Harry Eugene Roach
January 14, 1892
Elmira, New York, U.S.
|Died||November 2, 1992 (aged 100)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York|
(m. 1915; died 1941)
(m. 1942; died 1981)
|Children||6, including Hal Roach Jr. and Margaret Roach|
Harry Eugene "Hal" Roach Sr. (January 14, 1892 – November 2, 1992) was an American film and television producer, director, actor and studio executive, who was the founder of the namesake Hal Roach Studios.
Roach was active in the industry from the 1910s to the 1990s and is best remembered today for producing a number of successes including the Laurel and Hardy franchise, the films of entertainer Charley Chase, and the Our Gang short film comedy series.
Early life and career
Hal Roach was born in Elmira, New York, to Charles Henry Roach, whose father was born in Wicklow, County Wicklow, Ireland, and Mabel Gertrude Bally, her father John Bally being from Switzerland. A presentation by the American humorist Mark Twain impressed Roach as a young grade school student.
After an adventurous youth that took him to Alaska, Hal Roach arrived in Hollywood, California, in 1912 and began working as an extra in silent films. Upon coming into an inheritance, he began producing short film comedies in 1915 with his friend Harold Lloyd, who portrayed a character known as Lonesome Luke.
In September 1916, Roach married actress Marguerite Nichols. They had two children, Hal Jr. (June 15, 1918 – March 29, 1972), who followed his father as a producer and director, and Margaret Roach (March 15, 1921 – November 22, 1964), who worked as an actress in the 1930s and 1940s. Marguerite died in March 1941.
Roach married a second time, on September 1, 1942, to Lucille Prin (January 20, 1913 – April 4, 1981), a Los Angeles secretary. They were married at the on-base home of Colonel Franklin C. Wolfe and his wife at Wright-Patterson Airfield in Dayton, Ohio, where Roach was stationed at the time while serving as a major in the United States Army Air Corps. Roach and Lucille had four children, Elizabeth Carson Roach (December 26, 1945 – September 5, 1946), Maria May Roach (born April 14, 1947), Jeanne Alice Roach (born October 7, 1949), and Kathleen Bridget Roach (born January 29, 1951).
Success as a comedy producer
Unable to expand his studios in Downtown Los Angeles because of zoning, Roach purchased what became the Hal Roach Studios from Harry Culver in Culver City, California. During the 1920s and 1930s, he employed Lloyd (his top money-maker until his departure in 1923), Will Rogers, Max Davidson, the Our Gang children, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Lupe Vélez, Patsy Kelly and, most famously, Laurel and Hardy. During the 1920s, Roach's biggest rival was producer Mack Sennett. In 1925, Roach hired away Sennett's supervising director, F. Richard Jones.
Roach released his films through Pathé Exchange until 1927, when he struck a distribution deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He converted his silent movie studio to sound in late 1928 and began releasing talking shorts in early 1929. In the days before dubbing, foreign language versions of the Roach comedies were created by reshooting each film in the Spanish, French, and occasionally Italian and German languages. Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang children (some of whom had barely begun school) were required to recite the foreign dialogue phonetically, often working from blackboards hidden off-camera.
In 1931, with the release of the Laurel & Hardy film Pardon Us, Roach began producing occasional full-length features alongside the short subjects. Short films became less profitable and were generally phased out by 1936, save for the Our Gang series. An Our Gang feature film General Spanky did not do as well as expected; Roach continued making the shorts for MGM.
In 1937, Roach conceived a joint business venture partnering with Vittorio Mussolini, son of fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, to form a production company called "R.A.M" (Roach and Mussolini). Roach claimed the scheme involved Italian bankers providing US$6 million that would enable Roach's studio to produce a series of 12 films. Eight would be for Italian screening only whilst the remaining four would receive world distribution. The first film for Italy was to be a feature film of the opera Rigoletto.
This proposed business alliance with Mussolini alarmed MGM which intervened and forced Roach to buy his way out of the venture. This embarrassment, coupled with the underperformance of much of Roach's latest feature films (save for Laurel & Hardy titles and the odd other hit such as 1937's Topper), led to the end of Roach's distribution contract with MGM. In May 1938, Roach sold MGM the production rights and actors contracts to the Our Gang shorts. Roach signed a distribution deal with United Artists at this time.
From 1937 to 1940, Roach concentrated on producing glossy features, abandoning low comedy almost completely. Most of his new films were either sophisticated farces (like Topper and The Housekeeper's Daughter, 1939) or rugged action fare (like Captain Fury, 1939, and One Million B.C., 1940). Roach's one venture into heavy drama was the acclaimed Of Mice and Men (1939), in which actors Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. played the leading roles. The Laurel and Hardy comedies, once the Roach studio's biggest drawing cards, were now the studio's least important product and were phased out altogether in 1940.
In 1940, Roach experimented with medium-length featurettes, running 40 to 50 minutes each. He contended that these "streamliners", as he called them, would be useful in double-feature situations where the main attraction was a longer-length epic. Exhibitors agreed with him and used Roach's mini-features to balance top-heavy double bills. United Artists continued to release Roach's streamliners through 1943. By this time, Roach no longer had a resident company of comedy stars and cast his films with familiar featured players (William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, Johnny Downs, Jean Porter, Frank Faylen, William Bendix, George E. Stone, etc.).
World War II and television
Hal Roach, Sr., commissioned in the US Army Signal Reserve Corps in 1927 was called back to active military duty in the Signal Corps in June 1942, at age 50. The studio output he oversaw in uniform was converted from entertainment featurettes to military training films. The studios were leased to the U.S. Army Air Forces, and the First Motion Picture Unit made 400 training, morale and propaganda films at "Fort Roach". Members of the unit included Ronald W. Reagan and Alan Ladd. After the war the government returned the studio to Roach, with millions of dollars of improvements.
In 1946, Hal Roach resumed motion picture production, with former Harold Lloyd co-star Bebe Daniels as an associate producer. Roach was the first Hollywood producer to go to an all-color production schedule, making four streamliners in Cinecolor, although the increased production costs did not result in increased revenue. In 1948, with his studio deeply in debt, Roach re-established his studio for television production, with Hal Roach Jr., producing series such as The Stu Erwin Show, Steve Donovan, Western Marshal, Racket Squad, The Public Defender, The Gale Storm Show, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and My Little Margie, and independent producers leasing the facilities for such programs as Amos 'n' Andy, The Life of Riley and The Abbott and Costello Show. By 1951, the studio was producing 1,500 hours of television programs a year, nearly three times Hollywood's annual output of feature movies.
Recognizing the value of his film library, in 1943 Roach began licensing revivals of his sound-era productions for theatrical and home-movie distribution. Roach's films were also early arrivals on television. His Laurel and Hardy comedies were successful in television syndication, as were the Our Gang comedies produced from 1927-1938, for which in 1949 Roach had bought back the rights from MGM and re-branded for television as "The Little Rascals". He thus became one of the first significant film producers to venture into television. Notably not one of his former child stars was ever paid a cent in residuals from the substantial profits netted.
In 1955, Roach sold his interests in the production company to his son, Hal Roach Jr., and retired from active production. The younger Roach lacked much of his father's business acumen and soon lost the studio to creditors. It was finally shut down in 1961.
For two more decades, Roach Sr. occasionally worked as a consultant on projects related to his past work. Extremely vigorous into an advanced age, Roach contemplated a comedy comeback at 96.
In 1984, 92-year-old Roach was presented with an honorary Academy Award. Former Our Gang members Jackie Cooper and George "Spanky" McFarland made the presentation to a flattered Roach, with McFarland thanking the producer for hiring him 53 years prior. An additional Our Gang member, Ernie Morrison, was amongst the crowd and started the standing ovation for Roach. Cooper's gratitude towards Roach was especially notable. Years earlier Cooper had been the youngest Academy Award nominee ever for his performance in Skippy when he had been under contract with Roach. Although Paramount had paid Roach $25,000 for Cooper's services in that film, Roach paid Cooper only his standard salary of $50 per week.
On January 21, 1992, Roach was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, one week after his 100th birthday, where he recounted experiences with such stars as Stan Laurel and Jean Harlow; he even did a brief, energetic demonstration of a hula dance. In February 1992, Roach travelled to Berlin to receive the honorary award of the Berlinale Kamera for Lifetime Achievement at the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival.
On March 30, 1992, Roach appeared at the 64th Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Billy Crystal. When Roach rose from the audience for a standing ovation, he decided to give a speech without a microphone, causing Crystal to quip "I think that's appropriate because Mr. Roach started in silent films."
Death and legacy
Hal Roach died in his home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, from pneumonia, on November 2, 1992, at the age of 100. He had married twice, and had six children, eight grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren. Roach outlived three of his children by more than 20 years: Hal Jr. (died in 1972), Margaret (died in 1964), and Elizabeth (died in 1946). He also outlived many of the children who starred in his films. Roach is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, where he grew up.
- Skretvedt, Randy (2016). LAUREL AND HARDY: THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MOVIES. Bonaventure Press. p.608.
- Skretvedt, Randy (2016). LAUREL AND HARDY: THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MOVIES. Bonaventure Press. p.608
- "'Our Gang' Creator Hal Roach Dies At 100". Retrieved September 11, 2016.
- "Movie Producer Married at 50 To Secretary, 29". The Coshocton Tribune. Ohio. September 1, 1942. p. 5.
- Graham, Sheila Hollywood Today Hal Roach Defends Mussolini Deal p. 4 The Milwaukee Journal 5 October 1937
- Ward, Richard Lewis (2005). A History of Hal Roach Studios. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Pg. 97–102, 116, 225. ISBN 0-8093-2637-X.
- p. 125 Ward, Richard Lewis A History of the Hal Roach Studios SIU Press, 15 Aug 2006
- Betancourt, Mark (March 2012). "World War II: The Movie". Air & Space. Retrieved September 27, 2013.
- "Hollywood Is Humming", Time, October 29, 1951.
- "Little Rascals History". Archived from the original on November 19, 2012. Retrieved February 2, 2017.
- Cooper, Jackie (1982). Please Don't Shoot My Dog. Penguin Books. pp. 9, 32, 40–42, 44, 54–61. ISBN 0-425-05306-7.
- "Berlinale: 1992 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved March 27, 2011.
- Ward, Richard Lewis (August 15, 2006). "A History of the Hal Roach Studios". SIU Press – via Google Books.
- Craig Calman. 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach. BearManor Media, Albany, GA, 2014, 2017
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