The Self-Made Man: Hal Roach
Modern-day Hollywood might be a hellscape of nepotism and failing upward, but old-school Hollywood was built by a lot of young, hungry go-getters with something to prove to themselves, their families, or both. Hal Roach, founder of Hal Roach Studios, was one of those guys, and he became a major player in film and television during his century-long life. And while attempting a business partnership with Mussolini’s fascist government was a weird and stupid idea, the bulk of Roach’s legacy is positive.
Born in Elmira, New York (also the birthplace of WWE star Beth Phoenix), Roach learned how to work hard through a series of very odd jobs, including a stint as a mule skinner in Alaska. A newspaper ad called him to Hollywood in 1913, and he worked as an extra in comedy films, meeting future silent film star Harold Lloyd (who, coincidentally, is this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History) in the process.
Roach ate dirt at the bottom of the industry for a while, but a small inheritance gave him the capital to open up his own studio, where he directed Lloyd in a series of short comedies that were successful enough for Roach to renegotiate his distribution deal with Pathe, who initially bought his movies by each exposed foot of film. Roach’s paternalistic business approach, in which he brought in different crews of directors and writers for each project instead of developing a formula and beating it into the ground, and Lloyd’s popular “Glasses” character made Roach Studios profitable. Other stars would turn the company into a hitmaker; Roach made movies with stars like Will Rogers, the Little Rascals, Thelma Todd (who appeared in a lot of Marx Brothers comedies) and Laurel and Hardy throughout the 1920s and 1930s. They weren’t always big fans of Roach – screaming arguments were common, especially between him and Lloyd – but the results of those collaborations are hard to argue with.
Roach’s only concern was that his comedies were funny. If they ran long and he essentially gave away extra reels for free, it didn’t bother him. His was more of a long-term, growing-the-brand approach that built a loyal audience who knew that a Roach Studios movie would be worth the money. He also encouraged camaraderie among his stable of stars, who mingled on and off set and helped each other write gags for their films. They may have wanted to strangle Roach at times, but they sure loved each other.
Roach didn’t just make comedies, either. The studio’s more serious films, namely One Million B.C. (the most successful film of 1940) and Of Mice and Men, did well at the box office.
Roach’s failed partnership with Mussolini, who Roach admired for some reason no one has ever explained, and the public’s changing tastes stalled his film success, though, and by the 1950s Roach was mainly producing for television. In fact, his was one of the first major studios to embrace what was then a radical new medium, and programs like Amos ‘n Andy and The Abbot and Costello Show bought studio time at Roach Studios. Ever the workhorse, Roach’s own productions totaled over 1,500 hours of programming a year, and that was decades before he did all that stuff for Disney.
Roach’s legacy is one of both hard work, experimentation, risk, recognition of opportunity, and being equal parts boss and facilitator. Any budding entrepreneurs reading this can learn from Roach that if you let your employees be great, you’ll be great too. Also, don’t try to do business with fascist dictators. I’ll let you decide what’s more important to your future business.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.