When Leroy Shield first started to write music for the Hal Roach Studios in 1930, he was in his late thirties and ready to start his third career. His first was that of traveling concert pianist. His second, conductor-arranger for the Victor company. After seven years of recording orchestras like those of Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, and Horace Heidt, he knew everything there was to know about arranging, piano playing, and recording technique. To these skills he now added the art of writing music for film.

Film music would never be the same after Shield applied his creative genius to it. Literally inventing the craft as he went along, he wrote original music, selected musicians from among local professionals, and recorded them late at night, after the regular studio activities had ceased. He never knew the film actors or socialized with the crew, not even with Roach "musical director" Marvin Hatley. He just worked his magic behind the scenes, creating an incredible amount of brilliant work in a very short time.

Shield's melodies were a far cry from the derivative Tin Pan Alley tunes and unimaginative stock themes used for scoring silents in the late '20s. His catalog of original themes worked remarkably well within the context of the Hal Roach comedies. They helped pace the action and pull it together; they would often create a subtle tension between their pleasing harmonies, where everything is just right, and the events on the screen, where everything goes wrong.

Most of Shield's early tunes were not written for Laurel & Hardy. They were composed to underscore comedies in the Charley Chase, Boy Friends, and Our Gang series. He had scored Roach films for six months before writing the music for his first Laurel & Hardy short, Another Fine Mess. By that time, in late 1930, an inherent problem became evident. The problem was that his music was so catchy, and worked so well, that to use it more than once was not only practical but irresistible.

For instance, a tune called "The Moon and You," recorded in June of 1930, was first used as background dance music in Looser than Loose (Charley Chase, September, 1930) but soon reappeared in another Chase comedy, and then another, gradually becoming part of the Roach "wallpaper music" as we know it today—eventually, it was used more than a hundred times.

On September 11, 1930, writing to Ralph Peer (his music publisher), Shield voiced his concern about the recycling of his background music in a two-reeler in the "Boy Friends" series:

Apparently, the issue remained unresolved. In June 1931, after just one busy season at Roach during which 78 of his original film compositions were written, recorded, and remained in constant use, Shield decided to embark on his fourth career, that of radio orchestra leader. He accepted the job of orchestral supervisor of NBC's Pacific division in San Francisco. By the end of that year, he exchanged this position for a similar one in Chicago, which was to remain his home base for the next fourteen years.

In Chicago, Shield soon became a well-respected radio orchestra leader, very much in demand. (In the words of musician Al Gallodoro, who worked with him at the time, "he was a big shot.") Shield's studio orchestra accompanied classical soloists, comedians and variety artists, and eventually became the featured band of many NBC-produced music programs. Some of these, like Breakfast Club (with Don McNeill) and Roy Shield Revue, remained on the air for more than a decade. No wonder that the hard-working Shield found less and less time to write film music, much as he wanted to.

On July 12, 1932, Variety wrote: "Roy Shields [sic] is torn between two loves—NBC's Chicago studio and the Hal Roach film factory in Culver City. He has a chance to go back to his first love in August and can't decide."

What this "chance" amounted to or what Shield's decision was is unknown, but we do know that he did return to his first love six months later, on January 30, 1933, to start recording his musical score for the Laurel & Hardy comedy The Devil's Brother. Although the work can neither be called a true film score nor be compared with the jazzy, infectious themes he wrote for the two-reelers a couple of seasons earlier, Shield did an adequate and professional job of arranging Daniel Auber's operatic themes (with titles such as "The Gondolier, Fond Passion's Slave," and "Still Hope Is Left to the Good and True-Hearted"). His work reflected an increased ability to write and arrange for large orchestras, whether in dance or classical mode.

The Devil's Brother was the first Roach production in which Shield was named in the opening credits. Our Relations was to be the second—and also the last.

In April 1936, Shield agreed to supply background music for the new Roach production, which was set up as a big budget project. It had sophisticated lighting, expensive sets, even a cameraman from Europe. The musical score was to be written for a large orchestra (as compared with the usual 14-piece band from the earlier period) and expertly recorded.

Another important difference between Shield's earlier work and this project was that his score would be an entirely new composition. For the first time in his career he had the opportunity to write music for film which was more than just a collection of "cues." He would create something new altogether—a continuous suite of original themes and variations thereof, linked by musical transitions, and fitted with an overture like an opera.

One can imagine what a challenge this must have been and how eager the composer was to meet it. A dream assignment. The reality was a different matter. Arriving in Culver City on May 11, Shield found a production weeks behind schedule.

Did Shield see a rough cut of Our Relations before starting to write his music? That would have been impossible, because his work started a mere two days after the film's final scenes were shot. Perhaps he saw the film in instalments, as partial cuts. Just as the film was shot more or less chronologically, so it may have been edited chronologically. By this reasoning, the first two reels might have been edited well before the rest, so that Shield could confidently start work on these. Reel one was thus scored with "We're Just A Happy Family", "Transition #1", "Carefree", "Transition #2" and "Captain Winkle." Reel Two continued with "Alf's Hornpipe," "Walkin' the Deck," "Fancy This," "Captain Winkle #2," "Transition #3," "Captain Winkle #3," "Just A Kiss," and so on. The rest came later. But not much later; it doesn't seem as though Shield spent more than two weeks working in Culver City. The film had to be finished in June, and no doubt Shield had plenty of obligations back in Chicago.

Given these time limitations, the quality of the score is re-mark-able. In addition to themes and effects linked to specific scenes, Shield wrote a number of great dance tunes with an infectious quality reminiscent of his early hits such as "The Moon and You." Some of these, like "On a Sunny Afternoon," have now become familiar Roach standards, if only through their sub-sequent re-use in Laurel & Hardy two-reelers released during the same season. Others, like "Just A Little Rhythm" and "Dancing On the Clouds," remained relatively obscure, and can only be rediscovered and enjoyed through this album.

As Richard Bann has stated, it is questionable whether the first preview cut of Our Relations had any background music at all. Although it is difficult today to imagine the climactic dock scene without its thrill music, the whole issue may be irrelevant. Even if the film had no background music on June 19 (the date of its first preview screening), it wouldn't have made any difference to Shield, who was back in Chicago by the end of May. The decision as to which music to include and which to leave out was left to editor Elmer Raguse's judgment. And perhaps—but this is mere speculation—to the judgment of others as well.

In a story related by Laurel & Hardy historian Randy Skretvedt, studio boss Hal E. Roach once attended a preview screening of Way Out West (1937). Upon hearing Marvin Hatley's composition "Frolic of the Lambs"/"The Donkey's Ears," he was heard to remark to an aide, "Cute music! Cute music!"

It is not unthinkable that a year earlier, Roach similarly vented his opinion of Shield's Our Relations music. One that was not so favorable.

This would explain the degree to which the Our Relations score was cut up into small segments which were then either switched around, repeated, or used elsewhere. It would also explain the replacement of certain themes by others of the same length, for no apparent reason other than a preference for the obvious and the familiar. For instance, a wonderful and perfectly apt nautical theme introducing the S.S. Periwinkle and its captain was replaced by the standard, "Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Main." Similarly, a subtle Oriental oboe figure in "It's the Law" illustrating the "Singapore Eskimos" scene was replaced by a much less subtle use of "Yasmini," a Shield tune from 1930 which had become the standard Roach illustration of anything vaguely exotic or Oriental.

A further motivation for the score's radical simplification might be the studio's concern over possible confusion on the part of the audience. The producers were anxious in their at-tempts to explain, by way of the music, that Alf was not Stan and Bert was not Ollie. Although Shield's score fully met this requirement, with its musical references to and countless variations of the "Ku-Ku" song (for Stan and Ollie) and the "Sailor's Hornpipe" (for Alf and Bert), the final cut is full of repetitions of identical pieces of music, particularly in the last two reels where the twins' paths cross so many times. One might say that Our Relations, conceived as a comedy of errors, was plagued by tragic errors of judgment where the music was concerned.

With more than sixty years' worth of hindsight, it is easy to pass judgment and say that Mr. Shield was a neglected genius whose work was constantly (and consistently) mistreated. As fans of Shield's music, we tend to think of it as a rare gem almost — but not quite! — destroyed by some unthinking Roach studio employee.

On the other hand, we couldn't have become fans of Shield's music if it weren't for the Roach films. They are the only medium in which it was recorded, and because the films were so good, because they were painstakingly preserved and restored, they can now be enjoyed for generations to come. And isn't it true that Shield was able to learn on the job thanks to the developing technique of recording film music? Isn't it also true that the editors had to learn on the job as well?

Throughout the early 1930s, by trial and error, Roach music editors (Richard Currier at first, then William Terhune, and finally Elmer Raguse) had developed the practice of scoring a film by cutting, copying and pasting existing music cues. Whatever its shortcomings, this practice had the advantage of being inexpensive — and fast. Typically, four or five two-reelers could be "scored" in a day.

How, then, were these skilled editors expected to cope with a full-length score for a feature film in which the musical elements were cued exactly to the action and formed one continuous musical suite? They simply didn't. They cut the material down into the format they were used to, a collection of "stock tunes" of no more than three minutes in length. Fortunately, the Our Relations score had plenty of these to offer. Unfortunately, the rest of the music fell by the wayside.

After his intended musical chef d'oeuvre, the Our Relations score, had been shortened, cannibalized, and effectively treated as disposable stock music, did Shield feel bitter towards the Lot of Fun? Did he proudly turn his back on Culver City, never to set foot there again? "We don't feel this could have been the case at all," says his stepson, Mahlon Dolman. "He was always busy and upbeat and enjoying his work in Chicago immensely." Because he was in many ways a man of mystery, we can only speculate as to his inner feelings. We do know, however, that even in 1937 he was actively trying to land another job of writing music for Roach, but his letters, phone calls and telegrams didn't yield the desired result. In February 1937 Roach had assigned Marvin Hatley to score the next Laurel & Hardy feature, Way Out West. Hatley was in, Shield was out. In a reprise of his 1930 experience, Shield was "cut out entirely."

On August 18, 1940, four years after Our Relations, Roy Shield conducted the first performance of his composition, Gloucester in Chicago's Grant Park. This epitomized the new direction his musical creativity was taking—away from light dance music and film mood music, moving towards the more serious semi-classical "tone poem." It was followed in 1944 by the Union Pacific Suite and in 1948 by The Great Bell. Also, in 1942, Shield had received an honorary doctorate from the Chicago Musical College and became known as "Dr. Shield" from then on. Working his wonders from the conductor's stand and the recording booth, he remained active in radio until well into the 1950s. Sadly, there were no more opportunities for him to display his lighter side, as the comedies such as those produced by Roach were dying out—with or without errors.

© 2000 Piet Schreuders
Text and audio samples from the CD album:
Leroy Shield's Our Relations – The Original Sheet Music
The Beau Hunks & The Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jan Stulen
Basta 30-9102-2

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