By John V. Brennan
Updated from 1997
Copyright © John V. Brennan, 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Property of Laurel and Hardy Central.
"A precise definition of what the work of LeRoy
Shield and Marvin Hatley adds to Hal Roach comedies is certainly beyond
our powers. Suffice it to say the contribution is as significant as
anyone else's at the studio."
--- Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann, in their book on Our Gang
"...the real music's in your mind. All the
instruments are just mechanics."
--- Marvin Hatley, composer of "Ku-ku".
There is a story about the filming of The Marx Brothers' THE COCOANUTS (1929) and like many Marx Brothers stories, it may not be true. Because THE COCOANUTS was one of the first Broadway musical comedies to be filmed as a talkie, directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley frequently found themselves in uncharted territories. The movie featured songs by Irving Berlin, and Santley wanted to film shots of an orchestra to use as cutaways. When asked why, he explained that if the theatergoers didn't see shots of musicians, they wouldn't know where where the music was coming from!
Of course, movie audiences, used to the orchestras, organs and pianos accompanying silent films, quickly understood that the music in sound films didn't have to come from anywhere; it was just there.
The films of Hal Roach are remembered for many reasons today, but for decades, the wall to wall music found in the average Roach two reeler was not counted among those reasons. In THE FILMS OF LAUREL AND HARDY, William K. Everson offhandedly dismisses the background music altogether in a single erroneous sentence:
"There was a similar almost contemptuous laziness present in the musical scores of the films too; some half dozen catchy but rather shapeless themes were used constantly and repetitiously throughout all their talkies."
As we will see, there are certainly more than "some half-dozen" tunes
in the scores of Laurel and Hardy movies, and they were certainly not
shapeless but often perfectly written pieces to enhance and highlight
individual scenes and bits of
business in the films. These mini-music masterpieces were written
primarily by two gentlemen: Thomas Marvin Hatley and Leroy Shield.
As sound was overtaking silence in the movies, some of the later Hal Roach silents had soundtracks on disc, with music and sound effects cued to match the actions on the screen. The music was comprised of stock themes and popular melodies, such as "Ain't She Sweet" or "That's My Weakness Now". But the early Roach talkies generally had no music beyond the opening credits. While films like Below Zero or They Go Boom (both 1929) are good enough to survive and and may even benefit from scant or non-existent background music, others, such as Night Owls (1930) cry out for something - anything - to help move the film along.
Blotto was the first Laurel and Hardy sound film to have a full music track. Unfortunately, this music was removed in 1937 and replaced with fresh themes. While the new music is delightful, the decision to excise the original music, a decision made during a 1937 rerelease of some early shorts, robbed us of the opportunity to hear how the early Roach shorts were scored. Thankfully, DVD releases of some of the foreign-language versions allow us to hear that original music.
Hog Wild (1930) also had a full music track, beginning with the peppy "Smile When the Raindrops Fall". The Hog Wild soundtrack consists of only four songs, each played twice in a row, without any relation to the action of the film. Hog Wild remains one of the greatest comedies Laurel and Hardy ever made, but if ever you wish to find "contemptuous laziness" in a Hal Roach soundtrack, you need to look no no farther than this film.
"Smile When the Raindrops Fall", however, can be considered one of the "Greatest Hits" of Hal Roach films. Written by Alice Keating Howlett, the song features a memorable opening fanfare and a wonderfully catchy melody. It appears several Charley Chase shorts, and is also the record that plays in Stan and Ollie's car radio in Busy Bodies. In fact, when the record runs down and Stan changes to a new one, it seems that The Boys record collection consists of nothing but "Smile When the Raindrops Fall"!
Aside from "Smile When The Raindrops Fall", there was one other musical bright spot in the early days, and that, of course, was the introduction of the Laurel and Hardy theme song, known variously as "The Dance of the Cuckoos" or more simply "Ku-Ku". Though it is one of those songs that seems to have always been around, like "Happy Birthday" or "Auld Lang Syne", it was actually written in 1928 by Thomas Marvin Hatley. Born in Reed, Oklahoma on April 3, 1905, Hatley could play almost any musical instrument by then time he entered his late teens.
While attending UCLA in California, Hatley found work at KFVD, a radio station located on the Hal Roach Studios lot. He wrote the simple and endearing "Ku-Ku" as a radio time signal. Stan Laurel heard the song one morning and thought it would be a perfect way to start the Laurel and Hardy pictures. In later years, Hatley and Laurel shared an interpretation of the theme - the main melody represented Oliver Hardy, dominant and commanding "like a bugler in the army". The bottom melody, consisting of two repeated "coo coo" notes signified the "not very bright" Stan Laurel. The dissonant clash of the two parts playing against each other is what makes it funny, according to Hatley.
The first short for which it was used is now believed to have been Night Owls, and for the next decade, with only a few exceptions, every Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy film began with the instantly infectious "Ku-ku". Amusingly, Ladrones, the Spanish version of Night Owls, also features "Ku-Ku", but the musicianship in this version is a little off and floats in and out of time with itself!
Hatley became the musical director at Roach, writing background themes, specialty numbers and, in the late thirties, composing full scores for the feature films. Hatley was also the music "special effects" man, called on to play an instrument offscreen whenever needed, such as when Stan plays the tuba in SWISS MISS (1938). Hatley also provided the piano sounds for The Music Box (1933).
As well as being invaluable during production, Hatley was often on call in between scenes. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy both loved music, as did fellow Roach comedian Charley Chase and director Leo McCarey. In between takes, any combination of these stars would get together and sing old songs, while Hatley provided accompaniement on piano, guitar or whatever other instrument was handy. Given the charm and quality of the Boys' singing found in WAY OUT WEST, Below Zero and other films, as well as all those marvelous musical scenes in many Charley Chase shorts, it is heartbreaking that these informal sessions were never recorded on film.
Hatley may have been the official musical director at Roach but it was another man who was largely responsible for most of the music that started to appear in the Hal Roach shorts in 1930. In 1929 when Hal Roach converted his studio to sound, The Victor Talking Machine Company provided all the necessary sound technology --- and also sent along Leroy Shield, their "Musical Director in Charge of Hollywood, California Activities." Shield originally worked at editing musical scores, choosing from the wide variety of stock themes available, but was soon asked to compose fresh music. The earliest example of a full Leroy Shield score in a Laurel and Hardy film seems to be Angora Love (1929), the team's last silent film. Shield plunged into his composing work with great enthusiasm in 1931, writing and recording a vast number of themes and musical cues over a period of two years.
Shield was born in Waseca, Minnesota in 1893, and toured as a classical pianist before starting work at Victor. Little public information is available on Shield's years with Roach, and few of the major books on Laurel and Hardy have had much to say about Shield except that he showed up, he wrote some great tunes, he left.
1931's Another Fine Mess was the first Laurel and Hardy short to get the full Shield treatment. A comparison between this film and Hog Wild shows the remarkable difference Shield made. Whereas the Hog Wild score consisted of four randomly selected tunes and could have been spliced hook, line and sinker into any other film of the time, the music track assembled for Another Fine Mess only works specifically for Another Fine Mess. Each scene in Another Fine Mess gets its own musical cue.
1. "Beautiful Lady" ("Ladies and Gentleman, Hal Roach Presents..".)
2. "In My Canoe" (Opening Gag Title)
3. "Colonel Buckshot" (James Finlayson's appearance)
4. "Run" (The Boys on the run)
5. "The Cops" - (The cops)
6. "Tip Toes" (The Boys in hiding)
7. "Steps" - (Still hiding)
9. "Beautiful Lady" (Thelma Todd's appearance)
10. "Crabtree" - (introduces Leopold Ambrose)
11. "It Is To Laugh"
13. "Your Piktur"
14. "Arrowhead" ("Where is that Billiard Room?)
15. "Dear, With Me" ("Agnes" and Thelma have a chat)
17. "Ah! Tis Love!"
18. "Sliding (Swells)" -(Colonel Buckshot Returns)
19. "Confusion" - (The ruse is disovered)
20. "Fliver Flops" - (Chase music - the Boys on bicycle)
21. "Yearning" (Final gag, fadeout)
(This is not a complete listing - some melodies appearing more than once are only listed in their first appearance.)
Thelma Todd is introduced by her personal motif, the appropriately titled "Beautiful Lady", which served as the theme music for her own series of films. When the Boys are sneaking around in the basement, we hear the suspense cues of "Tip Toes" and "Steps". James Finlayson's character gets his theme, "Colonel Buckshot", and during the final scenes, when Buckshot returns and Stan and Ollie are chased out of the house, it is not a lazily selected "Golfer's Blues" or "Smile When The Raindrops Fall" playing on the soundtrack, but rather three of Shield's most memorable "excitement" themes, including the unforgettable "Fliver Flops".
The melodies not specifically commenting on the action, but used as general "background noise" have today become fan favorites. "Bells", with its instantly recognizable eight-note opening played on (what else?) bells, can be heard in dozens of Roach films. "In My Canoe" is a simple but beautiful slow waltz which was revived in 1998 for a computer commercial.
Shield's music was used as a nifty way to mask soundtrack hiss, and add energy to the films at the same time. In hindsight, as revealed through the numerous recordings of Shield music by the Netherlands band the Beau Hunks, Leroy Shield was a major American composer. Whereas Irving Berlin and George Gerswhin wrote for the Broadway stage, and Max Steiner wrote for feature films, LeRoy Shield just happened to do his best work in the unglamorous field of knockabout two-reelers. Like George Gershwin, Shield composed his melodies unhampered by the need to match them to lyrics, so that each new theme was in and of itself a complete entity. As Shield authority Piet Schreuders puts it, "His music usually leaves the listener with the happy feeling that this is how a tune should go --- which makes even the 'sad' tunes sound happy."
Two of the most memorable Shield melodies must be "On To The Show", the cascading music often used as an opening theme song to the later L&H shorts, and "Good Old Days", the Our Gang theme song. "On To The Show" which appears in such films as Busy Bodies and Going Bye-Bye, is a melody that can be used for almost any happy situation --- the arrival of clowns, the start of a parade --- a tune promising fun to follow, fun which, in the form of Laurel and Hardy, was usually delivered. It sometimes seems as if every Laurel and Hardy short began with "On To The Show", but actually, it showed up as opening fanfare late in the game, in Me and My Pal (1933), after most of their true classic two-reelers had already been filmed. From Me and My Pal on, "On To The Show" stayed in the lead off position with only one day off ("Dash and Dot", a sort of alternate "Ku-Ku", opens The Fixer-Uppers).
While "On To The Show" promises good times to come, "Good Old Days"
remembers good times gone by. Perhaps due to its association with the
Our Gang films, "Good Old Days" instantly transports any listener back
to his or her childhood. It is nostalgic and sweet, but not saccharine,
and contains one hell of a melody line to boot. According to
author and LHC pal Randy Skretvedt's excellent Laurel and Hardy: The
Magic Behind The Music (3rd Edition), "Good Old Days" was first used in
PARDON US (1931) for the prison schoolroom scene and then went on to
become the Our Gang theme song.
As splendid as Shield's melodies are, it must be remembered that they were composed specifically not to be noticed, as unintrusive background music for the antics of Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and the other great clowns on the Roach lot. In that capacity, they work wonderfully well. Stan said that lively music helped put his pantomime over to audiences, and you can see what he means by comparing similar scenes in different movies. In 1931's One Good Turn, Stan and Ollie sit at a table and share a meal, with the usual disastrous results. In 1933's Twice Two they do the same, yet the Twice Two scene is not nearly as amusing. While there may be other factors involved, it is undeniable that Shield's The Moon and You playing behind the Boys in One Good Turn keeps the scene bouncing along, while the lack of music in Twice Two serves to highlight the slowness of the proceedings.
Shield was not always pleased at how his music was used in the Roach films. He realized that his own prolific output had severely restricted the need for more music from him. After all, if the Roach editors had already had a great number of previously written Shield tunes to choose from, where was the need for new pieces from the composer? Early on, Shield wrote individual pieces for specific scenes (like "Snowing", the evocative composition that appears at the start of Laughing Gravy), but with each new film, as more and more Shield themes became available, the sound editors found themselves simply reusing the same themes over and over. The editors eventually had access to over a hundred Shield themes, contained in loops on a huge machine, and they used whatever they needed at any given moment. If they only needed ten seconds of "Rocking Chair", for example, for a closeup of Stan "thinking", that's all they would use, cutting it off in mid melody line when the camera switched to other action. One of Shield's crowning achievements, the complex and dissonant "Cascadia", originally composed for the Boy Friends' short Air-Tight (1931), was not only used out of sequence for that film, but also cut up and used only in snippets in dozens of other comedies of the period.
Hal Roach was a man who lived to make good comedies, but he also had to turn a profit, and thought nothing of reusing plots, sets and, of course, music. In retrospect, Shield was such a prolific composer, he may very well have written himself out of a steady job at the studio.
Shield moved on to radio in 1931, where he continued composing hundreds of musical cues. His days of constantly supplying fresh new melodies for Roach to use were over, and the music tracks slowly became less dependent on the films themselves and reverted to their function of merely filling up a space, ala the pre-Shield days. Tit for Tat and Busy Bodies to name just two later shorts, contain many familiar Shield pieces, but there is no rhyme or reason to them. Other later shorts, such as Going Bye-Bye! and The Fixer-Uppers, had little or no music at all after the opening titles.
Though he no longer had a steady position with Roach, Shield did occasional work there on and off for the next few years. In 1933, he arranged the music for FRA DIAVOLO, the Laurel and Hardy-ized version of Auber's opera. He had some great material to work with, such as Diavolo's song ("On Yonder Rock Recliiiiiiining...") and the marvelous overture, still the classiest opening to any Laurel and Hardy film. He also added one song not in the original opera - Hatley's "Ku-ku", which Shield reinvented in a "baroque" style for the scene of "Stanlio" and "Ollio" arriving on horseback. This slightly drunken "Ku-ku" also appears in 1934's Them Thar Hills (after the Boys have gotten fizzled on the "mountain water") and also in the gag appearance they did for Our Gang's Wild Poses (1933).
Shield and Hatley both worked on 1935's BONNIE SCOTLAND, each bringing new compositions to Laurel and Hardy's first film of the "features only" era. Among Shield's were "Medley of Scottish Airs" and "Beyond the Rainbow" while one of Hatley's contributions was the exotic "Veda (Hindu Dance)".
Shield also wrote many new tunes ("Rhumba Rhythm", "Hot and Dry", "Steppin' Along with a Song" among them) around 1935, which can be heard not only in the 1937 L&H rereleases but also in Charley Chase films like Manhattan Monkey Business (1935) and Our Gang's Divot Diggers (1936), to name just two.
New Hatley melodies also sprang up in shorts of the period, too. Them Thar Hills features such Hatley items as "The Iceman" (originally written for a Chase short of 1934) and "I Wake Up with a Song", while his dance number "Just Dreaming of You" appeared in Chases's Another Wild Idea (1934) and Manhattan Monkey Business. Hatley also occasionally appeared onscreen, usually as a piano player or orchestra leader. He can be seen in Charley Chase's Midsummer Mush and Our Gang's Mike Fright (1934) and The Pinch Singer (1936).
Of course, no mention of Laurel and Hardy music is complete without a nod to Hatley's immortal "Honolulu Baby" from the Boys' 1933 feature, SONS OF THE DESERT. Used in the big convention scene where Stan and Ollie share their subterfuge with fellow Son Charley Chase, "Honolulu Baby" comes off as both a typical "Hollywood Production Number" and a gentle satire of the same. It became sort of an in-house classic, being used (and overused) in many a Roach film. Charley Chase noodles around with it in both his Four Parts and The Chases of Pimple Street while in the Our Gang Spanky showcase Beginner's Luck, the Floradora Dollies present a version that is unfit for human ears.
In 1936, Hal Roach called upon Leroy Shield to write the music for Laurel and Hardy's OUR RELATIONS. Shields responded with an entire continuous score for the film, but unfortunately (for us and for him) not all of it survived through post-production. Much of Shield's score went unused, replaced by some of the material Shields had written the year before. When Roach rereleased some of his older shorts, he added new musical tracks, and many of the fresh Shield compositions from 1935 and OUR RELATIONS found worthy homes. Thus "We're Just a Happy Family", the engaging OUR RELATIONS theme music, also opens A Perfect Day. "Don't Push Me", the suspense music played at the end of OUR RELATIONS where Stan and Ollie (or is it Bert and Alf?) struggle to keep their balance on the wharf, shows up again during the "runaway car" sequence of County Hospital, and "Steppin' Along With a Song" became the new opening music to Brats. "Colonial Gayeties", one of Shield's most refreshing works, shows up all over the place in several different arrangements in the 1937 reissues, most prominently in the scene in Blotto where Anita Garvin pours Stan's liquor down the sink and replaces it with cold tea and assorted spices.
Pieces of Hatley's outstanding score for WAY OUT WEST, filmed in 1937, were re-used in both the reissued and new shorts of the same year. A few example include Blotto, reissued with mostly Shield music, but containing Hatley's "Stagecoach Conversation" (just after the laughing jag), while Our Gang's pugilistic Glove Taps, filmed around the same time as WAY OUT WEST, borrows much of its music from the Laurel and Hardy feature.
After OUR RELATIONS, Shield remained eager to work for Roach but never did. Despite all the marvelous work he did for Hal Roach, Shield only recieved screen credit twice in his career - for FRA DIAVOLO and OUR RELATIONS. He went back to radio, where for the next two decades, he composed, conducted and continued to make a name for himself in the industry (several names, in fact - Leroy Shield, Leroy Shields, Roy Shields, Ray Shield...). He left radio in 1955 and moved to Florida. When he died, on January 9th, 1962, his work at Roach, upon which his latterday reputation securely rests, was not mentioned in his Variety obituary.
Hatley served as musical director for several Roach features and scored WAY OUT WEST, BLOCK-HEADS, A CHUMP AT OXFORD and SAPS AT SEA. To "score" a Laurel and Hardy feature meant to write new music, reuse or recycle some of your old tunes, insert some popular song references, and grab whatever melodies others on the lot had written, and weave it all together into one piece, usually against a ridiculously short deadline. Once you finished your score, you were again at the mercy of the sound editors, who made some of their own artistic decisions on what motifs should be used where. Hatley worked well under pressure, especially in the case of WAY OUT WEST, for which he recieved an Oscar nomination in 1937 (competing with the likes of Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin and winner Charles Previn). His work for BLOCK-HEADS was also nominated in 1938. Hatley's score for the non L&H Roach feature THERE GOES MY HEART also received a nod from the Academy.
But it wasn't all fun and frivolity, despite the exceptional results. Hatley used to break out in cold sweats at night, trying to beat the established Roach deadlines. Not afforded luxuries that other studios may have offered, Hatley was often given mere days to come up with a complete score. "When I started to compose," Hatley later recalled, "I didn't go to bed for about two weeks. I'd just work day and night. There are no words to describe the terrifying pressure."
He certainly proved himself worthy of standing side by side with "the big boys" with his score for WAY OUT WEST, which contains some of his most unique and complicated compositions, and some of his simplest. "Won't You Be My Lovey Dovey?", sung by Sharon Lynne at the beginning of the film, shares a sense of parody with "Honolulu Baby". "Stagecoach Conversation", which, as its title suggests, appears in the stagecoach scene with the Boys and Vivian Oakland, is as instantly memorable as anything Shield ever wrote. Other themes, called "Grab the Deed" and "Gossip", are fast, furious and perfect moodsetters for the scenes they appear in. But the three part "Disgusted / Frolic of the Lambs / The Donkey's Ears" (hereby referred to simply as "Frolic of the Lambs") is the best thing in WAY OUT WEST, musicwise. This music is heard directly upon the Boys' arrival in the film, trundling along with Dinah the Mule. Starting off with a differently arranged version of "Ku-Ku", "Frolic of the Lambs" soon turns into a hypnotic, repetitious, relentless two-step march based on the Ku Ku rhythm. With the bassoon and piccolo switching parts every few bars, and fresh variations appearing just when you think it's all over, "Frolic of the Lambs" is one of Hatley's best compositions. Hatley was thrilled to hear Hal Roach remark "Cute music! Cute music!" during one of the first previews. (He may not have been thrilled at Charles Barr's perception of it in his book LAUREL AND HARDY: "...one almost regrets the switch to Stan and Ollie en route, especially since their first scene is overlaid by bad, unfamiliar music." But some people didn't get the Beatles either.)
"The Mad Ku-Ku" from the later BLOCK-HEADS, is another "Ku-Ku" variation, Hatley using his Laurel and Hardy theme as a reference point and then going off in a thousand different directions, but always returning to Boys' theme. "Sunflower Waltz", also from BLOCK-HEADS, really must be heard from a source beside the film itself. Its tranquil beauty almost seems out of place in a Laurel and Hardy movie.
SAPS AT SEA (1940), Marvin left Roach and did some work for
Wilding Pictures. Eventually, and without regret, he left the movies
and became a cocktail lounge pianist, where he could just relax and
play music, and, not surprisingly, earn more than the $200 a week he
made at Roach. Unlike Leroy Shield, Hatley lived long enough to see his
own work appreciated, at least by The Sons of the Desert and Laurel and
Hardy fans worldwide. Up to the end of his life, he continued making
music in his home studio. His limited edition LP MUSIC FOR LAUREL AND
HARDY (AND FRIENDS), released in 1982, contains several one-mand
band performances of favorite Hatley tunes like "Aunt Emma's Got Ants
in Her Pantry" and "Let's Do It Today", as well as clean versions
(unobscured by dialogue) of actual film music, "Stage Coach
Conversation", "Honolulu Baby" and "The Mad Ku-Ku" among them. Hatley
died of cancer on August 23, 1986.
The Beau Hunks Play the Original Laurel and Hardy Music (i and II)/ The Beau Hunks Play the Original Little Rascals Music (I and II), Album Liner Notes by Piet Schreuders. , and Leroy Shield's Our Relations, by The Beau Hunks and the Metropole Orchestra, Album Liner Notes by Piet Schreuders and Richard Bann.
T. Marvin Hatley, Music for Laurel and Hardy Lovers (and Friends). Album Liner Notes by Randy Skretvedt, who also produced the record.
Roy Shield's Musical Transitions for Radio played by Guido Nielsen on piano. Liner notes by Piet Schreuders.
Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt.
The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell.
The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy by William K. Everson.
Laurel and Hardy by Charles Barr.
The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann.
Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo by Joe Adamson.
Cinemania 97 CD-ROM.
The Internet Movie Database.
Watching the films again and again...
Additional thanks to Yair Solan and John Larrabee
Copyright © John V. Brennan 2016. All Rights Reserved.