I wanted a theme for this years blogs and having listened to the magnificent Radio 4 series, The History of the World in 100 Objects, I had decided that I would write the History of My World in 100 Objects and I spent some time thinking and planning what those 100 objects would be.
The list ran from a toy dog on wheels through butterscotch sweets via the school bus, Hammer Horror Films, Tuscany and many others from which I could have woven a story into which I could pour the truth and the fiction of my life.
One of those objects would have been a collection of hard backed books that I kept from the age of about 14 and in which I wrote exhaustive lists of all the actors I had seen in various films and whose details I memorised - yes I was a boring child and my only real friends were the imaginary ones that I kept in my head some of whom were famous film stars. I didn't need a bible, I only needed the latest copy of Halliwell's Film Guide.
We did have a sniff of fame around the family with my father’s uncle’s wife's nephew being the actor and film director Brian Forbes - we never met.
Anyway, yesterday I was sat drinking a cup of tea flicking through the tv channels and I came across the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. It is a great swashbuckling adventure, based closely on historical texts written around...1937.
The thing that suddenly surprised me was, here was a film I hadn’t watched in many years and yet I found my self naming all the actors; Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains Olivia De Havilland - well maybe any film watcher could have named them but then I went further, there was Eugene Pallette, Patric Knowles (and yes I even remembered that Patric didn't have a K) Alan Hale, Una O’Connor and Melville Cooper...all those lists and names just flooded back into my head and I decided that this year, 2011, this is the year we revisit the book of lists - we revisit all the actors and films that were my friends and obviously still are.
I hope you enjoy the journey, we will be starting in the era of the silent movie and coming right up to date and I will hopefully inspire you to watch some of the films that we mention along the way. This wont be a history of the motion picture, just a ramble through some of the names I listed and some of the films I watched.
“Be a clown, be a clown, all the world loves a clown” - so wrote Cole Porter in the words of the song that Gene Kelly and Judy Garland sang in the 1948 film, The Pirate.
But it isn’t true - I don’t like clowns - I have a slight fear of clowns. Not because of Stephen King and Tim Curry, scary though Pennywise was - no, it was a circus that came to our village when I was about 8 or 9 that started this fear. I was hauled out of the audience and this awful smelly pervert of a clown proceeded to slap my bottom with his oversized shoe. That has made me wary of clowns in the flesh ever since.
But clowns on the screen are a different kettle of confetti altogether...and it is with the great silent clowns that we begin this journey through cinematic history.
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and of course Laurel and Hardy.
All of the above (with the exception of the Keystone Cops) would have rated a mention in one of the book of lists I kept...details such as their real names and their dates of birth as well as favourite performances. Also in the lists would have appeared other names linked to these great stars - names like Eric Campbell, James Finlayson, Edna Purviance and Edgar Kennedy.
These great icons of the silent film era have left behind famous and equally iconic moments like Chaplin, the little tramp in The Gold Rush eating his shoe or Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jnr stood in the raging storm whilst the front of a building falls around him and of course Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock high above the street in Safety First.
As a child I was always a greater fan of Chaplin than of Keaton and Lloyd and I reserve my thoughts on Laurel and Hardy for later because for me their greatest work was not in the silent era but a little later.
Chaplin entertained me because he was always the underdog and he always fought against the bullies - and the bullies were always much bigger than him and usually played by the great Eric Campbell.
|Eric Campbell & Chaplin in Easy Street|
Campbell was a huge man, well over 6ft and weighing in at more than 21 stone, he made the perfect foil for Chaplin’s little tramp.
Alfred Eric Campbell was born in Dunoon, Scotland on the 26th April 1879, he was just one of the many English and Scottish performers who would make their way to America thanks to the impresario Fred Karno - it was he who discovered Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
Campbell arrived in America in 1914 and would make 11 films with Chaplin, the formula often being Chaplin tormenting the big man and eventually winning the heart of the love interest, again most usually played by Edna Purviance. 11 films over the course of two years 1916 and 1917 - and on the 20th December 1917, aged just 38, Campbell killed himself in a car crash, drunk at the wheel.
For me the greatest collaboration between these two men can be seen in the 1917 film Easy Street - just 19 minutes long but a magical film that I cannot recommend highly enough, in fact here is a link - go and spend 20 minutes watching Chaplin, Campbell and Purviance at their best.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjXaNh7xDqk&feature=related Part 1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeCanm-31H8&feature=related Part 2
There is a certain tragedy the story of Eric Campbell but this is a story that was repeated on other occasions for the big men of Hollywood. Two that come to mind from the mists of my memory are Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle - tried for murder, his career never recovered he died aged 46 and Laird Cregar, a memorable villain in several films, dead at 31.
Of course you could argue the biggest big man of that era went on to have the biggest of careers, Oliver Hardy - born Norvell Hardy, January 18th 1892 died August 7th 1957, but more about him another time.
Of course there were other great silent stars, some of whom progressed with careers in the talkies, others whose star shone brightest when we didn’t know what they sounded like!
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Navarro, Lillian Gish, Clara Bow and Theda Bara - very few made a successful transition, Joan Crawford being one of them.
Valentino was the biggest star of his time and with his death at the age of 31 he assured his place in the history of Hollywood, not just for his movies but for the legend that grew up around his life and death.
Not so well known perhaps, Ramon Navarro was another great latin lover of the silent era. He didn’t make the transition to talkies but secured a place in Hollywood folklore through the manner of his death. Navarro was beaten to death by two young hustlers in 1968, the 69 year old Navarro is alleged to have met his end with an art deco dildo stuffed down his throat!
It may only be urban legend but it still brings a lump to the throat.
They had a certain look to them these great silent stars, George O'Brien, Gilbert Roland and the like, all strikingly handsome but thick as two short planks - and the ladies, beautiful, enigmatic and alluring, such as the aforementioned Theda Bara, which seems to be an anagram of Arab Death!
This old head of mine still stuffed with useless information and I must apologise for the coming year and the drivel I will spill all over the blogosphere.
Enough for now, you have your homework and I will see you all again soon when we will move on to the early talkies amongst other things.