Way Out West - In the Cast
James Mason. "Blanche Sweet remembers...." No, not the refined , cerebral British actor and Oscar-nominated star of A STAR IS BORN (l954), 5 FINGERS (l952) and Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (l959), this James Mason entered movies first. He usually appeared in "B" westerns, often as a despicable, oily villain engaged in activities like selling guns and booze to the Indians. One can only imagine the urbane, rich and sibilant-voiced James Mason of LOLITA (l962), who also narrated Kevin Brownlow's l3-part series on silent films ("Lillian Gish remembers...." ) uttering these immortal words in WAY OUT WEST, "Awwww get a piece of fat and slide off!"
Would Lillian Gish remember that ?
Scrawny, old, flighty Flora Finch was already 43 and a spinster movie veteran when Lillian Gish made her first film in l9l2. The homely, puritanical-playing Ms. Finch was once partnered with the first American movies comedy star, rotund John Bunny, in a popular series of very early comedies for Vitagraph. After Fat John Bunny died in l9l5, Flora Finch operated her own production company. She died in l940.
Athletic Helen Holmes was another silent films pioneer. She started with Mack Sennett in l9l2 and later competed with serial queen Pearl White in her years-long chapter-play adventure THE HAZARDS OF HELEN.
Harvey Parry climbed buildings for Harold Lloyd as his stunt double. Gaunt, peculiar looking Bill Wolfe was a staple in W.C. Fields' self-advertised "Fields Comedy Company." And Fred "Snowflake" Toones, who turned up in Roach shorts like SOMETHING SIMPLE with Charley Chase and YOU BRING THE DUCKS with Irvin S. Cobb, was a favorite in Republic serials and westerns. Toones operated the shoeshine stand at Republic, appearing in pictures when friends there asked for him. So he worked a lot. Director Bill Witney said, "Everyone loved the guy."
Not so, Chill Wills, the gravel-voiced, 6'3" and then thin character actor who dubbed Stan Laurel's vocals for THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE. And who years later provided the off-screen voice of Francis, The Talking Mule, in the long-running series for Universal Pictures starring Donald O'Connor. (Dinah the Mule's role in WAY OUT WEST was non-speaking.) Chill Wills was born in Texas on the hottest day his parents ever experienced, hence, in contrast, the name "Chill." He was nominated for an Oscar in John Wayne's THE ALAMO (l960).
Chill Wills was a pretty good actor on the sets for WAY OUT WEST, too, according to sound engineer Ralph Butler. "He knew Stan ran the show," Butler recalled in l986. "So when Stan was around or Mr. Roach walked through the stage, Wills behaved. Otherwise he was arrogant, a bully just to prove a point. Sid Van Keuran never stood for any nonsense like that. I remember he had to caution the guy about his salty vocabulary when ladies were present. The fellows in his group seemed to resent him, too. But he was the one who suggested the folk ballads they sang in the picture. Then Stan took over and invented everything else, all the routines to go with the songs, right there after he heard them. Everyone else stopped and watched while they worked out whatever inspired them. Sometimes it was great to see."
Chill Wills disbanded his harmonizing quartet, The Avalon Boys, soon after WAY OUT WEST. He went into "B" westerns, sort of the way Roy Rogers left The Sons Of The Pioneers. Wills was signed by RKO to develop a comedy sidekick role named "Whopper" for the George O'Brien series. After several pictures together, Chill Wills was on his way as a character actor in more ways than one. The rugged, straight-laced but genial O'Brien took Wills aside one day after he'd been chewing up the scenery pretty good. So, time out. "Mr. Wills," O'Brien said, smiling as always, "We here are all reasonably assured that you're going to be a big star -- but not in my pictures. Good luck to you."
All the while, and for a few years to come, Wills' next door neighbor in the San Fernando Valley was Our Gang's Spanky McFarland. Both were from Texas, both had lots of personality. They were not as close after both became adults -- beyond which Spank did not want to be quoted for the record.
WAY OUT WEST was the final film appearance of Sharon Lynne, sometimes spelled Lynn. Depending upon which bio one reads, she was somewhere between the ages of 26 and 33 when portraying the scheming songstress, which she was well suited to do. Sharon Lynne actually did sing in nightclubs, on stage, and in other films. She wrote songs, her most successful composition was MONTE CARLO MOON. The studio paid her $500 to play "a swell golddigger" in WAY OUT WEST.
Born D'Auvergne Sharon Lindsay in Weatherford, Texas, she married someone Jimmie Finlayson's age, attorney-producer Ben Glazer. He cast her as fourth-billed "Notorious Mona Lowe," who jilts Bing Crosby in Paramount's musical extravaganza THE BIG BROADCAST (l932). She died in l963, survived by her second husband (a Beverly Hills businessman), but no children. An adolescent using the same name appeared in several films during the l940s. By one account, her own resume, as an adolescent herself, Sharon Lynne worked extra on silent Roach comedies starring Harold Lloyd. Rosina Lawrence said Sharon Lynne was "easy to work with, a lovely person." Which said as much about Rosina Lawrence as it did about Sharon Lynne. Rosina Lawrence radiated courtesy, trust and goodwill to everyone all her life.
The shooting script described "Mary Roberts" as "a sweet , little Cinderella type of girl." To enact the shy, unsuspecting heiress, there could not have been a better choice than pretty Rosina Lawrence. At the time she was portraying the new school teacher, Miss Lawrence, in the Little Rascals, beginning with the Oscar-winning short BORED OF EDUCATION (l936). A blond there and elsewhere in movies, she wore a dark wig in WAY OUT WEST.
Rosina Lawrence got into acting as a child. It was recommended as therapy when an accident caused paralysis on her left side. She danced in PARAMOUNT ON PARADE (l930), and THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (l936). She acted with Spencer Tracy in DISORDERLY CONDUCT (l932), with Will Rogers in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE (l93l), Jean Harlow in RECKLESS (l935), and Warner Oland in CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET (l936).
Rosina left movies for marriage in l939. Hal Roach had a hand in that. He sent her to Italy on a secret project. En route she met her first husband, an attorney named Juvenal Marchisio. He was an honorary Royal Count of the House of Savoy, making Rosina an honorary countess, something she characteristically downplayed. As a widow in l976 attending a SONS OF THE DESERT function, she met the organization's founder, John McCabe. At a banquet he introduced her as "an exquisite lady." Their decade-long marriage lasted until her death at age 84 in l997.
As stated in his beautiful posthumous tribute, John McCabe had been in love with Rosina Lawrence since the day he first saw her on the screen in WAY OUT WEST. In l976 SONS co-founder Al Kilgore and I met with Rosina at The Lambs Club in New York where the organization held court. She seemed so much like "Mary Roberts" and "Miss Lawrence." Midway through lunch Al Kilgore interrupted her to remark the experience "was like talking to a movie soundtrack!" Rosina Lawrence hadn't changed at all; she was exactly the person fans saw and loved in WAY OUT WEST and the Our Gang comedies. Laurel & Hardy's 45 RPM surprise hit record was still on the charts in Europe. To prove it was really her voice we hear, she sang Stan's falsetto part. That voice was Rosina! Was it ever. And what fun to see and hear that in person. Heads turned and hands clapped at nearby tables. Rosina was embarrassed to be calling any attention to herself.
She spoke about working with Stan and Babe on WAY OUT WEST. She never saw the business side, or any studio politics. "They were very friendly, very friendly to everyone. I didn't know them outside the studio, socially, but at the Roach lot, on location, they were both kind, gentle, gentlemen. They helped me and others every way they could. They explained things, they were patient, and it made working with them a great pleasure. You know Stan was the one who figured out and arranged everything they did. I never saw any trouble of any kind. The only time there seemed to be any serious business going on was when we were filming the scenes. Of course they were so funny, as was dear old Finlayson -- Jimmie."
In WAY OUT WEST Finlayson creates the definitive parody of western villains. He's in rare form, beyond even his usual state of outrage -- running a saloon, living with a honky-tonk floozie, oppressing an orphan, telling outrageous lies, cheating, stealing, and gloating about it. He seems to leap in the air, gleefully squinting defiance at the camera with each new felonious act, rubbing his hands together and daring us to object. Or stop him. This fine performance would be the definitive Fin finagle.
Most curious is the replacement of Stanley "Tiny" Sandford in the role of sheriff. Why? Stills exist reflecting footage shot with Sandford, and with Ethel Sykes as his wife enacting the uncomfortable matron on the stagecoach. (A friend of Stan Laurel, Ethel Sykes acted occasionally in movies and was the maid of honor in Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.) All of Sandford's scenes were re-shot, except a pair of long shots outside the saloon and then greeting the stagecoach. More can be seen in THAT'S THAT!, the pastiche of bloopers, alternate takes and out-takes assembled by editor Bert Jordan and presented to Stan Laurel on his 49th birthday in l939. The juxtaposition of scenes with Tiny Sandford and Stanley Fields in this gag reel indicates the casting change was a point of controversy with Stan Laurel, as suspected. Rosina Lawrence recalled zero about any of this. In l984, over dinner, I asked Hal Roach what happened. He did not remember, he did not care, and he could not change the subject fast enough. Except to say of Sandford, "We called him 'Tiny.' He was not. I thought he was an adequate heavy, and a gentleman around the studio." Pass the gravy.
In the l960s Chuck McCann used to talk and laugh with Stan Laurel about these kinds of things. For hours. And laugh would be the operative word. The thunderous laughter from either of these two could well have triggered earthquakes in Santa Monica overlooking the ocean where Laurel lived at the time. Chuck McCann's sense is that Tiny Sandford wasn't strong enough to suggest the Victorian Villainy Laurel wanted to make fun of. Perhaps it was Jimmy Horne or Roach who saw this. Calling it Horne would fit the speculation cited earlier, because Horne brought Fields in, replacing an actor often chosen by both Laurel and Chaplin for important heavies. There was the friction.
Hal Roach was always willing to spend the money necessary to get things right in a picture that had his name on it. The nominal credit as a "Stan Laurel Production" did not displace "Hal Roach Presents," and did not change the fact that it was Hal Roach's money to expend or not. Roach paid the money to shoot those scenes over. If Roach, or Horne, or Laurel was unhappy with the rushes, they'd film scenes over again. Whomever objected to the performances of Ms. Sykes and Mr. Sandford, it turned out that Vivien Oakland was terrific and Stanley Fields provided the kind of heinous, even bestial threat which made his scenes come alive.
The beefy Fields was a former Times Square tough-kid-newsboy turned professional boxer. A champion named Benny Leonard battered Fields' nose which added to his assets as a screen menace. So did his deep, booming voice. He entered films after headlining in vaudeville as Frank Fay's partner. Fields was a standout as an underworld hood in LITTLE CAESAR (l930). He died at age 57 of a heart attack in l94l.
WAY OUT WEST proved to be Tiny Sandford's last of 24 appearances in Laurel & Hardy films. Curiously Sandford and Fields shared scenes in James Whale's SHOW BOAT (l936). The same year Sandford was fourth-billed in Chaplin's classic MODERN TIMES. After WAY OUT WEST, Tiny Sandford had one more film credit for something made by Leo McCarey's brother Ray in l938, then left the movie industry for a career as a self-employed furniture refinisher. He died at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in l96l following an operation for colon cancer. His widow was not an actress. Their son inherited his father's size.
-- by Richard W. Bann --