Hal Roach knows a thing or two about how to make people laugh

January 23, 1992|By William Grimes | William Grimes,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The cinema celebrates its 100th birthday next year, but Hal Roach got there first.

The man who paired Laurel with Hardy, put black glasses on Harold Lloyd and cranked out more than 200 Our Gang comedies began his second century last week, and tonight the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program will honor him at the National Museum of Natural History here.

The evening's events will include screenings of "The Pip From Pittsburgh," a 1931 Charlie Chase comedy, and "Helpmates," a 1932 Laurel and Hardy classic.

Along with birthday cake and champagne, Mr. Roach will receive the James Smithson Medal, the Smithsonian's highest award, given "in recognition of exceptional contributions to art, science, history, education and technology."

Mr. Roach, who lives in Bel Air, Calif., relies on a hearing aid these days, and getting out of a chair is a minor event. But his vision is sharp, his memory runneth over, and he has some decided opinions on Hollywood comedies.

"They don't make the right kind of thing," he said in an interview at his hotel here yesterday. "You can't make people laugh for more than half an hour and be consistent."

Therein lay the secret of the 30-minute two-reelers Mr. Roach and others turned out by the hundreds in the early days of film.

"With a 90-minute feature, you've got to stop the laughter and then pick it up again, which is tough." His solution is to lop a half-hour off the typical feature film, run a comedy short before it, and thereby give parents and their children a reason to go to the movies together.

Mr. Roach is brimful of ideas and projects, in fact. "You don't just tell your brain to go to sleep," he said.

One idea for a feature comedy is "Punch and Hudy," about the two toughest convicts in a prison who, inexplicably, get along with no one but each other. Mr. Roach admitted that the idea is "Laurel and Hardy Go to Jail," more or less.

Skillful recycling, of course, was a key to survival in the early days of Hollywood. In many cases it sustained entire careers.

Mr. Roach said Stan Laurel often came to the rescue when comic bits that looked good on paper did not work in front of the cameras.

"He was English, and he remembered a lot of very funny visual acts that were great for comedies," Mr. Roach said. "Laurel could almost always come up with an old idea. Charlie Chaplin lived on those. . . .

One of the most famous Chaplin gags, the shoe-eating scene in "The Gold Rush," was lifted directly from English vaudeville, said Mr. Roach.

He fondly remembers Harold Lloyd as the biggest money maker he ever got his hands on. He said he used to watch the actor closely when they both worked at Universal.

"Harold Lloyd was not a comedian," Mr. Roach said. "But he was one of the best actors around. He played a comedian. He never said, 'What do I do next?' He said, 'What does he do next.' And he was never much until he put the glasses on."

The idea for the famous glasses, Mr. Roach recalled, came up by accident, when Earl Mohan, who played drunks, put on a pair of light brown glasses and reeled around the set.

"It was such a change in the character that I sent for a bunch of those frames," said Mr. Roach. A black pair made their way to Lloyd's face.

"As soon as we put the glasses on him, he became a profitable comedian," he said. "I made enough money off him to build Hal Roach Studios."

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