Our Relations - How and Why III
Long before that, one lazy Saturday afternoon, in those same Catalina waters, during pre-production activities for OUR RELATIONS (the source, Virginia Ruth Laurel, was not certain of the date), Charlie Chaplin's 55-foot cruiser, the Panacea, chanced to cross the bow of Stan Laurel's smaller yacht, the Ruth L. For over two decades, Chaplin and Laurel had not seen much of each other socially. It was a curious situation. The fault was Chaplin's, who years before -- for whatever self-centered reasons -- had failed to return Laurel's phone calls. Despite their common careers and backgrounds and interests and shared experiences, by l936 they travelled in different social circles.
In their Fred Karno days, touring together, Chaplin and Laurel had been the best of friends. When apart, they stayed in touch. For example, mailing a note containing a crude self-portrait and his itinerary, Chaplin wrote, "Well, Stan! May your path be a 'rosy one.' (Signed) Your old pal, Chas. Chaplin, Fred Karno Co., Seattle, Wash(ington), U.S.A. Dec. 28th, l9l2." Lois Laurel has this communication, which her father saved. Chaplin was departing Seattle to see a man about a job -- seems it was one of those crazy new movie producers, a Mr. McSenate, or possibly Mack Sennett.
In Chaplin's massive 5l2 page autobiography, the name of Stan Laurel appears once. That's all. One time. In a photo caption. Once. Probably added by a representative of the publisher when photos were being selected. The trick would be to search the index for "Stan Jefferson." Because then one finds that the number of cross-references to Stan Laurel's real name is, once more, none. Zero. Certainly a puzzling omission. Was Chaplin indignant over Laurel's vaudeville impersonation of him while touring with "The Keystone Trio"? From all accounts, no.
Nor did Chaplin -- even one time -- mention the name of his second wife, Lita Grey, who was the mother of his first two children, Charlie Jr., and Sydney. (Who preferred the comedy of Laurel & Hardy to their father's, which Lita Grey explained to writer Steve Randisi, "Laurel & Hardy's comedy was so obvious that our sons could laugh at them, because they understood them, and could associate with them.") No room for Lita Grey, either. In fact, Chaplin's text ignored many friends and filmmaking collaborators, including writer-director Robert Florey, who turned his PARIS-MATCH book review into an appreciation of Stan Laurel, as well as others similarly slighted.
Did Stan Laurel resent this? Or did he ever envy Chaplin? No. It is clear, however, that Laurel entertained a healthy respect for Chaplin insofar as constituting a role model for Laurel's own career path. Hal Roach disagreed that Laurel's fixation with Chaplin was "healthy," hence his pejorative explication of the "Chaplin complex." John McCabe, biographer of both Chaplin, and Laurel, has written that "Stan loved Chaplin as a buddy and revered -- no other word will fit -- he revered him as an artist."
Not all Chaplin's contemporaries shared that allegiance. His United Artists co-founder, and "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, called Chaplin "that obstinate, suspicious, egocentric, maddening and lovable genius of a problem child." According to Hal Roach, who knew her and saw her for nearly seventy years, Pickford's private assessment of Chaplin was even more colorful.
From his viewpoint, Hal Roach said, "Charlie was a visual poet. He spoke to the common man, more successfully than anyone. He had no peer. The movie-going public so voted at the boxoffice, and I mean throughout his entire career. No one can dispute that, and yet the poor guy was insecure about everything -- his lack of education, his height, his ability, his money, his Jewish heritage, his mother's insanity. He misunderstood many things, and he himself was misunderstood."
For the second half of his life, Hal Roach was forced to explain, and seemingly endlessly, Stan Laurel's so-called "Chaplin complex" as the underlying reason for their professional separation. In l936 Roach tried to appease Laurel's anxieties by acceding to present OUR RELATIONS as "A Stan Laurel Production." Again it was a concession that changed very little in the way the film was made, but it pacified Laurel, gave him the credit he deserved, and allowed him to believe, as he said to his wife at the time, that he was "catching up with Charlie."
Virginia Ruth Laurel remembered that afternoon in the sun, in the Catalina waters, in l936, when Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin caught up with each other. She shared her recollections with biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles, who wrote, "The craft clearly reflected their owners' life-styles. Chaplin's was elegant, large enough for entertaining the doctors, writers and philosophers he chose as his friends; Stan's was unembellished, ideal for a weekend of fishing -- his greatest passion after the creation of humor -- with pals from the studio."
Present for their awkward reunion at sea was Chaplin's MODERN TIMES co-star and wife-to-be-announced, Paulette Goddard, herself an alumna of Hal Roach Studios. Chaplin acquired her term contract from Roach in l932. Chaplin was known to be moody and eccentric, but on this day at least, he was sentimental. For two hours, with the pressure off, Chaplin and Laurel proceeded to share recollections of their days with the Fred Karno troupe in England and America, discuss their current film projects, and compete with each other singing ancient, horrible music-hall ballads. Imagine the reaction of marine passerby sailing into or out of the Avalon harbor! Forget about Garbo talking, here was Chaplin singing! And Laurel laughing. All the while driving sharks out to the deep sea for relief.
Laurel shared with Chaplin the bounty of bluefish he'd caught earlier in the day, the two vowed to stay in touch, and then they parted. Basically their careers and social lives moved on tracks that did not often intersect, but this chance meeting would alter that somewhat.
Actor Chuck McCann, original founding member of the SONS OF THE DESERT, once told Stan Laurel in the early l960s of the first time he saw OUR RELATIONS. It was a theatrical reissue, near the end of World War II. "The ending actually frightened me," McCann recalled. "I was really scared for them. It made such a grim impression on me that today I still see the film that way, through the eyes of a kid, who thinks Stan and Babe are really going to fall off that dock and drown. I said so to Stan, and I told him I had the same feeling when I saw MODERN TIMES, with the roller-skating scene reminiscent of THE RINK, where Chaplin is a department store night watchman, and skates around, blindfolded, to amuse Paulette Goddard. But he's on one floor, overlooking another down below which he cannot see, and his skating exhibition carries him perilously near a broken balcony railing. My hands were sweating watching this thing because it looked like Chaplin was going to fall over the edge and kill himself!
"I didn't realize at first what I'd said to Stan. Until I saw this warm look of glowing satisfaction cross his face at being compared so favorably with Chaplin, his idol, in the way both could move your heart and soul. Even in slapstick! It made me feel great that I could give him a compliment which I was surprised to see meant so much.
"We talked about that day in the water, the reunion at Catalina. Long before that Stan had been rebuffed, and Chaplin didn't return his calls. So I think Stan was determined not to try again until, as he put it, 'I was big enough to contact him, and feel secure about things.' With Roach giving him that special credit, 'A Stan Laurel Production,' on a film he was happy with, Stan felt very secure that day. And Chaplin invited him to high tea back home, and they got together again. 'The reason I did,' Stan said, 'was I finally felt I could.'"
McCann argued with Laurel that his talent was at least the equal of Chaplin's, but Laurel wouldn't hear of it. "No, you're wrong, lad," Laurel objected. "Chaplin was the greatest. Nobody can ever touch his artistry. There's Chaplin first, then there's everybody else who ever was, or ever will be!"
The psychological explanation of why this generous admiration was not returned by Chaplin -- at least not overtly -- was clear to Chuck McCann. "Chaplin did, or tried to do, everything on his films," McCann reasons. "He wanted all the credit, and he took all the credit. He was unwilling to share anything -- credit, money, affection, anything. Chaplin was a classic narcissist, an egomaniac, totally focused on himself. Stan wasn't. Stan was the opposite. Stan was the total opposite. Stan represented pure innocence, both in the character he created and his private life. No malice, no guile, just almost childlike innocence. Which he proved by having his phone number in the telephone book his whole life for complete strangers to call him and visit his home. Droves of people were doing just that practically right up until the day we lost him."
The day at sea in Catalina seemed to change things between Chaplin and Laurel. They weren't going to work together or socialize regularly again, but the two old friends did remain in touch. "They were both so darn busy working," says Lois Laurel. "I know they saw each other at the Masquers Club, and the really big events around town. They spoke on the phone about their mutual friends, and things back home in London. The thing I heard Dad say many times to others about Chaplin was, 'Well, he's a very, very complex man.'"
On March 5, l936 a seafaring adventure launched by M-G-M, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, won the Oscar awarded for best picture. The Oscar runner-up for best short subject was Laurel & Hardy's TIT FOR TAT (l935).
On March l0, l936 Hal Roach had dinner with Irving Thalberg and several top executives. Roach summarized their discussions the next day in a letter to Al Lichtman, vice-president of Loew's, Inc., in charge of sales, back in New York. Metro generated most of its profits from big and expensive pictures. The consensus was that even though Roach could make his production dollars go further than M-G-M could, still Roach should be making more expensive pictures. "They felt," Roach wrote, "it would be far better to make pictures for $400,000 that look like $600,000 than to make $200,000 pictures which would look like $300,000." The price differential separated class B pictures from class A, and also from potentially much higher gross earnings for both Roach and Metro.
They compromised. On March l6, l936, with an approved budget of $250,000, Hal Roach feature film number F-ll commenced principal photography as THE MONEY BOX. They planned 32 shooting days. It would seem to have been too late to make OUR RELATIONS as a more expensive picture, even if Messrs. Lichtman and Schenck in New York shared the views of Roach and Thalberg and others in Culver City.
Shooting began in the beer garden. The other, more elaborate sets were still under construction. Also, as of March l9, the script remained unfinished. The boat and bridge exteriors were scheduled for filming in San Pedro on Wednesday, March 25, with studio trucks to depart Culver City at 6:30 A.M.; the cast at 7:00 A.M. Friday and Saturday were slated for filming the home interiors. Monday, March 30 was to be the night court scenes. Thereafter the tentative schedule was changed every two or three days, although basically the filmmakers tried to shoot in chronological order. At least that was the plan.
Studying production documents reveals filmmaking details most viewers take for granted, or never notice. Although we would notice such minor but essential components of the finished work -- by their absence -- if the production crew failed to arrange everything so as to insure that what we view inside the film frame looks appropriate and natural.
Mike Polacek of The Laurel & Hardy Club of America (a predecessor organization to the Sons of the Desert) often wrote to and spoke with Stan Laurel. In response to a question posed in l958, Laurel explained, "Yes, it looked like real food in the scene because it was real food! As a rule the properties department furnished our sets with real food. Generally pretty good too -- in the morning!"
The Wednesday, April 1 OUR RELATIONS casting call sheet, for example, listed these props required for shooting that day inside "Stan and Babe's home":
The food and beverages were necessary to reflect the English custom of "high tea," usually involving a light, late afternoon meal. It's how the picture opens, with the boys and their wives passing teacups around and around the dining room table. Not listed above was "sugar," which at one point Betty Healy asks Stan to pass her. Wardrobe assigned for the scene included a gray suit for Mr. Laurel, and a blue suit for Mr. Hardy.
With Hal Roach trying to raise the tone of his pictures to keep current with changing times and tastes, adjustments were necessary, in all quarters. By everyone. This was especially true during the first few days of filming on OUR RELATIONS.
Rudolph Maté was a distinguished cameraman, yet he needed to adapt his polished, subtle style to accommodate the working methodology of Stan Laurel, who, as Hal Roach put it, "bossed the Laurel & Hardy set -- and definitely with my blessing." Art Lloyd had been their cameraman for years, and lit Laurel & Hardy scenes to please Stan's sense of how they should look. Special effects wizard Roy Seawright explained, "Stan insisted that the lighting be very flat. Art Lloyd put light all around, so it gave their faces that comical, blank look. But Rudy Maté was a dramatic cameraman. And they had a hell of a time. Stan would not accept the first week's worth of dailies. Maté had lit them too dramatically, with shadows on their faces, under their chins, and so forth. And Stan did not want the artistic, theatrical type of lighting they were employing in those days."
In l987, sound recording engineer Ralph Butler recounted how "Stan went to Roach, privately. He had to. That was the way to handle it. Mr. Roach didn't want to get involved in these things unless there was a problem to solve. You wouldn't see him on the set. Whatever Roach did -- if he spoke to Lachman or Maté -- everyone made adjustments. Technically, all of us knew we were making a different looking and sounding picture. I don't know what the devil I'd say today, but back then I thought it was pretty good, pretty damn good."
On day 20 of shooting, April 7, the company finished filming home interiors in the morning, with a standby call for 11:00 A.M. to shoot on the backlot, specifically a "New York scene -- tenement district -- exterior of Fin's window." Fifteen extras (seven men and eight women) were called for, plus five children, aged "six to nine years -- scraggily, dirty kids." Props required included a "bicycle, a push-cart with assorted vegetables, a few cheap automobiles, and three scruffy-looking dogs." All this, subject to "weather permitting."
The casting call sheet for Friday, April l0 carried this note: "Cancel today's calls -- production suspended until Monday, April l3, l936 account illness of Mr. Laurel." They did resume filming Monday, 9:00 A.M., with interior scenes of "Bert and Alf's cabin." That evening Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Hal Roach, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, James Cagney and George Raft were among the celebrities who attended a police benefit at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Despite running well behind schedule, production day number 30, Saturday, April l8, was the first date where no shooting was planned. Instead the day was reserved for "rehearsals on the nightclub set."
The annual Hal Roach Studios Golf Tournament was held Sunday, April l9 at the Rancho Country Club, across from the 20th Century-Fox lot. The low gross score of 79 (not that low) didn't belong to Oliver Hardy, nor did he place among the top three prize winners. The big trophy was awarded to the big actor with the big tee shot, Alan Hale. His victory might explain why Hale was never invited back to make another big Roach picture.
With production winding down, on April 23 the studio executed a single page agreement with LeRoy Shield to furnish the background musical score. Shield was to be paid $500 per week, and at least two weeks work was contemplated, to begin May ll. The studio also agreed to reimburse Shield's travel expenses to and from his home base at NBC in Chicago. It was a surprisingly simple arrangement for work which turned out to have such critical importance to the lasting appeal of not only OUR RELATIONS, but several other Hal Roach subjects.
On Thursday, April 30, day number 40 of production, the company finished work on the "rope set" in the nightclub, and moved to the dock set. It was both the final, climactic sequence in the script, and the last pages remaining to be filmed.
Consistent with the notion that true artists never want their effort to show, the scenes may not look that complicated, but the Laurel & Hardy unit labored nine days (including two Saturdays), as well as some late nights, in order to conclude principal photography on May 9. An inordinate number of shots were taken, involving a great deal of rehearsed and choreographed action, as was reflected in the fast cutting of so many short scenes in the finished film.
In all, shooting required 48 days to complete OUR RELATIONS -- a huge overrun beyond the 32 days planned. A production debacle. Unless it was true that Hal Roach planned all along to spend production dollars consistent with class A productions at M-G-M because he knew Irving Thalberg would be on his side if Al Lichtman and Nicholas Schenck voiced objections from the East Coast.
Studio memos and wires indicate Hal Roach was never unhappy with how the picture was progressing. Once again, Roach proved he would spend the necessary time and money on a project he believed in. By every account, he was pleased and optimistic about the commercial and artistic prospects for OUR RELATIONS.
On May 6, Roach wired Nicholas Schenck, "Current Laurel & Hardy picture finishing this week most pretentious picture we have made with them cost now three-hundred-forty-thousand will cost at least three-hundred-seventy-five-thousand dollars to complete stop."
And "stop" is probably what Schenck thought.
The budget first approved had been $200,000. At Thalberg's urging, Roach negotiated an upgrade to $250,000. By all accounts he knew the cash outlay would be significantly more. So it was. Roach spent a budget-busting $340,000 and then informed Schenck the final negative cost would likely total $375,000 -- a huge cost variance overrun of one-third! Metro had advanced production financing of $225,000, and there was another $25,000 due, pending "completion and audit" as defined in the distribution agreement. But Roach asked for the conditional $25,000 early, right then, on May 6. Plus he asked for an additional $25,000!
Somehow, he got the money, although Roach wasn't finished yet. He needed another important sum to discharge the current indebtedness on OUR RELATIONS, which for the time being he concealed from everyone down the street at Metro, and particularly from executives across the country at Loew's in New York. This was gutsy, because the true cost of making OUR REALTIONS was certain to be disclosed eventually when the audit was conducted. What was the percentage in misleading Nicholas Schenck? Without question, Schenck was absolutely the single most powerful person in the entire motion picture industry.
Yet Roach didn't care about deceiving M-G-M. At least not in the short run. He was determined to edge into smart, class A pictures. He was determined to survive. What he did took nerve, and he had nerve. Like the halfback in football (which he was) running off-tackle for an opening (which figuratively he did always), Roach would aggressively seize any opportunity when it was presented -- at any hour of the day, any hour of his life, age 21, 51, or 101.
The last year of his life, he imparted some advice, "You're in business to do well. Seize the opportunity." On OUR RELATIONS, here it was. Transform this film into class A product. He liked the picture, that was enough, and he was going to find and spend his own money to cover the shortfall. Which was exactly what he did.
According to a syndicated series of articles about filmland comedy stars which appeared in newspapers around the country in July, writer Paul Harrison of the NEW YORK TIMES reported that the final cost of OUR RELALTIONS was "a cool $400,000." So in fact the amount that Roach required, which he financed himself by deferring other expenditures (because he was happy with and confident about the prospects for OUR RELATIONS) was the sum of l25,000 l936 dollars. Meaning the figure is not adjusted for price level changes -- an enormous differential in terms of the buying power of money today.
As Stan Laurel's character remarked in OUR RELATIONS, "Huh!"
Roy Shield arrived in Culver City, from Chicago, from the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), a Radio Corporation of America, Inc. (RCA) subsidiary, on May ll, to compose and orchestrate the score for OUR RELATIONS. And what a truly delightful, entertaining music score it turned out to be.
The next day the studio filed its official cast and bit players listing with the Association of Motion Picture Producers.
Cutting and scoring and other post-production activities took another five weeks. During that time, Hal Roach's father, who lived on the studio grounds and was secretary-treasurer of the company, died on May 27. On June 2, Charley Chase left Hal Roach Studios after l7 years. Both events marked somber milestones on the Lot of Fun.
Meanwhile Hal Roach kept blazing away in all his business, sporting and social activities. Surveying the clippings his staff maintained, it would seem he was the busiest figure in the industry. He gave interviews walking to and from his car. A reporter from the NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM caught and asked him, among other things, "Who are the foremost comedians produced by the moving pictures?"
"Charlie Chaplin is unquestionably the greatest," Roach replied without hesitation, particularly since MODERN TIMES was then a worldwide phenomenon. "Then in order I'd list Harold Lloyd, Roscoe Arbuckle, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields."
Upon showing him this clipping in l979, Roach offered as how he should have mentioned Buster Keaton, and his friend Will Rogers.
Roach continued evaluating what was funny and why when he was quoted in FILM DAILY on June 22. "Comedy is the same as always," Roach said, smiling and genial as always. "When someone gets a custard pie in the face, whether it's the literal custard pie of the early comedies or not, it's still funny. It may be instead Mr. Chaplin's eating machine from MODERN TIMES. Or it may be something figurative -- a blow from fate. It's still a custard pie, and it's still funny."
The first preview of OUR RELATIONS was staged out of town at the Fox-Pomona Theater on June l9. A second known preview was held at the Stadium Theater one week later. Results and details in terms of preview cards of these and other early sneak previews are not known.
On July 9 OUR RELATIONS was previewed at the Uptown Theatre in Hollywood. This time, the trade press was invited. At least five notices were filed.
THE FILM DAILY published this review: "Slapstick laugh show of mistaken identities gives stars excellent roles. Expert comedians in the support.
"Laurel and Hardy's comedy of mistaken identities is a slapstick laugh show topped by a final gag that is a knockout. In this last sequence, the boys are cemented into separate curved bottom kettles and their swaying around the edge of a dock keeps one in hysterics. To audiences which like Laurel and Hardy's stuff, the picture should click strong and for the kids the show should be great entertainment. It can stand a bit of tightening and this can be well done, for there is plenty of hilarious material with which to work. Although Laurel and Hardy are the whole show, a cast of notable comedians works with the team. Included are Jimmy Finlayson, Sidney Toler, Daphne Pollard and Arthur Housman, with his drunk act. Alan Hale carries one of the few straight roles. Richard Connell and Felix Adler's screen story of W.W. Jacobs' original story with adaptation by Charles Rogers and Jack Jevne, is a series of gags which brings forth different degrees of laughter, ranging from snickers to howls. Under Harry Lachman's direction, the scenes are well done and the players come through with first rate performances. Rudolph Maté's photography is nice work throughout."
According to BOXOFFICE, "Here's a comedy riot from start to finish, replete with old-time slapstick technique to bring up the belly laughs. Taking full advantage of a good story, Laurel and Hardy time their laughs like a Max Schmeling punch and earn the right to be known as the laugh-champ team of filmdom."
The critic for THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER was not as enthusiastic: "OUR RELATIONS turns out to be a weak sister for Laurel and Hardy. Acknowledged, and deservedly so, the funniest team of comics on the screen today, story and direction sends the boys floundering through a morass of unfunny incidents. The only laughs in the feature are obtained from pieces of business seemingly ad-libbed in the typical Laurel and Hardy style.
"The screenplay is cumbersome and wordy, direction rather deliberate. The whole thing lacks spontaneity. A major job of cutting is called for, as sequences run far past the point of laughter. Photography by Rudolph Maté is a highlight, boasting compositions unusual in a comedy.
"Few of the supporting cast lend much beside their presence to the proceedings. Alan Hale and Arthur Housman, the latter doing his grand drunk, definitely score. The others are simply supers. The mystery is how Daphne Pollard got lost.
"A screen credit calls OUR RELATIONS a Stan Laurel production. The feeling is that Laurel did his level best to adapt the inadequate material at hand to his and Hardy's great comic talents. Certainly the team worked hard and valiantly only to be hampered by indecisive story values."
It is always curious when critics attending the same exact screening gauge the audible laugh response of a given audience differently. One hears "hysterics" and "howls," another notes "bellylaughs," so the reader might wonder and worry about the listening acuity of the reviewer for THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER. What screening did he attend?
MOTION PICTURE DAILY judged OUR RELATIONS positively: "Supplied with one of the best ideas yet devised for Laurel and Hardy, the team appears here as a double set of twins. At the preview the film drew more laughs than any of their recent pictures, and it should prove satisfactory entertainment wherever the pair are a good attraction.
"The comedy situation revolves around the team as sailors and marital martyrs. The laughs abound when the exchanging of wives begins, and one set of twins suffers in hilarious fashion for the indulgences and mistakes of the other brothers. The audience was kept busy sometimes trying to figure which was which.
"The best laugh sequences occur with Laurel, Hardy and the inebriated Arthur Housman, in a telephone booth, and when gangsters cement the comedians' feet in concrete bowls on the edge of a dock. The usual cake and pie-slinging characteristics prevail.
"Daphne Pollard and Betty Healy turn in good supporting work as the wives, and Sidney Toler is good as the irate ship's captain. Harry Lachman has directed with good judgement of pace and spacing of laughs."
-- by Richard W. Bann --