On October 16, 1986, I had the good luck to attend a lecture by renowned silent film producer Hal Roach. The event was held at the National Film Theater in London, and was moderated by David Robinson. Robinson reviewed his long and illustrious career, which included producing films starring Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and many, many other comedians. After the screening and discussion of several of his films, there was time for a few questions from the audience. During this Q&A session (on which I took notes), Roach, 94 at the time of this tribute, was asked to give a brief description of several of the important comedians and filmmakers he knew or had worked with—his comments about these men all the more interesting because of their terse and completely off-the-cuff nature.
The following opinions are Mr. Roach’s, not necessarily mine.
On Charlie Chase
“He was one of the funniest men I ever worked with—naturally funny, on and off the screen. He never drank on the set, but his problem was with booze. I remember coming to visit Charlie in the hospital—he’d go in to get dried out—and I never needed to know what room he was in…I would just walk down the hall and listen to where the laughter was coming from. Then I’d go in the room and he’d be in bed and the doctors and nurses would be all around laughing their heads off listening to him. Eventually he went to Mayo (Clinic) because his drinking had caused problems with his stomach—they had to make another hole or something…well, I got a call back from Mayo—they said this guy’s got the whole hospital laughing. When the doctors told Charlie he’d be making progress when he could ‘pass wind,’ he sent invitations out to the floor inviting everyone to his room on the day it happened. They finally sent him home and he only made it for two weeks without the booze. I think he died two months later. It was all very sad.”
On Buster Keaton
“Buster got his comedy from sight gags—he only had one expression, so that was limiting. It was harder for him because he only had the gags to make things funny.”
On Laurel and Hardy
“Most teams had the comedian and the straight man. Laurel and Hardy were both comedians and this was an advantage. You could do a gag, and have Laurel react to it, and then have Hardy react to what Laurel had just done, and if it was funny enough you could have Laurel react to Hardy’s reaction. So that was great, because you could get three laughs from just one joke.”
(On being asked why the team had a decline in quality after they left his studio)
“As a gag writer, Laurel was one of the best, but he had no sense of story or plot. So when he insisted he wanted to write his own plots, I had to let them go.”
On D.W. Griffith
“Griffith was one of the greatest directors ever. He had left Hollywood for the East and then returned. We often had lunch together. My friends told me that when he ate with me, Griffith would eat a good meal, but when we didn’t have lunch, he wouldn’t eat. So I started to have a lot of lunches with him. I never had any intention of his filming One Million B.C. I just wanted him to screen the rushes, which is what he did, and he’d call me and talk to me about what I’d shot. He died not long after the film was finished.”
On Charlie Chaplin
“Charlie was the greatest comedian of them all. When I first met Charlie, he was just like you and me, an ordinary guy. Then after he got famous, he started getting invitations to meet famous people, people like Churchill, and he’d tell them something—didn’t matter what he said—and they say ‘that’s brilliant!’ So before long Charlie started believing what everybody was saying, and that changed him. What the government did to Charlie was very sad. Charlie was never a communist…he never gave a penny to anybody!”
When the Q&A was over, Hal Roach looked over the crowd and said, “No more questions? I really am disappointed in all of you.” We looked around at each other in stunned consternation. Had someone said something to offend him? What had happened? Then Roach continued: “I really am disappointed because everyone always wants to me to talk about the past, no is ever interested in what I’m doing now. I have all these projects going on. But no, no one ever asks,” he said with a wink. “Goodnight everyone.”