Way Out West - Music Background

By definition, "B" pictures were lower Budget productions designed to support a more important feature film as the lower half of a double bill. These seemingly lesser-product films were thus made and sold as second class features. Yet the "B grade" classification was a relative distinction.


At prestigious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer "with more stars than there are in heaven," where pictures "weren't made, they were remade," all releases had an expensive sheen. Each one looked great, but some cost far less. So even with its glittering roster of talent and production capital, the mighty M-G-M made and distributed "B" films too -- although they were certainly more distinguished films than the low budget "B" product of rock bottom independent studios on Poverty Row such as Tiffany, Victory, or Mascot Pictures. As a rule an M-G-M series programmer was usually superior in all respects to the most elaborate Monogram Pictures deluxe super-special "A" release, but was still an M-G-M "B" movie nonetheless.

In terms of entertainment values, "B's" were not necessarily substandard. Despite playing as the single feature film attraction in many first-run theatrical situations, especially overseas, WAY OUT WEST was treated internally by its distributor, M-G-M, as a "B" picture. Many Hal Roach features were planned, budgeted, made, sold, and generally exhibited as "B" second features. Within the subset of l930s M-G-M releases, almost all Laurel & Hardy features were "B" films, or nervous "A's." But contrary to the usual perception, the "B" designation did not always stand for budget, or bad, or class B. As writer Don Miller once observed, in many ways "B" stood for "better."


According to traditional criteria then, of running time, cost, anticipated revenue, and exhibition slot, WAY OUT WEST was a "B" film. Make it a "B-plus." The film ran but 65 minutes, it cost only one-fourth the money Metro spent making the Marx Brothers' GO WEST (clearly inspired by, if not stolen from WAY OUT WEST), and the domestic gross earnings totalled a mere $362,828. For comparison, Charlie Chaplin's l936 MODERN TIMES had just grossed $l.4 million.

The booking terms with exhibitors varied depending on the class of pictures -- "A" or "B." The M-G-M distributing organization seldom sold the Laurel & Hardys (or earlier, the Buster Keatons) as so-called "top bracket" releases. This limited the potential grosses. The studios used block-booking practices, but there were gradations within the blocks of pictures. Being downgraded as a "B" film in the pre-production stage handicapped chances for huge earnings at the boxoffice. On percentage engagements (versus flat rental bookings) "A's" might command a higher percentage of the distributor's share than "B's." M-G-M sold the Irving Thalberg-produced Marx Brothers films as "A's" while generally bargaining for the Laurel & Hardys as "B's," although few would agree today that the Marx Brothers hold up better than Laurel & Hardy. Timeless entertainment value sometimes does vary inversely with industry alphabet designations.

The domestic rentals on Hal Roach's same-season "A" product, TOPPER, generated $840,860. Even that was modest in contrast to the income arising out of the previous year's blockbuster for Metro, SAN FRANCISCO, starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald. Plenty of M-G-M pictures lost money that year, but the net profit on SAN FRANCISCO after deducting all the direct costs (as opposed to the gross figures cited above) was a whopping $2,237,695!

So for WAY OUT WEST -- a "B-plus" film with the lesser strata stigma of being a humble slapstick comedy spoofing old-style westerns besides -- to be nominated for an Oscar, in the category of best musical score, was indeed a surprise and a significant achievement. More flabbergasted than anyone was the Hal Roach Studios musical director Thomas Marvin Hatley, who came into his own scoring WAY OUT WEST.

Born in Oklahoma, l905, raised in humble surroundings, the shy, unassuming Hatley first landed a job as jazz pianist at radio station KFWB (for Warner Bros.) in Los Angeles. Next he landed at KFVD (for something else), located within the friendly confines of "a lot of fun," the Hal Roach Studios. With the advent of sound, Hatley began performing music on and off camera for the Roach film comedies. He wrote the KU-KU song for Laurel & Hardy, and other specialty numbers for each of the short subject units. Hatley was busy. But until l936 Hal Roach reserved the important composing assignments for the more accredited LeRoy Shield, whom Roach held in very high esteem. Roach came to respect Hatley, and did say so, although unfortunately never to the gentle man himself.

WAY OUT WEST represented an important opportunity for Marvin Hatley, which he converted, under great pressure. As usual, the music was always done last, after other departments have failed to meet deadlines and no time cushion is left.

"Right," Marvin Hatley would surely confirm.

First, things "commenced to dancin'" on what would become WAY OUT WEST during the month of May, l936. That's when Hal Roach and Stan Laurel agreed they'd make a western parody.

Hal Roach's father was an officer of the company. He actually lived right there on the lot. Charles H. "Dad" Roach died May 27, l936. To take over his father's duties, on June 2 Hal Roach promoted two people. His boyhood friend, Mat O'Brien (they lived a block apart back in Elmira, New York growing up) was appointed Secretary-Treasurer. Roach's cousin, Sid Van Keuren, was made studio production manager. Thereafter Van Keuren's mother and Roach's mother -- sisters -- would share a home next to the gate inside the studio.

Van Keuren was tough. His background was engineering. Not everyone liked him. A quarter century later he was fired from the company by Hal Roach Jr. In l936, writing background themes for WAY OUT WEST, Marvin Hatley reported to Sidney Van Keuren.

In l980, at his home in Los Angeles, Marvin Hatley told Randy Skretvedt and me, "Sid would say, 'Now look, Hatley. I want this out Tuesday night, seven o'clock.' He didn't ever say, 'Would you be ready?' He told me when he was gonna be ready. And I had to be ready, I'm telling you! So I'd go home, and the nervous sweats would be popping out all over my face, and my hands would be shaking, and I'd say, 'Oh, God, what do I do for an idea?'

"When I started to compose, I didn't go to bed for about two weeks. I'd just work day and night. There are no words to describe the terrifying pressure. I wasn't a big guy in the movies, I was just a little guy. Composers like Alfred Newman, they can take all the time in the world; they're making $2,000 a week, and they can hire a bunch of arrangers and do all kinds of things.

"The most I ever made at Roach's was $200 a week," Hatley stated without seeming to complain about it. "We were just a little studio. You had to do everything as fast and as cheaply as possible. I'd be in my studio at the piano, just nervous and sweating like hell, wondering if I was ever going to get that score done.

"For WAY OUT WEST, I wrote tunes that sounded like the Gay Nineties; different periods have different harmonic styles. There's a scene where Stan has to eat Hardy's hat after losing a bet. Stan suggested that we put in a tune called WHERE DID YOU GET THAT HAT? I don't think anyone gets the connection today, since the tune was popular around l9l5.

"One day, I was in the projection room when they were running the dailies. So they ran that scene where Stan Laurel's walking down the road with the jackass, and Babe Hardy's riding, before they came to that puddle of water, where he fell in. I had some 6/8 music there, keeping in step with them, and it had a lot of eccentric orchestration in it. And Mr. Roach was sitting next to the director, Jimmy Horne -- and Roach turned to me and said, 'Cute music! Cute music!' And that's the only word he said to me while I worked at that studio!"

The following weekend, I shared Hatley's reminiscences with Hal Roach. He did not remember the remark attributed to him. "But it was cute music," he said, smiling.

Hatley's approbation came late in life, but not too late. It came from members of the SONS OF THE DESERT organization all over the world, and particularly denizens of the WAY OUT WEST tent. Hatley would perform at regular tent meetings. He happily sat on a telephone book atop his piano bench to play. What a treat to see and hear Marvin Hatley improvise the score for a Laurel & Hardy or Charley Chase silent film right there at his piano. The expressions on people's faces told Hatley what his boss had failed to articulate. It was these fans who expressed and reflected the love Hatley had invested in his work, so many years before. By listening, no one could sense the torment Hatley endured. There was not a trace of it in his wonderful melodies.

CHANGE MY CLOTHES was a Hatley composition which served as title music for both WAY OUT WEST and the reissue of BLOTTO. With that title it was written for the feature, but the tune did not have a western flavor. In l935 and l936 Gene Autry simply exploded in movies as the first to popularize the singing cowboy. Autry's success ushered in the musical western genre. If Laurel & Hardy were going to spoof westerns, a tie-in with this cultural phenomenon was essential.

One of WAY OUT WEST's musical highlights, THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE, was not written by Marvin Hatley. It was the title tune in Paramount's same-named l936 film, the first feature-length outdoor movie to be shot in three-strip Technicolor. A novel entitled THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE was written by John Fox Jr. in l908. A stage adaptation was made in l9l2. Following the play's success, composers Harry Carroll and Ballard MacDonald arranged to have their song published in l9l3. Then successive film versions were produced in l9l4, l9l6, l923 and l936. The stars of this last version, the sound film, were Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, and Our Gang's Spanky McFarland, on loan from Hal Roach Studios. (The film's musical director, Boris Morros, would soon be a producer and make THE FLYING DEUCES.) What's curious is that nobody actually sings the song THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE in the l936 Paramount feature. Only a portion is used, as an instrumental. It took from l9l3 until l937 before anyone in a movie theatre heard the following lyrics, and Laurel & Hardy did the honors, harmonizing while they relaxed in a saloon:

"On a mountain, in Virginia, stands a lonesome pine.
Just below, is the cabin home, of a little girl of mine.
Her name is June, and very, very soon, she'll belong to me.
For I know, she's waiting there for me, beneath that lone pine tree.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the lonesome pine.
In the pale moonshine, our hearts entwine, where she carved her name and I carved mine.
Oh, June, like the mountains I'm blue. Like the pine, I am lonesome for you."

The "June" they sing to was Spanky McFarland's sister in the Paramount feature, played by Sylvia Sidney. And "June" was Mary Miles Minter in the l923 version.

Mr. Hardy's gentle tenor on this song is beautiful, a surprise to some. Mr. Laurel adds serviceable harmony. And when Ollie conks Stan on the head with a convenient mallet before the final chorus, his trick voice changes from a deep bass (dubbed by Chill Wills of The Avalon Boys) into a high falsetto (supplied by Rosina Lawrence). In l975, to the surprise of nearly everyone, a recording of this pleasing tune lifted straight off the film's soundtrack was issued in England as a single and ran all the way up to number two on the pop charts! Imagine, a 38 year-old post-Beatles hit record with a vocal rendering by visual comedians, then deceased, selling more than 500,000 copies and climbing the British charts!

Perhaps Stan said to Ollie, "We'll get that hit record someday, or I'll eat your hat." That's what some would call determination.

A second delightful, and even funnier musical interlude was another old, ragtime song, AT THE BALL, THAT'S ALL, written by J. Leubrie in l905. Outside the saloon, the Avalon Boys quartet starts singing lazily. Stan and Ollie, in repose, begin to sway, tap their feet, and ease into an eccentric soft-shoe shuffle. This extemporaneous number was conceived and performed on October 27, l936 in front of purposely obvious rear projection of boisterous wild-west activity in Brushwood Gulch. Stills exist showing Stan and Babe perspiring with their shirts off rehearsing this wonderful, understated, uproariously funny and perfectly executed swing dance routine -- one of the most cherished routines in the entire Laurel & Hardy canon. The skill, timing and elegance ... all remarkable.

During the l992 Academy Awards telecast, for an in-person tribute to Hal Roach marking the occasion of his hundredth birthday, an enormous worldwide audience watched a clip of this graceful number. The footage had been modified, however, through video wizardry, so that Oscar host Billy Crystal, in de rigueur matching costume, appeared to be stepping in unison with Stan and Ollie as though it were a line dance. The live audience went wild. Roach was amazed at these special effects, the crowd's reaction, and in a rare hint of sentiment remarked in the car on the way home, "Laurel and Hardy should have lived to see this."

Mary Tyler Moore was the first to use this clever idea. Donning a derby, the comedienne got in step with Stan and Ollie for a sketch on her short-lived l978 television variety series MARY, the one with David Letterman.

The words to the song are these:

"Commence to dancing, commence to prancing.
Commence advancing, right and left a-glancing.
Amateur dancing, slide and glide entrancing.
You do the tango jiggle, to the Texas Tommy wiggle.
Take your partner and you hold her, slightly enfold her, a little bolder, just work your shoulder.
Snap your fingers one and all, in the hall, at the ball.
That's all.
Some ball."

WAY OUT WEST did not win the Academy Award in l937. The Oscar that year for best musical score went to Universal's ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, the Deanna Durbin vehicle featuring music conductor Leopold Stokowski. At the same ceremony Roach alumnus Leo McCarey earned an Oscar for directing THE AWFUL TRUTH and Roach's one time competitor, the recently retired Mack Sennett, received a special award "for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen." Another of Roach's boyhood pals back in tiny Elmira, Norman Reilly Raine, won for best screenplay on THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA. Big writing, directing and acting awards are not handed over for those laboring in humble slapstick comedies, particularly parodies of lowly westerns.

The studio did get plenty of musical mileage out of Hatley's score, as his compositions quickly became stock library favorites used to enliven Our Gang comedies up until production reins on the series were turned over to M-G-M in l938. Some ball. That's all.