Jonathan Croall would like to introduce you to his father, his father’s friends and their neglected, but fascinating, glory days. Readers of this blog will recognise Croall’s father as John Stuart, the dashing star of many a British silent movie, including The Pleasure Garden, Roses of Picardy and Hindle Wakes, plus many more talkies besides. Stuart worked right until the late 70s. His last big-screen role was as a Kryptonian elder in 1978’s Superman.
This lovingly written and hugely informative book, Forgotten Stars: My Father and the British Silent Film World, is concerned with Stuart’s heyday, however, and his cohorts in Britain’s silent movie industry. As Croall tells his father’s story, he loops in the tales of the actors, writers, producers and directors he worked with: there’s Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock; Lillian Hall-Davis and Estelle Brody; the Film Society and the coming of sound. It’s a distinctive methodology – a chapter on a wider topic will suddenly focus on anecdotes from Stuart’s career alone, and then usher in two more dramatis personae. Under the chapter heading Fans and Fan Clubs, say, one reads several paragraphs on the publicity industry surrounding silent movie stars. Beneath the subheading A Star Under Siege we encounter a story about Stuart being mobbed by fans at the Film Artists’ Fair, which leads to a discussion of his fans, his fan club, his gruelling schedule of personal appearances and the speeches he made. (These sections that dwell solely on Stuart’s career are flagged with his smiling portrait.) This is then followed by two profiles of British silent cinema’s two biggest stars: Betty Balfour and Ivor Novello.
The effect of this idiosyncratic approach is a certain informality, which charmingly belies the amount of good, thorough research in this book. Those potted profiles that close each chapter are valuable primers in figures both celebrated and obscure; press quotes and archive images back up everything Croall has to share. In truth, I had to smile at the diligence of a book that offers a Foreword (by Kevin Brownlow no less), a preface, and an introduction before beginning with “Part One: Background”.
On the picture front, I am particularly fond of the shot of Stuart with his first wife Jeanne Lagrene in 1925 – her silk oriental-pyjama outfit is très chic – and of a middle-aged Stuart reunited with Hitchcock in 1968. These images are one of the book’s biggest strengths – and reveal much about its genesis. Croall has researched, and illustrated the book with help of collections including those held by the BFI and the Cinema Museum, but also his own family archive. Croall reprints quotes from contemporary interviews with Stuart alongside his own personal memories of his father.
It probably goes without saying that there is more about Stuart here than you will find in other overviews of the era, which is a big plus – and a very small minus. It’s true, Forgotten Stars has a certain visible bias towards its leading man. You’ll find little here on Hitchcock’s silents other than The Pleasure Garden, for example. A reader could be forgiven for wanting to read more than a couple of paragraphs on some of Stuart’s less talked-about colleagues – this a curious mix of biography and backgrounder.
Still Croall’s affection for his subject is both infectious and useful. If a name as important as Stuart’s is forgotten, what hope for his fellows? I would welcome far more books of this ilk – a tribute to the celebrities of a vanished industry, burnished by familial pride and a passion for silent cinema.