Turner Classic Movies has devoted the month of January to a huge Hal Roach retrospective, and no better news could be imagined. Roach has finally entered the pantheon after way too many years of neglect.
There are few filmakers and producers who have come up with a more satisfying or entertaining body of work. Roach’s films simply do not date. Most of them remain as fresh (or as odd and singular) as the day they went into the can. His silent comedies are miracles of compression and storytelling, made the more impressive when you realize that the medium in which he was working was only a dozen years old. Roach was making comedies in the teens, science-fiction films in the 30s, and rock-and-roll movies in the 50s.
One of his right-hand men was a guy named Ben Shipman, who for years doubled as his lawyer and business manager. By “years” we mean from the beginning. Shipman owned one of the first swimming pools in Burbank, way at the top of Olive Avenue, and was a legend among the many neighborhood kids who’d congregate in the hills. It was nothing unusual for a local birthday boy or girl to get a new bicycle delivered to their house or a surprise visit from Laurel and Hardy. Imagine those days and what they must have been like.
The Burbank Historical Society used to have a complete re-creation of Shipman’s office down at the Gordon Howard Museum. It was piece by piece accurate. Shipman would hold court at this detached little room off of the garage and entertain some of the most marvelous and exciting people in the world. His mild-mannered style charmed everyone who knew him.
Here’s a little story that no one knows. During the last ten years of his life Mr. Shipman suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. After his first wife died he married his longtime secretary, another marvelous person who took good care of him in his declining years even though she was no spring chicken herself. Their September romance delighted Stan Laurel, who used to remark to people all the time about how happy he was for them.
Even though Shipman got sicker every year, he had one constant visitor, even up to the end in the mid-70s. Every Sunday afternoon Hal Roach would drive up alone and pay a special call. Mrs. Shipman would spend the morning preparing a nice lunch for the two of them, and afterwards they would both retire to the office out back and shoot the breeze for several hours. Most of the time Mr. Shipman had little idea of what was going on, but Roach patiently attended to him. He’d sit with him every week, every Sunday, and chat quietly.
Mrs. Shipman was always talking about what a wonderful man Hal Roach was. She had known him for many years.