The Music Box - Pressbook Stories

The headline for the press campaign offered by M-G-M read, "The sweetest box office music you have ever heard -- THE MUSIC BOX."

Catchlines told us: "The laughter will be music to your ears if you see Laurel and Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX, their latest Hal Roach-M-G-M comedy." And another one: "If you love a laugh you'll buy a box to see Laurel and Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX, their latest Hal Roach-M-G-M comedy."


The ad-men advised movie exhibitors that Laurel & Hardy, "those funny fellows," were "as popular as any picture stars you play." They got that right. The pressbook offered a marvelous array of display accessories "in a splendid bid for extra patronage." Included were especially appealing one-sheet and three-sheet posters. The press sheet recommended, "Every theatre should have at least two on hand."

Good idea. So ... so what did they do with those posters, and where can we get them now? Is the question all movie poster collectors want an answer for!

Also available to theatres, "from your local M-G-M exchange," were six-foot tall "now playing" lobby cutouts, and also full color, one-sheet size reproductions of a Laurel & Hardy oil painting. These would certainly attract attention from passersby, and generate extra business for what was proclaimed to be "a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer TALKING comedy." Well, there's some talking.

Best bet of all exploitation tools was the theatrical trailer, meant to be run after shows in advance of the play date for THE MUSIC BOX. The length was given as fifty feet, which understated the actual measurement (according to reliable studio records) by almost one-third.

In addition to all the splashy, enticing graphics, trailers generally contained live scenes selected out of the film's alternate takes or out-takes -- footage not needed by Messrs. Currier, Jordan or Laurel in assembling their final cut. Sadly we cannot prove as much since no trailer for THE MUSIC BOX has survived.

Trailers for all M-G-M releases were handled by National Screen Service in New York, which charged a rental fee of $1.50 per exhibitor for their use. Possibly "Mr. Postman" might stop by and can tell us where to find these very trailers today. And the posters, too.

The best story, because it was essentially true, and reported accurately (often occurring only by accident in pressbook accounts of anything) was this one:

"Imagine anyone, especially two popular screen comedians, waxing sentimental over a flight of stairs.

"But that is precisely what happened to Laurel & Hardy when they began work again on a long flight of stairs which play an important part in THE MUSIC BOX, the Hal Roach-M-G-M comedy now playing at the ... Theatre.

"The aforementioned stairs are an anniversary memento to the careers of these famous stars. It was on these stairs that Laurel & Hardy performed their funny antics for HATS OFF, the first comedy in which they were teamed as stars. Although they appeared together in DUCK SOUP the cast was an all-star and little thought was given to them as a team.

"Reminiscing, the two comedians said that only a few people were at hand to watch them at their work on their first picture, and many walked away before they had made one scene. But during the filming of THE MUSIC BOX a special squad of police officers was obtained to keep the interested spectators from interfering with the production.

"With all the guard, however, the two comedians were swamped at lunch time by autograph seekers and regular fans. During their three day location at the stairs they signed approximately 2,000 autographs and more than 3,500 people watched them at their work.

"Billy Gilbert appears in a supporting role of THE MUSIC BOX, which was directed by James Parrott."

As previously covered, Laurel & Hardy preferred pantomime to dialogue, both to tell their stories, and to generate laughs. In THE MUSIC BOX, many scenes are performed in absolute silence, so that the recording engineer is picking up only the authentic ambient noise of whatever else is happening on location right there in the neighborhood. Movie and television producers would never do this today. All sound -- dialogue, footsteps, everything -- would be artificially recreated as the annoying, phony-sounding work-product of "folio artists." It allows for perfect control of the soundtrack, but it's fake. Audiences can tell it's just not genuine. And so the authentic sound heard in old movies constitutes another reason why watching and listening to them -- even without Dolby enhancement -- is so much fun. It is real! It is an authentic connection to how the world actually sounded in a place called Silver Lake on a particular day in 1932.

If there really were anywhere near 3,500 people present during the four days -- not three -- that the company shot in Silver Lake, it brings another new window of interest to screening THE MUSIC BOX. This account of so many people watching the filmmakers could well be true. Stills exist showing the massive crowd control problems Charley Chase experienced filming DOLLAR DIZZY in Hollenbeck Park (shooting there today one might need the police for protection as much as for crowd control). Yet the tracks for both that picture and MUSIC BOX reflect -- thankfully -- live, natural, normal, residential neighborhood sound. Authentic sound, but not distracting sound.

How did they do it? How did the crew oblige those many spectators to cooperate, and how did they complete their photographic and sound recording tasks without interference? There is no hint of any problem in the finished product.

Maybe the answer lies in the same reason why both areas of town are today less than safe and adorned with graffiti. People then, like the films they enjoyed, were nicer, lived by better values, and with a heightened sense of moral clarity. Asked to respect the interests of hard-working filmmakers trying to do a difficult job, those 3,500 spectators, consistent with their understanding of right and wrong, willingly complied with the request of folks they admired and wanted to help succeed.

Having seen Laurel & Hardy films so many times, we may take for granted the hard physical labor and dangerous risks involved. Although stylized, "Stan" and "Ollie" were not cartoon characters! They were movie roles enacted by fallible human beings, aged 41 and 39, respectively, and subject to the perilous laws of nature. Doubles could not be used to mitigate every risk. When next screening THE MUSIC BOX, keep in mind there was no advance guarantee any of the stunts filmed were going to work, safely or otherwise. To wit, another item from the pressbook:

"Realism in detail is one of the essentials, and is generally carried out to a fine point in most Laurel & Hardy films and especially so in THE MUSIC BOX....For example, Hardy in this picture steps on a nail which pierces his foot. In pulling the board loose, he brings with it the sole of his shoe, and sure enough, a dark spot on the comedian's foot indicates where the nail pierced him."

Ouch! ... And doesn't he hate when that happens?

And, there's this story, headlined, "No Joke To Be A Comedian -- Roach Stars Take Lives In Hands To Make Audiences Laugh.

"The dangers and possible injuries that comedians will subject themselves to to get a laugh can never be thoroughly realized by the fun loving audience that watches them on the screen.

"An idea may be gained from the number of times Laurel & Hardy endanger themselves in THE MUSIC BOX....No less than fifty times in the course of the picture do these stars virtually 'take their lives in their hands.'

"One particular instance came up in THE MUSIC BOX in a scene in which Hardy allows a piano box to run over him while lying face downward on concrete stairs. Although his back was carefully protected, his head had no covering with the result that he received a severe 'burn' on the top of his rather bald head.

"By the same token Laurel nearly suffered a broken leg when he was forced through a second story window carrying the same piano box. His foot caught on a nail and his 'fall' was consequently not properly timed. He suffered only a wrenched knee and bruises. Both Laurel & Hardy received numerous small scratches, cuts and bruises but they never complained. It was 'all in the day's work' to them."

Well, Hardy wasn't exactly "bald," nor was it likely he was in much danger during that amazing scene where the piano with a mind of its own flew down the steps. Probably his double may have been in danger, but Mr. Hardy wasn't.

At least one comfort was afforded: back at the studio, when Stan and Ollie sustain an accident and fall into that "outdoor" pool adjacent to the house, the water was kept at a temperature of 65 degrees "so neither Laurel nor Hardy suffered undue shock or discomfort."

...And thank you!

In 1964 Stan Laurel was interviewed for THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. Since the films are so enjoyable, the writer suggested they must have been fun to make.

"Fun my eye!" Laurel exclaimed roaring back in laughter at the thought. "What's fun about making a picture? It's just bloody hard work. These people who say making pictures is fun ... they kill me! I enjoyed some things about making pictures, naturally."

One other pressbook story was especially interesting:

"One of the world's strangest 'graveyards' exists at the Hal Roach motion picture studios. It is difficult to conceive of anything funny about a 'graveyard' but this one is made up of thousands of laughs. It consists of all the broken furniture, automobiles, dishes and various other properties used in comedies to make people laugh.

"The latest 'corpse' to take a ride to a comfortable resting place is an old broken and battered player piano used by Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX....It is not so gruesome as it might seem for many remnants from this 'graveyard' are brought to life again for more pictures. They are rebuilt, painted and patched to give the desired effect and until another 'killing' takes place they remain in faithful service.

"An idea of this peculiar spot may be gained from a brief inventory. Within it lies some fifty odd automobiles of all ages and models, twisted, broken and unpainted. They served their purpose and are waiting for their reincarnation. Expensive glass ware, clothing, bric-a-brac, furniture of all periods, everything that has ever been seen in a motion picture could be produced from this mass."

Unfortunately, it seems that still photographer Bud "Stax" Graves never saw fit to suitably document this "graveyard" corner of Hal Roach Studios. Not even aerial photos reveal the exact whereabouts of the studio burial grounds as described.

-- by Richard W. Bann --