Be Big - Script to Screen

Hal Roach was athletic, outgoing, and actively social. He belonged to many sporting, professional and fraternal organizations relating to his varied areas of interest, particularly horses and hunting. Paying dues and sorting all the notices for meetings and functions was a perennial problem for his secretary, Ruth Burch. She remembered that when her busy boss would arrive at the studio wearing his riding habit and boots, it was because Roach often played polo during the noon hour with Will Rogers.

As these equestrian and many club activities took Roach away from his home life, Mrs. Margaret Roach objected. To say the least. Their marriage had already withstood one trial separation. But never mind, because from such a dilemna was born a picture idea - this one, THE CHISELERS. Roach discussed it in story conference with Stan Laurel in the summer or early fall of 1930. Then Laurel developed their concept into a surprisingly comprehensive five page script with 36 scenes. On Monday, December 8, when principal photography began, the Laurel & Hardy unit pretty much faithfully adhered to this detailed outline. Of special interest about the script was specific reference to reworking material out of their less than two-years old silent comedy, ANGORA LOVE. It was named by title in the scenario.

One of the script's most curious gags never made its way onto the screen. It wasn't meant to. As written, THE CHISELERS was to end this way: "Scene 36 - Cut to close-up. Stan and Babe come out of the debris, and we Fade out amid riotous laughter and defeaning applause, the audience leaping to their feet with wild shouts of "Run it again! Run it again!"

Or, maybe not.

The "debris" mentioned was a by-product of a proposed ending they also failed to film -- a "high and dizzy" routine, so termed from Roach's same-named 1920 Harold Lloyd short. Planned was an ambitious thrill climax to take place on the ledge of a fourth story apartment. But instead of this, as often happened, the filmmakers never got that far. So BE BIG was given over to the meticulous exploitation of a single set of circumstances: getting rid of the wives, then getting dressed. Which, as critics have noted, Laurel & Hardy did indeed "milk."

In 1959, for FILMS IN REVIEW, Stan Laurel was asked about his ability to "milk a comic situation."

"Sometimes this was good and sometimes it was bad," Laurel explained. "For instance, we'd do what you call a milking routine, and we'd take (the picture) to the preview. If, from the audience reaction, we felt they could stand more, we'd go back and add more and more to it. But, as you know, every audience doesn't react in the same way. It's like being in vaudeville. You can go on the first show and be a riot, and the next show they don't know you're on the stage. So, audiences differ, and their reactions differ. Sometimes our pictures were what you call 'over-milked.' "

BERTH MARKS qualifies as a good example, and BE BIG may well extract more than was wise from its basic premise - putting on a boot. But if BE BIG seems unusually prolonged for audiences today at three reels, one can only imagine how THE CHISELERS played at four reels. And it did, apparently (and without any footage worked in from LAUGHING GRAVY) since a music cue sheet exists for a full four reel American version, containing 87 cues. Did they re-sole, clean and shine the boot while reading aloud all the instruction manuals? How could they possibly spend four reels on this material? Yet they did. Four.

"Do you know that you've got my boots on?" Ten more minutes of that.

In fairness to the Roach braintrust, the shortened cut issued to theaters as we know it now could have appeared streamlined and fast-paced to Messrs. Roach, Horne, Laurel and company when compared to four reels of THE CHISELERS.

"Sometimes the fun you have making a pictue, "Hal Roach commented in 1966, "can distort your perception of how well the thing is going to play in front of an audience. You like to think you know, but comedy is a funny business."

Business, is right. It was a business. The coming of sound in movies, plus the Great Depression, threatenend the business fortunes of every movie producer. The 1930-1931 season was an especially volatile period for Hal Roach.

Silent film stars were international celebrities. Language was not a commercial or aesthetic barrier. With the advent of talking picutres, Hollywood studios faced the possibility of losing distribution business in countries around the world not conversant with English. Hal Roach pioneered an extravagant method of translating his product for foreign markets. Before the less expensive and less authentic procedures of dubbing or subtitles were adopted by the film industry, Roach painstakingly re-filmed various Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and Our Gang comedies in languages including French, German, Spanish and Italian.

Producing such multiple language verisons was an enormous effort. The return on investment varied directly with that effort, however, since audiences appreciated hearing favorite stars speak their language. Booming worldwide grosses, despite the Depression, said so.

Usually these export versions were expanded and longer than the original American releases and featured different supporting casts fluent in foreign languages to help carry the narrative. Stars like Laurel & Hardy were coached by tutors to speak languages they never tried before, may never have heard before, using words and sounds without any meaning whatsoever for them!

"Sounds funny to me."

Pronunciation was a problem, but after all, Hal Roach was producing comedies.

"The accent doesn't matter so much; it's the action," Hal Roach told the NEW YORK TIMES during post-production on the filmed-in-Spanish and French versions of BE BIG. "We do teach our actors the few essentials of the language... and we have two classes a week on the lot in both Spanish and French."

By the time BE BIG was made, the studio was well along in this poduction cycle and focused on just Spanish and French alternate versions. Germany was a bigger market than Spain or France, but genuine Spanish and French editions could be profitably exported to South America and Canada as well.

"When we were making silent comedies," Roach continued telling the TIMES in January of 1931, "our foreign distribution amounted to 25 per cent of our total gross. Now that we have sound and have begun making our films in the languages of other countries, our foreign business has jumped to 50 per cent of our product rental."

So commercially, critically, the export editions were a success. For all the world to see, and to hear, Laurel & Hardy were acclaimed and, or, laughed at as linguists. On a recorded and broadcast interview in 1964, Stan Laurel told Bill Rabe, "When we finally went overseas together in 1932, and even later, fans in these countries were amazed that we couldn't speak their language!"

Also in 1964 a curious fan named Ray Atherton (who became a film producer himself) wrote to Stan Laurel at The Oceana Apartment Hotel in Santa Monica. He wished to inquire about how these alternate export versions were made, and were they dubbed? Mr. Laurel typed out and mailed the answer:

"The foreign language was NOT DUBBED IN. We first made the film in ENGLISH. After this was previewed and final editing was completed, we called in as many as four interpreters - FRENCH, SPANISH, GERMAN, and ITALIAN - who translated the script. We then engaged a different cast for each version, excluding of course L&H and principal characters such as Jimmy Finlayson, etc. The interpreter read each scene to us word by word and we wrote it on a blackboard as it sounded to us (phonetic system). These boards were placed in back of each of us (out of camera range) so we had no difficulty in speaking the lines in every language.

"In the early days of making foreign versions in sound, the technique of "dubbing" wasn't conceived. It soon became a specialized job and our method naturally was discarded."

On BE BIG there was no chance to preview the rough cut before filming the planned Spanish and French versions. Near the end, the production regimen had changed. Starting December 8, the first week of shooting was devoted primarily to the original American version. Then on December 15 the Laurel & Hardy unit began filming the Spanish and French editions concurrently, which also took a week. There was more to film, but the work was less creative - routines had already been worked out, blocked out, and rehearsed. A comparison of the camera placements and lighting shows the Spanish and French scenes were shot back to back. For some scenes, such as the phone call from the club, it appears all three versions were filmed simultaneously.

Besides Laurel and Hardy, Anita Garvin also played her part as Mrs. Laurel in each interpretation of BE BIG. But with one distinction. While sreening a 16mm print of LES CAROTTIERS together in 1980, she commented on something not previously suspected. We were not listening to her voice.

"They had another girl standing out of camera range before an open microphone, " Anita Garvin explained, "and she was actually speaking the lines that appeared to come out of my mouth! I just learned the words in some kind of pigeon-French and then moved my lips! So while the camera was trained on me, the real words were coming from this little French gal standing on the sidelines!"

The illusion worked.

Meanwhile, the genesis of the plot, Margaret Roach's dissatisfaction with her husband's gallivanting and presumed philandering throughout town and country, had also impacted Anita Garvin. With her husband so busy, Margaret Roach took on interests of her own, including art direction and clothing design.

"For this picture, and God knows why," Anita Garvin laughed in 1978, "Mrs. Roach - and I mean Hal's wife, not his mother, who was also around because she lived at the studio - Mrs. Hal Roach decided she was going to be a designer. She created the outfit I wore as Stan's wife. She designed it with stripes that ran vertically, up and down the skirt and the jacket. She made it on a form in the wardrobe department. When I put it on she saw it and sort of gasped. 'Oh, if only I'd known you were so thin, ' she said, ' I would have made the stripes running the other way. ' Dear God! And the worst thing of all, that outfit was made of pure, thick wool. Besides being hot, hot, hot, I was itching and scratching every second the cameras weren't turning."

Anita Garvin was hot all right. No mistaking that.

Shortly after this conversation, Hal Roach was queried about his wife's designing interest at the studio. He had no recollection or knowledge of this. How could he? He paid little attention. He was more concerned with playing polo wearing those boots, or with developing Santa Anita Park.

Finally, some comparisons. In certain scenes it is plain to see that Oliver Hardy, especially, has his eyes trained on that blackboard for the purpose of reading foreign dialogue. Stan Laurel is less guilty of this, but then he has less to say, also.

According to filmmaker, and linguist, Bob Dickson, who has studied these films, it is Senor Hardy who handles the Spanish and the French pronunciations far better than Monsieur Laurel. Both have fun. Hardy takes some liberties with his French dialogue, as when after a pratfall before his wife he says, "Je fait boom!"

While there are some differences stemming from varying cultural sensibilities (such as emphasizing marimba music on the titles section of LOS CALAVERAS), the Spanish and French interpolations of BE BIG are basically generated out of the same blueprint. LOS CALAVERAS is a bit less than two minutes longer than LES CAROTTIERS, virtually all of that differential arising out of the BE BIG (as opposed to LAUGHING GRAVY) footage. The phone sequence with the lodge member and the boot jack sequence both take more time in the Spanish counterpart.

The French version is distinguished by Hardy asking with a priceless coy look if his wife has packed his nightshirt. This more risque inquiry might have offended Spanish audiences from predominately Catholic countries.

Both export versions feature what may be the only time Oliver Hardy speaks while registering his patented camera look. In LES CAROTTIERS, looking directly at us in extreme close-up, he says, "Peutetre c'est moi." Translation: "Maybe it's me."

In the equivalent scene from LOS CALAVERAS, Hardy is again soul-deep in resignation after being foiled once more by his partner. Taking us into his confidence, Hardy peers into the camera and sighs, "Vaya, Vaya, vaya." The literal meaning would seem to be, "Go, go, go."

Both export editions also feature a variation not seen in the American original where Hardy manages to get his head trapped in the belt of a weight-reducing machine.

-- by Richard W. Bann --