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In the 1950s, the famous newsreel company Pathe produced
a major historical documentary series for British television.
Made by the award-winning producer Peter Baylis
and narrated by an illustrious line-up of celebrated actors,
Time To Remember chronicled the social, cultural and political forces that shaped
the first half of the 20th century.
Baylis chose to include the stage and screen performers of the '20s and '30s in a number of episodes.
The changing face of music hall and theatre
coupled with the rise of cinema provides an intriguing perspective on a dynamic period.
SINGING AND PIANO PLAYING
Kings, faces, friends, places - years and moments are forgotten.
Laughs, tears, songs, tears - memories are made of this.
The 1920s was a golden age for the popular entertainment industry in Britain.
The theatres packed them in with lavish musical spectaculars, romantic situation comedies,
and outright farce.
In the music halls,
comedic acts shared a stage with the energetic antics of the song and dance merchants.
Here, variety and ingenuity was the key.
This was also the great era of the silent movie, where a grand gesture and dramatic expression said it all.
And many of the music hall veterans and stage actors
became the glamorous stars of this new industry.
Time To Remember takes us behind the scenes in show business during the roaring '20s.
Julian Wylie was a famous theatrical impresario in the early 20th century.
Known in his day as The King Of Pantomime,
Wylie and his partner James Tate were behind many of the most popular revues and musicals on Drury Lane.
And Wylie also managed several of the biggest variety stars of the era.
Pathe followed a day in the life of this busy producer
as he prepared to stage his latest musical extravaganza.
A new production entails 1,001 problems to be solved,
1,001 details to be attended to personally if the whole is to have unity.
Attention to detail all along the line, from the first sketches and models
to the last touches of the scene painter's brush - ideas into reality.
And Mr Wylie had his girls to select,
another task that only the producer can do.
For so often is quality of showmanship judged by the faces and figures of the chorus.
You and you... Not you.
Mr Wylie had an eye for them.
In such womb days of show business,
plenty of activity to be found on the boards of London's West End, even at 10am.
Yes, all over theatreland that morning,
work-outs for the girls, physical jerks, drilling and discipline.
Hour after hour of what it takes to make a dancer, even if she is only in the second line of the chorus.
Big musicals had become very much the vogue in the '20s,
and when you spoke of musicals you generally mentioned Jose Collins.
What new piece of by-play have we here?
Very much off the cuff one feels, ending as it does with the cast dissolving into laughter.
But now for more serious stuff.
Harry Welchman puts his individual touch on a dream sequence for Lady Of The Rose.
Drury Lane, one feels certain. The apparition, Phyllis Dare.
Nothing like putting it over big. A bit broad perhaps, but no doubt it'll be fine on the night.
Mr Wylie choosing voices.
# Doh ray me fa so la ti doh! #
And rejecting them. It takes time, not to mention luck.
Julian Wylie is working with his principles.
Carl Brisson, now there's a heart-throb for evenings and matinees - but especially matinees.
The Hulberts of course, Jack and Cicely.
And this might be any one of a dozen famous shows in preparation.
Hoofers hard at it hoofing anywhere backstage in London that morning.
Show business has always been a hard taskmaster, but never more so than in the '20s.
Did you have to be better then to get to the top? Many think so.
The traditional music hall play bill featured a range of performers,
from comics to singers, acrobats to showgirls,
but often the most popular were the speciality acts.
Talent? Watch this for a drunk.
The performer's name doesn't matter, for his ability and skill were shared by many in those rich days.
Well, have we advanced much since then?
A leading question, one admits.
Yet whatever the answer, one cannot deny the sweep and showmanship of the '20s.
It was a sad era for many, a hard one for others, a gay time for a few,
but amid the bright lights all asked for gaiety, humour and tuneful music, and no-one can deny that they got it.
Like most forms of expression, the stage reflects the mood and spirit of the times,
and this is what the times were like.
Times a little unsure of themselves, but wherever they were going they were going there fast.
Quick changes of scene and costume demanding rapid timing
and the shedding and donning of clothes at breakneck speed.
For those with the most time, the dressing room. For others with but seconds, the stage itself.
Systematically the chorus prepares for the next headlong spurt,
while the principals do their spots.
The principals. Where again such magic as the dancing moods of Jack Buchanan and June
has anyone since even been quite so debonair, quite so disarming?
How effortless their efforts seemed.
The era of the musicals.
From the princes and princesses to old Vienna and student Heidelberg,
choruses of ladies-in-waiting, milkmaids, gypsies, or girlfriends of the Paris vagabonds.
Incas or red-skinned maidens sweeping around the totem poles of Rose Marie.
The costumes and settings might be different but the plots invariably much the same,
whether with the Hapsburgs or the wide-hatted mustachios of Rio Rita,
Spain, Algeria, Mexico, or Gay Paris.
But the real innovation of the '20s was the bright sparkling musical of sophistication
of the house parties, the Riviera and Berkeley Square.
Slender plots, mere excuses for singing and dancing interlaced with shining bursts of rich comedy.
Top hats and tails - long before Astaire popularised them in the screen musicals -
steps and business from such as Herbert Mundin
that held the freshness that only comes with real talent.
Hollywood very soon wooed him away.
Now daylight has gone and London lights are bright.
Big shows and big names, together backstage in auditoriums, wake to life.
At Wyndham's Theatre, Charles Laughton is in his dressing room setting about the long task
of making up for his part in Edgar Wallace's Chicago gangster thriller On The Spot.
Ten minutes, Mr Laughton.
Stalls, circle and boxes filling all over theatreland.
Behind the safety curtains, last-minute preparations and thrills that never die.
The thrill of, "overture and beginners, please!"
Mr Laughton now transformed Tony Perelli to the life.
"I love Jimmy. Jimmy's a nice boy."
All over town, the last prop's into place.
Lights, music, and curtain up!
Theatre and music hall performers played to packed houses in the first two decades of the century,
but in the '20s, live entertainment was facing
stiff competition from the growing popularity of moving pictures.
By the end of the decade, many of the old music hall venues
were being converted into cinemas to take advantage of burgeoning audiences.
Moving pictures had fascinated the public
since the days of the hand-cranked cinematograph projectors of the late 1800s.
Despite the technical limitations of these early films, audiences weren't deterred.
What did it matter what was on the screen, so long as it moved?
And what did it matter if sometimes the lettering on the picture was unaccountably back-to-front?
All part of the miracle.
But it was in the '20s that silent cinema enjoyed its heyday.
Time To Remember looked back at this era, making clever use of a 1928 British film
to take its audience behind the scenes on a film set.
Shooting Stars was the innovative directorial debut of Anthony Asquith.
The story concerns a love triangle played out in a 1920s movie studio.
It was one of the earliest motion pictures
to reveal the inner workings of the movie industry, featuring a film within a film.
I remember a time when we created our celluloid make-believe
not with wide screen and silver stereophonic speech,
but with a simple mime and golden silence.
Yet even with the technical limitations of the '20s,
the magic of the movie-maker was powerfully effective.
The ingenious too were his devices - paper cathedral, or all done with mirrors.
Elstree, by and large the Hollywood of Britain in the '20s, but without the palms and sun.
But within its echoing tin-roofed stages you could make it whatever season you liked,
notwithstanding the snow outside.
The usual impression of shambles and chaos,
with all seemingly at loggerheads,
though, in fact, each is doing his job quite efficiently without fuss.
Film studios never change in the essentials, unless of course the star is stamping off in high dudgeon.
Or is it that she merely wants a cup of tea?
Yes, probably the latter.
Films being silent, there was no need of soundproofing,
and one set rubbed shoulders with another without even a dividing wall.
With more than one film in production at one and the same time,
the resultant din was generally frightful.
In those days, music was played off-set to put the players into the right mood.
They didn't need to hear themselves speak.
Yes, that's how it was around Elstree in the days of the silents, a pandemonium of noise.
But the early film-makers weren't restricted to the studio set.
The hand-cranked camera of the silent era allowed them to shoot certain scenes out on location.
This, I should explain, was meant to be funny.
And do you know, I think it was.
As the technology evolved, so did the ambition and ingenuity of the film-makers,
who began producing pictures that were longer, featuring increasingly sophisticated stories
and ever more complex special effects.
Then The Fatal Sneeze.
Put pepper into the old man's handkerchief,
and let's see what happens.
Whatever it is, lifelike,
it's certain to be funny.
Slapstick had always played well to audiences, but the hardships caused by the First World War
and the tough economic climate of the late '20s
created an even greater need for frivolity and escapism.
But though life was tough for many, it was never like that in the movies, for there was real never-never land.
There, the hero or the heroine generally woke up in a room like this,
in a bed like this, seeming even a little bored perhaps
at always having nothing but the best.
In the movie world, life was one constant cocktail party.
Interminable, yet apparently essential to the plot.
Gracious living abounded on every side, dressing for dinner
and every other meal around the clock, even if in the backwoods,
or on the African veldt.
Characters who must have been purblind,
for so long did they spend in nightclubs and other haunts of creatures who shun the light.
The allure of exotic climes and foreign cultures
was also a huge draw to British audiences seeking escapism,
and the stereotype of the racy Frenchwoman was reinforced in the popular cinema of the day.
Visitors to Deauville in the '20s
might have gathered the impression that it was rather a staid and respectable place. Ha-ha!
But not so the Deauville of the silver screen.
There it was downright dangerous to cross the road
for fear of being run down by lovers driving desperately away from vengeful, irate husbands.
This is probably the explanation why the British always believe
that the French drive too fast.
Without popular British conceptions of general French loose behaviour
it is doubtful whether these productions could have survived at all.
But to the British, a French woman on the screen, or off, was,
"Oh, la la! Oui, oui!"
And that was all.
Not like British girls at all.
The average English rose, screen variety, was a sort of tomboy.
Indeed, just like Betty Balfour,
warm-hearted and capable of expressing vivacious emotions,
yet always knowing just exactly where Mother had advised her to stop,
and to a hair's breadth.
But then after all, the world in which she moved was a pretty dangerous place,
grossly overpopulated with prowling wolves.
A girl just had to be careful.
Nevertheless, our tomboy was always seeking to give an impression of being anything but innocent,
for otherwise, she ran the risk of seeming a bore.
Those strange movements are meant to convey loose living.
By this, she shocks and disgusts her faithful boyfriend.
Why she had to do this was obscure, but it's in the script.
Father Gordon Harker too is not a little disgruntled by his daughter's apparent risque behaviour.
The young man seeking to pass, by the way, is Claude Hulbert.
Sooner or later, the tomboy's famed immorality
gets her into a twin-bedded cabin with - yes, indeed - the champion wolf of the whole pack.
At this point, with no escape possible through the porthole,
she realises that she's in a situation
that even she might not be able to handle. Yes, a pretty tricky dilemma.
But of course, she gets out of it somehow and rejoins her faithful,
prepared at last to go just that hair's breadth further.
Did the movies reflect life?
Well, not all perhaps, but there were many that did their best.
The '20s will be remembered, amongst other things, for the climax of civil strife in Ireland.
The arrest of husband, brother or son was too frequent an event in that unhappy land...
..a theme the movies rose to.
The German film director Arthur Robison gave the screen a brilliant
mirror-like representation of life in the Troubles.
The powerful realism of the German cinema
had at last infiltrated into British studios with good effect.
If you can't beat 'em, import their best talents.
The informer, Gypo Nolan - interpreted by Lars Hanson -
reveals his crime to his girl, played by that stunning German actress Lya De Putti.
His betrayed friend shot while trying to escape, Gypo Nolan goes to comfort the bereaved mother.
At her home, he accidentally drops the money, which proves his guilt.
Finally, the dying Nolan in church, seeking and finding the mother's forgiveness for his crime.
A different movie from the usual run-of-the-mill, a movie in which something of the reality,
something of the tragic poetry of the strife-torn Emerald Isle found its way onto the screen.
Serious, gritty movies occupy an important place in silent cinema history.
But for most film fans of the period, the appeal of the silver screen
was its offer of escape to more exciting worlds, populated by impossibly glamorous stars.
By the 1920s, the great silent movie actors had already become global icons.
1920. I remember all the excitement when into a British port
sailed a couple that all the world seemed crazy to meet.
Idols of the silver screen have always provided a great attraction,
but no subsequent display of fan worship has ever quite come up to what those two received.
A golden-haired little Hollywood actress and her romantic,
acrobatic husband, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
Douglas Senior, to be exact.
London, Paris, every European capital was their oyster.
And wherever they went, it was flowers and general hysteria.
In such a new medium as the cinema was then,
these two were the first real stars in the whole bright firmament.
And the lure of the stage and screen celebrities of the '20s and '30s sustained.
Time To Remember includes several short clips of the stars of the era,
often in informal situations, off-set.
Tallulah Bankhead, celebrated American actress, wit and bon vivant.
The great playwright Noel Coward and his rival, Somerset Maugham,
reputedly the highest-paid writer of the time.
Scottish music hall stalwart Sir Harry Lauder.
Actress Sybil Thorndike, whose career took off after being talent spotted by George Bernard Shaw.
Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, feted for her showpiece role The Dying Swan.
Acclaimed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, shortly before his death in 1920.
And an off-duty Charlie Chaplin.
In 1926, the public's devotion to their movie stars was encapsulated
in the reaction to the death of one of Hollywood's greatest idols.
I remember that he was called Rudolph Valentino,
not the name he was born with.
He was the Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who whipped her to his tent,
though what happened there afterwards was always left vague.
He was the screen idol of millions, of just how many millions
we were only to find out when one day in 1926, unexpectedly he died.
Famous friends such as Douglas Fairbanks walked with the coffin.
And for untold numbers of the world's women, it was as though their own hearts had stopped.
Even stars like Pola Negri broke down and wept.
In respect, we will gloss over the riots in America
in which women fought with the police at his lying in state and move on to his funeral,
where 100,000 lined the route.
Somewhere in that 100,000 was a mysterious lady in black
who for the rest of her life was to place flowers upon Valentino's grave,
symbolising the millions of lonely ladies who had been mentally placing flowers on that grave ever since.
The passing of the silent movie industry's greatest star would come to mark the end of an era,
because within a year, talking pictures had exploded onto the big screen.
A new age in cinema had arrived.
Britain's first talkie was Blackmail,
directed by a 29-year-old Alfred Hitchcock.
Originally shot as a silent picture, it was restaged to include dialogue,
sound effects and a musical score, before it premiered in 1929.
But there's one thing you seem to have forgotten.
Before we get to any hanging, I shall have quite a lot to say.
Blackmail was hugely popular with audiences and critics alike,
and its success helped to spur the growth of talking pictures
in the early '30s.
It was a long way up to heaven.
It was worth the climb.
Time To Remember chronicled a momentous period in the history of popular entertainment,
when live performance in the theatre and music hall
faced powerful competition from the growing popularity of the cinema.
New styles of entertainment delighted millions,
and the fortunes of some of the era's greatest stars were transformed by the arrival of new technologies
that added sound to the silver screen and gave voice to some of the great icons of the silent era.
Serious drama, farce, light-hearted musicals, the '20s held them all.
And because many of those who entertained us then do so no longer, the world is a poorer place,
because in their talent, they all believed in that old cliche
that there is indeed no business like show business.
And there isn't, is there?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In the 1950s, the newsreel company Pathe mined their archive to produce a series of programmes for television called Time to Remember. Made by the producer Peter Baylis, they chronicled the political, social and cultural changes that occurred during the first half of the 20th century.
Each episode was narrated by a prominent actor such as Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Quayle, Edith Evans, Basil Rathbone and Joyce Grenfell, all reading scripts recalling historic, evocative or significant moments from an intriguing past.
In 2010, the material from the original Time to Remember has been collected together thematically to create a new 12-part series under the same title that offers a rewarding perspective on the events, people and innovations from history that continue to shape and influence the world around us.
Archive footage from the theatres, music halls and cinemas of the 1920s and 30s combines with characterful voiceover to give a glimpse of the entertainment industries in their early 20th century golden age. It includes footage of Charles Laughton applying his own stage make-up, chorus line auditions and rehearsals in the West End, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visiting Europe, and Alfred Hitchcock's first talkie, 1929's Blackmail.