For years, fans of classic comedy have been waiting for a definitive volume on the premiere comedy studio of the classic era, the home of Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Charley Chase, and many others--the Hal Roach Studios. There have been countless books on Laurel & Hardy, as well as acclaimed tomes and articles written on Chase and Our Gang, but no previous work has focused exclusively on the studio that fostered these talents and released their best films. Richard Lewis Ward's new book, A History of the Hal Roach Studios, by virtue of simply being the first work on the prolific comedy producer and his studio, should be a cause for celebration.
Ward, an associate professor of film and television at the University of South Alabama, has written a thoroughly researched work that takes a decidedly academic viewpoint, one that generally concentrates upon the financial life of the Roach lot and its place among the other studios of Hollywood's golden era. Ward takes the reader from the early days of the studio (when it was known as Rolin) in the 'teens, to its heyday in the '20s and early '30s, to it's decline in the late '30s after its abandonment of the short subject form, to the studio's eventual involvement in early television production and finally to it's end in the early '60s. Regrettably, Ward rarely analyzes the films he discusses and never touches upon what made the Hal Roach comedies particularly special and timeless. Instead, he focuses on the financial affairs of the studio throughout its nearly fifty years of existence, and especially takes an interest in Roach's rocky association with his main distributors, Pathe, MGM, and United Artists. From the beginning, it is evident that Ward's focus is on Roach's historical importance as an independent producer working outside the studio system during Hollywood's golden age, certainly a topic worthy of research, but this fiscal focus results in a discussion that is often bogged down by lengthy analyses of the studio's financial state and little on the films themselves.
Despite this corporate, rather than artistic, slant, there is enough new research in the work to keep die-hards interested. Ward has obviously done his homework and it shows...just take a look at the lengthy filmography and the copious appendices and footnotes! Ward's discussion of Charley Chase reveals a number of notable points and anecdotes never before documented. The author sheds some light on Chase's dismissal from the Roach studio in 1936, explaining that the failure of Chase's doomed feature-to-be Bank Night (also known by its working title, It Happened One Bank Night) resulted more from its reference to the copyrighted theater promotion "Bank Night" than a poor response from audiences. Another interesting tidbit discussed in the book concerns the period immediately following Chase's departure from the Roach studio, at which point Charley briefly escaped to the wilds of vaudeville. At his first show in Cleveland, Ohio, the Roach studio sent Chase a thoughtful telegram reading, "Hope you open your tour with a bang and end in a blaze of glory. Best Wishes, Hal Roach Studios, Inc." An ironic show on Chase's tour at the time had him leading a stage act at a movie house screening Kelly the Second, a Hal Roach feature in which he had a supporting role, with the theater exhibitor noting that although the film wasn't too great, it was backed by "a very fine stage show headed by CHARLIE [sic] CHASE"! These interesting nuggets are thrown in among the more prosaic facts regarding Roach's business dealings and are the kinds of stories that would most interest Roach fans reading this book.
All in all, although the book is a fine overview of the history of the Roach studio, it does not give Chase quite enough credit in the way he shaped the comedy studio's style. By now it is acknowledged that no one was more influential than Charley Chase in forming the "Roach style" of comedy, due to his part in bringing many influential actors and directors to the lot as well as his tenure as the studio's director general in the early 1920's, when the studio's more humane, character-based style was coming to the fore. However, the book defines his term as director general as one fraught with a number of unsuccessful comedy series (with the exception of the popular Our Gang films). Perhaps because of Chase's involvement in the creative aspects of the studio and not its administrative activities, the book fails to elaborate on his long-lasting artistic influence and treats him more like a loyal employee. Stemming from Ward's general avoidance of film criticism, there is little discussion of Chase's films beyond his silents' use of situational comedy. One interesting exception, elaborated deep within one of the books' three appendices, is the author's "perception of a qualitative decline in the Chase series" during the 1930's. To support his point, Ward compares two Charley Chase classics, the silent Limousine Love (1928) with the talkie The Pip From Pittsburgh (1931), marveling at the former ("a masterpiece of comic timing and construction") while criticizing the latter, bemoaning the lack of the "layers of complexity" present in his best silent-era work. While most Chase fans may very well prefer his silent shorts, Ward's criticism of The Pip From Pittsburgh--considered the apex of his sound-era career by many--may verge on the heretical. But such an opinion makes the book that much more interesting, and the lack of such critical reevaluation elsewhere is a shame.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hal Roach Studio that Ward's book documents is the paradox that existed at its center. Roach created a comedy studio where successful comedy series--from Harold Lloyd's comedies to Laurel & Hardy's and Charley Chase's--were treated as autonomous units, run by their stars who were often given free reign on their productions. In order to keep producing high-quality comedies, Roach knew that he had to leave the creative aspects of filmmaking up to the inspiration of these comedians. However, at the same time, Roach still wanted to be the boss, and occasionally saw fit to wield his authority over these relatively independent artists. This frequently caused Roach and his star comics to clash, resulting in battles that at times were made very public (think Stan Laurel). If these stars were not eventually placated, however, there was always the chance that they would go out on their own, leaving Roach high and dry. Ward's book, like previous ones on the individual comedians who had worked at the studio, is a testament to Roach's understanding of film comedy and his loyalty to and faith in his stars, those comic icons who created the timeless comedy that was filmed on the Lot of Fun he had built.