Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies
Turnabout / The Housekeeper's Daughter / Road Show
VCI Entertainment DVD $19.95

Well, they’ve never been forgotten by US – just unavailable until now. This is a fine collection of a trio of feature comedies from Roach’s United Artists feature years (1938-1941).

Hal Roach (1892-1992) was one of the great comedy producers of his era, still beloved today for giving us early Harold Lloyd as well as the long-running Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy series. He was not a distributor, however, and during the heyday of his studio he relied on three main entities to distribute his product: Pathé (through the late silent era), MGM (from the late 1920s until the late 1930s), and United Artists (after 1938). The MGM era was the most famous and successful for Roach, but by the mid-1930s the double-feature was supplanting the bevy of short subjects that had been accompanying the features, and Roach was intent on becoming a major producer of independent features—which MGM wasn’t interested in: they had their own production units and wanted to keep Roach in shorts (so to speak), but there wasn’t enough money in those two-reelers to keep the Roach unit afloat. United Artists, meanwhile, was suffering from financial problems, too: they didn’t have enough product to release, so luring Roach (and his biggest stars, Laurel & Hardy) into the fold was a major coup for the company that had been founded in the silent era to distribute independent pictures from Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.

With much ballyhoo, the first Roach/UA feature, There Goes My Heart, was released in October, 1938, a romantic comedy with Virginia Bruce and Fredric March, directed by Norman Z. McLeod – and should’ve been called There Goes the Audience. Thankfully for Roach, the next one was money in the bank: Topper Takes a Trip, reuniting Constance Bennett with Roland Young (but without Cary Grant). The intention was to follow that up with the first UA Laurel & Hardy feature, but Stan Laurel and Hal Roach had irreconcilable differences (that were later reconciled) and so for the first and only time we got the comedy team of Harry Langdon and Oliver Hardy in Zenobia, a massive flop and a movie so bad it’s become a legend in the hallowed halls of comedy history. Next up was the historical adventure film Captain Fury, which did good business, and which brings us up to the first film of this DVD’s comic trilogy.

The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939) Dir. Hal Roach

80 min. / B&W / 1.37:1

Joan Bennett is sick to death of boyfriend/gangster Marc Lawrence and so goes home to mom, a live-in housekeeper to a wealthy family that’s away for the summer. Only the grown son, John Hubbard, who wants to be a crime reporter, has stayed behind and when one of the gangster’s other girlfriends ends up dead, Miss Bennett, Mr. Hubbard, Adolphe Menjou as a drunken over-the-hill reporter, and George E. Stone as a mentally-challenged flower peddler/serial killer tangle with each other.

Story-wise rather a mess, the result no doubt of four (credited, there were probably more) writers struggling to adapt a not-all-that-good novel by Donald Henderson Clarke. The film works thanks to the amiable and unflappable Joan Bennett, tongue in cheek as the body count escalates and a nice change of pace from the usual screaming ingénues, and would-be tough guy Victor Mature in his film debut. Unfortunately, the film drops dead along with much of its cast whenever George E. Stone’s serial killer pops up. Still, it’s the best and most entertaining of the three films in the set, and one of the better movies Roach would make for UA.

No doubt Roach thought his fortunes were looking up with his first four releases of 1940: A Chump at Oxford thankfully reunited Laurel & Hardy for their first United Artists picture; Of Mice and Men with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith was based on a popular novel by John Steinbeck (reportedly, Roach had first rights to The Grapes of Wrath, too, but passed); One Million B.C. gave us Mr. Mature and Carole Landis plus optically-enlarged lizards with spines glued to their back to simulate dinosaurs; and then Stan ‘n’ Ollie were back for what would be their final Roach picture, the rather dreary Saps at Sea. And that brings us to the second film on this collection.

Turnabout (1940) Dir. Hal Roach

83 min. / B&W / 1.37:1

Bickering couple Carol Landis and John Hubbard wish they could change places since the other has it so good, and a magical statue (that looks a lot like Jambi from Pee-wee’s Playhouse) grants their request, so he stays home and swaps gossip with the other rich wives and she goes to work at the advertising company and wows prospective clients.

The only out-and-out misfire in any of the current batch of Roach films; it’s based on a novel by Thorne Smith, but Topper it ain’t and a lot of situations that would seem to point towards good comedy simply don’t go there. I’m reminded of Stan Laurel’s opinion that Roach wasn’t a good comedy director and in fact seemed to sabotage possibilities for laughs. It’s one thing to have Landis and Hubbing act in gender-reversal, but why on earth dub their voices (badly) into each other? Thank heavens for Adolphe Menjou and Franklin Pangborn, who knew how to wring the most out of the material (Adolphe is a business partner, Pangborn is a prospective client). Again, four writers contributed to the screenplay, and one suspects they’d never been introduced to each other.

Million-dollar Dialog:

Receptionist to the new secretary: “Wait’ll you get a load of Mr. Manning… He doesn’t exactly poison babies, but then, I don’t think he knows many babies.”

We like Carol Landis a lot, but she needed better material. Mr. Hubbing, who was completely forgettable in the prior film, is actually quite good and appealing here, seeming to channel Bob Taylor or Robert Montgomery and pulling it off nicely. The two of them needed a better picture, though, and they certainly got it in their next feature, Roach’s first release of 1941.

Road Show (1941) Dir. Hal Roach

87 min. / B&W / 1.37:1

Hubbing’s a rich guy who likes to break off his wedding engagements by pretending he’s a lunatic, but when one jilted lady has him committed, he’s forced to escape with the help of Adolphe Menjou, who isn’t crazy, just lazy. The two of them join Miss Landis’ traveling circus and Hubbing tries to save her failing enterprise without revealing his wealth, since she disdains the rich. Gosh, love is complicated.

Whether by happy coincidence or design to perk up the laugh quotient, Roach added some new comic blood to the cast that really perks things up, including Willie Best, Patsy Kelly, Charles Butterworth and Shemp Howard, making this the best film in the set. It’s all over-the-top silly, of course (at one point, Hubbing is a lion tamer who tames lions while standing OUTside the cage, where, he assures the audience, it’s tougher to get the lions to listen) but extremely affable and with the help of the supporting cast, even funny. The Charioteers, an African-American quartet, do a few musical numbers, greatly adding to the entertainment value.

The three films are all on one disc, so the bit rate isn’t as high as it could be, but for a low-priced package, it’s fine. Turnabout, the weakest film, has the best print by far but the other two are more than serviceable; great materials on most of the Roach films simply don’t seem to exist any longer. Road Show was released on DVD previously by Image Entertainment, and we compared them: this release is a 100% improvement. There are optional subtitles, but no trailers or bonus material.

The disc is recommended for a fun if not exactly stellar lineup of middling romantic comedies and to keep the tap open for more and even better Hal Roach offerings.