines credited to H.M. “Beany” Walker, and would ad-lib their way through them to maintain an air of life and spontaneity. And rehearsal was avoided: “What do you want to do, ruin it?” Stan would say. The speech here has much of the labored, school-play quality of the boys’ Spanish German and French productions, where they had to learn their lines phonetically. But still, there’s a life and an uncertainty to it (like IS uncertainty).

Overlapping dialogue! The reliably ferocious Mae Busch, as Mrs. Hardy, tears into her husband, who protests, resulting in a domestic babel of considerable volume and duration, dialogue as noise.

Rapping! Ollie turns the radio on and Mae’s dialogue starts to sync with the resulting music.

Offscreen noise! The full glory of Ollie’s offscreen crash-landings may not be here yet, but a series of gas explosions erupt from the Hardy kitchen, two of them propelling Ollie bodily out into the living room, the third sending Thelma Todd out with her dress ablaze. Reviewers picked up on an offscreen exit in BROADWAY MELODY the same year, where a character can be heard, but not seen, getting into a car and driving off. Stan & Ollie discovered an even better use for the cost-saving, Ozu-style strategy.

Fucking big flame thrower! Ollie’s involuntary entrances are followed by impressive gouts of flame at ceiling-level. Looks pretty dangerous. The fact that there IS no ceiling probably helped them pass the nonexistent health & safety laws.

More offscreen noise! People start getting beaten up out in the hall with increasing frequency as the film nears its very funny conclusion. One of Leo’s favorite situations was fart-at-the-dinner-table embarrassment. Here, instead of flatulence, it’s Thelma beating the crap out of Edgar Kennedy next door. Then, when we hear Kennedy bopping Ollie’s nose, the echoing wail of off-mic distress is easily as terrifying as those of Cagney’s victims in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

The flaws and the virtues combine beautifully. The boxy, distant framing, so flat and square, adds hilarity to Edgar Kennedy’s expressionistically posed bulk. There are lessons here, I feel.