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New book looks at The Hal Roach studios

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The definitive book on producer Hal Roach

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Ever since Brent Walker’s massive study of the Mack Sennett studios, film historians with an interest in comedy have been waiting for a thorough account of the rival Hal Roach productions. Since Walker spent decades gathering materials and putting together the definitive full-career look at Sennett’s life and work, a similar book on Roach, whose career extended into television after beginning in the silent movie era, would seem just as daunting.

There have been a few attempts to look at aspects of Roach’s career, from general overviews, to corporate histories, to heavily illustrated sketches of the studio’s more obscure players. Each of these welcome contributions has its own merit, but it became obvious that it takes several books to fully comprehend all that Roach accomplished.

We can now add Craig Calman’s excellent book “100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach” to the various books about the producer. Using extensive interviews with Roach himself, studio records, and many rare photos, Calman has put together the most definitive book on Roach’s life and work, offering detailed information that covers the silent era, the talkies, the more serious feature films, and the television shows.

Each section lists a year or period of years and the release stats therein. For instance in the section covering 1929, Calman’s heading indicates “eight silent Our Gang two reelers, six sound Our Gang two reelers, seven Laurel and Hardy silent two reelers, six sound Laurel and Hardy two reelers, five Charley Chase silent two reelers, six sound Charley Chase two reelers, six All-Star silent two reelers, and five All-Star sound two reelers. And after this heading, Calman discusses this transitional period when the studio was converting from silent to sound comedies, basing information on interviews with Roach, corporate records, and the screening of the films.

Laurel and Hardy’s first talkie, “Unaccustomed as we Are” was filmed at night because the studio initially had only one set of sound equipment, and it was being used during the day to film Our Gang’s sound debut “Small Talk.” Roach recalls for the author another problem during this first year of shooting sound movies, which occurred during filming of the All Star comedy “Hurdy Gurdy”:

“While I was watching the rushes with the cast and my assistants, I kept hearing at the end of each shot someone saying, ‘that’s good.’ I turned around and yelled ‘who is the jerk on the soundtrack?’ Finally the projectionist said ‘that’s you Mr. Roach.’ That was the first time I ever heard my own voice.”

While the book contains four photo sections offering many rare graphics not seen elsewhere, the beauty of it is its nearly 400 pages bursting with details, while the writing is consistently interesting, informative, and enlightening. There is an extensive bibliography, but no filmographies and no index. The former is understandable, but an index is always helpful in a book as thorough and fascinating as this. However, the book does include interesting capsule biographies of several key players in Roach's history.

Filled with information and printed in an affordable softcover, Craig Calman’s “100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach” is an absolute must for anyone interested in screen comedy’s rich history, and is also recommended for libraries and research centers.

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