Way Out West - Script to Screen
WAY OUT WEST was Jimmy Parrott's second to last credit at Hal Roach Studios. He was only 40 when he died in l939. For years he had been abusing drugs. Dope had cost Parrott his position as one of the studio's best directors. He was writing gags only, for WAY OUT WEST. Officially the cause of death given was heart disease. His friends, however, believed it was a drug-related suicide.
It was in March of l936 when Hal Roach circulated news on the next vehicle for the team of Patsy Kelly and Lyda Roberti, GIRLS GO WEST. They never did. Somehow Roach's concept for a "women's western parody" went thataway. Didn't hit the trail. By May Laurel & Hardy were saddled with the project, donning cowboy regalia as a team for the first time. The second Mrs. Stan Laurel, Virginia Ruth Rogers, claimed it was her insistence on doing a horse opera that resulted in WAY OUT WEST. Whether it was Mr. Roach, Mr. Laurel, or Mrs. Laurel who originated the idea is difficult to determine now.
What is clear is that pursuant to contract, Hal Roach would now protect the creative freedom of Stan Laurel from the marketing and distribution considerations often imposed in the past (indirectly through Hal Roach) by the sales force of Loew's and its manufacturing subsidiary M-G-M. If Loew's chairman Nicholas Schenck, or his sales force had a bias against distributing a certain type or style or length of film product, then no funding or approval was granted Metro or Roach to begin production. As with OUR RELATIONS, Hal Roach had cleared creative freedom for Stan Laurel. No one would impose romantic subplots or marquee names or other nonsense to help sell the pictures to an audience otherwise usually not available for Laurel & Hardy. This would be the only material distinction insofar as defining "A Stan Laurel Production."
In fact, Hal E. Roach produced WAY OUT WEST. Stan Laurel functioned as associate producer with a free and welcome hand to influence the writing and direction and cutting on the picture, as always. The distinct, nominal consideration given here, as on OUR RELATIONS, was to acknowledge this work with a special credit, which Stan Laurel certainly deserved. But talent who worked on the picture, particularly behind the scenes, knew who the producer was, and was not. The studio pressbook, as well as paperwork registered at the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress list the official credits for WAY OUT WEST, including this one: "Producer -- Hal Roach."
Roach had produced western features in the past -- both the Rex, King of Wild Horses series, and the Big Horn Ranch Pictures. He also made western parodies with Harold Lloyd (as mentioned), Will Rogers (UNCOVERED WAGON), Harry Langdon (THE FIGHTING PARSON), Charley Chase (THE TABASCO KID), and even with Our Gang (SHOOTIN' INJUNS).
Oliver Hardy had a long history with westerns -- at Lubin, at Vim, at King Bee, and at Vitagraph. In l922, one of Babe Hardy's shorts with Larry Semon, THE SHOW, first used the business borrowed for WAY OUT WEST where Sharon Lynne redirects a spotlight back into her audience using a hand-held mirror to reflect the beam. In l926 Hardy played "Sheriff Bill" in a Buck Jones western for Fox. In l949 Hardy was teamed with John Wayne in THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN for Republic Pictures. His widow, Lucille Hardy Price, said Babe Hardy greatly enjoyed watching westerns during the early days of television in the l950s. His favorites included Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, and George O'Brien -- all stars with personality and a quirky sense of humor.
We know Stan Laurel must have enjoyed William S. Hart horse operas, for the wrong reasons. (Hal Roach wanted to make westerns with Hart in l929, but Metro nixed the deal; just as M-G-M did not care to distribute cowboy pictures in l929, they resisted releasing l00-proof undiluted slapstick feature films without a romantic subplot later.) During the silent era, Laurel did a western parody for Joe Rock called WEST OF HOT DOG, and he did three for Hal Roach: WIDE OPEN SPACES, SHOULD TALL MEN MARRY? and --truly hilarious -- THE SOILERS. Jimmie Finlayson appeared in each Roach comedy.
On May 4, l936 work began on what would become WAY OUT WEST. Writer Felix Adler conferred with Hal Roach and cleared story ideas he was developing with Stan Laurel. Soon Charley Rogers, Arthur Vernon Jones and Jack Jevne were preparing a script "well spotted with gags," as studio publicists were fond of declaring.
On May ll, Hal Roach Studios announced its next L & H feature as YOU'D BE SURPRISED. Someone was surprised -- Paramount pictures. They already owned the title as a l926 comedy-mystery starring Raymond Griffith. So much for the surprises.
On August 3l Laurel & Hardy's untitled period western got the gun and started shooting, in more ways than one. It was then Roach next tried calling the project TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT. It wasn't. Twentieth Century-Fox notified Roach they'd already registered that title.
Sometime during September the studio dubbed their work-in-progress IN THE MONEY. Not so fast, an attorney was paid money to demur. In the mail arrived a cease and desist notice from humble but proud Chesterfield Pictures which sought to protect its same-named alleged comedy from l933.
About then Jimmy Parrott returned to Roach, his home studio, "a lot of fun." Generally true. Sadly his brother Charley Chase had just left the place in May after l7 years service. In case Jimmy Parrott had forgotten his two-reel comedy called WAY OUT WEST, Fox had just remade WAY DOWN EAST with Henry Fonda. Parrott walked into Roach's office one morning and gave him the title they used. Problem solved.
Or was it? In l935 Al Christie produced a short subject for Educational Pictures called WAY OUT WEST. Even earlier in l930 M-G-M issued a William Haines comedy western also named WAY OUT WEST. Byron Morgan did the continuity, as he did also for SONS OF THE DESERT, and Jay Wilsey had bit parts in each WAY OUT WEST incarnation; otherwise there was no connection to Laurel & Hardy or their picture with the same title. Produced by Harry Rapf, without credit, as an M-G-M "B" film, few remember the Haines WAY OUT WEST today, but its domestic gross was a respectable $6l4,000. That's almost double the boxoffice draw of the Laurel & Hardy version in the United States. Possibly demonstrating one might be surprised, tonight or any night, which pictures wound up in the money.
On August 20, Roach veteran director James Horne was assigned to helm project F-l4 on the schedule.
On September l6, the studio purchased a song from Chill Wills entitled WEST AIN'T WILD AND WOOLLY ANY MORE. Charged to the negative cost of the picture, it was never used.
A story ran in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER on September l7 headlined "Laurel Plots Split From Hardy, Roach." This news item shed some light on at least one question -- who was really in charge of WAY OUT WEST? In fact, the line of authority, in descending order, was Schenck (who quite possibly never even saw the picture), then Roach, then Laurel, then Horne. Here's the story: "The tempestuous career of Stan Laurel at Roach's reached a new climax with the comedian threatening to end his relations with Oliver Hardy and the studio. Laurel signs only single picture contracts, while Hardy is on a term deal with Hal Roach. Laurel may go off on his own and seek a contract with another lot.
"Laurel's pact with Roach gives him jurisdiction over story and direction and his views on various angles differ with those of James Horne, the director of the feature now shooting.
"The picture, with a comedy-western background, may be the last on the Laurel-Hardy combine."
No one interviewed since Stan Laurel's death in l965 could recall and explain the nature of this controversy. So it is pure speculation that the problem stemmed from James Horne's dissatisfaction over scenes shot with studio veteran Tiny Sandford and Laurel's friend Ethel Sykes. Horne was friendly with Stanley Fields and evidently admired his work. But the actor had never worked at the Hal Roach Studios before, a small family studio where everyone bonded and stuck together. A smaller subset, the Laurel & Hardy company, was even closer. Often it was a closed shop to outsiders. If the issue was Horne, on behalf of Fields, versus Laurel, on behalf of Sandford, then Roach must have sided with his director, for almost all of Sandford's scenes were re-shot. Ethel Sykes vanished from the production entirely, except for a pair of scene still photos issued by mistake.
The following day in the trades, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER carried this item: "Commenting on reports of trouble between himself and Hal Roach, Stan Laurel stated yesterday that everything is harmony on the picture he is now making, and that his friendship with Roach has not been disturbed."
But James Wesley Horne, the director of no less than BIG BUSINESS, who began his association with Roach in l924, never worked at the studio again.
Horne left immediately after WAY OUT WEST for a deal with Republic Pictures in the San Fernando Valley -- the physical plant having been erected in l928 as the new castle grounds of the one-time King of Comedy, Mack Sennett. Republic concentrated on terrific action westerns with stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but turned out some civilian pictures, too. Horne was to make a show business comedy called ALL OVER TOWN. He arrived at Republic bringing with him several Roach veterans. Jimmy Parrott labored on the gags and the screenplay. Cast in the film, straight out of WAY OUT WEST, were Jimmie Finlayson and Stanley Fields. But no Tiny Sandford. Other Roach alumni included Fred Kelsey, Jack Egan, Blanche Payson, Franklin Pangborn, and Hal Roach's personal friend Mary Howard played leading lady to the Broadway stage comedy team of (Ole) Olsen and (Chic) Johnson. The story features a tickling scene that must have been inspired by WAY OUT WEST too. Olsen is protecting a document in his top pocket that Johnson tries to relieve him of by tickling, which provokes Olsen's piercing laugh. This is reminiscent of the golddigger Lola tickling Stan into hysterical laughter until nothing else matters and he shrieks, "I can't stand it!" The role reversal seduction aspect of this scene could well have derived, in turn, from a similar scene in THE STRONG MAN (l926) with Harry Langdon stalked by Gertrude Astor, who coincidentally also appears in Horne's ALL OVER TOWN.
At his beautiful home in Hermosa Beach one day, special effects wizard Roy Seawright remembered some other trouble during the making of WAY OUT WEST, and spoke to Randy Skretvedt and me about it. "Stan's double in WAY OUT WEST was Hamilton Kinsey. He was a tall, lanky kid from the South, a very nice kid. Stan usually expressed nothing but humor and warmth, but well, I hate to say this -- there were times when he could be cruel. Ham would do anything because he needed the work. It was steady work, and he got a good payroll check. Plus a bonus from Stan, you know, personally. But Stan would make him do the damnedest things; he'd make him wear a piece of pie on his shoulder, or make him walk around wearing a big red rose.
"One day they were wiring up the set for the gag where the donkey was going to go flying on the pulley, with the block and tackle. Well, instead of the donkey they put poor ol' Ham up there! They put the wire belt around him and hooked him up to the block and tackle thing, hoisting him there! And instead of just pulling him up to the balcony that held the donkey, they kept pulling until Ham was up at the top of the soundstage. Then Stan said, 'Okay, gang, let's all go to lunch.'
"So they tied off the rope, walked off the stage and closed the stage doors -- and left Ham tied on the rope, 30 feet in the air. Well, Ham is up there, yelling and screaming. And Stan and the crew were outside, laughing like hell. You could hear Ham screaming through the stage door. Finally, one of the grips came in and got Ham down. Now the poor guy was so upset that they took him in the dressing room, and called a doctor in. Apparently, he hadn't been able to breathe, and damn near suffocated up there. And then, of course, Stan couldn't do enough for him; he kept apologizing. He just didn't seem to realize the embarrassment that Ham went through so Stan could have everyone on the stage laughing and happy all the time. It made Stan look good, but Ham took the brunt of it."
Stan Laurel did have one genuine opportunity in his career to demonstrate ability as a producer -- the "the vistas of future joy" Basil Wright was anticipating in his WAY OUT WEST review. After this picture Laurel entered into an agreement to produce low budget westerns with Jed Buell, a business executive formerly associated with Mack Sennett. Mr. Buell's most infamous credit would be the height of grotesquerie, a novelty cowboy show called THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN (l938) starring an all-midget cast. In l937 Buell was concentrating on the singing cowboy craze. He signed Herb Jeffries (later a vocalist with Duke Ellington's orchestra) to appear in shoddily-made "all-colored" westerns with titles like HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE and THE BRONZE BUCKAROO.
Buell also contracted with another actor-turned-cowboy who could sing, Fred Scott. For this series of musical shoot-'em-ups, Scott was teamed with a sidekick for comedy support -- Al "Fuzzy" St. John.
Billed as "The Silvery-Voiced Buckaroo," Scott was a robust baritone who'd appeared in some early l930s Pathe musicals. Other credits included RIO RITA (l929) and FLASH GORDON (l936). Always small parts, for this big man. Buell made the first six Scott cheapies, released theatrically on a states-rights basis through Spectrum Pictures. Then Buell named Stan Laurel producer. Publicity indicated Laurel and Scott would make six more musical westerns together, all "Stan Laurel Productions," same as the credit line read for WAY OUT WEST.
Instead of six films, they made three: THE RANGER'S ROUNDUP, KNIGHT OF THE PLAINS, and SONGS AND BULLETS. This last, set in the town of Dry Gulch, conferred upon Scott the name of Melody Hardy. That's right, Mr. Melody Hardy. The VARIETY critique: "SONGS AND BULLETS, Stan Laurel's second venture as a producer, fails to carry the force implied by its title. It's a horse opera dualer that'll even find difficulty in the provinces. Faulty direction, acting and camera. Only distinction to the film is given by Fred Scott."
Actually the film is fun, although not usually for the reasons intended. Today, the rough edges give SONGS AND BULLETS a certain perverse appeal, but Stan Laurel should have been embarrassed to list his name as the producer.
VARIETY offered this opinion on KNIGHT OF THE PLAINS, " Limited budget, reluctance of the camera to glimpse a scene more than once, or be sure of the lighting, and flimsy story make it strictly filler from all angles."
The reviewer continued in the vein of, basically, kill the cast and burn the negative. Not a vote of confidence. So "Stan Laurel Productions" made without the business skill, creative input, and guiding control of Hal Roach did not seem to fare so well, critically or commercially.
In his definitive volume on the western cinema entitled HOLLYWOOD CORRAL, Don Miller wrote, "The best one can say about the Fred Scott westerns is that the star was the big plus factor. With good voice and screen presence, one wonders what would have been his fate had he received more commensurate production values."
Stan Laurel failed to distinguish any of his three Fred Scott entries from the rest of this humble but earnest and enjoyable series. Through the years, answering the same questions decade after decade asked by writers, fans and historians, Hal Roach was pained to criticize Stan Laurel as having "a Chaplin complex." Meaning, he wanted to function in, and control every aspect -- every aspect -- of the filmmaking process the way his former roommate and idol did. But unlike Chaplin (and after all, was anyone ever quite like Chaplin?), Laurel was not a businessman, nor a producer. Nor was Roach a comedian, which he recognized. Stan Laurel was a superb performer and gag-man. Had he been able to concentrate on it, Laurel, like Roach, might well have become a great comedy director. But the only artist throughout the twentieth century who executed all those skills and achieved critical, commercial and artistic success with them was Charlie Chaplin.
It was during the Fred Scott series where Al St. John created and perfected his grizzly sidekick character known as "Fuzzy." St. John had worked with Chaplin too, was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's nephew, and did not seek or require any guidance from Stan Laurel in this regard.
Incidentally, the story editor on these films (none of which were even registered at the Library of Congress for copyright protection) was a young lady named Helen Gurley. She later married producer David Brown (THE STING, JAWS), wrote SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL and became the high profile editor of COSMOPOLITAN magazine espousing women's rights leading the clarion call of the feminist era. In l938, outside any theatre where hard working people cued up for tickets to see SONGS AND BULLETS, one would have gladly bet the ranch against any such remote possibility as that. And given odds!...America. What a country. Way out west.
In l983 during a lunch that lasted all afternoon at the hotel in Palm Springs named for his friend and former rival Gene Autry, Fred Scott recalled making westerns executive-produced by Stan Laurel. "I don't remember seeing WAY OUT WEST," Scott said, "but when I met Stan Laurel he had just finished the picture and was quite enthusiastic about it. He told us about a preview he attended. He seemed to have quite a bit of energy, not at all like the character he played. So I was surprised at that. Telling about the picture he would laugh so hard you couldn't always follow what he was saying!
"Jed Buell had come up through Sennett. I think that's how he got to be friendly with Hal Roach. Through Roach he got to know Stan Laurel. Stan wasn't sure he wanted to continue acting. He thought he might accept Jed's offer to make a season of six westerns together. Stan, though, was like a grasshopper -- always jumping from one thing to another. After three pictures he stopped. In time he found he really wasn't interested in making westerns.
"There were some production meetings I know Stan attended -- our office and his. I think he opened an office in the Fox-Wilshire Building. Mostly he liked swapping tales and laughing with Fuzzy. Not that Fuzzy needed any advice on comedy, but they enjoyed discussing what was funny and why and they'd share about their vaudeville days. So they put on a real show, those two.
"Stan did come on the set one time that I remember, because his girl friend (Alice Ardell) was working in the picture (SONGS AND BULLETS). I think Stan wanted to marry her and he'd just given her a new mink coat. She said she was French and she played a French gal (Jeanette DuMont) in the story. She seemed a little out of character for a schoolmarm and I remember one scene she did with her backside to the camera. I turned to Fuzzy and asked him, 'Would you choose anyone like that for a schoolmarm?'
" 'Every time,' he answered with his eyes bulging."
Also during the making of WAY OUT WEST, a reporter touring the studios doing a story on humor gained admittance to the lot. The Laurel & Hardy company was then shooting the stagecoach interior scene with either Ethel Sykes or Vivien Oakland. Between takes in front of a process screen, Laurel obliged the reporter by explaining what they were doing. "We need a scene giving a reason for us to be ordered out of town," Laurel explained. "In the script, Hardy had a gun which he accidentally fired at the sheriff, as a result of which we were ordered on our way. But when we began to shoot the scene, we saw it was neither plausible nor funny.
"In talking things over, it occurred to us that it might be amusing if we caught a ride on the stagecoach, got into a flirtation with a girl in it, who would turn out to be the sheriff's wife, and complain about us when we drove into town, thus getting us into conflict with her husband. So far it has developed into several comedy situations which make us believe we've hit the right things."
The reporter also spoke with "portly Oliver," who offered his views on comedy. "Nothing is funny unless people can believe it could have happened," Hardy explained. "That's why impossible things like a comedian coming along and eating doorknobs isn't funny. Nobody eats doorknobs.
"I think no comedian should wear clothes that are funnier than he is. It's all right to emphasize eccentricities, but never make them outside reasonable experience. The situation should be funny, not the man. We try to be careful of mannerisms, for merely repeating a gesture that once brought a laugh is no way to get a lot more laughs.
"I believe a thing should be funny of itself. No comedian should be funnier than his story, and a story for a comedian should be able to stand alone as a real story, not a developed incident."
As this discussion was going on, Laurel was adjusting one of the recording microphones to see if it was working, picking up the dialogue inside the stagecoach. "That's in case what I said inside it isn't clear," Laurel explained. "No use being funny if you aren't understood."
We understood perfectly: only four months till Christmas.
On October l0, Christmas arrived early for Stan Laurel. The studio advanced him $32,353.74 (net of only $l46.26 for unemployment insurance taxes!) in consideration of Laurel's promise "to fully complete the picture in all respects in accordance with our agreements."
Charlie Hall does not appear in WAY OUT WEST, but he was assigned script number 27 and worked behind the scenes. Author Ray Andrew retrieved this 63 page script from Hall's family. It is most interesting. As mentioned, none of the musical interludes were planned, indicated or anticipated (although it was intended that The Avalon Boys would perform something somewhere in the story). Several routines outlined in detail were completely jettisoned. They read funny. Perhaps they upset the continuity, seemed implausible, were too hard to execute, or just didn't play funny when the team got down to the business of blocking them out and turning the camera.
Landing in town, as written in the script, the boys were to proceed straight into the saloon, where confusion arose over their choice of adult beverages. "Name your poison," barks the bartender. Ollie asks for a gin-fizz, with an egg. The bartender pours straight bar whiskey. Stan's choice is "a mint julep, with a mint." With the whiskey bottle still in his hand, the bartender pours the same liquid refreshment for Stan. Being more perceptive, Ollie points out the mistake. The bartender's acknowledgement is to switch glasses.
This footage was filmed, previewed, and deleted. For reasons one could only speculate about now.
Three years later when W.C. Fields made his satire of the western genre with MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, Indian ethnic humor was prominently featured. The shooting script for WAY OUT WEST outlined substantial footage involving Indians -- teepees, squaws, war-dances, war-whoops, and the brandishing of tomahawks. All scrapped. As planned, the twosome was supposed to sneak back into town at night disguised as Indians using Native American blankets and headdress stolen from Chief Pocket Knife. Possibly a part for "The Little Nemesis," as Hal Roach called him, Charlie Hall. Never filmed.
The script includes no mention of the uproarious seduction-in-reverse where, on top of, around, and beneath a symbolic bed, Lola stalks Stan to tickle and separate him from the deed. Clearly Sharon Lynne was challenged to keep a straight face while vamping the hysterical Stan and probing everywhere with her hands. Thanks to careful cutting, each time she was about to lose it and smile, the scene changed.
There's not one wasted moment in the film's fast 65 minutes. Scenes were trimmed ruthlessly of material that would constitute highlights in the comedies of others. Particularly contemporary films. When WAY OUT WEST was initially tradeshown in Hollywood during the first week of December, l936, it ran 69 minutes. In its first critique, which was favorable, VARIETY wrote, "... it is a bit too draggy for the average patron's full enjoyment, but there is room for another cutting room treatment that will bring the laughs closer together."
Hal Roach always studied preview cards and VARIETY preview notices. It is uncanny how many times Roach pictures were re-cut conforming to VARIETY's prescription. Stan Laurel's opinion on the 69 minute cut are apparently lost to history, but Roach dictated an undated memorandum evidently in line with this review "to tighten the business with the signpost and directions to town. Too slow. We risk losing the audience after the fast pace established in the dance hall. Need one, two top gags here. See me."
Possibly Laurel disagreed, which might explain the apparent compromise of retaining this sequence in the export version, where more of Laurel & Hardy was always welcome, both with exhibitors and audiences. So far at least, no 35mm prints or negatives have been located with footage at the cross-roads showing -- as delineated in the script -- the wind blowing a Brushwood Gulch mileage-and-arrow sign in alternating directions, confusing the twosome who argue over which way to proceed. Bill Everson's memory was sometimes clouded by the occupational hazard of having seen too many films. When pressed, however, he was emphatic about having viewed this extended sequence in prints circulated for a post-war reissue in England.
On March 4, l937 Hal Roach screened an answer print of WAY OUT WEST and approved shipment of the negative to M-G-M for the manufacturing of release prints. Surprisingly it wasn't until April l0 that Loew's officer Eddie Mannix signed off on behalf of his company granting permission for Roach to use Metro's registered title of WAY OUT WEST.
-- by Richard W. Bann --