Would there be an uproar in Canada if Marx Brother movies, or the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were blocked at the border? What about films featuring Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges or W. C. Fields?

The question comes up as, for the second Monday this month, Canadians are robbed of seeing the greatest comedy team of all time on Turner Classic Movies. What happened — did programmers get mugged somewhere in Noir Alley?

Instead of basking in dozens of vintage Hall Roach shorts and features from the late ’20s and throughout the ’30s, Canadians get a ton of substitute programming. To add insult to injury, this Monday in Canada, TCM swapped the Bowery Boys in for Laurel & Hardy. Pardon us, but that’s like saying, sorry, we’re all out of steak — try baloney!

Just three Laurel & Hardy films, which have all long ago lapsed into the public domain, are available to screen on TCM. They include “Bonnie Scotland” (1935), which aired Monday at midnight in Canada; “Babes in Toyland” (1933) and “The Devil’s Brother” (aka “Fra Diavolo,” 1933). Zero shorts.

Tonight, Tuesday Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. ET, Canadian TCM viewers will also get to see a fourth Laurel & Hardy film. It’s the 1927 short “Battle of the Century.” This silent film is significant in that it is very early in their teaming.

A sticky scene from “Battle of the Century” (1927)

The TCM airing will include the “lost reel.” It featured a gigantic pie fight that was seen in the 1957 Robert Youngson documentary on “The Golden Age of Comedy.” The cut sequence was never properly restored and the missing footage wasn’t replaced until film historian and talented piano/organ accompanist Jon C. Mirsalis came across it while combing through a collection of 16mm film prints in 2015.

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The reason this film is allowed: it is part of TCM’s celebration of the 2020 National Film Registry inductees. The reason the other 60 or so other Hall Roach-produced Laurel & Hardy features and shorts are not seen on TSN in Canada, according to a spokesperson at the network: “licensing agreements.”

In what is apparently a 40 year deal, TCM has the US rights to the Roach library, which includes the Little Rascals/Our Gang shorts as well as features such as “Of Mice and Men.” Those rights do not include Canada or other international territories.

The Roach films, to say the least, have had a very checkered history. Way back when I first began writing at TV Guide Canada, my very first assignment was about the colourization of Laurel & Hardy films by a company in Toronto who, at that time, owned the rights. One of the people I interviewed was Hal Roach, who was 90.

Hal Roach (centre) flanked by his meal ticket

I’ll never forget when, over the phone, he gave me his blunt opinion about adding colour to his films. “Do you read the funnies?” he thundered over the phone. That’s what people used to call comic strips that ran in newspapers. Newspapers? They used to be… well, never mind.

Comic strips used to run weekdays in black and white and in colour on the weekend. Asked Roach: “Do you laugh at them every day — or just on the weekends?”

Roach, who lived to be 100, died in 1992. Like many film pioneers, he never saw a time when rights to his films would be an endless annuity. Preserving or storing film was just a cost to Roach, who cared not for preservation. To be fair, he wasn’t the only studio head who saw movies as disposable, perishable entertainment. It didn’t help that, by 1960, Roach’s son and acting studio chief had run the company into bankruptcy.

Some however, such as Chaplin, kept their negatives and their rights close, resulting in pristine transfers and happy heirs. The Laurel & Hardy shorts are just now emerging from years of restoration thanks to a dedicated fan base of film collectors and the efforts of the UCLA Film and TV Archive. The result of their hard work can be seen in “Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations,” a boxed set of 4K quality shorts and features released earlier this year.

It’s as if these two guys were in charge of Roach’s international film rights

For now, that boxed set is the best way for Canadians to see these two comedy masters. TCM has hit this roadblock before; in 2013, their message boards lit up with notes from unhappy subscribers north of the border. There it was suggested that TCM spent considerable time, to no avail, trying to hunt down the Canadian rights holder of the Hal Roach Library. The Warners-owned classic film channel was urged to seek out film historian/preservationist Richard W. Bann to help get to the bottom of things. [UPDATE: Please see Mr. Bann’s detailed and generous comment below; he clears up many of the fine messes in this twisted tale of rights.]

TCM, of course, runs into international rights hurdles all the time. Every month, some films shown in the US are not shown in Canada and substitutions are made. Where it becomes problematic is when an entire collection of films by artists as famous as Laurel & Hardy are yanked. Canadians see the tantailizing promo spot featuring “Star Wars” hero Mark Hamill praising the comedy duo, but don’t get to see the best of what Laurel & Hardy have to offer.

Use the force, TCM. Find a way to bring the boys north. Unaccustomed as we are to second-rate TCM, we demand the whole Laurel & Hardy experience — from Soup to Nuts.

2 Comments

  1. Richard Bann Reply

    The rights are complicated. After I arranged to place the surviving Hal Roach Studios nitrate film library in the hands of UCLA, and Jeff Joseph stepped forward to seed a second wave of restoration and preservation (this time, institutional, after we had already spent $4 million on commercial restoration and preservation to exploit our rights as the successor-in-interest to Hal Roach Studios throughout the Eastern Hemisphere), UCLA asked me to write about the tangled legal rights situation, the degraded state of the 35mm preprint material after decades of haphazard storage, and the benefits which could accrue to this supplemental rescue effort. That essay appears on UCLA’s website; can still be found on our old website in Munich (http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com); and also was reprinted in the latest incarnation of Randy Skretvedt’s THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MOVIES….Bill Brioux’s fine essay is incorrect on a few points. (1) There are three Laurel & Hardy films with expired copyrights, but they are not BONNIE SCOTLAND, THE DEVIL’S BROTHER, and BABES IN TOYLAND. These three feature films are not public domain subjects. (2) OF MICE AND MEN, and the Hal Roach-produced Our Gang comedies were not licensed by RHI Entertainment (or anyone else) to TCM as part of the “40 year deal” mentioned. And to clarify, yes, many times, I heard the brilliant Hal Roach use that illustration about whether or not comic strips are any funnier on Sunday in color, than on weekdays in the paper when they were printed in black and white. Mr. Roach sold his equity stake in the corporation he founded shortly after it emerged from the 1960’s bankruptcy period, so that he had no connection whatever with the initial Toronto incarnation of the successor company that engaged in colorization, which he did not endorse….I find it ironic to read this: “TCM spent considerable time, to no avail, trying to hunt down the Canadian rights holder of the Hal Roach Library. The Warners-owned classic film channel was urged to seek out film historian/preservationist Richard W. Bann to help get to the bottom of things.”…In the first place, TCM secured its rights from the successor to “the Canadian rights holder,” so they needn’t have looked for it! In the second place, no one from TCM has ever contacted me in the first place, about anything! But that’s okay, I project 16mm film as the medium of choice, and don’t get cable TV in the third place, so I never see TCM anyway. In any case, to get to the point of inquiry raised by the good Mr. Brioux and others, rights to the sound Laurel & Hardy pictures still part of the Hal Roach library in Canada are controlled by Comcast NBC Universal. So yes, “licensing agreements” tell the tale. But try and find someone at that constellation of Comcast companies who knows this, or, for that matter, who has ever even heard of Laurel & Hardy….The silent L&H films, BATTLE OF THE CENTURY? I might have covered that in the audio commentary on our new BluRay release. Anyhow, that’s another story. And in the words of Mr. Hardy, “We won’t go into that.” …And finally, no one has to agree with me — though I know Brent Walker will — I enjoy the Bowery Boys and all the Dead End Kids splinter groups. They are no substitute for Laurel & Hardy, and I won’t argue the point if anyone disagrees, but lets’ not disparage the Bowery Boys. Some of us find those humble, unpretentious films quite entertaining. And they’re controlled by the same little enterprise that owns two of the three L&H features named above — Warner Bros. And that’s where I came in.

  2. Bill Brioux Reply

    Thank you for setting the record straight Mr. Bann and apologies for not seeking you out ahead of time. Thank you especially for all your efforts to preserve and promote these great films. 16mm is my medium of choice as well; I still thread and project my blackhawk prints of Laurel & Hardy shorts and features but die a little each time I have to suffer past the generic titles imposed 50 years ago. Kudos for helping to correct those sins.

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