The main reason my luggage is so heavy when I leave Columbus after Cinevent every year is the number of books I buy there. Lobby cards, stills, sheet music, even DVDs can weigh next to nothing, but books — that’s a whole other kettle of bound pages. There are books old and new on offer there, and two of the new ones I picked up this year should find a place on any well-stocked cinema bookshelf.
The publisher, GoodKnight Books, has given Showmen a production to make any author proud, and other authors envious. There are hundreds of illustrations — many (and probably all) from the Greenbriar site and John’s personal collection — all of them reproduced exactly as they are. If they’re black-and-white or sepia, one- two- or full-color, then that’s how they appear here — and thanks to editor and designer Mary Matzen and the super-rich production techniques at GoodKnight, they’re sharper and clearer than they ever were when John ran them at the Greenbriar site. Click here to learn how to get your copy of Showmen, Sell It Hot! with a pre-release discount. (On a side note, two other GoodKnight Books your shelf should make room for, if they’re not there already: Errol Flynn Slept Here: The Flynns, the Hamblens, Rick Nelson and the Most Notorious House in Hollywood and Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.)
So if Richard does not know everything there is to know on the subject, it’s not for want of trying to find out. And he’ll probably never give up. Which is good news for us, because his new book — the first in a proposed trilogy — makes us the beneficiaries of his efforts (and those of co-researchers Robert Farr and Joe Moore). Here comes the title (brace yourself, it’s a long one): Smileage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter: Musings on the Comedy Film Industry 1910-1945, Vol. One: Hal Roach.
As Scott Eyman points out in his “Big-Time Celebrity Intro” (Richard’s title, no doubt), it’s simply insane that Hal Roach managed to live a hundred years without anyone ever writing a comprehensive biography. After all, here was the man who gave us Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang and Harold Lloyd; jump-started the careers of directors like Leo McCarey and George Stevens; and as Scott puts it, “more or less invented situation comedy as we know it”. Hal Roach has been gone 20 years now, and that biography still hasn’t turned up. Smileage Guaranteed may be as close as we’re likely to get. It’s not a biography, but it’s definitely comprehensive: a player-by-player, picture-by-picture, year-by-year survey and appraisal of the output of the Hal Roach Studios, the “Lot of Fun”.
Richard spends relatively little time on Laurel and Hardy, Lloyd or the Our Gang series; they’ve been amply covered elsewhere. Instead, the profusely illustrated Smileage Guaranteed concentrates on other performers on the Roach lot — Snub Pollard; Will Rogers; Max Davidson; the Parrott brothers, Paul and Charles (the latter of whom began as Roach’s ace director, then moved in front of the camera to gain stardom as Charley Chase); Harry Langdon at the beginning of his long career decline; Mabel Normand at the sad end of hers; and on and on. Not all of Roach’s brainstorms were as felicitous as Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang, and Richard covers the misfires as well — the Taxi Boys, for example, and the bizarre clown Toto (ne Armando Novello).
Fully 188 pages of the book’s 502 are devoted to an exhaustive filmography of every title Hal Roach produced (over 1,000 of them), followed by further filmographies for two of Roach’s major (albeit secondary) stars, Charles Parrott (aka Chase) and the Jewish comic Max Davidson.
All in all, Smileage Guaranteed could well warrant another subtitle to go with all those it already has: More Than You Ever Imagined There Was to Know About Hal Roach. Written in Richard’s wry conversational style, it is, like Roach’s studio, a lot of fun. And there are two more volumes to come.
These two tomes were my major acquisitions at Cinevent this year; between the two of them they took up three pounds and 234 cubic inches of my luggage. I’ll talk about some of the others next time.