Our Relations- Music Notes

The melodies heard throughout Hal Roach comedies were written primarily by two men, working separately. Their names are well known to serious fans of fun films -- Marvin Hatley (1905-1986) and LeRoy Shield (1893-1962).


They were not a team. They were on a team, the Hal Roach comedies company team, and if these players' work was unsung (and not sung) in the l930s, in retrospect we can say that Messrs. Hatley and Shields were two of the most valuable Hal Roach All-Stars every year, and all throughout the 1930s. Their "incidental" background musical themes were sometimes the best work in particular Hal Roach comedies, saving some from mediocrity, just as H.M. "Beanie" Walker's written-gag title cards rescued so many silent shorts in the previous decade.

Marvin Hatley wrote Laurel & Hardy's theme song (KU-KU), wrote many more compositions exclusively for Hal Roach Studios than did LeRoy Shield, and he also lived much longer. Therefore many contemporary fans, such as reside in the Sons of the Desert organization, had the opportunity and pleasure of meeting Thomas Marvin Hatley. Consequently he is the better known composer today.

The elder Shield, however, recipient of an honorary doctorate, was the more accredited composer and musician. He started out as a concert pianist who focused on the works of Ravel and Stravinsky. Shield worked hard, and his early achievements were impressive.

With the advent of sound in the late l920s, Shield was sent to Hal Roach Studios on behalf of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Pictures that spoke rendered pipe organs and live orchestras at every theater obsolete. Shield's task was to add reassuring, incidental background music in their place -- both to help pace the films and to cover unsuitable ambient recording and projection noise associated with the soundtrack.

Shield arrived with considerable fanfare. Here was the man representing Victor, poised to transform Hal Roach comedies into sound films which audiences could now hear all over the world; as far as the motion picture industry was concerned, this event was a revolution!

Hal Roach accorded LeRoy Shield great respect. Roach was not a man free with compliments, but in the last quarter century of his life, several times looking back he did say, "I think Roy Shield was probably a genius. We were fortunate to have his services."

Shield wrote the bulk of the studio's background music for early l930s short subjects. These lyrical music cues have a breezy jazz quality. They beautifully underscored the varying moods on screen -- action, pathos, suspense, chase, romance, foolishness, whatever was called for. Shield's melodies were especially colorful, innovative and now are happily part of our culture's subconscious in the way we associate them with such carefree comedies, and a more innocent period of history. Casual viewers -- young people, old people -- see and hear these films and are immediately fascinated by their unique, inviting qualities, virtually all of which America can never recapture, can never return to.

Since Shield preceded Hatley, and his music cues were composed first, they were the melodies more often recycled into the studio stock music library. Therefore Shield's tunes saw heavier use than Hatley's. So while the lesser known Shield wrote fewer songs, he arrived first, and these cues now comprise a larger percentage of the musical vocabulary actually used to score the Roach comedies.

Marvin Hatley was not one to volunteer much information about LeRoy Shield, whom Hatley quite naturally saw as a rival to his legacy. But when asked, in l982, Hatley did say of Shield, "A man of mystery -- Mr. Shield was that for sure. I didn't really know him, or see much of him. He'd call me when he needed to line up musicians, that's all. He'd come out here from RCA Victor and NBC, you know, on assignment. He was a big shot. He was a nice guy.

"He'd show up once in a while, go right in and see Mr. Roach. That's who he reported to. I reported to Elmer Raguse, although I worked with Stan Laurel or Charley Chase and whomever was directing the picture. But Shield answered to Roach; he'd see Roach first, then he'd go upstairs, straight upstairs you know; he'd go straight and quietly to work. No fuss about him. Yes sir, Roy Shield was a man of mystery, I'd say. Hal Roach and Beanie Walker and Elmer Raguse saw him, knew him. I didn't.

"When he came out here, his recording sessions were usually late night affairs. He worked at night, after eight and nine o'clock. The best musicians in town worked at the big studios during the day. Shield got 'em after hours. They knew who he was, and wanted to play for him. So he got them.

"Then it was back to NBC in Chicago or wherever he'd go. I never knew. He was in and out, in and out. No flourishes. So I'd have to call Mr. Shield a busy man of mystery, a man behind the scenes. He'd be here for a while, I'd see him to get the guys he wanted, I'd be there for the recording session after everyone at the studio went home, then he'd be gone again."

Shield was so elusive that the only Hal Roach Studios publicity photos to surface so far picturing him are faked. They are composite stills where he appears to be posing with Laurel & Hardy when actually the shot is made up from two different images cut and pasted together as one. Shield didn't work with actors, plus they worked days while his recording sessions took place most often after hours, and certainly long after the completion of principal photography.

The background instrumental music enlivening OUR RELATIONS was the last full film score that LeRoy Shield was commissioned to write for Roach. Since the complex plot involved a comedy of errors, Shield composed intricate background music to match. The score was terrific, with a clean, new, refreshing sound, superbly recorded and performed by a much larger orchestra than was customary for Roach comedies. It remains the best single thing about OUR RELATIONS. Together with the snappy patter scripted for the picture, Shield's lively stock themes created a positive, indelible impression strong enough to justify that this otherwise mid-range Laurel & Hardy feature should live on forever, bringing joy to the hearts of Laurel & Hardy fans and smiles to their faces. At least in these two respects, OUR RELATIONS remains undervalued in the Laurel & Hardy canon.

As proof of its value, the full, rich score was so good that music editor Elmer Raguse immediately began using it as part of the stock music library for the purpose of brightening other key comedies, including short subject reissues, in effect diluting the impact any given subsequent and contemporary OUR RELATIONS screening should have.

In l992 a fourteen-member "documentary orchestra" was formed, inspired by the artistry of LeRoy Shield. Curiously the group called themselves "The Beau Hunks," after a Laurel & Hardy film with very little background music scoring. This Dutch band was based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Their stated purpose was to recreate, as faithfully as possible, the catchy, infectious music heard in l930s Hal Roach movies, both for new recordings and live performances.

In l995 Dutch musician Gert-Jan Blom spoke to NEWSWEEK magazine about the background melodies heard in Hal Roach films, "It is the forgotten classical music of our century," he stated at first without any reservations. "All right, light classical. No, it is not Ravel or Stravinsky, but these composers applied the arranging skills of a Ravel to a three-minute song."

One might say the feature film scores of both LeRoy Shield and Marvin Hatley were symphonies in some twenty movements.

Why, though, would anyone want, or need, to recreate this music? Answer: because just the same as fine feature film scores by Bernard Herrmann and John Williams which first serve the motion pictures they were written for, the rich Roach music is also certainly good enough to stand on its own (the test of great film music), but actually could not. The only way to listen to the melodies written by Messrs. Shield and Hatley was to secure and run the films ... and strain to hear the turned-down (by Elmer Raguse), incomplete, edited melodies buried beneath dialogue, and sound effects as well as such listening imperfections as the hash, hiss and pops of an optical film soundtrack played through a sometimes noisy projector! These were not optimum conditions for enjoyable listening.

Tragically, and truly so, these tunes did not exist in any written, recorded or otherwise published form that enthusiasts could find. Only the finished films released as individual composite elements survived. Dating from the time the Sons of the Desert organization was formed, fans began asking both Marvin Hatley, and the stepson of LeRoy Shield, Mahlon Dolman, "What happened to all the other original written, and master recorded elements? Where were they? Who had them? Can we get our hands on them? What research can we do? What advice have you?"

When the United States government reinvented the studio as Fort Roach in l942, virtually all the original nitrate film separate soundtracks, and record discs, were deemed redundant or obsolete. They were thought to have marginal residual value. To say this assessment was shortsighted would be an understatement of some measure.

Legendary American television talk show host Johnny Carson used to cite the genius at NBC who purposely destroyed more than a decade of unique master videotape recordings of the early TONIGHT SHOW telecasts (containing appearances by Hal Roach, Woody Allen, Carl Sandburg, Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton) in order to save money on storage costs. Some other genius probably authorized a bonus for saving RCA all that money.

"And still they come," was the applicable comment of Wilfred Lucas as solemnly spoken in PARDON US (1931).

Hal E. Roach typified the similar indifference of the motion picture industry in early 1942. According to Roach, and almost everyone else in Hollywood at the time, old film elements held just about the same monetary residual value as yesterday's newspaper. So all the nitrate film separate soundtracks and record discs deemed not essential for continuing operations were indifferently exhumed from vaults to be reclaimed for silver and aluminum as raw materials in the war effort. These irreplaceable master materials and works of near genius were junked as scrap-metal to manufacture implements of destruction, possibly B-19 bombers!

So not only had the work product of Shield and Hatley recording sessions been edited, turned down, and mixed with dialogue and effects tracks, or cut in their entirety, much worse they had been deliberately demolished as a means of fashioning more tools of ruination elsewhere!

Setting aside the undeniable merit of the war effort to insure freedom around the world, I could never get Hal Roach to understand why such loss of this raw material was a catastrophe. He always believed that he could create, the next day, or the next week, or sometime in the future, movies or television programming better than anything he'd ever done in the past. He required nothing out of the past to continue and succeed in life except for his own brain.

The corporate assets constituting the Hal Roach film library had been fully exploited, depreciated and duly written off for accounting and every other purpose, as far as Roach was concerned. He had created these films. They had served their purpose. They were history. He could make more. Such unbounded confidence worked for him in many respects, but against him here.

Despite his admirable belief to the contrary, toward the end of his life, through the l960s and beyond, Hal Roach could not create more films like the early works we celebrate -- no one could. No one has. No one will.

In l982, over dinner at his home, Hal Roach reacted with a low chuckle and shook his head in wonderment when he was told that an enterprising, extraordinary, dedicated band leader in New York named Vince Giordano was trying to research, perform and record the compositions of LeRoy Shield and, secondarily, Marvin Hatley, which were used as background music for l930s Roach comedies.

A sometimes-jazz musician, but full time writer-director-actor, named Woody Allen, was impressed with the skill and devotion of Vince Giordano, but Hal Roach was not. At least not openly. As was often the case, Roach may have felt complimented, but would not let it show. He would never allow himself to betray any sign of what he regarded as weakness or sentiment, which in his case were interchangeable components of behavior.

"Why would anyone want to do that?" Roach asked in response upon learning of Vince Giordano's pioneering endeavor. He could not understand it. Roach had created this product, this film library, had enjoyed himself doing so, was proud of his accomplishments, but he himself was not a consumer, and not a fan. He was amused that anyone should be interested in listening to background music from his films for its own sake.

Explaining the music's appeal as a pure, early jazz, timeless sound was not enough for Roach, nor was the fact that these tunes resonate as the cheerful and nostalgic subconscious soundtrack of the American Baby-Boomers generation which grew up with these films on television. He smiled throughout the discussion; he was frankly amused by it. But the compositions of LeRoy Shield or Marvin Hatley were hardly what he would choose for listening pleasure.

Neither Roach's indifference, however, nor any other obstacles deterred Vince Giordano throughout the l980s from unlocking the secrets of this music.

Then others with remarkable dedication independently joined this archeological endeavor -- Ronnie Hazelhurst of the BBC in London, and Piet Schreuders of The Beau Hunks orchestra in Amsterdam.

What an undertaking this would be. The sheet music, and the complete original recordings on disc and film (except as edited for use within the fully-mixed motion picture soundtracks) were presumed lost, as mentioned. Also, again, commercial recordings had never been released. All of these researchers would have to painstakingly reconstruct the Shield and Hatley melodies on the basis of note-for-note transcriptions.

Then arrangements would need to be prepared according to imagined instrumentation for musicians to work from. After careful study, researcher Piet Schreuders determined that, for instance, in the case of OUR RELATIONS, "the orchestration was much fuller and broader than Shield's work of the early l930s: in addition to the usual dance band complement, he used two flutes, an oboe, a bassoon, four violins, two violas and a `cello."

Next a conductor who appreciated every nuance of the sound would have to guide rehearsals. When everything was ready, recordings would be made using period overhead microphones.

With such patience, diligence and authenticity, it was The Beau Hunks who succeeded in issuing compact discs that pleased discerning music critics around the world. BILLBOARD called these all-new recordings of familiar old stock themes "uncanny replicas of the originals ... a delightful surprise."

THE NEW YORKER hailed The Beau Hunks as "a crackerjack orchestra."

THE NEW YORK TIMES praised the collection of melodies as "light, spry and awash with innocence that is now rare."

Graphic artist Robert Crumb (subject of the acclaimed documentary) enthused, "This is something I've been looking for all my life. A great musical accomplishment."

"I love it," said Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. "It triggered off a very beautiful sentimental chord in my soul."

All of which has led up to The Beau Hunks' most ambitious project to date -- a reconstruction, performance and recording of the complete, unabridged score LeRoy Shield was commissioned to compose for OUR RELATIONS. Screening the film, we hear most, but not all the tunes Shield wrote that were designed to complement the varying visuals, synchronized to each successive scene. In all, these melodies comprised a full, integrated feature film score -- about 50 minutes of new music.

Based upon a cache of hand-written sheet music newly discovered between 1994 and 1996 by Piet Schreuders, and Rob Stone of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, it was apparent that Shield wrote more music than was heard in the finished film -- perhaps nearly twice as much! As discussed in the l936 chronology, three sequences were evidently filmed, possibly scored, then edited out to tighten the pace after unsatisfactory previews in July of l936. So, according to one line of speculation, as this footage was deleted, so too was the accompanying background music.

For instance, the composition entitled JUST A KISS was written for OUR RELATIONS but not used in the extant version of the film as we know it. Not until a year later did this melody turn up on the track for something called DAILY BEAUTY RITUALS, the Roach experimental Cinecolor short with Constance Bennett.

Still it is equally probable that the preview print was not scored at all, and someone such as editorial supervisor Elmer Raguse simply made a unilateral decision not to utilize certain compositions where Shield had intended. Because while Shield had in mind his work should constitute a rich, seamless orchestral suite, the actual decision of which cues to employ, and where, rested with Raguse.

In any case, all that has survived of Shield's complete, original score, as he intended it for OUR RELATIONS, was this nondescript sheet music, hidden away, silent, and silently for more than six decades. Now, at last, with the highly specialized Beau Hunks orchestra (performing along with The Metropole Orchestra) releasing a CD album faithfully recreating Shield's "lost" score, the music need no longer remain in the background. Shield's melodies can be appreciated for their own sake, as works of art too long neglected. Which, in turn, can only enhance our appreciation of the film for which the music was written.

Marvin Hatley would score the next Laurel & Hardy film, WAY OUT WEST, and receive an Oscar nomination for his efforts. LeRoy Shield's stepson, Mahlon Dolman, has an opinion on Hatley's ascendancy and the dissolution of Shield's relationship with the studio. "Well first, Roy was in Chicago, so far away," Dohlman explains. "And then his duties at NBC were taking more and more of his time and his interest. I think he was finding greater satisfaction in deeper, heavier music. He was writing tone poems, for instance. He was increasingly drawn to serious, symphonic music, which Katherine (my mother) encouraged."

So being pulled in another direction -- away from scoring Hollywood comedies -- was one reason for Shield's absence after 1936. There were others. It cost the studio less money to use Hatley. Shield was paid $500 per week on OUR RELATIONS and not until 1939 did Hatley earn even $200 a week. Shield was harder to schedule for a picture whereas Hatley was always right there in Culver City every day, available for any and all musical assignments both before and behind the cameras. Shield was employed as NBC's music director for RCA, while Hatley worked for Roach directly and nearly everyone on The Lot of Fun knew and liked him. No one disapproved Shield, but he was an outsider. As the younger Hatley gained more experience, Roach was more inclined to increase his responsibilities.

Another consideration: since Shield was tied to RCA Victor, his publishing arrangement was with Southern Music. The studio originally contracted with Southern Music also, which was operated by Ralph Peer. Roach's former vice-president, Henry Ginsberg, didn't seem to care for Peer, who understandably returned the sentiment. This disaffection hurt Shield, who was close to Peer. "Shield was tight with (Elmer) Raguse, too," Marvin Hatley observed, "but that didn't help him when Roach took it upon himself to change the direction of the studio by making a different class of pictures."

Perhaps the determining factor was that in l935, under pressure from Loew's and M-G-M as exerted through Ginsberg, Hal Roach Studios dropped its music publishing arrangement with Southern, in favor of Robbins Music. It turned out that Nicholas Schenck, who ran Loew's, had a financial interest in Robbins; that's why Roach was pushed to sign a new deal. Leaving Southern sealed the fate of Shield as the studio's primary composer. The balance of power -- if either man enjoyed any power to begin with -- shifted away from Shield toward Hatley. When David Loew, son of Loew's late founder, Marcus Loew, succeeded Henry Ginsberg as the new general manager at Roach, the decision was made to award future Laurel & Hardy assignments to Hatley.

With the arrival of the new Beau Hunks CD album, hopefully Shield will be back, will be rediscovered, and will be celebrated for all the joy his ever fresh-sounding and joyous and infectious melodies have brought to fans -- both music fans and film comedy fans -- for seventy years.

-- by Richard W. Bann --