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  • David Parkinson

In Cinemas (27/9/2023)

(A Letter to The Guardian)

Dear Sir or Madam

While accepting that your Pass Notes articles are supposed to be a bit of snarky fun, yesterday's item on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is insufferably smug -

Your writer clearly did little research or they would have known that each of the figures they dismiss so glibly in the `Such As' section (presumably because they had `funny' names) played a significant part in Hollywood history.

A quick trip to Wikipedia would have informed your writer that King Baggot was one of the world's first named film stars. In making over 300 pictures, he became known as `The Man Whose Face Is As Familiar As the Man in the Moon'. He even came to Chepstow Castle in Wales to star in Herbert Brenon's Ivanhoe (1913), which was one of the first Hollywood movies to shoot on overseas location.

But, of course, your writer wouldn't be interested in that. Or in the fact that Baggot went on to direct 45 films, including cowboy superstar William S. Hart's Tumbleweeds (1925), which proved a major influence on the Hollywood Western. Baggot's decline following the break-up of his marriage was desperately sad and he wound up working as an extra. But, hey, wacky name, fair game, right?

The same, presumably, goes for Rod La Rocque, which was actually his real name. Forget the fact that he was a popular leading man in early Hollywood, who worked regularly with Cecil B. DeMille. Indeed, he played Dan McTavish in the modern segment of The Ten Commandments (1923) and starred in The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926), a prototype screwball comedy that was produced by DeMille and directed by James W. Horne, who guided Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy through their finest two-reelers. Both films are on YouTube. Take a look. Turns out the man could act.

La Rocque's marriage to Hungarian star Vilma Bánky was a major news story in 1927, as she had formed on-screen partnerships with Rudolph Valentino and Ronald Colman. They remained together after his brand of dashing idol went out of fashion and he moved into real estate. A century ago, The Manchester Guardian would have covered their careers and reviewed their films. Despite each having a star on the Walk of Fame, they're no longer familiar names, but they still merit a bit of respect.

The anonymous writer's ignorance, or should we be generous and call it laziness, is most evident in the case of Jetta Goudal, a Dutch actress who was among the most popular stars of the late silent period. When DeMille cancelled her contract following The Road to Yesterday (1925), she sued and won a landmark case that proved crucial to the protection of actors' rights within the studio system.

Given the current strike involving writers and performers (which The Guardian has covered in empathetic detail), one might have thought that Goudal should be celebrated as a pioneering activist rather than be mocked by someone who didn't deem it worth the time or effort to check before they scoffed. Had they done so, they would also have discovered that Goudal lost virtually her entire family in the Holocaust and had Bridge 771 named after her by Amsterdam city council in 2019. At least they don't appear to have forgotten.

Lastly, we come to Snub Pollard, an Australian comedian with a trademark drooping moustache, whose work with silent slapstick legends Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, as well as producer Hal Roach, meant that he was afforded a hero's welcome when he returned home in 1923. One of his shorts from that year, It's a Gift, is filled with quirky inventions and remains funny 100 years on. It's on YouTube.

A classic example of the journeyman on whom the studios relied, Pollard was teamed with Marvin Loback in a Laurel and Hardy knock-off act at Warners before he settled into taking bit parts in a range of features and shorts. He was rarely credited, but IMDB gives him a tally of 621 appearances between 1913-62. Your writer might have felt him worthy of little more than a throwaway gag, but Pollard was sufficiently well known across the studios to crop up in some major films, notably handing Gene Kelly an umbrella at the end of the iconic dance routine in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Your writer also asks why Gene Autry has five stars. Once again, a little research might have revealed that this singing cowboy was recognised for his contributions to cinema, theatre, recording, radio, and television. He's the only performer with five stars and for that reason alone deserves more than a shruggingly dismissive `for some reason'. Come Christmas, your writer may well find themselves singing along to `Frosty the Snowman'. That'll be Gene Autry, then.

I've no doubt that the general observations about the Walk of Fame are salient, even though I'm willing to bet that your writer has never been there. It matters not. What is at issue is that Guardian readers have been left with the impression that these five artists from Hollywood's past are a waste of space. Forget their lifetimes of achievement. Let's just have a cheap laugh at their expense. Surely, they deserve better?

Yours etc

David Parkinson

Film Historian and Critic

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