Tag Archives: Film history

Laurel and Hardy: from Ulverston to Hollywood

This is a guest post for Silent London by Katie Wright.

A pair of comics shuffle onstage at the Palace Theatre in Blackpool, England in June 1947. One is swimming in an oversized checked suit, dripping past his hands and towards the floor. The other is round and squat, sporting a moustache comically small for his wide face. Together, they frolic and play, every bit the annoyed schemer and his hapless buffoon. Laurel and Hardy finish their act to thunderous applause. The duo is famous all over the world, but one of them is playing to a “hometown” crowd.

laurelandhardyblackpoolposter

The pair were best known for their feature films and silent shorts, and shared a bond as close as brothers, although Oliver Hardy hailed from Georgia while Stand Laurel remained a proud northern Briton throughout his life. While onstage Laurel played the fool, he was writer, director, and comic mastermind behind the pair’s success.

At the heart of Laurel’s stardom lies his boyhood as a young performer in Britain. Despite moving several times in his youth, the local boy who made good is revered in various “hometowns” across the north, and many avid fans and academics have sought to better understand the boy behind the man.

The Laurel and Hardy Museum at its original location in Ulverston

 

In Ulverston, Cumbria, where Laurel was born on 16 June, 1890, long-time admirer Bill Cubin put his lovingly assembled memorabilia collection on display in the mid 1980s, leading to what is now a full-fledged museum run by his grandson.

A statue of Laurel stands in Dockwray Square, North Shields, where he lived as a boy from 1897 to 1902. The Eden Theatre in Bishop Auckland, County Durham hosts a Laurel statue erected in 2008. There are more plaques in pubs and venues from Leicestershire to Glasgow.

Stan Laurel
Stan Laurel

University of Nottingham professor of sociology Danny Lawrence grew up in North Shields, and sees in Laurel’s story a “parallel to [his] own life”. The connections drove him to begin researching Stan Laurel, and prompted his biography The Making of Stan Laurel: Echoes of a British Boyhood.

“I was born in the same town 50 years apart, nearly 100 yards from where he lived,” explains Lawrence. “Laurel lived in North Shields during the formative years of childhood and youth. It fascinated me to begin exploring the relationship between the town and the artist.”

Stan Jefferson, later Stan Laurel, began acting young, a student of Britain’s traditional music hall and pantomime. He eventually travelled to the USA with the Fred Karno troupe alongside a young Charlie Chaplin.

“It was by chance that he got to the States. I think that chance element makes his story alluring,” says Lawrence.

“His ability was there, but there was no distinctive character until he met Hardy. He only got that chance when the Karno tour was failing, and he instead chose to stay in the USA in search of greener pastures.”

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My silent cinema shelfie

  
When I am not watching silent movies, I’m often reading about them. Or writing about them. Or dancing in my kitchen to Taylor Swift, but that’s another matter entirely.

The point is that there are a lot of great and not-so great silent cinema books out there. And I have a few of both. Recently the frequently hilarious Movies Silently blog posted a list of silent film books perfect for beginners, and on the BFI website, Geoff Andrew listed the cinema books he truly loves. Inspired by both those posts, here is my silent cinema “shelfie”. It’s not my full collection, but an edit – a representative selection of the silent film books I have loved, or leaned on. 

A couple of these are books I don’t entirely love (can you guess?), one infuriates me, and many of them I worship wholeheartedly. A few are highfalutin texts I used as a student – and still dip into now. Those are for theory, history and analysis – which are essential. Some satisfy my greed for gossip and glamour – ditto.

You’ll spot a classic picture book, and a new one too. There’s a novel in there, because silent cinema inspires fiction as well as fact, and a list book, although I claim to dislike lists. There’s an autobiography and two biographies, which are all more entertaining than any novel. 

There are two books here by Kevin Brownlow. And the other obvious bias is towards writing by and about women. I wouldn’t have it any other way

The Giornate catalogue stands in for all its erudite siblings, of course. And there’s a recent favourite in there too – which I am evangelical about.

 
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The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were you right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?

Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second path. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …

What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.

It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.

Continue reading The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

The Piccadilly Circus mystery – can you help?

Do you recognise any of the cast and crew from this shoot? © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection
Do you recognise any of the cast and crew from this shoot? Click on the image to enlarge it. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Here’s a mystery – and a topical one too. To tie in with the 150th anniversary of the Tube, the BFI restoration of Anthony Asquith’s 1928 thriller Underground gets a theatrical release this week. What do you mean, you didn’t know? This happy news led Simon Murphy from the London Transport Museum to send me this intriguing photograph of what seems to be a film cast and crew at Piccadilly Circus station.

Simon writes:

The location is Piccadilly Circus and the date is 1929 or so I think, but could be later. I used to think it was 1928 and linked to the Asquith film Underground somehow, but the station was only just being built when Underground was shot in April-May 1928 and didn’t open to the public until December. I recognise Anthony Asquith, to the right of the guy with the pencil moustache, and the woman on the left looks familiar but I can’t place her …

So we’re asking for your help. Do you recognise any famous (or not-so famous) faces from British film history? Could they be filming a short, or some publicity material for another title? Perhaps these closeups will help:

Piccadilly Circus mystery closeup 1
The group on the left. Surely someone will know the glamorous woman in the shawl? © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

The woman with the bob must be a star, surely? And is that really Asquith with his coat collar turned up?

Piccadilly Circus mystery closeup 3
How about this group on the right of the original image? © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

I’ve heard a suggestion that the lone figure in the foreground of this group may be Michael Balcon. Do you agree?

If you have any suggestions, please add your comments below – or email londonsilent@gmail.com.