Our Relations - How and Why II
On February 27, l936 Harry Lachman was placed on the corporation's payroll, earning $l,500 per week. The director expressed a preference for his usual cinematographer, Polish-born Rudolph Maté, who was also retained for the pair of Laurel & Hardy features Roach had planned that year.
Bringing in outside talent, even such accomplished, sophisticated craftsmen, created some problems for Stan Laurel, who was accustomed to running things, and his own way, on Hal Roach sets.
"I wasn't part of the L&H unit," Barney Carr explains, "but I understood the politics. You had to earn your way into that group, very much a close-knit, closed group. And a great group. Make no mistake. Outsiders may or may not have been respected, but few were accepted and welcomed -- not at first. You had to win the confidence of Stan as well as the entire crew, and get it on merit, not by appointment. Hal didn't always see that issue. Maybe he looked right over it with Lachman, I can't remember. And Hal didn't know, probably wouldn't have cared, that Lachman had a temper, and was not egalitarian by nature. Although that picture seemed to go pretty smoothly, as I recall -- so long ago now."
Barney Carr's future partner at Cascade Pictures, Roy Seawright, remembered, "Lachman was a great director, but he wasn't the director for these guys! Stan would always correct him. Lachman would say, 'No, I want you to do this....' And Stan would say, 'No, we do it this way.' But they got along fine."
Roach and Laurel disagreed on several story points while making both BABES IN TOYLAND (l934) and BONNIE SCOTLAND (l935). To appease Laurel and salve his increasing bouts of temperament, on OUR RELATIONS Roach generously adjusted the opening credit titles to read "A Stan Laurel Production." This declaration did not mean he produced the film, but it was a way of letting Laurel place his signature on it, in the way of a brand name. Generically, then as now, this credit represents an undefined influence, at some level, whether creative, or administrative, or both. According to Elliot Silverstein of the Directors Guild of America (he directed CAT BALLOU), as well as the Artists Rights Foundation, it is a nonspecific credit. The declaration is similar, but not necessarily the same as, the current practice of calling something like SWEET AND LOWDOWN "A Woody Allen Film," or "A film by Woody Allen."
The proliferation of sometimes meaningless producer credits has been a problem in the industry since the l920s. Often there was and still is no production reality to all the credit lines bestowed for associate producer, producer, co-producer, line producer, executive producer, co-executive producer, and all their related production corporations and joint ventures with the many cute names. Such credits are frequently just a function of negotiation in consideration of exerting varying artistic or business influence during a film. They can represent deal points or concessions and many times reflect no actual role in the filmmaking process.
Today we know Stan Laurel's creative imprint was there to be found on virtually every aspect of what we see in Laurel & Hardy films. He was entitled to put his signature on the credits. The line "A Stan Laurel Production," however, implies there was a production entity. In fact, there was. Such a company had just been formed, but it had no standing whatsoever with respect to how OUR RELATIONS was conceived, developed, financed, written, filmed, cut, copyrighted, released and owned. Stan Laurel, as an individual, influenced some of these steps in the filmmaking process, but not as part of an outside organization called "Stan Laurel Productions."
On OUR RELATIONS Stan Laurel enjoyed the same creative control as always, only this time the extra screen credit acknowledged his artistic influence on the film. Curiously, he served here as almost everything else but the producer -- he was a writer, gag man, co-editor, he directed the director (although to a lesser extent in this instance), and nearly as important as anything else, six days a week, he made every man, woman and child on the lot happy to walk or drive through the gate at Hal Roach Studios. His presence was an intangible, positive influence, because everyone at the studio loved him, loved to see him, and was inspired by him. But he did not acquire the underlying literary property, arrange the financing, attend to the budgetary and many administrative considerations, sign the talent in front of and behind the cameras, meet the payroll, or make the final decisions on creating, completing and promoting the film we know as OUR RELATIONS.
The OUR RELATIONS pressbook, in its official credits section, declared, "Producer: Hal Roach." At the same time the film was represented to be "A Stan Laurel Production," again as a brand name. These are not mutually exclusive credits. OUR RELATIONS was owned, registered, and renewed for copyright purposes by Hal Roach Studios. All right, title and interest in the motion picture photoplay remained vested with Hal Roach Studios, never with Stan Laurel or Stan Laurel Productions. Neither Stan Laurel nor Stan Laurel Productions had any particpation in the profits, either.
In fact at the time Stan Laurel was still serving under his April 8, l935 employment contract, which was a so-called work for hire agreement, not a partnership, and not a joint venture with Hal Roach Studios. The contract stipulated that Laurel's "services to be rendered ... shall be under the personal supervision of Mr. Hal E. Roach, and that the right granted to (Laurel) as to the approval of story, director and necessary writers shall be subject likewise to the approval of and in accord with the views of Mr. Roach."
The contract expected that "such supervision and approval will be given by the parties in a reasonable and reciprocal manner," but contemplated creative differences of opinion could arise. If so, and if they could not be resolved in two weeks time, then Laurel was to be "relieved of all duties, other than as an actor....
"The parties hereto realize that it is difficult to outline definitely the matters in relation to which such agreements may arise or exist, as it may likewise entail matters which are difficult of accurate concrete definition, and the entire purpose hereof is that both parties hereto will fairly and reasonably deal with each other, and, in the event of a disagreement of importance as to such treatment, story or direction, (Laurel) will proceed with performance of the part ascribed to him to the best of his ability."
Hal Roach was the producer of OUR RELATIONS; Stan Laurel, as usual, exercised a large measure of creative control, and this time it was acknowledged on screen by calling the film "A Stan Laurel Production" because, clearly, he wanted to become a producer. He wished to produce and own his work the same way Charlie Chaplin did. Sadly, it was an objective Laurel never achieved.
One distinguishing story point of both official "Stan Laurel Productions" was that in each film -- OUR RELATIONS and then WAY OUT WEST -- Laurel's character manages to get himself conked over the head with a mallet while standing at a bar. Another story point, and of greater importance, was that neither feature film is diluted by boring subplots involving peripheral characters which audiences do not care about. Usually, do not. Each film delivers what most people want to see in a Laurel & Hardy movie: pure, unadulterated comedy, focused directly on Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.
Stan Laurel was primarily interested in entertaining people already sitting in theater seats. Hal Roach, under pressure from Loew's and M-G-M, was sometimes more interested in influencing people trying to decide on which movie show to attend. That's why the music, the romance, and the outside names were factored into some of the feature length films -- to advertise and attract people trying to decide where they wished to spend their amusement money.
Probably 99% of the audiences who saw Stan Laurel on screen believed he was that dim bulb character, and that he contributed nothing else to these films. So, unquestionably, he was entitled to a special credit lineof some sort. When Laurel requested it, Roach recognized this kind of acknowledgment was valid. Anyway, in his view, the billing was a concession that didn't cost anything -- literally or figuratively. It just confirmed what everyone at the studio already knew about what Stan Laurel was contributing all along; he was the principal creative force on his own films, the same as with Charley Chase on his films, and Bob McGowan on the Our Gang comedies. As far as Roach was concerned, the recognition as "A Stan Laurel Production" was a meaningless concession and allowed Laurel to save face following the previous contract dispute which had not been resolved in his favor.
Unfortunately, as years have passed, it seems fans and film critics have sought to divide Stan Laurel and Hal Roach, to create controversy. Maybe because conflict creates a better story. Spats sell. Maybe because people prefer to cast bosses or owners or authority figures as villains. Or they wish to portray any totally creative artist in a David-versus-Goliath scenario. The truth makes for less dramatic copy. Until l940 Stan Laurel and Hal Roach were good friends, who periodically had creative differences to resolve. After they separated professionally, it is true that Roach remained close only with Laurel's first wife, Lois. From l9l8 through l939, however, disagreements between Stan Laurel and Hal Roach were the exception, not the rule. People who could and did attest to that were those who were actually there, and who worked at the studio throughout those years.
Roach and Laurel certainly agreed on the literary property selected for OUR RELATIONS. Both loved all things English, and everything about the sea. THE MONEY BOX was a seafaring story written by an English writer, William Wymark Jacobs, whose most famous work was the Grand Guignol classic, THE MONKEY'S PAW.
W.W. Jacobs was born at Wapping, London, on September 8, l863. He lived seven days short of his 80th birthday. He lived to view OUR RELATIONS. He wrote short stories of gentle humor about seagoing men, who were rarely at sea. He wrote of their adventures ashore, in port, with women, dockworkers, and local authorities. His stories were often produced as plays.
Jacobs first penned THE MONEY BOX for publication in London's STRAND magazine in July of l902. The piece was next published by Scribner's the following year in a collection of short stories entitled ODDCRAFT. Then in l93l THE MONEY BOX was selected for an omnibus called SNUG HARBOR, containing l7 volumes of Jacobs' writings.
In Avalon, the city located on Santa Catalina Island, Stan Laurel and Hal Roach were both members of The Tuna Club. To repay a favor, possibly associated with the assignment of Paulette Goddard's contract, fellow Tuna Club member Charlie Chaplin gifted Hal Roach with a signed copy of SNUG HARBOR, sometime between l932 and l936. From this ocean of prose, Hal Roach caught the angle of producing THE MONEY BOX as a vessel for his TWO TARS stars, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. OUR RELATIONS was well into production on March 23, l936 when Jacobs officially assigned his literary rights to Hal Roach Studios, Inc.
Watery work began on the screen adaptation the first week of February, l936. Clarence Hennecke and Harrington Reynolds, long time scenarists extending back to Hal Roach's Rolin Film Company days, had the first crack at adapting the story. Hennecke was a long time crony of Laurel's, with screen credit on his YES, YES NANETTE (1925) as co-director. Hennecke also wrote gags and served as assistant director on many l920s Sennett and Fox shorts, as well as the Frank Capra-directed Harry Langdon features.
Next Mauri Grashin and sometimes-circus-clown Felix Adler tried their hand at adapting THE MONEY BOX. The reliable screen writer Jack Jevne ("He was great for us," hailed Hal Roach) took a pass at the treatment, as did Charley Rogers, and naturally Stan Laurel. Last engaged to polish the evolving continuity was Harvard-educated Richard Connell. Harold Lloyd had just referred Connell to Roach. He'd written Lloyd's collaboration with another Roach alumnus, director Leo McCarey, on THE MILKY WAY (l936). Connell penned the famous original story entitled THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (l932), filmed by RKO and made simultaneously with KING KONG (l933), using many of the same spectacular sets and actors.
In (presumably) early March a nearly-final draft of the OUR RELATIONS screenplay was submitted to Hal Roach for his comments. After reading the screenplay, Roach dictated this undated memo, headlined "Suggestions For Picture F-ll," which itemized l4 points:
If Roach's first point was adopted, and filmed that way, it was ultimately changed. The picture opens with the domestic situation, in the home, at afternoon high tea.
The filmmakers evidently all agreed on point number two.
The third suggestion probably would have required location shooting, and it sounds quite appealing, but there is no evidence such a sequence was filmed and then cut. Everyone must have known they were going to incur huge cost overruns as it was.
Point four was with reference to the Marx Brothers' most famous sequence, from the previous year's A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. The alleged similarity seems remote today, but at the time A NIGHT AT THE OPERA was still playing in theaters, was an enormous smash hit, and also an M-G-M release. Luckily Roach was persuaded not to press this point since the telephone booth sequence with Arthur Housman has been generally cited by critics as the film's highlight.
The fifth suggestion makes logical sense, but at the cost of blunting humor. Again, apparently, Roach was induced not to push for this idea. Instead, the mother casually informs Ollie and Stan that their twins have died by way of a postscript, as though it were an afterthought hardly worth mentioning. Probably Stan Laurel liked the idea that the mother should be as addle-brained as her offspring.
The reason for the "change of seasons" discussion, mentioned in point six, is lost to history.
Suggestion seven was adopted, but the result evident only in still photos, not the filmed action.
Point eight was a typical concern of Hal Roach.
The ninth suggestion is intriguing, and one can visualize how this would play. Perhaps they ran out of time, or other matters were more pressing.
Point ten: see comments with respect to number nine and three, above.
Suggestions eleven and twelve were unavailing. As was number fourteen.
Number thirteen. Number thirteen. Number thirteen calls to mind the frequently cited Charley Rogers anecdote where Hal Roach would breeze into a story conference, explain a gag he wanted, then leave with the parting remark, "That's the idea boys, you take it from there; know what I mean?" Half the time they didn't, although that never stopped them.
So far, in the year 2000, or 64 years after the film was made, a shooting script for OUR RELATIONS has not surfaced for examination. There does exist an undated ten page synopsis. This is definitely a pre-production document as indicated by such lines as "we now go for three or four undetermined gags wherein Stan meets Bert and thinks it is Babe." Also contained are the usual jargon references where characters are required to do "a big takem," or to "take it big," or to show "a burn," or to execute a special kind of fall referred to by number as a "l08."
Most interesting, and surprising, is how closely the detailed synopsis parallels the finished film. How then, to account for scenes not reflected in this written digest, nor seen in the final release print, but evidenced by still photos? And still photos which are definitely not gag photos for publicity purposes. They were action, production stills, indicating related film footage was exposed and manufactured for inclusion in the motion picture photoplay.
There were basically three such sequences, now attested to only by stills: introductory exterior scenes filmed on location around the S.S. Periwinkle, scenes with the twin sailors shaving, primping and dressing in white Palm Beach suits for shore leave, and scenes indicating a traffic jam ensnaring Stan, Ollie, and their lovely wives, possibly reminiscent of TWO TARS (l928). Some of the photos for these scenes survive in the M-G-M key-set of linen-backed file stills and are marked as "killed shots." Yet, again, there is no hint of the corresponding filmed action content in the ten page pre-production text.
So the footage constituting the three additional sequences was based on scripted material conceived subsequent to the extant pre-March l6 written treatment. Probably this material was developed during production in late March or April, sparked by something that happened rehearsing and blocking out scenes on the set. Then, possibly, these same newly incorporated sequences were part of the OUR RELATIONS cut that was scored by LeRoy Shield during the first half of May, only to be discarded after previews were conducted in July. This could explain why so much of the incidental music scoring written and recorded by Shield as a seamless, continuous orchestral suite for the picture cannot be heard today in the released version of OUR RELATIONS. Some of the melodies recorded in May, might have been cut when the corresponding three action sequences were deleted after test screenings two months later.
Yet we cannot be certain of this because it is not known if the score had been mixed with the soundtrack for the July preview. Chances are even that preview audiences in July did not hear the Shield score. PARDON US (l93l), for example, was sneak-previewed under its working title, THEIR FIRST MISTAKE. That 35mm nitrate preview print exists, and has no background music. Of course PARDON US was eventually released with a full, rich, marvelous Shield score.
The background music is always the final post-production task to be completed. And as we have seen from how LeRoy Shield's and Marvin Hatley's work products were both under-appreciated and underpaid, mixing a score on a preliminary and tentative cut of the picture for a test audience was not deemed essential for assessing the film's commercial value. Actually, forget about previews, many Hal Roach sound shorts were issued with no incidental music score -- incidental (meaning casual or minor) being the operative word. Again, instrumental background music scoring was the last and least important post-production component. Also none of the July preview trade notices mentioned a score or credited Shield for one. Presumably because there was no mixed music score at the time.
Or, the failure to incorporate certain cues Shield wrote and intended specifically for OUR RELATIONS may be as simple as editorial supervisor Elmer Raguse having made a unilateral decision not use them, or to substitute other pieces previously written by Shield that would work better for timing or artistic purposes. In Raguse's judgement. Not Shield's.
The waterfront climax, with the twins' feet encased in bowls of teetering cement was reflected in the detailed synopsis. According to Stan Laurel's second wife, Virginia Ruth Rogers, in her book with Fred Lawrence Guiles, Laurel conceived this sequence after the couple found themselves intrigued over an ashtray while dining at a Hollywood restaurant. The large ashtray was weighted with a sphere-like bottom; it would roll and bob but could not be overturned. They tried. Next day, Laurel conferred with the writers and together they developed the film's dockside denouement.
Looking at OUR RELATIONS today, who could imagine that the film's climax was inspired by Stan Laurel observing and playing with a distinctive ashtray?
Just as Hal Roach turned the corner making OUR RELATIONS, Charlie Chaplin released a film that marked the end of an era too, actually twin eras. On February 5, l936, Hollywood's final silent film, as well as the last showcase for "The Little Tramp," the classic MODERN TIMES, premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York. It was conceived, written, produced, owned, edited, scored, directed, maybe even delivered by, and starred, Stan Laurel's former Fred Karno roommate and Hal Roach's former Essanay co-worker, Charlie Chaplin. So he'd been busy. Plus Chaplin was co-founder and minority shareholder of the film's distribution company, United Artists. MODERN TIMES was Chaplin's first film in five years. At the time, Hal Roach was increasingly concerned over what he later lamented as and labelled Laurel's "Chaplin complex." Roach wondered what impact the thumping success of MODERN TIMES would have on Laurel, for good or bad. When asked in l989 -- the year of Chaplin's centenary celebration -- Roach could not recollect any connection between MODERN TIMES and Laurel's longing for the credit line, "A Stan Laurel Production."
Odds are that the timing was not coincidental. Otherwise there was no relation between OUR RELATIONS and MODERN TIMES, although two actors, Jim Morton and Tiny Sandford, appeared in both. Plus portions of each film were shot on location 45 minutes south of Hollywood on the shore of San Pedro, at the harbor.
Across the sea, 26 miles from the San Pedro harbor, was the aforementioned island of Catalina, closest thing to the French Riviera in the United States of America. There the city of Avalon was a fishing and water sports mecca for Hollywood celebrities, including Hal Roach, Stan Laurel, and Charlie Chaplin, Laurel's old friend and countryman from long ago, and before either had made a movie. In l990, when Lois Laurel staged a huge, sensational centennial birthday party to honor her father, the venue she chose for the festivities was Catalina. Hal Roach attended, and when he turned l00 years old, two years later, Lois Laurel topped herself by hosting another wonderful Catalina celebration.
-- by Richard W. Bann --