Hal Roach

Baby Talk

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The series of Harry Langdon shorts made at Hal Roach are an obscure, strange and fascinating group of films. Their reputation has traditionally been terrible, not helped by a long time when they weren’t very easy to see. The films are frequently bizarre and sometimes bewildering, but often hilarious, and certainly much better than they’ve been given credit for.

Although it was the dawn of the sound era before Langdon and Roach joined forces, Roach had had his eye on Harry for a long time. Harold Lloyd had seen Langdon’s vaudeville act in 1923 and recommended him to the producer; that time round, Roach lost out to Sol Lesser, and ultimately to Mack Sennett. Langdon, of course, went on to hit great heights at Sennett as one of the great silent clowns with his innocent ‘little elf’ character “who only God can save”. In 1926 began a contract for 6 prestigious features with First National.

However, by 1928 circumstances were very different. After initial success in features, Harry’s increasing dalliance with offbeat, avante-garde ideas in his comedies was not to the taste of the general public . Although his later films have their supporters (I’m one of them) Langdon’s star was falling fast. Of ‘HEART TROUBLE’, Photoplay’s review was brief, but brutal; “With HEART TROUBLE, Harry Langdon writes his own finish in pictures.” Losing his appeal, and woefully over budget, Langdon was let go by First National. He sought a contract with United Artists, but to no avail, and returned to vaudeville. To add to his woes, former colleague Frank Capra, who had been fired by Langdon, was bitterly trying to regain his reputation by spreading the word that Langdon was impossible to work with. Meanwhile, Hal Roach had gone from strength to strength and, in the wake of his huge successes producing Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy films, could easily afford to hire the comedian. He gave Harry his second chance in December of 1928, contracting him to make a talking feature. However, the Roach studios had not yet installed their sound equipment, and a long closure of the studios was necessary to enable this. Langdon, probably not wanting to be away from the screen for too long through fears of being branded a has-been, cancelled his contract and waited for other offers. There must not have been too many forthcoming, because in April of 1929 he resigned with Roach. The contract had been downgraded from a feature to a series of shorts; perhaps the high cost of sound installation necessitated this, or maybe it was because of the uncertainty surrounding Langdon’s appeal and willingness to play ball at the time.

Harry’s reputation was in tatters, and much of his publicity around this time goes to great pains to paint him as contrite, realising that he had behaved badly and eager to eat humble pie. To whit, an article in Photoplay of 1929 quotes Harry as saying “I really want to make people laugh again, if I get this second chance”. Not for the last time, he was being compared to the helpless child he portrayed on screen, an unfortunate trend that has,  annoyingly, often been the standard when discussing Langdon’s career.

A similar undercurrent runs through a promo reel made to launch the series to MGM executives. Harry appears in a brief sketch also featuring fellow new signings Thelma Todd, as a housewife, and Eddie Dunn as a drunk. The skit is principally full of rather tedious in-jokes for the audience, namedropping executives like Fred Quimby. Tellingly, however, Eddie Dunn steps out of character at the end of the footage to tell us that “Mr Roach has the greatest confidence in the world in Mr Langdon, and Harry is eager to go” . Reading between the lines, this might as well be “Mr Roach has agreed to give Mr Langdon this chance, and Harry has agreed to get off his high horse and do as he’s told. That’ll learn him.” (It’s also worth recalling that Hal Roach, despite being a friend of Langdon’s, felt the need to warn him “none of that high-handed stuff you pulled at First National”.)

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The promo reel is also the first time we get to hear Langdon speak on film. His reputation in sound, from Leonard Maltin et al, was that he had a “thin voice”, that was unsuited to his character and “babbled incoherently like an idiot”. In actual fact, Harry’s voice is just fine for his character. Personally, I think it’s a better match than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s. As for the babbling, this is truthfully only something he experimented with for his first few sound films, but the worst example we have is in this reel. If transcribed, a typical line of dialogue might read: “Well, well, well, well, well…how are you? And well, well, well, well….uh? Uh oh! Uh Oh! Well, well, well, well, well…” Maltin’s assertion is right in this film – Harry does get extremely irritating, even in the short running time!

It’s hard to ascertain if Harry kept on gabbling like this in his first two proper releases – HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY – as they currently only survive without their soundtracks, and are locked away in the vaults.

Certainly, though, they set the pace for one aspect of the series by having bizarre plots. Coupled with sometimes equally strange gag sequences, the films often seem like the kind of odd dreams that leave you scratching your head in the morning. This surreal style, having much in common with Langdon’s last few features, is definitely something of an acquired taste, and has perhaps helped account for the poor reputation of these films. This offbeat aspect had always been part of the Langdon package though, so its likely that he was partly behind the plot decisions. ‘HOTTER THAN HOT’ definitely bore his influence, as it was initially based on ‘THE MESSENGER’, the act he had been touring in Vaudeville with. In it, he aparently plays a pyromaniac who chases fire engines, and eventually gets trapped in a burning building with Thelma Todd. SKY BOY has an even weirder storyline; Harry and rival Eddie Dunn end up stranded on an iceberg after a plane crash!

The First of the Langdons to survive complete is ‘SKIRT SHY’, in which Harry, as May Wallace’s butler, poses in drag to help her win a marriage proposal from her shortsighted lover. Overall it’s not a great film by any means. It’s clunky, there’s far too much footage given over to the slapstick violence between May Wallace’s rival suitors without any real sight gags, and not enough of quiet moments with Harry. Still, we should remember that this is still a very early talkie. ‘BERTH MARKS’ wasn’t too much of a gas, either.

However, if Langdon kept up his gabbling in the previous two films, he’s starting to tone it down by this point. He keeps a childlike, halting style to his delivery, but is perfectly comprehensible, and the moments where he stumbles over or repeats words are more refined, adding to his character rather than making him infuriating.

Obviously, he was still adapting his sound technique in the face of new technology, and doing a fairly good job for only his fourth talkie appearance. Talking does make him a little less magical of course, but he has a handful of totally wordless scenes where we can see the brilliance of the silent Langdon shine through.   One such moment is a lovely little scene where Harry stands beneath an apple tree, and an apple lands in his hand. Delighted, he takes a bite, but the joy drains from his face; either it’s rotten, or he’s just found half a worm! He tosses it away, and another one instantly hits him on the head; he tentatively tries it, but it’s bad too. Again, another apple hits him. This one tastes fine, and his delight is palpable! It’s a great little moment that relies totally on Harry’s pantomime and facial expressions, and returns to the classic Langdon theme of forces beyond his control; he won’t fetch an apple himself, but he’ll keep biting until fate puts a nice one in his hand.

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THE HEAD GUY, featuring Harry as deputy stationmaster mixed up with a travelling dance troupe, is another bizarre, dreamlike little film. While still quite clunky, it comes off a bit better. There’s also one of the oddest scenes in any of the shorts, as Harry, ditched by his girlfriend, blubs uncontrollably while stuffing his mouth with a sandwich! It’s the kind of fascinatingly, bizarrely funny sequence that Langdon very fond of, and excelled at, but Hal Roach later recalled the frustration of the film crew as he would drag on scenes for far too long, unwilling to take advice from anyone on how to make them faster and funnier. Again, this is the sort of comment that has become gospel and helped to account for the poor reputation of the films, but how true was it really?

Well, looking at the filming dates of the shorts shows them to have not taken any longer than the average Roach two-reeler to film. Perhaps Harry’s unhappy marriage to Helen Walton made him less personable than usual, but he certainly seems to have had no problems getting along with his regular director Charley Rogers. The films they made are generally smoother than many other early talkies, and move at a good clip. Far from finding Langdon insufferable to work with, Rogers seems to have struck up an effective friendship and partnership with him; the pair later teamed up again to write gags for several Laurel and Hardy features, and themselves starred in two 1940s B-pictures, ‘DOUBLE TROUBLE’(1942) and ‘HOUSE OF ERRORS’(1943).

MGM certainly seemed pleased with the films, and gave a good deal of publicity to them; reviewers generally shared their enthusiasm. A certain amount of revisionism appears to have gone on to fit in with the accepted legend of Langdon being a helpless has-been. I’d suggest that, if Langdon did have difficulties assimilating in to the Roach style, it was less in terms of gags and acting than his story ideas; Roach Studios plots were generally grounded in reality, whereas Harry’s surreal stories were a very different kettle of fish. One of the most surreal scenes in any of the films climaxes ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’, as Harry , in a boxing match, puts his gloves on the ends of broom handles, which he hides Inside his jumper. This gives him the appearance of having arms that grow ever longer, enabling him to keep his distance from his opponent while hitting him. It’s a very, very strange image that sticks with you long after the film is over, and its also very funny. ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’ isn’t perfect; it suffers from some clunky early sound filming and long, tedious silent stretches, but it’s a definite improvement over the previous Langdon films. For one thing, its surrealism is more filled out with little sight gags, as well as some unexpected delights like Harry tap-dancing, and a tantalising fragment of him singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’, accompanying himself on the banjo.

Now, the Langdon series was really starting to gel; the next film, ‘THE BIG KICK’, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s fast-moving and full of great gags and pantomime routines. For anyone who thinks that Harry babbles incoherently in every film, take a look at this one; he barely even speaks at all! Possibly because it was also filmed in Spanish, as ‘EL ESTACION GASOLINA’, dialogue is at a minimum, and the result is the nearest to a silent comedy that Harry made at Roach. In this respect, a great addition is a background music track (much of it taken from the Vitaphone track for Laurel and Hardy’s ‘LIBERTY’), which really helps pick up the pace. This was something that was sorely lacking from the earlier films, which suffered from a barren soundtrack during Harry’s long pantomime routines.

‘THE BIG KICK’ begins with detectives Edgar Kennedy and Baldwin Cooke chasing some bootleggers. They stop at the garage where Harry works but there’s no answer; Harry is asleep. There follows a leaisurely routine of him struggling to wake up and go about his morning routine, much of it repeated from his ilent feature ‘THREE’S A CROWD’. Particularly funny is his elaborate, childlike way of washing his face with as little water as possible. This scene, in particular, benefits immeasurably from the background music. Next, we’re into a beautifully played pantomime routine, as a customer with a horrifically noisy engine pulls up to the garage, and attempts to hold a conversation with Harry over the din. Here’s a creative use of sound, that paradoxically gives reason for silent comedy to take place. This was Buster Keaton’s philosophy for sound in a nutshell; I wonder if he tried to use this scene as an example in his struggles with the MGM writing staff? The bootleggers show up again at the garage later on. They’ve concelaed their moonshine in a busload of dummies. A shootout follows when the police turn up, and Harry, confused as always, tries to save the dummies, as the bus is shot full of holes and liquor pours out everywhere. Finally aware of the mixup, he knocks the heads off a long line of the dummies with a mallet, but fails to notice a policeman has appeared at the end, and hits him with the mallet too. Exit, running.

Although much of its pantomime needs to be seen rather than described, ‘THE BIG KICK’ is, to my mind,  genuinely as good as any other Roach product of the time, and no excuses need to be made for it. Almost as good, though just a notch below, was the next film, ‘THE SHRIMP’. As the title character, Harry is constantly bullied by residents in the boarding house where he lives, but stays because of his love for the landlord’s daughter Nancy. He gets the chance to stand up for himself when scientist Max Davidson injects him with a serum containing  “the spirit of the bulldog”. The treatment works, and Harry licks the bullies, but an unexpected side effect is revealed as he takes off in pursuit of a cat, pausing only to contemplate the use of a lamp post…

The film has one of the strongest storylines of the eight shorts, and provides good opportunities for playing with Harry’s character, but is somewhat uneven in quality. The film is composed of three distinct segments, and a problem is that the first two are necessary to build up to the third. In a two-reeler, this accounts for nearly half the time being taken up by exposition, making the whole seem off-balance. The first shows Harry’s cruel treatment at the hands of bully Jim (James Mason) and his girlfriend (Thelma Todd).. Much of the intended humour actually just makes us feel sorry for Harry, but there are some nice little sight gags mixed in. The middle section, Harry being treated by Max Davidson, is disappointingly played as a fairly straight scientific demonstration; there would have been more fun to be had if Harry had somehow been injected by accident.

However, the final third more than makes up for the shortcomings of what came before, as Harry returns to the boarding house and teaches everybody a lesson in a wild, gag-packed finale. Arriving home, he engages in a tit-for-tat routine with Thelma Todd. Harry continually knocks her hat to the ground, and each time she bends over to retrieve it, fights the temptation to kick her in the behind. It’s one of those things more easily seen than described, but his wonderful timing and movement give it an almost balletic quality.

After this, he marches through the house, yelling orders left, right and centre (“STOP EATING CANDY!” he yells to a fat man), and finally takes on Jim in a slapstick battle. The scene is full of funny little touches, including a moment where Langdon plays with his voice, using a deeper tone to sound more sinister. It’s an intriguing little bit he also tries in his next film, and shows him to be confident playing with the possibilities of the sound medium. Although it has some shortcomings, ‘THE SHRIMP’ builds to a hilarious climax and contains the funniest moments of any of the shorts.

Langdon rounded out the series with THE KING, which revisits his Sennett four-reeler ‘SOLDIER MAN’, and mixes in elements of his feature ‘THE CHASER’. The result is another playful film that experiments with his ‘little elf’ character. In ‘THE KING’, rather than the innocent, eager-to-please man-child we usually see, he is very definitely the spoiled naughty boy; if you will, the little Harry-shaped devil on the little elf’s shoulder. This naughty-boy Harry yields to the temptations of the many women who throw themselves at his majesty, and threatens to stay out late, but remains childlike; his misbehaviour doesn’t extend beyond the level of playing postman’s knock, or peeking at the queen as she undresses. The chief joke in the film is that Harry, despite being the king, is actually totally subordinate to the Queen (thelma Todd) and his new advisor (James Parrott, in his only speaking role).

The entire two reels are basically riffs on this idea; some of the gags work, and others don’t. All in all, it’s again quite uneven, but fascinating nonetheless, and with several very funny moments. Perhaps the best gag to sum up his character in the film is his wonderful opening scene. Searching for the king, Parrott looks all around the opulent palace and grounds , through all the trappings of wealth and immense power, and is eventually told the king is out “hunting in the woods.” Sure enough, there is the monarch, dressed in full regalia, shooting at a tin can on a wall like a little boy!

Following completion of the film, Langdon received a tantalising offer to make a high profile feature, ‘A SOLDIER’S PLAYTHING’, and left Roach to do so. Ultimately, this turned out to be a mistake, as the film gradually sank in prestige until it was a low budget film that sank without trace. Langdon would return to Roach as gagman and occasional actor at Roach in the late 30s, but would spend his next few years freelancing, and in shorts at Educational and Columbia.

The shorts we’re left with are an odd bunch to be sure. Langdon is already a divisive figure amongst film fans, and these 8 shorts polarise opinion perhaps more than any other he made. Certainly, next to the more universal comedy of L& H, Our Gang et al, they can seem like failures. Perhaps at this juncture in his career, it would have done Langdon more good to make some more straightforward two reel comedies to win back some of his alienated fanbase, and then experimented more later. But, to quote Mr Laurel, there’s no use crying over split milk, and there is lots to enjoy in what we do have. Yes, the films are uneven and often bizarre, but they all have fantastic moments. Let’s not forget, 1929-30 was hardly a golden year for many of the Roach series. They all went through an inevitable period of adjustment to sound technique. In fact, cinematically, the Langdon talkies are much better films than many of the other Roach product of the time, and move a heck of a lot smoother. Even SKIRT SHY, just about the weakest of the surviving Langdon talkies, is preferable over the clunky early OUR GANG films. With one or two exceptions, the films just got better as the series progressed, and it’s a real shame that the series ended just as the films had started to gel. If Harry had stayed at Roach into the golden era of 1930-1933, who knows what classics we might have had? Still, what we do have, whilst inevitably not up to his silent heights of brilliance, are definitely worth looking at again; a group of weird, wacky and hugely fascinating films that show Langdon in character and on great form.

This post first appearewd as an article in issue 2 of  Movie Night/ The Lost Laugh Magazine. (c) Matthew Ross 2012

 

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THE STREETS WHERE MAGIC HAPPENED

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Standing on the shoulders of Munchkins, and walking in the steps of Comedy Giants in Culver City…

Culver City is a pleasant district to the South West of Los Angeles, not far from LAX airport. Not one of the tourist hotspots of L.A, it barely registers in guidebooks, but to classic comedy fans it is a special place of pilgrimage. Once home to both MGM and the Hal Roach Studios, it was the birthing pool of countless treasured films.

Nucleated around Culver and Venice Boulevards, Culver City was founded by Newspaperman Harry Culver in 1917. Thomas H Ince established the first studio there in 1918, followed by Hal Roach a year later. Most prestigiously, The Goldwyn studios were built in the early 20s, and later inherited by MGM. This behemoth of a studio survives, given a new lease of life as Sony Pictures Studios. It is even open to the public for daily tours.

‘THE LOT OF FUN’

Unlike MGM, Hal Roach’s elegant white wooden-fronted studio has not survived. It was torn down in the early 60s and now nothing remains. Yet, paradoxically, more of the spirit of the ‘Lot of Fun’ remains, in the streets and buildings of Culver City. While MGM’s stars generally remained cloistered on studio sets, Roach’s film-makers took every opportunity to film out on the streets. Time and time again, recognisable landmarks pop up as backdrops to the comedic action: the pie-slice-shaped Culver Hotel, the squat store-fronts of the buildings, the wide intersections where mayhem takes place. All of these, clean and sunlit in the then brand new suburb, become almost as recognisable as the bit part players, offering a comfortable familiarity to the viewer and a continuity to the films.

Until last Summer, I had never been there before, but yet I felt I knew the place already. While passing through LA I had to make a visit to this magical place home to so much laughter in the films I’ve grown up with and still love. Of course, I was prepared for disappointment. Surely time would have warped the streets beyond all recognition, the love and laughter put into the films long since departed…

Well, happily I was wrong. Naturally many things have changed, but these are still recognisably the same locations immortalised on film. What helps is that, despite having the whole of Los Angeles as a playground, the Roach film makers were particularly fond of a small handful of streets. This means that we have seen these locations countless times, from all angles. Best of all, it is this handful of locations that have remained the most unchanged. Unlike the scuzzy downtown locations favoured by Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, Culver City is also a very pleasant part of L.A. Recently it has been promoted as an art and food quarter, and makes very pleasant strolling. The traffic lights even emit a ‘kuku’ noise when it is safe to cross! Coincidence…?

Washington and Venice boulevards divide at the heart of Culver City, moving apart in a ‘V’ shape. Between them lies Main Street, a short road lined with storefronts, trees and alleyways. Main’s intersection with Washington is spacious; on the southeast side sits the elegant Culver Hotel. This small collection of roads and buildings formed the bulk of backgrounds in Roach films. The use of these locations reaches its apex in the MGM silents from 1927-29. Though many earlier and later films also used them, this particular run of films all seemed to feature crowds gathering on streets, to watch a Max Davidson dilemma, Charley Chase embarrassment or Laurel and Hardy fracas. Pick any Roach silent from this time and you can pretty much play Culver City Bingo!

Main Street, with its single storey shops, very much gives the appearance of a small town high street. Anytime street scenes were required that weren’t filmed on the backlot, they were usually filmed here. Laurel and Hardy’s bootlegging plans are made here in ‘PARDON US’, as are their attempts to busk on street corners. The Max Davidson films ‘DUMB DADDIES’ and ‘THE BOY FRIEND’ also make prominent use of the street, as does Thelma Todd’s ‘ON THE LOOSE’. In between the shops are alleyways, a staple of slapstick chase scenes. One of the alleyways on here was the scene of L & H’s infamous pants-changing in ‘LIBERTY’, and also appeared in their pre-teaming short ’45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD’.

Many times, this one little street was shot from different angles and made to represent a whole host of different locations in one go. ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’ is one of the most notable examples of this; L & H’s adventures all over town are actually a merry dance up and down the same short length of street! The presence of the Culver Hotel is a giveaway to this. Looking out for the looming building is a key to spotting scenes filmed on Main Street. In ’45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD’, a tourbus heads down this way, as do the open topped buses in Chase’s ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’ and, again, ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’!

The Culver Hotel, built in 1923 by Harry Culver, was the focal point of Culver City, and remains so today. It’s elegantly austere exterior meant it could stand in for civil buildings, an office block or fancy restaurant, as well as a hotel. It’s even a dentist’s office in ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING!’. The unusual shape means that it also had entrances on the corners. This made quite a visually arresting, ‘clean’ space to film a scene, with little in the background to distract. Charley Chase’s wedding, in ‘LIMOUSINE LOVE’ , for instance, takes place here. The hotel’s ‘island’ status, surrounded by roads, adds to the plot as Charley drives around and around it, unable to stop because of the naked woman in his car!

The back entrance, on is also the entrance where Laurel begins chasing Dorothy Coburn in ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, as seen in the still below. Into the Talkie era, the hotel seemed a natural taxi pickup point for ‘THE TAXI BOYS’ in films like ‘HOT SPOT’ and ‘BRING ‘EM BACK A WIFE’. The hotel also played a key role, albeit offscreen, in later film history. When ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’ was filmed at MGM in 1939, it became living quarters for the Munchkins, who famously held debauched parties here!

With the hotel in the background, the Washington-Main intersection is where crowds all gather in the famous scenes from ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’.

Washington itself, busier and more recognisably metropolitan than Main Street, is featured in a number of car chases – ‘THE TAXI BOYS’ films, notably, and Chase’s ‘THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT’. Walk a little further southwest, and you come to the site of the Culver City Hall. This was disguised as a courtroom in L & H’s ‘GOING BYE-BYE’, and was the eponymous ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’. Sadly, the original was demolished, but an impressive replica façade has been erected in the exact same spot.

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A replica facade stands on the spot of the former Culver City Hall, once ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’.

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Filming ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’ at the same spot.

So many films took place in this little area that it is impossible to list them all. Indeed, I struggled to even process them all while there. While the Music Box Steps in Silverlake are justifiably iconic, allowing you to follow in L & H’s footsteps, Culver City is actually a much more immersive experience. My favourite thing about standing in the spots where my heroes stood was not the chance to do a copycat photo, but to look out at the view they would have seen as they filmed. Suddenly, they weren’t confined to frames of film. The disappeared scene around those frames filled out; I could see the colours, hear the noise of traffic, feel the heat of the California sun. I imagined Stan Laurel or Charley Chase briefing the cameraman on the angle they wanted, then walking back to take their position, ready to be immortalised. I imagined the halted traffic on Washington Boulevard, or the crew walking back down Main Street, satisfied with a funny scene. Perhaps they conferred on this street corner, or under the shade of that awning, shaping the scenes that we now know and love. In such a well-filmed part of town, surely each corner had some part to play. If you use your imagination, you can step back in time in Culver City, and imagine you are part of it too.

Alas, time has marched on, and the Lot of Fun is long gone. So too are the laughter-makers, and in their places only the naked streets remain. The secret of Hal Roach studios was never in these streets themselves. There’s no magic in the humdrum concrete, no secrets in the fabric of the walls. But, on these pleasant yet unremarkable streets, a crowd of immensely talented people passed by briefly to weave their dreams. They congregated daily, on a mission to create laughter. On the plain concrete and through dark alleyways, in the shadow of that big hotel, they did so, giving of themselves to make audiences forget their troubles. Almost 100 years later, new audiences are still doing so in their company. The people responsible have long since gone, but they transcended these everyday streets into a place that feels special, an inventory of happy memories and smiles. Now, that is magic after all…