Once labeled the “lot that laugher built,” the Hal Roach Studios launched the comedic careers of such screen icons as Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, and Laurel and Hardy. With this stable of stars, the Roach enterprise operated for forty-six years on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system during a golden age of cinema and gained notoriety as a producer of short comedies, independent features, and weekly television series. Many of its productions are better remembered today than those by its larger contemporaries. In A History of the Hal Roach Studios, Richard Lewis Ward meticulously follows the timeline of the company’s existence from its humble inception in 1914 to its close in 1960 and, through both its obscure and famous productions, traces its resilience to larger trends in the entertainment business.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the motion picture industry was controlled by an elite handful of powerful firms that allowed very little room for new competition outside of their established cartel. The few independents that garnered some measure of success despite their outsider status usually did so by specializing in underserved or ignored niche markets. Here, Ward chronicles how the Roach Studios, at the mercy of exclusive distribution practices, managed to repeatedly redefine itself in order to survive for nearly a half-century in a cutthroat environment.
Hal Roach’s tactic was to nurture talent rather than exhaust it, and his star players spent the prime of their careers shooting productions on his lot. Even during periods of decline or misdirection, the Roach Studios turned out genuinely original material, such as the screwball classic Topper (1937), the brutally frank Of Mice and Men (1940), and the silent experiment One Million B.C. (1940). Ward’s exploration yields insight into the production and marketing strategies of an organization on the periphery of the theatrical film industry and calls attention to the interconnected nature of the studio system during the classic era. The volume also looks to the early days of television when the prolific Roach Studios embraced the new medium to become, for a time, the premier telefilm producer.
Aided by a comprehensive filmography and twenty-seven illustrations, A History of the Hal Roach Studios recounts an overlooked chapter in American cinema, not only detailing the business operations of Roach’s productions but also exposing the intricate workings of Hollywood’s rivalrous moviemaking establishment.