The worthy efforts of Larry Harmon notwithstanding, there are no new, authentic Laurel & Hardy films being made these days. The real Stan Laurel and his partner Oliver Hardy made their last new film some time ago. Yet when afforded the opportunity of watching a rare, or previously missing Laurel & Hardy subject, it will seem like a new film, at least among those of us for whom it remains unseen. And there are precious few around today who can say they have seen any portion of the elusive motion picture entitled THE ROGUE SONG, now unfortunately more famous for being lost, than for being good.
Why, and how is it that major companies can misplace, lose, or purposely destroy valuable corporate assets, particularly when such property happens to be the very source of their business income and economic survival? And yet it has happened, and still happens. Why is that?
In one business, the movie business, this corporate waste has gone on throughout the entire twentieth century. One would imagine shareholders and even secured creditors should be alarmed at such waste and mismanagement. They really should be alarmed. Some are. Not enough were.
Fully one-half of all American motion pictures produced before 1950 have been purged, or simply perished. Such recordings of photographed entertainment are now evidently lost, and unless one last, unlikely copy can be located for preservation, they are probably gone forever. In other words, for these films, it really is, finally, "the end."
In a triumph of hope over experience, the American Film Institute began searching for these missing movies. A huge "rescue list" was published in 1967. In 1980 the AFI first circulated its more effective top ten "most wanted" films of special significance for archival preservation. Lost titles included famous works of Garbo, Disney, Chaney, von Stroheim, and Laurel & Hardy -- in THE ROGUE SONG.
Actually the star of THE ROGUE SONG was Lawrence Tibbett. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were added in the midst of production as an afterthought, as "supporting players" according to the loanout agreement, in this early sound two-color Technicolor subject. Unfortunately, primitive dye-transfer two-color Technicolor film elements were particularly unstable and prone to decomposition. No complete print of THE ROGUE SONG is known to survive. They wore out, were discarded, accidentally damaged, or simply deteriorated before safety film preservation elements could be made. As late as 1974, the production company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, still held reel four of the cellulose nitrate picture negative, but this material was not converted onto acetate safety film in time and has now long since deteriorated and decomposed into brown powder.
Mighty M-G-M's very first all-talking, all Technicolor prestige project was this motion picture extravaganza entitled THE ROGUE SONG. It was shot during the late summer of 1929. Based on the 1910 opera GYPSY LOVE by Franz Lehar, the film was planned as a sophisticated showcase for Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett, making his movie debut. He was to play sort of a charming Robin Hood character. Quite an event, this was to be.
Studio chieftain Irving Thalberg appointed Paul Bern (later a tragic figure as the husband of Jean Harlow) to supervise production, and selected Lionel Barrymore as director. In judging the popular appeal of THE ROGUE SONG, it may be significant to know that while the celebrated co-star of GRAND HOTEL, DINNER AT EIGHT and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE was continuously employed at the studio for more years than any other actor, he was invited to direct no further films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Shooting began on August 27, 1929, anticipating a thirty day schedule. Upon screening a rough assembly of scenes in M-G-M's projection room sometime during the second week of September, Thalberg and Bern could see there was trouble. The tone of their highbrow opera picture was leaden, if not funereal. Tibbett's intense personality was uneasy on the screen, and Barrymore's direction was stillborn. Thalberg, though, was the consummate movie doctor; if necessary he would cut open THE ROGUE SONG time and again to surgically repair whatever was not working. Until it played. Until it sang.
Metro had just borrowed the team of Laurel & Hardy from Hal Roach Studios to brighten their all-star opus, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, a promotional feature film disguised as entertainment in order to show audiences that their expensive roster of talent could actually speak, and sometimes sing. To the surprise of M-G-M's executives, Laurel & Hardy nearly stole the show from the constellation of high profile dramatic stars. Thalberg reasoned Laurel & Hardy might well relieve some of the tedium choking rushes of THE ROGUE SONG. Plus it was soon apparent that Mr. Tibbett, singing opera, would not constitute a huge draw in parts of America west of New York's Carnegie Hall, nor in Europe, where opera was popular, but Tibbett was unknown. It seemed places like Spain and Italy had their own opera stars. So besides bolstering the content with their comedy relief, Laurel & Hardy would provide boxoffice insurance throughout Europe, as well as in those parts of America outside of New York City.
Irving Thalberg and Hal Roach were very good friends. They vacationed together. But this arrangement to loan the services of Laurel & Hardy was business. Both sides did plenty of posturing. "Thalberg simply did not understand comedy," Roach explained in 1976. "He seemed to know many other things; without question he was the most astute production executive in the industry, but he had no appreciation for creating comedy, or what was funny, and why, and why not.
"He knew enough that Laurel & Hardy interludes could save the commercial prospects for the picture he was making, and so he called me for a meeting. I went there. I didn't want him coming to the Hal Roach Studios because I can't walk out of my own office. So I went down the street, we had lunch, and afterwards in a meeting I listened to his proposal. Here was where I learned how the idea of 'yes men' was supposed to work. I didn't know. Thalberg demonstrated this for me. I was nearly impressed. He had three or four writers with him, and this chorus chimed in their loud approval at everything Thalberg says, you know?
" 'Oh, Mr. Thalberg, that's wonderful, how did you ever conceive such hilarious material?' these guys praised each time Thalberg stopped to take a breath. But I had to protect our interest, so I say, 'Well, Irving, you are reciting gags that may be funny and may work for some comedians, but what kind of material do you have that's in keeping with the characters we have developed for Laurel & Hardy, and that's up to the standard we have established?'
"So now Thalberg announces his specific concept, 'Well, all right,' he says, 'Laurel & Hardy -- they're working for Tibbett as the coachman, and the assistant to the coachman, on a coach.'
"The yes men all fall down applauding Thalberg -- what a genius he is, how funny this will be, and so on. Big commotion. When they're through, I ask, 'What's funny about being a coachman?'
"So they went through gags and story ideas, none of which were in keeping with the characters as we'd developed them, suggesting things Laurel & Hardy would never do, and should never do. I was not impressed. They were stumped, you know, that just because it's Laurel & Hardy they'd be funny doing anything and it would work. They're just funny. 'Right,' I said again, 'They are funny, but you haven't told me any really funny things which you have written and created for them to do here, in this picture, that I can feel comfortable approving.'
"Thalberg is now confounded and says, 'Well, but you can make them funny, can't you?'
" 'Yes, I can,' I said, 'but this is your picture, and you're the one supposed to do that.'
"Finally I agreed to write and direct these scenes as a favor to Thalberg because he asked me, and he's Irving Thalberg. But then he objected I was trying to turn THE ROGUE SONG into a Laurel & Hardy picture, which only incidentally featured Lawrence Tibbett. We compromised, reworked our material, filmed some quick inserts, with the result the picture was really not very good. It was a dud.
"We tried to salvage the thing but couldn't work the way we wanted. Stan knew it, Babe knew it, I knew it, but we also recognized this was Thalberg asking. I made the story I wanted when we did FRA DIAVOLO a few years later. I'd seen that as a kid in Elmira, and the experience with Thalberg gave me the idea how I could adapt FRA DIAVOLO as a comic opera for Laurel & Hardy, so something good did come out of this."
On September 16, 1929 studio business manager Ben Shipman drafted, and Hal Roach signed, a single page loanout agreement with Louis B. Mayer, on behalf of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for the services of Laurel & Hardy "and the supervisory staff that we ordinarily have with them." The financial consideration was to be $4,000 per week.
Shooting on THE HOOSE-GOW wrapped on the previous Saturday, September 14, so that Roach and Laurel were free to begin preparing scenes for THE ROGUE SONG on Monday, the day when the agreement was signed. Principal photography on the Metro feature was concluded on October 11, although it is not clear when, during that interval, the Laurel & Hardy scenes were filmed. Most likely they were the last scenes shot during October. Quite obviously, things were rushed.
As Stan Laurel told FILMS IN REVIEW in 1959, Tibbett had returned to New York, thinking his part in the picture had been completed, only to "fly back to Hollywood to shoot a scene with us -- the only scene in which he and we appeared together."
The final negative cost totalled $646,000 -- by no means record setting, but still a huge expenditure on a major M-G-M feature film. By contrast, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 cost $426,000 to make. THE BIG HOUSE (1930), which Laurel & Hardy spoofed when they did PARDON US (1931) cost $414,000. And MEN OF THE NORTH (1930), which Hal Roach produced and directed for M-G-M, at M-G-M, in four languages, as another favor to Thalberg, cost a mere $174,000. At the industry's most important movie factory, THE ROGUE SONG was indeed seen as a momentous enterprise.
During post-production on THE ROGUE SONG, the Hollywood trade papers carried Metro's press release announcing they'd borrowed Laurel & Hardy from the Hal Roach Studios as comedy relief to enact "two burlesque desperadoes" who were sidekicks of Lawrence Tibbett as "the singing bandit."
As Ali-Bek (Stan) and Murza-Bek (Ollie), they care for Tibbett's stable of horses. Ollie attempts to mount one steed using a rain barrel to step on, but plunges through it. He gets soaked. Lots of water was required to make THE ROGUE SONG. Water seemed to be a running theme.
In a scene just previously written but not used in THE HOOSE-GOW, the boys deal with a cheese vendor whose product attracts flies and bees. Stan swallows one, and panic sets in. Then they disappear from the screen for a period of four reels. In other words, following the time it would take to run both THE HOOSE-GOW and BUSY BODIES, they next return to the screen when Stan tries to give Ollie a shave. For another interlude, they flee a storm, soaking wet, finding shelter in a dark cave already inhabited by a grizzly bear. Later still, they hide in a lakeside tree, trying to aid Tibbett, but their weight breaks the branch and they fall into the water. Fortunately there was no shortage of water in Los Angeles during the production of THE ROGUE SONG.
Finally, at a point where they believe Tibbett is dead, Ollie announces with great flourish their leader's last words to the rest of his gang. Seems he told Oliver, "I want you to carry on," and that Ollie should be their new chief. Doesn't fly. Tibbett's bandits laugh in derision. When Tibbett returns, alive, Stan and Ollie pick up their shovels and resume their regular duties -- following the horses around.
In all, eight mostly short scenes with Laurel & Hardy were added to be spotted throughout a film that ran nearly two hours. The comedy team did provide marquee value, and while it must have been a treat to see them in color, doubtless their fans at the time were disappointed by such an incidental contribution. Not to mention the boredom some -- at least some -- must have felt watching Tibbett sing on, and on, even while being flogged.
In his 195l autobiography, Lionel Barrymore mentioned a silent Roach two-reel comedy in which he appeared, but wrote nothing about directing Laurel & Hardy in THE ROGUE SONG. Because it was Hal Roach who performed that task, not Barrymore. He did relate plenty of the sorrows in making this picture. Barrymore discussed how "playbacks" had not yet been invented, and reviewed other technical aspects which plagued such an early sound film, and which also happened to be shot in two-color Technicolor. He added, "As we made the picture it gave me cynical pleasure to keep in mind that the Los Angeles public now paid through the nose to hear in concerts the performer they had previously begrudged five dollars for singing at local funerals -- and that is the fact. Chanting five-dollar dirges at the obsequies of Los Angeles notables is how Lawrence Tibbett got his start."
Lawrence Tibbett Jr. said his father enjoyed working with Laurel & Hardy. "He loved doing that picture," the son told Randy Skretvedt. "It was a happy memory for him."
Screenwriter Frances Marion is the subject of a remarkable new documentary funded by PLAYBOY's Hugh Hefner entitled WITHOUT LYING DOWN. Miss Marion adapted THE ROGUE SONG for the screen. In her book OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! she wrote of the flogging scene, and how Laurel & Hardy "turned the table on Tibbett and mocked him, in pantomime....How could anyone have suspected that life would keep on flogging this merry soul during the years that stretched ahead of him? The last time I saw Lawrence Tibbett, not long before his death in 1960, he was staggering drunkenly down Fifth Avenue, ill-kempt, his fortune gone, his voice gone, his fame almost forgotten. 'Oh, Larry!' I said, unable to hide my distress. His bleary eyes saw only a stranger to whom he made an obscene remark, then he lurched to the lamppost until he could gather enough strength to stagger on."
Frances Marion also wrote of how fond Mr. Tibbett seemed to be of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and how he "doubled with merriment" watching them perform their scenes.
Too bad audiences did not share the singing bandit's sense of humor, or if they did, that there was not more of Laurel & Hardy's antics for them to enjoy. The picture might have been better, and it might have done better.
Sparing no expense, the gala world premiere of THE ROGUE SONG was staged Friday, January 17, 1930 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. With great ceremony, Messrs. Tibbett, Hardy, and Laurel all appeared in person and participated in a live, radio broadcast staged upon the theatre's famous forecourt, where Hollywood's elite have left their footprints, handprints and signatures in cement for all to visit and see. It remains a popular tourist attraction for fans from across the world.
Highbrow critics, although they seemed to resent the intrusion of Laurel & Hardy, were pleased with the opera's translation from stage to screen. THE ROGUE SONG was praised and Tibbett was nominated for the Academy Award as best actor. But opera was not fully appreciated by the American masses, and general movie patrons were attracted elsewhere. The picture did better in Europe, and so the worldwide gross totalled a respectable $1,610,000, but the high cost of issuing two-color Technicolor prints, and on differing sound formats (sound on film, and the competing sound on disc) resulted in a net loss of $109,000. While a noble, even pioneering effort, THE ROGUE SONG was a commercial failure. The picture was never reissued. It was hopelessly dated even a year later when the cycle of early sound musicals was over.
To his credit, in 1933 Lawrence Tibbett wrote in an article that while THE ROGUE SONG played for five months at the Astor Theatre in New York, "Any conceit that I might have had regarding my boxoffice value as a movie star was quickly eliminated when, passing through a small western town on a train, I saw on a theatre canopy: 'Laurel & Hardy in THE ROGUE SONG.'"
In fact, the draw at that very Astor Theatre in New York turned out to be Laurel & Hardy as well. Five months into the booking, the New York papers carried ads for the Astor Theatre headlined, "They're a scream!" in tandem with a photo of the duo and declaring "Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have never been funnier than in the Season's Great Musical Romance." Tibbett's name was used, but not his picture. Laurel & Hardy fans must have done their own screaming during most of the two hours when their heroes were absent from this Great Musical Romance. Or did they cue up to see but a few minutes of only modest Laurel & Hardy fun merely because their scenes were in color?
Or was THE ROGUE SONG really, as advertised, the "Great Musical Romance?" Was it? Maybe so. Will we ever know? Since the AFI published its 1980 rescue list, five elements for THE ROGUE SONG have been located. Within their own storage vaults, M-G-M discovered they still possessed the original and complete soundtrack disc recordings. So the complete, mixed, dialogue, music and effects track does exist. Pelican Records issued an album containing both musical and comedy dialogue highlights. The complete, original track elements are presently on deposit at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles.
Laurel & Hardy, however, are visual comedians. People want to see them, and it's a novelty to see them in color -- two-strip color, full three-strip color, or any color.
In 1981, Professor Lawrence Benaquist of Keene State College in New Hampshire discovered a two and one-half minute extract of the picture and track at a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A theatre projectionist had excised this clip for reasons unknown and saved it! Defying all odds, the footage found depicted a Laurel & Hardy scene, although, unfortunately, it was a scene where Stan and Ollie are hardly visible. It was the storm-and-cave-refuge sequence, with Laurel & Hardy in the dark, unable to see they are sharing company with a bear, and vice versa. Certainly a good trick on somebody.
Funding for the nitrate safety conversion on this clip was provided by the AFI, and the footage was deposited at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. That left 112 and one-half minutes remaining to be found and restored. Almost immediately, the search intensified.
Thirteen years later the Czech Film Archive in Prague disclosed they possessed a mute nitrate reel containing assorted fragments (in no particular order) from THE ROGUE SONG. A 35mm safety print manufactured from the nitrate was screened in 1995 at the Rolduc SONS OF THE DESERT convention in The Netherlands. No Laurel & Hardy scenes were found in this footage. The absence of sound and the lack of continuity in the clips made the reel hard to follow, but the two-strip color, especially for those lucky enough to see on the underlying nitrate, was breathtaking.
Of this discovery, Alison Grimmer reported for the Laurel & Hardy INTRA-TENT JOURNAL, "In 1930, when THE ROGUE SONG was first released, you could see all eleven reels for 65 cents -- good value for money by all accounts. In 1994 I paid over a thousand times that amount to see one reel of it, and I consider the money well spent."
In 1998, half-a-reel, or 500 feet, running approximately five minutes, was located by a group called Northeast Historic Film, in the state of Maine. Again, this now fragile footage contained no Laurel & Hardy scenes. It was turned over to UCLA for preservation in recognition of its historic value as an early two-color Technicolor print, and as an example of an early sound film distributed simultaneously on competing sound reproduction systems.
There is irony in how and why this footage -- a ballet sequence -- survived. Some exhibitor or projectionist apparently deemed it boring, isolated, and irrelevant to the story; it was easily excised to maximize the so-called boxoffice "turn," and so it was cut out of the print! Because the footage was cut, set aside, and forgotten, it was neither worn out during projection nor destroyed on purpose following the theatrical run. Nor did it decompose on its own, until at last it could be rediscovered and saved and shown all on its own as the weakest sequence in the entire, archaic film! And who said it pays to be good?
In the United States, Turner Classic Movies telecast the ballet sequence earlier this year, and one wonders how far that set back the cause of film preservation.
This past August 5, at the UCLA Festival of Preservation, the ballet sequence was screened again, but this time along with the restored theatrical trailer for THE ROGUE SONG, which was fascinating. Trailers are always of interest, no matter what coming attraction they advertise. In fact their inherent appeal often varies inversely with the quality of the feature being previewed. Trailers can be profoundly, deliberately and delightfully misleading, which is part of the fun. In any case, they are finished and over usually within three minutes.
With respect to THE ROGUE SONG trailer, which, incredibly, was restored from a mute print, it offers a real taste of what the film was like. The first half-minute of the prevue's picture portion was lost to deterioration, so stills were used instead. Not many early talking films' trailers survive, and those that do represent a curious hybrid of silent prevues, which are full of long, written, hyperbolic text titles extolling the films' alleged virtues, and the subsequent over-produced full-sound trailers, which instead feature a lot of fast cutting and splashy graphics exploding all over the screen.
Plus THE ROGUE SONG coming attractions trailer appears to be comprised -- as was the practice then -- of alternate takes. The rejected takes. The director's approved takes were designated for use in the original negative. These scenes were then not available for preparing the trailer. That footage had to be drawn from the out-takes.
Thankfully the three-minutes-long coming attractions prevue for THE ROGUE SONG contains one nice tease with Laurel & Hardy showing the cheese and bee-swallowing gag. One sees and hears Laurel & Hardy in what amounts to extended (for a trailer), and brand new footage, which is exciting. That footage was great to see.
The trailer was preserved from a 35mm mute, cemented two-color Technicolor nitrate workprint, and from a Vitaphone disc provided by Bruce Miller, all working in cooperation with Warner Bros., the successor in interest to the M-G-M film library.
Today Warner Bros. controls rights to THE ROGUE SONG. Of course America On Line now owns Warner Bros., so anyone with stock in AOL is urged to protect your interests by finding lost property you now own a stake in, particularly the missing footage -- meaning most of it -- from THE ROGUE SONG. A wise locale to begin such a search would be the New England states of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Not coincidentally this is an area where ROGUE SONG pre-print material might well survive, since the Technicolor plant which did M-G-M's early color work was located in Boston.
Unlike the other three ROGUE SONG extracts, the color on the trailer is degraded. In the two-color process, of the blue dye and red dye, the blue fades faster, which happened here, leaving the red to dominate. This produces a sepia tone effect instead of full color, or as full as the color could be in the early, limited two-strip process.
With or without the full range afforded by the two-color process, the most forceful message was offered via text title, which declared in dramatic typeface what the trailer was really selling: "There is only one Lawrence Tibbett, hear him in the supreme talking picture achievement THE ROGUE SONG."
THE ROGUE SONG remains atop the rescue list of lost films, although as fragments come to light from remote, hidden quarters around the world, it appears less and less interesting. The phenomenon of lost films is rather like assessing the early demises of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley as having been shrewd career moves. Their fame and appeal have become greater in death than in life, just as the heightened reputation of some lost films seems to vary directly with the length of time we are unable to view and appraise them.
Our hope is that diligent AOL stockholders will prove this to be incorrect, but the footage found so far is not encouraging, either insofar as locating the balance of the film, or that THE ROGUE SONG, if discovered, will be hailed as a great film. The considerable novelty of seeing a film in color, and hearing a film with sound, are only of academic interest now and meaningless for mass audiences today.
One suspects that when and if the complete ROGUE SONG is ever found for contemporary scrutiny, the response might echo the assessment of legendary Cinephile Herb Graff, who remarked upon seeing the unearthed JANICE MEREDITH (1924) at the first Minnesota Cinecon in 1977: "That film hasn't been lost all these years, it's been hiding!"
-- by Richard W. Bann --