Movie Music Magic

(Above: LeRoy Shield. Source: Randy Skretvedt)

Editors’ Note: Two weeks ago The Savvy Screener wrote about LeRoy Shield, the obscure composer responsible for many of the memorable tunes that enlivened the films of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase and numerous other Hal Roach comedy stars.

The article generated a lot of reader interest. Indeed, responses on social media helped paint a more detailed picture of Shield’s days at Hal Roach Studios and beyond.

As a result, we are pleased to offer this exclusive from Randy Skretvedt, author of Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, the fascinating and comprehensive biography about the comedians and the making of their films. (US readers can order the book from Bonaventure Press; UK readers can find it on Amazon). Below, Skretvedt offers more insights into how Shield helped make the magic behind the movies happen.

The cheerful, bouncy music that accompanied the antics of Laurel and Hardy in their short films of the early ‘30s so captivated me when I saw them on TV in 1964 as a youngster of five that I soon began trying to find records with music that had a similar sound. The music in the Laurel and Hardy comedies – and as I later learned, the Our Gang (or “Little Rascals”) comedies, also produced by Hal Roach in the 1930s – had a unique sound, generally with bouncy rhythms that accentuated comedy, but on occasion (like the music accompanying the poignant ending of Laurel and Hardy’s Helpmates) it was so tender and heartfelt it could make you cry.

Because his music sent me on a search for more of the same, LeRoy Shield, the composer of most of those themes, has a lot to answer for — today I have more than 35,000 records, most of them containing “hot dance band” music of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s.

Shield was born as LeRoy Bernard Shields in Waseca, Minnesota, on October 2, 1893. He was a proficient pianist, and studied at the Columbia School of Music in Chicago. In his twenties, he toured the country giving concerts. In 1923, he joined the Victor Talking Machine Company and was a producer of recordings made at the company headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, but also in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Oakland. Jazz buffs are particularly grateful for the records he produced by the legendary Jean Goldkette Orchestra, which had the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Most of that band’s records were produced by Eddie King, who didn’t care for jazz and gave them treacly songs to play, but Shield let them unleash their full power on “Clementine (from New Orleans).”

Shield came to the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City when Victor began making records there in 1929. Victor had been associated with Roach since 1928, when the producer prevailed upon the company to install the sound equipment in his studio; a key Victor man, Elmer Raguse, came from Camden to the Roach lot to supervise it all and remained at the studio until the end of 1931; he came back a couple of years later.

In addition to performing as a pianist, Shield had occasionally composed tunes, and Hal Roach asked him to write a score for Laurel and Hardy’s first feature, Pardon Us. (The Our Gang theme, “Good Old Days,” was actually written for the schoolroom sequence of the Laurel and Hardy film.)  Shield continued to write for other Roach productions, and composed about 80 cues in 1930-31. By the middle of 1931, he had left the Roach lot and spent most of his working life with NBC Radio in Chicago.

Those same 1930-31 cues, which had been written for specific moments in specific films, were used generically until 1935, when Shield was asked by William Terhune, film editor at Roach, to return and write some new cues. Shield complied, and also returned again to write a score for Our Relations. When Perfect Day, Brats, Blotto and County Hospital were reissued in 1936-37, new scores were given to them, using Shield’s music for Our Relations and composer Marvin Hatley’s music for Way Out West.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQln6uvOgZw

I doubt that Stan Laurel would have been directly responsible for Shield getting a credit on Our Relations. Shield was specifically asked to come back to the studio from Chicago to write this score, and I’m sure that in addition to his train fare and a pretty hefty fee, an on-screen credit was part of his contract. Shield had gotten a credit for adapting Auber’s music for the Laurel and Hardy operetta The Devil’s Brother in 1933.

The credit “A Stan Laurel Production” on Our Relations was essentially meaningless, as Roach purchased the story for that film (The Money Box by W.W. Jacobs), chose the director (his friend and neighbor Harry Lachman) and basically did the million-and-one things he always did for a Laurel and Hardy picture. The credit for Laurel was inserted mainly to soothe his artistic temperament, which had flared up during Bonnie Scotland and The Bohemian Girl, which again were properties chosen by Roach that Stan wasn’t terribly crazy about.

A still promoting Shields’ work on the Laurel and Hardy feature ‘The Devils Brother’ (1933). Shield was cut into an existing photo of L&H; note that his legs don’t extend below the table!

Again, my passion for the hot dance band music of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s was ignited by those wonderful tunes which existed only in the background of Hal Roach comedies: “Bells,” “Here We Go,” “The Moon and You,” “Gangway Charlie” and many others. These tunes were never made available as commercial discs. Sadly, even though Shield produced many records for Victor, he only made one with that unique Hal Roach Studios sound, and the tunes were not Shield’s compositions.  “Song of the Big Trail” and “Sing Song Girl” were recorded in Hollywood on September 26, 1930, and released as Victor 22548. “Trail” has the added distinction of a vocal refrain by Bud Jamison, a beloved supporting actor in many Three Stooges comedies.

Who were the musicians who played these bright and bouncy tunes? Unfortunately, the Hal Roach Studios payroll ledgers, which exist at USC, don’t show any payment being made to musicians; presumably they were paid by the Victor company or payment was made through the American Federation of Musicians. Some of the Victor ledgers (online through the University of California, Santa Barbara’s ongoing Discography of American Historical Recordings project) indicate that Gus Arnheim’s band played on a few of the earliest Roach talkies. Arnheim was enjoying a long residency at the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and was a favorite of the movie colony; he was also under contract to Victor for records, so he would be a natural choice to provide music for Roach’s films. The records Arnheim made for Victor in 1930 and ’31 closely resemble the orchestrations and lively spirit of the Shield cues in the Roach comedies.

Shield did not receive credit for the vast majority of the Roach films for which he provided the scores.  Nor did Marvin Hatley, who began composing tunes for Charley Chase in 1930 and contributed more background cues for the Laurel and Hardy films starting in 1934. Hatley – every bit the musical genius that Shield was – did receive credit for his lyrical scores for Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, Block-Heads, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea, and was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Score for those first two named, as well as for Roach’s There Goes My Heart. Hatley was a frequent and cherished guest at functions of Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, from 1968 until his passing in 1986.

Shield, however, died in Fort Lauderdale, FL at the age of 68 on January 10, 1962, and remained a mystery to Laurel and Hardy buffs until the late 1980s, when Netherlands-based Laurel and Hardy buff Piet Schreuders and a group of musicians began painstakingly recreating Shield’s scores. They assembled fragments from the soundtracks of many films to create work tapes from which complete new arrangements could be created.

In 1992, a Dutch orchestra calling itself The Beau Hunks (named after a 1931 Laurel and Hardy featurette) began making new recordings of Shield’s themes. These were released in the USA by Koch International and are now available from the Netherlands through bastamusicstore.com. In 2017, Alessandro Simonetto, a young Shield enthusiast, recorded “The Original Laurel & Hardy Piano Music,” a CD of Shield’s tunes as arranged solely for that instrument.

Shield ultimately wrote something like 600 compositions, most of them for NBC radio programs. However, the 80 or so tunes he wrote for Hal Roach, some of them lasting barely a minute, were recycled for five years in almost all of the studio’s releases and as a result have become indelibly imbedded in the minds of those of us who grew up watching those films on TV day after day. It’s wonderful that this joyous music has been restored, and that its creator has finally gotten his proper credit.

About Randy Skretvedt

Entertainment historian Randy Skretvedt has been a Laurel and Hardy buff since the age of five. He is co-author of Steve Martin: The Unauthorized Biography (St. Martin’s Press), The Nostalgia Entertainment Sourcebook (Past Times Publishing), and Laurel and Hardy on Stage! (Tefteller Publishing). He has contributed to many books, and has written articles for the Library of Congress, UCLA and Encyclopedia Britannica. From 2000 through 2004, he taught film history at the Long Beach School for Adults. Skretvedt has written the booklet notes for 30 CDs containing music of the 1920s and ’30s. Since 1982, he has hosted and produced Forward into the Past, a weekly three-hour radio show culled from his collection of more than 35,000 vintage records; it is heard each Sunday afternoon over KSPC-FM 88.7 in the Los Angeles area (kspc.org), as is The Sunset Review, a comedy program on which he provides dozens of character voices and co-hosts with Roger Allen.

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1 thought on “Movie Music Magic

  1. Yes, love the music at the end of Helpmates where Laurel’s helping hand lends itself to the total immolation of Hardy’s once proud home. More bathos than pathos – though it’s a marvelously ambivalent ending.

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