Wednesday, 4 January 2012

From Laurel and Hardy to Joi and Lois

Not all of Hollywood shuddered in fear over the rise of television in the late ‘40s. The makers of feature films short-sightedly shunned the new medium into the ‘50s, but it was embraced early by producers of short subjects. And for good reason.

The bottom was falling out of the shorts business in the ‘40s. In 1948, the court-ordered end of block booking—where theatres were forced to take short subjects released by a studio along with features—was only one problem for producers of one and two-reelers. They had been complaining, independent producers especially, it took too long to see profits from their films. The war had cut off overseas markets, and then post-war currency freezes kept film profits from leaving foreign countries to the U.S. It’s no wonder veteran producers of shorts saw television as a land of opportunity.

Everyone thinks of early television—and in this post, we mean 1948 onward—as a time when the radio networks tippy-toed into the industry, pushing its stars (and their sponsors and ad agencies) along with them. But besides network programming, there was a large syndication business, too. And that’s where the shorts producers hoped to cash in. True, there were more than enough networks to go around for stations in most cities to pick from (there were 59 TV stations in the U.S. by June 1, 1949). But networks weren’t able to fill a lot of time in the late ‘40s so filmed syndication programming was appealing to stations that didn’t, or couldn’t, rely on live shows the rest of the broadcast day.
Here’s an Associated Press story from 1948 that is a follow-up to developments from a month earlier. At that time, Billboard announced Hal Roach was getting into the television. The producer best known in the sound era for Laurel and Hardy features and the Our Gang shorts was casting his lot with the small screen. He cancelled a six-picture deal he had signed with MGM in the spring.

Video Gets a Shot In Arm From Roach
HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 22 (AP)—Television—the baby whose bounces have been followed by many worried Hollywood eyes, is getting ready to take bigger steps.
Hal Roach, for more than 30 years a producer of motion picture comedies, today begins the first of a series of television productions. And from now on, says Roach, all his work will go into the television field.
If, as video insiders say, films are the lifeblood of the new industry, Roach’s entry into the field might be regarded as a major transfusion.
And producers already in the hectic field are inclined to welcome the old comic master openly. Despite the dozens of small video production companies which have mushroomed up here in this talent mecca, there seems to be plenty of room for competition.
As Jerry Fairbanks, who has a video producing contract with NBC puts it:
“We feel we are pioneering an industry that will eventually be many times larger than the movies. The time is not far off when films will provide at least 50 per cent of all television programs.”
Fairbanks and other major video producers claim too that the break with the movies—reshowing old Westerns and other films on television—is not far distant. Production costs are averaging nearly $10,000 per half-hour program so far, but the television producers say they’re determined to make good original shows for the fireside trade.
For example:
Fairbanks has completed “Public Prosecutor,” a series of 26 shows each 20 minutes long, and “Television Closeups,” five-minute oddity featurettes for NBC. He has three other series in production.
The first 13 shows of another detective-type series, “The Cases of Eddie Drake,” have been completed for CBS by IMPHO (Independent Motion Pictures Releasing Organization).
Marshall Grant-Realm Productions has finished six of a “Great Stories” series for American Tobacco Company that will start next month. Slated for NBC release January 21 in New York and about the same time here, the weekly show will run at least six months.
Dipping into the public domain for stories available without copyright the series includes
“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “Sire Maletroit’s Door,” “Mademoiselle Fifi,” “The Mummy’s Foot,” “The Invisible Wound,” and “The Substitute” for starters.
Production costs ran slightly higher than $10,000 for each of these 30-minute shows, General Manager Norman Elzer of Grant-Realm said. The talent lineup included Arthur Shields as narrator, John Beal, Robert Alda, Reginald Denny, Maria Palmer, Hurd Hatfield and J. Edward Bromberg.
Hollywood talent—for the most part held in leash by the big movie producers—is also represented in “TV” shows by John Howard, Anne Gwynne, Patricia Morrison and Don Haggerty. Among those toying around the experimental fringes of the industry are Joseph Cotten, Rudy Vallee, Frank Albertson and Designer William Cameron Menzies.
Many others are itching to get in on the ground floor of the business, even though the foundations are just beginning to harden.
Roach’s announcement tipped the current mood:
"Following the entertainment-seeking trend the public mind has been a lifework of mine since the inception of motion pictures. I am thoroughly convinced that the insatiable desire to be entertained will find its greatest satisfaction through television.”
Roach plans six half-hour shows at his Culver City studio. “Sadie and Sally,” a comedy show starring Joy [sic] Lansing and Lois Hall, will be the opener.

As a side note, Fairbanks had his hands in many pies. Besides producing shorts like the “Unusual Occupations” and “Speaking of Animals” series for Paramount, he also made industrial films into the 1960s.

Television history is littered with projects that never were and that seems to have been the fate of almost all of Roach’s first TV efforts. Billboard of January 1, 1949, announced Roach was filming six pilot shows to shop around to agencies and sponsors. Besides “Sally and Sadie,” the others were “The Brown Family,” a sitcom starring John Eldredge, Ann Doran, Carol Brannon and Billy Gray; “Botsford’s Beanery,” a slapstick comedy, “Foo Young, a Chinese comedy whodunit; “Puddle Patch Club,” an Our Gang ripoff and another sitcom called “Our Main Street.” 12 additional shows were in various stages of planning. Roach was still peddling them in 1952, along with a TV version of “Myrt and Marge” through the International News Services television department., though it appears none made it past the pilot stage.

Oddly, one show that’s not mentioned was revealed in the Billboard article of the previous November and it did get on the air almost two years later. It was “The Stu Erwin Show,” subtitled “The Trouble With Father.” General Mills was its sponsor and the show was one of the early successes of television syndication.


  1. Roach would have some limited success in the 1950s with the TV adaptation of his own 1938 movie "Topper" and two shows featuring Gale Storm -- "My Little Margie" and "The Gale Storm Show". So he did keep plugging away, even if the early sit-com efforts were unsuccessful (and for me, it's kind of sad that ex-Roach supporting player Edgar Kennedy didn't live into the television era, since his RKO short subject series from the 1930s-early 40s is a pretty close template to where the TV sitcom would end up. You can see there why the short subject people would find the new medium of television so inviting)

  2. On "The Stu Erwin Show":
    IT was one of the FIRST shows using canned laughter, TOO!

  3. Roach also produced "The Amos 'n' Andy Show" for CBS.

  4. Fairbanks also produced (with Jay Ward) "Crusader Rabbit", the first made for TV animated series.