In early 1929 Roach adapted his physical plant and staff for the production of all-talking short comedies. On successive Saturdays beginning May 4, M-G-M rolled out season openers from each of the Roach organization’s four units. First made and issued was Laurel & Hardy’s UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE. Second was HURDY GURDY, produced during the week of April 2. Roach was fond of telling two stories about personally writing and directing this one, but evidently misremembered it as his company’s initial talker. Records show UNACCUSTOMED was filmed the week preceding HURDY GURDY. Both pictures, as did Charley Chase’s THE BIG SQUAWK and Our Gang’s SMALL TALK, fully exploited the then novelty of sound. The title derives from an off-scene hurdy gurdy, or barrel organ, heard supposedly from down the street, and which provides the instrumental music score. The opening composition is SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, because the setting is Manhattan’s lower East Side (Orchard and Delancey Streets). Most of the action takes place above an alleyway on the fire escape landings of a tenement house on a hot summer’s day. The cultural mix of residents includes immigrant citizens of German, Italian, Irish and Jewish heritage, as their rich all-talking accents reflect, and as music cues like ACH DER LEIBER AUGUSTINE, WEARING OF THE GREEN, and JEWISH DANCE underscore. In 1929 audiences would have appreciated the irony of hearing the tune for PLEASE GO AWAY AND LET ME SLEEP in the scene where Irish officer Kennedy is trying to nap on the balcony amidst the chatter of dueling dialects.
When Kennedy (as did all the studio contract actors) had his voice tested for sound, he failed, and sought coaching from an older woman named Josephine Dillon, then married to unknown actor Clark Gable. Roach and Kennedy were both sometimes-directors. Fifteen years earlier Roach had been directed by fifth-billed Oscar Apfel (in collaboration with Cecil B. De Mille) on Hollywood’s first feature film, THE SQUAW MAN (1914). A future great director labored on HURDY GURDY as well, cameraman George Stevens.
Roach invests his story with some suspense, but the “mystery”- was foolishly exposed for any patron who passed the one-sheet poster on his way inside the movie theater!
One drawback was casting for Eddie Dunn – completely unworthy of Thelma Todd (appearing in only her second Roach short).
Of the studio’s four premiere all-talking “synchronized productions,” the most economical was HURDY GURDY, costing only $36,981.46, of which $8,979.88 was allocated to sound recording. Preservation was accomplished using the nitrate studio work print and the two Victor sound discs, after which this print-down was struck fifteen years ago.
Richard W. Bann