Hal Roach, producer and mogul, made the world laugh in the dark APPRECIATION

November 03, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Though his name may be almost forgotten, there's no on who will encounter it today in the obituaries who has not laughed at some gag of Hal Roach's.

The pioneer comedy guru died yesterday at his home in Bel Air of pneumonia after one of the longest and most fruitful creative lives in the history of the film industry. He was 100 years old and if any could be said to have earned his rest, it was Hal Roach.

Roach, after all, was the man who decided to team a lanky, diffident Britisher with a pudgy light-footed Virginian and created one of the enduring comedy teams of history: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

And it was also Roach who, depressed by the over-dressed rich kids of his friends who kept showing up at auditions, looked out the window one day and had the first and still most enduring visions of a multi-cultural nation, seeing in the ragamuffin street kids an image of the squabbling family of America, a land of fat kids and skinny kids and dumb kids and smart kids and white kids and black kids, who somehow set aside their individual differences and became more together than they could have been apart. He called it "Our Gang," and it was indeed our gang -- everybody's gang.

Roach has that most mysterious of Hollywood talents, the most difficult to pin down and dissect. He directed but he wasn't really a director. He wrote screenplays but he wasn't truly a screenwriter. He acted but he wasn't an actor, not really. He thought up gags but he wasn't a gag man. He was fundamentally a producer, which is the key job in the industry and is almost the industry itself. He produced.

It means he recognized talent, not only in and of itself but was able to project it and imagine how it might fit with other talent and from the sparks could be created something exquisite. He was the prime mover, and his Hal Roach Studios was a font of creativity for 30 years, quite a stay at the top in any profession but most particularly the brutally competitive profession of the movies.

Like many of the film geniuses, he did not grow up wanting to make movies because there were no movies to be made. The art form hadn't been invented yet. But it had by 1912, when, 20 years old and after a roisterous young manhood as a mule skinner and gold miner, he showed up in Hollywood, Calif., just as it was turning into Hollywood, America.

Though he began as a stunt man and bit part player, at the very start he had an eye for talent and by 1915 had teamed with another bit player. The two tried several films, failed, drifted apart, then came together in 1916 to try their hands at what they called "Phun-Philms." And thus Roach's first star: Harold Lloyd, gradually finding his screen persona and becoming one of the great silent comedians.

And thus was launched the Roach Studio and the Roach approach. Unlike his cruder rival, the Mack Sennett who invented the "Keystone Cops," Roach built his short films not on mere gags and pratfalls but around solid comedy construction rooted in character. And he knew talent. During the Twenties, the words "A Hal Roach Comedy" became a touchstone of laughter, and his stable included some of America's funniest men, including Will Rogers and Charlie Chase.

Laurel and Hardy were first teamed in 1926, under director Leo McCarey, although ironically enough they had appeared in "Lucky Dog" in 1917, completely fortuitously. As a team, they went through the roof, making over 100 films, including 27 features.

Meanwhile, Roach became something of a mogul. His studio grew and grew and soon ventured into areas other than comedy. At the same time, he managed an extremely smooth conversion to sound in the early Thirties, and was able to keep both the "Our Gang" comedies and the "Laurel and Hardy" movies perking along nicely with the added dimension. In fact his two Oscars came after, not before, sound: in 1932 for the L&H short "The Music Box" and in 1936 for the "Our Gang" short "Bored of Education."

He understood the mechanics of screen comedy as well as any man alive. He once told an interviewer, "It's portraying things a child does. But it takes a great artist to do it -- like Stan Laurel crying or scratching his head, or Oliver Hardy playing with his tie. They were adults playing children. The reverse was the 'Our Gang' series with children playing grown-ups."

He also had an exquisite sense of timing. He was always ahead of the curve and segued neatly out of the two-reeler format in the mid-Thirties, when he sensed it was a dying genre, concentrating thereafter on features. He was among the first to understand the charisma of our friends the dinosaurs, setting the thunder lizards to hustle after poor Victor Mature in the campy classic (later remade with Raquel Welch) called "One Million, B.C." His most important straight feature was 1938's "Of Mice and Men," a remake of which has just entered the marketplace.

During World War II, he served as a colonel in the Army, making propaganda films. After the war, he again checked in well ahead of the curve, by getting into television production. He was the leading television producer of the early Fifties, at one time turning out over 1,500 hours of programming a year. These included such staples as "My Little Margie," "Amos and Andy" and "The Life of Riley."

Roach, who ultimately took his son Hal Roach Jr., into the business, sold it entirely to the son in the mid-Fifties and entered into retirement. The studio ultimately went bankrupt in the '60s and is now a used car lot.

As recently as last January, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, he was feted by a film community that still remembered. But there's a more enduring legacy: any time anyone in any theater in the world throws back his head and lets fly with a howler, that's an homage to the old guy.

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