Mrs T and Me: Reminiscing

 

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You won’t know the lady pictured above.   Her name is Elsie Turner, rechristened “Mrs T” by yours truly when I was 7, and it was as Mrs T that I have referred to her ever since.

I think we all have someone in our lives, other than our parents, who somehow changes or influences the direction which our lives take.  It may be a teacher, a grandparent, maybe even a hero we aspire to be.  In my case it was Mrs T.  I met her when I was 7, having accompanied my Dad to her house one day in order to “help” him (I use the term loosely) with some gardening work he was doing for following her move into the area.  Mrs T was in her early seventies, and we hit it off instantly – helped by her often surreal sense of humour and our mutual love of books.  At the end of the job, I promised I would go and see her again.  This I did a week or so later, and continued to do so at least once a week (normally more often) until she passed away fifteen years later.  She had no children or grandchildren.  She had been married for just a few days when her husband returned to the war, and she never saw him again.  Likewise, one of my own Nans had passed away a few months earlier.  We fell into position perfectly.

We would talk, drink lots of tea, eat lots of cake, read books together, and play card games or scrabble.  As years went on and going out became more difficult for her, I would make sure she had a supply of library books, do some shopping,  and some household chores.   She also gave me a batch of 78rpm records at one point.  She had no music system at all, just a radio.  So, I took them home and rather crudely transferred them to tape, and took them round on occasion so that she could hear them.  She would sing along to them (rather badly, even she would admit), and teach me other songs from the period.

One thing that wasn’t always quite as pleasurable was Mrs T’s love for cricket, Irene Dunne and Deanna Durbin.  When I first got to know her, Channel 4 had just started broadcasting in the UK, and their habit of showing old films every weekday afternoon meant that Mrs T could see again films she had first seen in the 1930s.  I’d watch old films with Mum too, but they were mostly 40s and 50s films, we rarely watched anything as old as I did with Mrs T.  I have to confess that Deanna and Irene never really appealed to me, but these were films that meant a lot to her and with good reason.

These were films that she had seen for the first time when she was in London during the 1930s, working as a Nanny (and a wonderful one she must have been).  I heard lots of stories over the years about this period, and she always seemed very proud of her time in London.  I know now that she had good reason to be.  Girls born in a Norfolk village in 1909 rarely left the village itself, let alone move across the country to the capital.  Her move must have raised some eyebrows at the time.

Along with Deanna Durbin and Irene Dunne (I’m sure there were others), I also got introduced to silent films for the first time when Channel 4 started showing them on Sunday afternoons.  I remember watching The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, starring Ramon Novarro.  At the time I guess I was bored rigid watching a silent movie, although as a teenager I do remember being rather taken by Ramon Novarro (although I certainly didn’t let that on at the time!).  She was rather taken by him too, and I seem to remember her saying that she had met him once in London.  If so, that would have been in 1935 when he was appearing for a brief time in a rather disastrous stage play.

The film that changed everything was Show Boat.  I had seen the 1950s glossy MGM version with Mum by this time (I was about twelve I guess), and admit that I wasn’t altogether happy that my afternoon with Mrs T would be spent watching an older version of the story rather than playing cards.  But this twelve year old became entranced within minutes of the film starting, and my love of cinema was cemented forever.  It became “our film”, and we would talk about it and sing the songs.  Mrs T would tell me about the first time she saw it in London.  I heard those stories many times over – it’s funny how we never realize that we’d give anything years later to hear them all over again.  We hoped and waited that our beloved Channel 4 would show it again.  They did about a year later, at about 11pm on a school night.  Dad was out of work, and we were no longer hiring a video player.  There was a thirteen year old boy bawling like a baby in his bedroom that night as he wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch it.

We did get to see it again about eight years later, when it was shown one afternoon.   For one more time we could sit and watch the film together.  By this time, Mrs T was in her mid eighties.  The chat was getting less bright and bubbly and funny, she was getting through less library books, I’d even begun to start winning games of scrabble.  My friend was slowly running out of steam.

By this point I was visiting three or four times a week.  I was going through a period after sixth form where I was moving from one temp job to another.  In 1996, I applied for an office job at the local university, and got an interview.  I hurriedly went to tell Mrs T the good news.  She tried her best to look pleased, but had somehow got it into her head that a full-time job would change everything, and that I would have better things to do than see her in my (considerably less) spare time.   This wasn’t true, of course.  The very next day I had a phone call from her niece, telling me that Mrs T had had a stroke and was in hospital.  She died two weeks later, just a few days after I had started work at the university which has been the centre of my life in one way or another for the last seventeen years.

I guess the passing of Mrs T and the start of that job was the real end of my childhood.  It was a sixth month contract (no renewals I was told), but I was still working there nine years later when I handed in my notice so that I could finally do a degree.  It was film that I chose as my subject, and the direction that my degree (and my MA and PhD) took seems to have been very much influenced by my childhood friend.  Instead of analyzing films, I write about how they received and understood at the time they were released, and what they meant to audiences at that time.  This wasn’t a conscious decision, of course, but I can’t help but think it (and the period I invariably research) was influenced by the person with whom I spent so much of my childhood and teenaged years, and the stories she shared of how, why and when she saw the films that we watched together and why they meant so much to her.

Ten Favourite Films of the 1920s

Firstly, thank you for the kind comments that I’ve received on the 1910s selection.  Here we go with the 1920s batch.  It’s certainly more difficult to keep this one down to ten films, so I am going to say at the beginning that Wings, The Kid, Flesh and the Devil and Sunrise are on my list of favourite films from the 1920s – I’m sure they’re on everybody’s.  However, the intention is to include at least some of the lesser-known gems of the decades in question, and so I have omitted them from the following.

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THE OLD SWIMMIN’ HOLE (1921)

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Charles Ray was thirty when he played the teenaged boy in this quiet and charming rural drama from 1921.  Thankfully, this doesn’t detract from the film (although signs of his age might well be obscured by the decidedly dodgy print I have seen).  It’s very much in the mould of In Wrong, which I talked about in the 1910s post, but here we have the advantage of Laura La Plante in an early role.  There is no real plot to speak of, just a series of episodes in a boy’s life as he spends his summer relaxing at the swimming hole of the title.   Oddly, there are no intertitles either – so much for The Last Laugh being the first feature film to have that distinction!

CONDUCTOR 1492 (1923)

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Johnny Hines is one of the forgotten faces of silent comedy.  Some of this films seem somewhat derivative of other comedians, but he is always likeable and a pleasant way to spend an hour or so.  This film is notable because of the inventive sequence in which he is trying to jump the queue to the boarding house bathroom.   It’s the funniest sequence in any of the Hines films currently available, and is more than enough to reason to seek out this little gem.

BEN HUR (1925)

I confess that I hate the 1950s Ben Hur with a passion, but absolutely adore the Novarro version.  We read now that this was a really troubled production etc, but none of that is reflected on the screen.  Novarro makes for an extremely likeable hero (even if physically he may look wrong), and it’s all beautifully filmed and edited to make the narrative move along at a fair lick as well.   This is simply great entertainment.

THE PLASTIC AGE (1925)

It is probably quite a shock to anyone watching the film today just how little screen time Clara Bow gets in this lighthearted campus comedy.  Her regular co-star, Donald Keith, is definitely the intended star of this one, although Bow steals every scene she is in.  Her naturalistic style is beautiful to watch, and once she starts shedding tears, so do we.  The nominal plot is that Keith turns up at college, falls in love with Bow, but she feels she is a bad influence on him as she is very much a girl who likes to party.   There is strong support from Gilbert Roland and Henry B Walthall, and snappy direction by Wesley Ruggles.  Interestingly, Ruggles would take a number of elements from this film and use them in his series of short campus comedy films, The Collegians, over the next few years.   If you can track some of these down, they are also well worth a look.

THE BLUE EAGLE (1926)

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This is said to have been George O’Brien’s favourite film out of all those that he made, and what exists of it today shows it to be a great piece of entertainment.  O’Brien is in great form (and looks stunning – occasionally he even wears a shirt).   Someone has summed up the plot on IMDB as “two brawlin’ rivals take on a big drug dealer who has a James Bond-like lair complete with submarine”, and it’s pretty accurate.  John Ford directs the film with flair, and there is even the bonus of a pre-Sunrise pairing of O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.

BROWN OF HARVARD (1926)

I thought long and hard about including this film, not least as I have already included a campus comedy in my list of ten.  However, Brown of Harvard is a little different to most in that the hero of the film is so damned dislikable for the most part.  Williams Haines, in a career-defining role, plays the big-headed, often self-centred, Tom Brown of the title, and does so very well.  What sets the film apart most of all, however, is the supporting cast, which is superb.  It’s also a film that gave one of my own favourite actors, Jack Pickford, one of his last film roles, and it’s one of his best.  In fact, it’s the touching friendship he strikes up with Haines’s character that makes the film work and makes Haines remotely bearable.  Pickford’s final scenes in the film are devastating.

TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927)

two arabian knights

It is almost criminal that this early Lewis Milestone film isn’t out there on DVD for all to enjoy.  It starts off as a First World War film before turning into a comedy adventure movie.  Louis Wolheim and William Boyd are absolutely superb as bickering buddies who love each other really, and who will seemingly do anything required of them to save Arabian princess Mary Astor.  This is a huge bundle of fun, and deserves to be much better known (and much more available) than it currently is.

THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The man who taught me silent film when I was doing my undergraduate degree (who will remain nameless as he probably frequents these groups) must have been a genius.  How to get a group of film students in their first semester tuned into the wonders of silent film?  Show them The Unknown.  How exactly can anyone watch it and not be totally transfixed for the next hour as the plot veers from mad to madder?  At the end you think it’s going to turn into a 1920s equivalent of torture porn (which thankfully it doesn’t…quite).  Lon Chaney is, of course, superb in what is now one of his most celebrated performances.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and do so.  Now.

NOAH’S ARK (1929)

A rather infamous film because of the stories of the death of three extras during the filming of the flood scenes, but also a rousing success for Michael Curtiz.  It’s an odd film in that it starts off as a war drama, then stops to tell us the story of Noah’s Ark, and then returns to finish off the war story.  It’s the war section where it works best, with great chemistry between George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (we won’t ask how he got the “big boy” nickname).   There is a great reliance on coincidence in the narrative but, providing you’re happy to just sit back and go with the flow, this is stirring stuff.

THE FOUR FEATHERS (1929)

FOUR FEATHERS

I admit that I didn’t really expect to enjoy this silent version of the oft-filmed tale but was proved wrong.   This was Paramount’s last silent film, and what a way to end the era.  Richard Arlen, who often seemed to be rather wooden in sound films, is in fine form here, and he is ably supported by William Powell, Clive Brook and Fay Wray.  There is also some rather fine wildlife footage here too, including a rather lengthy stampede of hippopotamus (what’s the plural of hippopotamus?!)

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (book review)

Beyond Paradise, Andre Soares’ biography of silent and early talkie film star Ramon Novarro paints a vivid picture of a man who was charming, frustrating, generous and self-destructive.   Novarro will forever be remembered as the star of the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur – which to this writer is far more entertaining than than the lavish but sterile 1950s remake – as well fine roles in Old Heidelberg and Mata Hari.  However, his fame as a great film star is all too often overshadowed by his violent murder at the hands of two hustlers.  Kenneth Anger’s sensationalist and frankly rather vicious book Hollywood Babylon started the rumour that one of the murder weapons was a antique sex toy, but Soares manages to put this rumour to rest for good – although no doubt it will linger for as long as Anger’s book remains in print. 

Thankfully, a good two-thirds of this biography is concerned with the young Novarro, his rise to fame and his sudden fall from it.  During this early period Novarro comes across as remarkably charming, energetic and naive, and by the time the actor is dropped by MGM in the mid-thirties, the reader feels as if Novarro is their own personal friend.  In fact, it is this more personal side of the autobiography which makes it so readable.  So many biographies are really quite clinical affairs – a detailed list of dates and events – but Soares’s effort is really quite different from this.  Yes, the dates, facts and figures are there, but so is Novarro the person.  While Soares is frank about the actor’s flaws, such as his heavy-drinking and his seeming inability to fight for decent roles at MGM, he is also non-judgemental and certainly there is no dwelling on the heavy drinking or, in the later years, the actor’s penchant for hustlers. 

The final third of the book is not quite so addictive reading.  Novarro was largely inactive as an actor by this point, and sometimes one gets the feeling that Soares is having difficulty making the actor’s last thirty years as interesting as he would like them to be.  There is not so much detail of either the work Novarro was doing during this period, or the filming process (something which has vivid detail during the MGM years).  Novarro’s tragic end is covered matter-of-factlyand without sensationalism, but the effect of Novarro’s death is not felt by the reader as much one might imagine it would be when reading the first half of the book.  By this stage Novarro has gone from being an intimate friend to a casual aquaintance and, in many ways, an enigma.  The charming, naive young man has largely left the building to be replaced by a solitary man approaching old age who is struggling more and more with a drinking problem.   This isn’t Soares’s fault, of course, it is simply that Novarro’s life was far less eventful by this point.

Much of Novarro’s MGM output is now available to us on DVD, mostly through the Warner Archive series, but the most frustrating element of the book is reading about films we know we shall never see due to their status as a lost film.  As is so often the case, it is the missing films that seem the most interesting.  One can only hope that some of them re-appear in the future. 

Novarro was a charismatic, always charming figure on film and a fine actor, even if sadly largely forgotten today outside of the film buffs.  This book manages to bring to life this unfairly neglected star and is an absorbing read that is thoroughly recommended.