My reading – A History of the Hal Roach Studios

I recently finished reading A History of the Hal Roach Studios written by Richard Lewis Ward.  Hal Roach, for those who don’t know, was a motion picture producer who operated a studio from the silent era to the dawn of television.  He was one of the most successful producers of comedy ever.  His actors included Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  It was his idea to put Laurel and Hardy together, and he created the Our Gang/Little Rascals series.

This isn’t really a book review.  The book was what I expected it to be, which is a history of the studio and it’s operation.  It’s about show business, not about art or comedy.  I find show business to be an interesting topic, but many people would not.  I wouldn’t want to bore anyone with details, but I recall some interesting bits.

Hal Roach met Harold Lloyd when they were both in a holding room waiting for work acting as extras for movies. At the time Hal told Lloyd his plans to become a film maker, and to hire Lloyd. Harold Lloyd was his only money making star for a long time.

He had Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy on separate contracts.  And their renewal dates were never in sync.   This made it very difficult for L & H to break away to another studio or out on their own.   Stan Laurel was the creative energy in the partnership and If Laurel started to walk, Roach immediately planned work for Hardy without Laurel.  Roach attempted to partner Hardy with Harry Langdon , but the results were a failure.  Stan Laurel didn’t get anywhere on his own, and returned to the studio.

The last item is a bit of trivia, but I found it interesting.  As children in The Little Rascals started to grow too old for their parts, plans were made to replace them.  The new player would join the gang for a few pictures before the previous one was retired.  That way the gang was a fluid group, and the audience didn’t notice a sudden change in the line up.   The technique avoided the sort of situation the Three Stooges had when Curly dropped out and we were given a succession of replacements.

Hal Roach had a combination of good business sense, and good luck.  Obviously he had many successes, but the book was more likely to give numbers on how much money was lost on which productions.  Several times the studio came close to ruin.  I guess financial losses are more dramatic.  Reading it leaves me wondering how they stayed in business at all.  The hits must have outnumbered the flops, though.  Obviously it is a stressful way to make a living, and it’s good to recognize how difficult it is to be a successful producer.

Eventually Hal Roach let his son Hal Roach Jr. buy out the company and try to make it in television production. He did poorly, and wasn’t able to pay off the debt to his father. Hal Roach Jr. died at 52 years old. Hal Roach Sr. lived to a hundred.

Here is the first part of a two part interview with Mr. Roach.


Spoilers ahead.

I went to see Rio with my son the other day. Like most Blue Sky movies, it had well designed characters, nicely animated, moving from one high energy sequence to another. The birds, in particular, were quite fun to watch.  The dance numbers were inspiring, and made me curious about how they were created.

The story moved at a controlled pace, with all the recommended moments of comedy, music, and action.   It was all very routine.  Which means, I never felt anything like surprise.  The predicaments all appeared to be solvable somehow, so I hardly felt the characters were at any real risk.  You want the audience to think, “There is no way they’re getting out of this.”  The villiains never defined what was going to happen to the birds. They were put in cages to be taken “away.”  It was just too vague. To confuse things, the bird owners attempt at rescuing the birds included nearly colliding a parade float into the plane the birds were in, which could have resulted in the birds death. Who is the dangerous one in that situation?

Blue, the male bird the story revolves around, was a weak character.  Although he acted heroically at the end,  during most of the movie he was too wimpy and too afraid to be much of a motivator for the story.   Buster Keaton usually played a wimpy character, who at the end of the story manages to win the battle, but during the story he tried to be stronger.   In “The General” he tried to join the army, in “College” he tried to play sports, in “Steamboat Bill Jr”, he at least pretended to be a steamboat officer.  Blue worked at making excuses, and I lost interest in him and started to find him annoying.

The monkeys were fun characters, although I momentarily mistook them for the lemurs from Madagascar 2.  The only thing that bothered me is how the gang of monkeys cowered from the one white cockatoo, then took on a whole building full of birds in a rumble later on.

In contrast, I just got around to watching “Ponyo”.   While watching that, I was continuously surprised, amazed and delighted.   Miyasaki is still the greatest director of animated films.   Admittedly it has more supernatural influences which opens up possibilities for unusual things, but the characters naturally drove the story, rather the being pulled and pushed into various “thrilling” situations.  Their emotions felt more sincere, rather than just “broken hearted bird lover”  and “greedy bad guy”.  Characters in Ponyo would be in dangerous situations, but would be forging ahead courageously, while Rio characters would engage in all kinds of wild gesticulations and screaming to sell it.

Rio did have the one Brazilian boy who showed remorse over his actions, and I would like to have seen more made of him.   He showed a hint of depth, and could have had a bigger role in the story.


Dancing to cartoony sound effects

This is a really interesting dance piece done at my alma mater, NYU. It’s artsy, yet funny. The dancer reminds me of Jim Carrey. I just wish the camera were closer.

Maybe the 11 second club should post a sound clip like this, something non narrative and a little wacky. Or make one for yourself.

How come the English can do wordless TV animation?

Not long ago, Cartoon Brew posted some videos of the new Bugs and Daffy TV show.  As usual,  the producers hired a bunch of witty writers to come up with jokes for Bugs and Daffy.  Lots of attitude, but little action.

So why is it the English can turn out great TV animation that uses almost no dialog? What I’m thinking of are these two shows.  The Animated Mr. Bean, and Shaun the Sheep from Aardman. Here are samples.

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