Who the hell was composer Leroy Shield?
Without benefit of knowing director/producer Hal Roach’s iconic, early sound comedy output (including hundreds of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, aka The Little Rascals, and Charley Chase comedy shorts), you might well be forgiven for not knowing that Shield contributed some of the most tunefully engaging and whimsical instrumental underscoring ever set to classic film comedy.
But seriously, who the hell was Leroy Shield – and why did Roach not want you to know?
Even the homepage for Shield’s website (created posthumously, of course), opens with a disclaimer
“Leroy Shield … for a few years in the 1930s, wrote music for Hollywood. He was the uncredited composer of the music in Hal Roach’s ‘Little Rascals’ and ‘Laurel & Hardy’ films.”
“Uncredited” is an understatement. As composer, Shield (1893 – 1962) received no credit for over 175 Hal Roach shorts and features. Only in the titles of Our Relations (1936), a Laurel and Hardy feature film, was Shield finally credited for musical scored and direction.
It may have been thanks to Stan Laurel, the producer of Our Relations, that Shield finally received any Roach credit at all. Marvin Hatley, Shield’s musical director/composer colleague at Roach, also received title credits for Stan Laurel’s productions of Way Out West (1937) and Blockheads (1938), the latter receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture Film Score.
Conspiracy theories aside, Shield’s compositional underscoring played a huge role in defining the place, time and unique ebullience of Hal Roach’s early comedy two-reelers.
In addition to countless background tunes, Shield also wrote the famous Our Gang theme song, “Good Old Days ,” as well as the title theme for the Charley Chase shorts, “Gangway Charley,” demonstrated here by The Beau Hunks (right), a Dutch musical group named after the 1931 Laurel and Hardy film.
But thanks to IMDb, it’s clear Shield was a company guy in Roach’s music department and not an exulted film composer. His pieces are titled, but also characterized as “stock arrangements,” meaning they were pulled off the shelf ad hoc.
Thus, the Roach-Shield repertoire, written between 1930 and 1936, was reused with abandon. Even re-reused — for example, when Blotto (1930) – a Laurel and Hardy short originally released without a sound track – was re-released in the late ‘30s with music borrowed from Our Relations. To help lend perspective, the tune “Hide and Seek” made at least 14 appearances in Roach two-reelers between 1930 and 1933.
Consequently, it’s unlikely that Shield’s underscoring ever involved the composer collaboratively sitting down with a sound editor in front of a Moviola. More likely, Shield was called upon to conjure up mood music on a per-need basis, leaving final music choices to the sound editor.
Here are examples of the Roach/Shield musical canon and the moods (my categorizations) with which they were typically associated:*
- Playful Ditties — “Riding Along”
- Jazzin’ It Up — “The Moon and You”
- Sentimental Love Songs — “The One I Love Best”
- Wistful — “Wishing”, “Dog Song”
- Triumphant Finale — “Hide and Go Seek”
- Dumb Moves — ” It’s To Laugh”
- Comedic Effect — “Your Piktur”
*All examples recorded by Beau Hunks. You can find several of the group’s Leroy Shield compilations for purchase on Amazon.
It’s a tiny sample, but one that shows a rich, sophisticated and inspired artist whose original Roach music was a trove of influences, including Ravel, Debussy, Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman and undoubtedly a handful of favorite Tin Pan Alley song writers,whose names I can only guess at.
Unfortunately, the sound editing and mixing of the time didn’t always do justice to Shield. The pieces are sometimes abruptly truncated and often lack sufficient audibility.
Today, thankfully, we have the wonderful performances of The Beau Hunks, the band who painstakingly transcribed and captured the original scores’ esprit de corps and authenticity.
The Our Gang classic Helping Grandma (1931) features the quintessential Shield score. You can stream the two-reeler in its entirety, right here:
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