Roach, Harold Eugene (“Hal”)

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Roach, Harold Eugene (“Hal”)

(b. 14 January 1892 in Elmira, New York d. 2 November 1992 in Los Angeles, California), pioneering film and television producer, writer, and director best known for introducing film audiences to Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Our Gang.

Roach was one of two children of Charles H. Roach, an Irish-Catholic insurance and real estate broker, and Mabel Bailey, who ran the boardinghouse in which the family lived. Bored with school, Roach left home at the age of sixteen. He headed west and embarked on a four-year od-yssey down the Pacific Coast, working a series of fairly rugged jobs (as gold prospector, mule skinner, and construction worker) from Alaska to Southern California. By 1912, at the age of twenty, he arrived in Los Angeles. Having acquired an authentic western wardrobe during his wanderings, Roach found himself readily employable as a “dress” extra in movie Westerns. During the next two years,

Roach rose from bit player to assistant director. In 1914 Roach and an acquaintance named Dan Linthicum founded the Rolin (Roach and Linthicum) Film Company. Lacking a distributor to market its product to theaters, Rolin’s first year produced little more than a stack of unsold films and a sea of red ink. Linthicum dropped out of the partnership.

Just as things were beginning to look hopeless for Rolin, Roach secured a distribution contract with the Pathé Exchange. Although Roach had intended for Rolin to produce everything from dramatic feature-length pictures to short comedies, Pathé was only interested in the latter, particularly those starring another Roach acquaintance, the co-medic actor Harold Lloyd. Thus by this twist of fate, rather than by design, Roach became a specialist in slapstick comedy. For the remainder of the 1910s, Rolin’s output was almost exclusively centered on the increasingly popular films of Harold Lloyd, many of which were personally directed by Roach. Under Roach, Lloyd’s first screen persona, the Chaplin-derivative “Lonesome Luke,” was replaced in 1917 by his “Glass Character,” the bespectacled All-American boy-next-door, which brought Lloyd enduring fame.

The success of Lloyd’s comedies gave Rolin financial stability. Roach brought his parents to California and made his father Rolin’s secretary-treasurer. In 1920 the company moved from rented facilities in Hollywood to a new studio in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City and changed its name from Rolin to the Hal E. Roach Studios.

In 1922 Roach inaugurated the “Our Gang” series, which charted the day-to-day comic adventures of a group of unaffected, working-class children. An immediate success, “Our Gang” became one of the longest-lived short-comedy series in movie history, produced by Roach from 1922 to 1938 and by MGM from 1938 to 1944. Renamed “The Little Rascals” for television syndication, the series remains a perennial favorite.

In 1921 Harold Lloyd began starring in feature-length pictures, joining the ranks of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, at the apex of film comedy. The Hal E. Roach Studios enjoyed its silent-era zenith with the release of Safety Last (1923), in which the hapless Lloyd is forced to climb the side of a tall building, at one point dangling from the hands of a giant clock. However, Lloyd soon decided to follow Chaplin’s lead and set up his own independent production firm. After Lloyd’s departure, Roach’s output for much of the remainder of the 1920s was a mix of modestly successful short-comedy series, occasional feature-length Westerns and comedies, and the ever-reliable “Our Gang” series.

In 1927 two events lifted the studio out of its doldrums: Roach switched his distribution from the foundering Pathé to the industry’s rising star, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and he teamed second-tier comedian/director Stan Laurel with a supporting comic named Oliver Hardy. Laurel and Hardy would become Roach’s most successful stars since Harold Lloyd. The team remained with Roach until 1940, when they departed for other studios due to creative differences between Roach and Laurel.

Roach was married twice. His first marriage, to Margaret Nichols, produced two children: Hal, Jr., who died in 1972, and Margaret, who died in 1963. After Margaret’s death in 1940, Roach wed Lucille Prin in 1942. This union produced four daughters and lasted until Lucille’s death in 1981.

Although Roach won two Academy Awards for best short subject, for Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box (1932) and Our Gang’s Bored of Education (1936), the tide in the 1930s was turning against independent short-comedy producers. The rise of double features left little revenue or time on a theatrical program for a twenty-minute short. In 1936 Roach decided to concentrate on feature-length pictures and to phase out short-film production. Laurel and Hardy, alone among Roach’s short-film stars in their ability to carry a feature-length picture, were joined by a new breed of sleek and sophisticated comedies, such as Topper (1937); adventure films, such as One Million B.C. (1940); and serious dramas, notably Of Mice and Men (1939).

This new policy, however, resulted in fewer films being released per year. While most of Roach’s films were at least modestly successful, none provided the type of box-office bonanza necessary to keep the studio going on such a slender output. By 1941 the studio was in serious financial trouble. Roach ceased feature production and instituted a series of “streamliners,” forty-five minute “featurettes” that fit nicely as the second half of a double-feature program. The “streamliner” policy was just beginning to pay off when the United States entered World War II. Roach, who had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps Reserves in the 1920s along with a number of other studio executives, was called into active military service at age fifty. Roach terminated “streamliner” production and leased the whole studio facility to the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit for the production of training films. Ironically, Roach was never able to arrange a transfer to his own studio, nicknamed “Fort Roach,” and spent the war working at other film facilities in the Eastern United States.

After the war, Roach had a difficult time obtaining financing to resume production. Too deeply in debt to continue after the production of only four more “streamliners” in 1947 and 1948, the studio seemed doomed when the arrival of television brought new hope. Beginning with relatively modest productions for the new medium (including commercials, one of which starred a young Marilyn Monroe), Roach was able to begin full-scale series production in 1951, funded by the proceeds from television distribution of the old “Our Gang” comedies.

By 1955 Roach’s studio was the largest single producer of filmed television series. His television output included My Little Margie, Racket Squad, The Stu Erwin Show, and Screen Director’s Playhouse. With the future of the company seemingly assured, Roach decided to retire, selling the studio in 1955 to his only son, Hal Roach, Jr. At this point, however, the major Hollywood studios decided to commence television production. The majors could afford to lavish more money and care on their television programs, making Roach’s shows look cheap by comparison. Roach’s production costs (and debts) rose, and series output diminished. The studio ceased production in 1959 and began a liquidation of assets in 1960. The studio facility saw some use by independent filmmakers renting space until 1963, when it was demolished to make room for an industrial/commercial development.

Because his son still owed him a substantial amount of the 1955 studio purchase price, Hal Roach, Sr., had a major stake in the company’s remaining assets: its library of old movies and television series. Roach served as an associate producer on the remake in 1966 by Raquel Welch One Million Years B.C., before finally selling all interests in Hal Roach Studios to a group of Canadian investors in 1971. This new ownership later pioneered the controversial “co-lorization” process for black-and-white movies. Roach had nothing to do with the development of “colorization” and regretted that his name was associated with it.

Roach remained active and vigorous during the last two decades of his life. In 1984 he received a special Academy Award for lifetime achievement, and in 1992 the Academy Awards ceremony included a special tribute to his accomplishments. Not one to enjoy dwelling on past glories, Roach instead loved to look ahead, to speculate on the future of the industry, and to plan new projects. He lived long enough to serve as a consultant during the early planning stages of a new, feature-length version of The Little Rascals (1994).

After he reached the age of 100 on 14 January 1992, Roach’s health began to decline rapidly. He died of pneumonia at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. His body was returned to Elmira for burial in Wood-lawn Cemetery. His epitaph reads, “After leaving Elmira he found success in Hollywood and motion pictures, but always loved his hometown and has returned.”

Hal Roach’s life and career spanned most of the twentieth-century history of the motion picture. He watched the industry progress from silent films photographed by hand-cranked cameras to computer-generated images and surround sound. He introduced the movie-going public to some of its most beloved comedians and developed a style of comedy that, in emphasizing character and situation over mechanical slapstick, laid the groundwork for the most successful of the later television situation comedies.

The business records of the Hal E. Roach Studios are in the Special Collections Department at the University of Southern California. While no biography of Roach exists, the studio’s story is told in Richard L. Ward, “A History of the Hal Roach Studios” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1995), and William K. Everson, The Films of Hal Roach (1971). A brief studio and series profile may be found in Leonard Maltin, The Great Movie Shorts (1972). Roach’s better-known film series have been extensively documented in Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann, Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals (1977), Tom Dardis, Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock (1983), and Randy Skretvedt, Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Nov. 1992).

Richard L. Ward