On HAROLD TEEN and the Joy of True Surprise

MBDHATE EC004Chances are, you’re not familiar with Hal Le Roy, who appeared in just three feature films and a smattering of shorts.  But if you’ve seen him once, you’ll likely remember him: those limbs that keep on going long after it makes sense, the sharp angles and pointed features, the frizzy hair piled high on top like a dare to any comb.  One thing’s for certain. If you’ve seen him dance, you’ll never forget him.

Le Roy’s breakout scene came at the end of the 1934 Warner Bros. feature HAROLD TEEN, a lighthearted film that used the source material of a popular comic strip, a tale of high schoolers approaching graduation, catchy musical numbers in the context of a high school musical production and a reasonably talented cast (up-and-comers like Rochelle Hudson and Mayo Methot, who would later become the third Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, and established comedic talents like Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert) to draw in a young audience upon its release near the end of the school year.  Le Roy is a hoot in the title role (no other, more dignified term better describes his performance), as a recent high school grad who is a lousy reporter and painfully awkward suitor to the too-lovely Hudson—making you grimace throughout, embodying every awkward moment of your youth and projecting it back at you, but somehow remaining endearing.

Then, at the very moment that should be Harold Teen’s most humiliating—when he literally falls into the musical production—he dances.

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We’ve all seen animated features where brooms and rakes and other such things come to life and dance around the room.  But to see them do it in the flesh—in human form—is nothing short of astonishing.  I don’t know what else to compare Le Roy’s movement to if not that: take a long, thin bale of hay, stick in rakes for the legs and hoes for the arms (hands bent down at a graceful angle, mind you), top it off with a scarecrow’s head and bring it to life.  Then marvel as this awkward assemblage springs into the most athletic and graceful motion you can imagine.

Harold

His legs (those skinny legs that gobble up two thirds of his height) can present perfectly stiff lines one minute and turn to rubber the next as Le Roy executes a rapid cross-over step where he flips his heels out to the side and taps them flat to the floor, making a sound like a small engine firing without oil.  I kept thinking I would break an ankle trying it even once, but Le Roy does it hundreds of times with rapid precision. Everything about him defies physics, right down to his comedic back-bending kicks at the end of the routine that bring his gleaming heels up toward the base of his skull, rolling that long body up in reverse and uncoiling it again.

The first time I saw this number I was dumbfounded, literally speechless.  I reached for the remote control and watched it again.  And again. I felt an ineffable joy—the joy that can only come from those moments when an impossibility is captured, irrefutably, on film.

That night I dreamed I could tap dance—not with the grace of Fred Astaire or the power of James Cagney, but with the joyful abandon and reckless precision of Hal Le Roy.  I tapped my way back through great moments in my life: tap danced what I should have said to a girl in high school who gave me the old cold-shoulder; even tapped my vows at my wedding. Everything that meant something to me was suddenly part of Le Roy’s dancing.

The next morning when my three-year-old daughter awoke, I took her straight to the TV and played that scene for her.  She made a face I’d never seen her make before—slack-jawed staring and smiling at the same time.  And when Le Roy spun to the smooth conclusion of his number, she bounced up and down and said, “Do it again, Daddy.”  So I rewound.  Several times.  In fact, we watched it together until my wife kindly reminded me we were about to be late for our day.

That, it seems to me, is true movie magic.  Timeless, because there has never been anything quite like it. Inspiring, because its awkward humanity only calls greater attention to its virtuosity. Joyful, because it is so completely itself.

Fans of classic movies often speak of how it’s incumbent upon us to keep these films alive.  I would never argue with that, but what it leaves unstated is the corollary truth that these movies keep us alive through the joys they capture and convey. Le Roy’s dance lasted just minutes, at the tail end of a film few living movie fans have seen and fewer remember.  But it still matters.

20 Responses On HAROLD TEEN and the Joy of True Surprise
Posted By B Piper : May 26, 2013 12:47 pm

Thanks very much for the heads up. The clip is available on YouTube (what isn’t?). More even than Buddy Ebsen or Ray Bolger, LeRoy personifies the term “eccentric dancing”. There are other clips of him in action available as well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJoXy0sbVTo

Posted By B Piper : May 26, 2013 12:47 pm

Thanks very much for the heads up. The clip is available on YouTube (what isn’t?). More even than Buddy Ebsen or Ray Bolger, LeRoy personifies the term “eccentric dancing”. There are other clips of him in action available as well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJoXy0sbVTo

Posted By Doug : May 26, 2013 3:10 pm

What a surprise indeed! I saw “Harold Teen” in the title and knew it was from the comic strip, but I had no idea that there had ever been a movie. Hal Le Roy was amazing in that clip-like his center of gravity was in his shoulders and everything from the neck down was free to move where ever. Thank you, Shannon (and also B. Piper) for introducing us to Hal Le Roy.

Posted By Doug : May 26, 2013 3:10 pm

What a surprise indeed! I saw “Harold Teen” in the title and knew it was from the comic strip, but I had no idea that there had ever been a movie. Hal Le Roy was amazing in that clip-like his center of gravity was in his shoulders and everything from the neck down was free to move where ever. Thank you, Shannon (and also B. Piper) for introducing us to Hal Le Roy.

Posted By moviepas : May 27, 2013 4:07 am

Harold Teen(1934). Never seen the complete feature but seen a couple of the shorts. I did have an LP that contained 4 x15mins advertising features from 1930s films and one of them was Harold Teen with Hal LeRoy. I think the label was the pirate Startone label from the 1970s.

Hope Warner Archive issue this film sometime soon.

There was also a late silent feature also entitled Harold Teen which may or may not exist now.

Posted By moviepas : May 27, 2013 4:07 am

Harold Teen(1934). Never seen the complete feature but seen a couple of the shorts. I did have an LP that contained 4 x15mins advertising features from 1930s films and one of them was Harold Teen with Hal LeRoy. I think the label was the pirate Startone label from the 1970s.

Hope Warner Archive issue this film sometime soon.

There was also a late silent feature also entitled Harold Teen which may or may not exist now.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 28, 2013 9:55 am

Great concluding paragraph!!! Absolutely agree.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 28, 2013 9:55 am

Great concluding paragraph!!! Absolutely agree.

Posted By Cool Bev : May 29, 2013 8:56 am

This is the reason I keep watching the old movies, long after I feel that I’ve watched all the “classics”. You take some Monogram mystery, some Tim and Irene Ryan comedy, and it may be a complete waste of 75 minutes – or it could have some gem of a song, a dance routine, a funny or chilling scene that makes it all worthwhile.

Posted By Cool Bev : May 29, 2013 8:56 am

This is the reason I keep watching the old movies, long after I feel that I’ve watched all the “classics”. You take some Monogram mystery, some Tim and Irene Ryan comedy, and it may be a complete waste of 75 minutes – or it could have some gem of a song, a dance routine, a funny or chilling scene that makes it all worthwhile.

Posted By avmckee : May 29, 2013 11:44 am

Cool short that B Piper provided! Vitaphone did so many great shorts. And, sometimes, it was the only place one could catch these talented people in action. As a researcher of old short films, I would love to see a whole TV channel dedicated to short subjects!

Posted By avmckee : May 29, 2013 11:44 am

Cool short that B Piper provided! Vitaphone did so many great shorts. And, sometimes, it was the only place one could catch these talented people in action. As a researcher of old short films, I would love to see a whole TV channel dedicated to short subjects!

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:37 pm

Thanks so much for posting this fantastic short. Le Roy really did defy the laws of physics, and I can only imagine that he was able to lean to such angles by moving so quickly (recapturing equilibrium before he tipped). He’s a good one to search at YouTube, because so many of these shorts fell into the public domain.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:37 pm

Thanks so much for posting this fantastic short. Le Roy really did defy the laws of physics, and I can only imagine that he was able to lean to such angles by moving so quickly (recapturing equilibrium before he tipped). He’s a good one to search at YouTube, because so many of these shorts fell into the public domain.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:42 pm

More surprising still, this was the second adaptation of the comic strips. Another had been made in 1928 by a different LeRoy (directed by Mervyn LeRoy), featuring Arthur Lake and Mary Brian in the leading roles, with small part played by someone whose column would become another mainstay of the newspapers–Hedda Hopper. I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine anything in it would top the joy of seeing Le Roy dance.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:42 pm

More surprising still, this was the second adaptation of the comic strips. Another had been made in 1928 by a different LeRoy (directed by Mervyn LeRoy), featuring Arthur Lake and Mary Brian in the leading roles, with small part played by someone whose column would become another mainstay of the newspapers–Hedda Hopper. I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine anything in it would top the joy of seeing Le Roy dance.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:47 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I find I sometimes enjoy these old B programmers even more for that reason: the individual moments of genius pop to a greater extent against a backdrop that is rather mundanely enjoyable (which, I suppose, is also why I prefer baseball to football or hockey).

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:47 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I find I sometimes enjoy these old B programmers even more for that reason: the individual moments of genius pop to a greater extent against a backdrop that is rather mundanely enjoyable (which, I suppose, is also why I prefer baseball to football or hockey).

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:49 pm

What a great idea. It would be tough to program a channel like that (with so many titles per day), but it would be a hoot to watch. I’ll be sure to pass that idea along.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 10, 2013 1:49 pm

What a great idea. It would be tough to program a channel like that (with so many titles per day), but it would be a hoot to watch. I’ll be sure to pass that idea along.

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