In 1914 Hal Roach began his career as an independent producer, specializing in comedy. Memorable series were built around star names Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Will Rogers, Thelma Todd, Harry Langdon, and Laurel & Hardy. Anyone who has seen their work is likely to agree on the importance of preserving these threatened movies for future generations to discover, study and enjoy.
Threatened? How could movies like these, so widely seen for so long, be at risk of disappearing forever in first-class quality copies? Because they were too popular. Too many prints and negatives wore out, is the simple answer. Also, unfortunately, the surviving original nitrate elements have suffered decades of benign neglect.
Frustrated fans who know and care about saving and sharing the films have long asked how they can aid in this effort to restore and preserve the battered remaining nitrate, recently deposited at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Now there is a way everyone can get involved, by donating funds, at any level of participation.
Until his son bankrupted the studio in 1960, Roach made nearly 2,000 short subjects, feature films and television programs. The theatrical releases were handled successively by the distribution arms of Pathe, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and United Artists. Roach produced the films but these organizations managed the manufacturing, issuance and storage of all the duplicating negatives, as well as at least a hundred exhibition prints, per title, worldwide. Of Laurel & Hardy’s work, e.g., Pathe distributed DUCK SOUP (1927), M-G-M released ANOTHER FINE MESS (1930), and United Artists issued A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940).
This meant that the universe of Hal Roach Studios original 35mm camera negatives, dupe negatives, fine grain master positives (lavenders), work prints, answer prints, file prints, track prints, and exhibition prints was maintained not only in special vaults on the home lot in Culver City, but also in these three distributors’ labs and storage depots all over the world. It was a substantial inventory of assets to manage, numbering upwards of a million ten-minute reels.
Whatever such elements had survived through 1960 when the studio ceased active production, it was almost by accident, and not by design. The really tortured existence of the film library began as bankruptcy approached and the already greatly diminished number of prints and pre-print material finally began to wear out from over-use, to deteriorate, and to vanish, at an accelerated pace. The studio’s veteran licensing executive, Herbert R. Gelbspan, used to shake his head and lament, “Bankruptcy really hurt this corporation.”
What has happened to all these film elements over the years? Who has attempted to restore and then preserve the motion pictures created at Hal Roach Studios? What have the results been, particularly with respect to Laurel & Hardy? And what can the rest of us do – if anything, at this late date – to help save what is left?
In addressing this task, here are some of the issues which have faced both the two corporate successors in interest to Hal Roach Studios in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres (ownership of the library was split forty years ago), and also to such preservation institutions as the United States’ Library of Congress and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The mission of the first two is the economic imperative to return profits, otherwise these companies will vanish, and so also will their motion picture assets. Whereas the latter pair of organizations focus less on commerce and more upon cultural heritage issues – the artistic, historical and even sociological values of these timeless comedies.
As many know, virtually all of the film assets produced to support the original theatrical releases of such Laurel & Hardy titles as TWO TARS (1928) and TOWED IN A HOLE (1932) were manufactured on dangerous, combustible and chemically unstable cellulose nitrate-based stock. So while this material was valuable, it was also hazardous, costly to take care of, and subject to gradual but inevitable disintegration.
Fire was a distinct danger. During a summer period of high heat in 1937, e.g., most of the huge Fox film library stored in Little Ferry, New Jersey, exploded in flames and was lost.
Stan Laurel’s daughter, Lois, remembers the time in the mid-1930s when the Beverly Hills Fire Department drove down streets and went door-to-door asking residents to turn over any volatile nitrate film in their homes! Lois Laurel watched as her mother complied and did so. What films did she relinquish? Perhaps the now lost and partially lost 1927 two-reelers HATS OFF and BATTLE OF THE CENTURY? Daughter Lois never knew the titles involved, only that her mother had second thoughts later in the day and phoned Stan at the studio to discuss what had happened. Wonder how that conversation went?
We know, generally, historically, that even though they were seemingly important corporate assets, film material at studios big and small have seldom been the beneficiary of careful maintenance. Movies were regarded as disposable, perishable entertainment.
Starting with the lifelong indifferent attitude of Hal E. Roach, Sr., on down (and to include Messrs. Laurel and Hardy themselves), once a picture was made and set for theatrical distribution, it was essentially forgotten unless the property was going to be remade (which could be done using just the script) or reissued. Roach himself never had the leisure or inclination to look back anyhow, and in a strange way, this was almost a plus for Hal Roach Studios because for his entire career the founder believed in his own ability to make something new “tomorrow” that was better than anything he had ever produced in the past. Mr. Roach always looked ahead, not back. Besides, few in the film industry ever imagined the potential residual value and new markets for old films that we see taking place today. So up through the studio bankruptcy, with the exception of infrequent theatrical reissues and sales to early television, the physical films held no utility beyond entertainment of the moment. “What’s next?” was what mattered.
Roach’s careless viewpoint was typical of his contemporaries. But whereas he only neglected his silent film negatives, others intentionally obliterated them. Movie pioneer Samuel Goldwyn’s wife, Frances, made many of the business decisions for their production company. With the advent of sound, believing silent pictures to have no remaining commercial value, she eventually ordered nearly all they owned to be junked. Destroyed on purpose. Which at the time made sense to all concerned, because in the bargain Goldwyn could save important vault storage space.
Film historian Kevin Brownlow just received an honorary Oscar. During his acceptance speech, Brownlow told how Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle, Jr., believed that with the coming of talking movies in 1929, the only residual value of the studio’s flammable nitrate silent film prints and negatives was as kindling for a fire scene that needed some augmentation. Laemmle thought those suddenly obsolete silent pictures would never be needed or wanted again. Since they would produce such a fiery conflagration (nitrate film can burn underwater), Laemmle reasoned why not put those worthless “old” prints and negatives to good use? So he gathered and burned them up – on purpose – to fan the flames of a bonfire filmed as part of a college rally. Brownlow has a 16mm print of the late silent film Universal was making and which documents this atrocity.
There was, however, one person at Hal Roach Studios who did have the perspicacity to consider the matter of film preservation, even if his time horizon extended only through the life cycle of theatrical reissues. He was Richard Currier, head of the editorial department. On his 88th birthday, he told film historian Randy Skretvedt and me, “When Laurel & Hardy were starting to be popular, I told the guys down at the lab to make two fine grain master positives on every Laurel & Hardy, instead of just one. I figured that if there was anything this studio was going to make that would be printed and re-printed over the years, the Laurel & Hardy pictures would be the ones.”
The studio had suffered some shipping losses in 1926 and Currier decided on a new policy to manufacture and retain in the Culver City vaults a second, domestic 35mm fine grain master (a duplicating positive or “lavender”) as the principal protection element. The studio also routinely kept the work print (the cutting print) on hand in its concrete vaults, and sometimes a screening print as well. But both the domestic and export (or overseas) conformed original camera negatives, plus the first derivative fine grains, were always all shipped to the distributor in order to manufacture duplicate printing negs, and then finally to make the general release prints which went out to regional exchanges all over the world as required to service local movie exhibitors. Currier wisely did not trust the stewardship of outside distributors like Pathe or M-G-M, and took this pro-active step to safeguard his colleagues’ wonderful work product. How many additional Laurel & Hardy films would be lost today if Currier had not acted as he did?