This week's movie date takes us back to the dawn of Hollywood, and a December night one hundred years ago - 1917 - at about four in the morning, when an automobile doing 60 miles per hour down Wilshire Boulevard crosses over to the wrong side of the road and hits an oncoming car near the intersection with Vermont Avenue.
Everyone survived with minor injuries, except the driver of the speeding vehicle who was killed instantly. Because of his huge size, it took five hours to get him out of the wreckage. And, when they identified him, a stellar screen career was over almost as soon as it began. The deceased was a 37-year-old man called Eric Campbell, and at the time he was one of the best-known faces on the planet - if only because in those days, sans television and the Internet, even well-known faces were only locally known. But Campbell appeared in the most popular movies of the day, and, because they were silent, they were popular not just in America and England and Australia but in France and Argentina and China. And Campbell's face remained recognizable for decades afterwards, as every film of an eleven-film career proved to have a far longer life than he did.
Who is Eric Campbell? Well, he's the heavy guy towering over Charlie Chaplin in all but one of the twelve films Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and 1917. The twelfth was a solo turn by the star. Otherwise, Campbell is omnipresent - and at a time when his boss was the biggest star in the world, and it was reported that nine out of ten American men attending costume parties dressed as Chaplin's little tramp. If you've had any acquaintance at all with silent movies, you'll know Campbell's face - because of the exaggeratedly menacing greasepaint eyebrows, which, notwithstanding that his entire career is less than a dozen two-reelers, nevertheless became a signature look of the era, and of a lost art form.
Campbell stood 6' 5" and weighed near 300lbs. Not a romantic lead, but a man built for comedy: In The Rink (1916), he's dining in a restaurant and impatient for the bill, which Charlie the waiter calculates by carefully examining every stain on Campbell's shirt front and jotting it down. It only works because you believe that Campbell would have consumed all that: it's something to do with the relative proportions of his head size and chest size, which is one reason why the shirt seems so expansive. Eventually, Chaplin examines Campbell's ear, and writes down watermelon - because you can also believe he's a man who can spray pips that end up in his own ear. There was a lot of force in what he did but also a kind of balletic precision, which is why, as a screen bully, he was without peer: In Easy Street, he beats up a crowd single-handed, and it's as beautifully choreographed as any MGM dream ballet.
Not much is known about Campbell. Two decades back, Kevin Macdonald (the grandson of Emeric Pressburger) made a documentary about him called Chaplin's Goliath: In Search of Scotland's Forgotten Star. Mr Macdonald went in search but didn't really find him: The film is a wan affair for those who enjoyed the director's subsequent biopic of Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland. I don't blame him for that: I've struggled myself to animate projects where there are no surviving witnesses and hardly any evidence of a life lived. But the special pleading didn't help: The film was funded by Scottish Television, the Scottish Film Production Fund, and the Scottish Arts Council, narrated by the great Scottish actor Bill Patterson, and filled with scenes of latterday Scots moppets watching Campbell's films, and experts in Scottish music hall explaining Scots entertainment history while sitting in historic Scots theatres. The documentary opens with a ceremony, arranged by the producers to bulk up their film, in which the burghers of Dunoon unveil a plaque in the castle gardens marking the fact that Eric Campbell was born in the town.
A few years after the picture was released, it emerged that Campbell had been born not in Dunoon but in Sale, which is in Cheshire, which is in England. So he wasn't Scottish. So, when Kevin Macdonald went "In Search of Scotland's Forgotten Star", the reason he came up empty is that he was looking in the wrong country. The Scots genealogist he interviewed who en passant mentioned that he hadn't been able actually to pin down Eric Campbell's precise relationship to the Campbell Clan should have been a clue. The plaque in Dunoon's Castle Gardens has now been removed.
All of which one hopes would have had Campbell clutching his sides, or at least venturing the smile of his native Cheshire's famous cat. He started his career touring in "fit-ups" - cheap'n'cheerful productions whose scenery could be quickly "fitted up" in village halls and other non-theatrical venues. Somewhere along the way, he was spotted by the great music-hall impresario Fred Karno and brought to London to join his "Fun Factory". Karno can stake a plausible claim to be the man who made hurling custard pies a convention of "silent comedy". And, if you're wondering why a theatrical producer was doing silent comedy on stage - which unlike film had existing audio technology (the human voice) - well, Karno pioneered silent comedy as a way of dodging the Lord Chamberlain, the theatrical censor. He concluded, quite logically, that the Lord Chamberlain's office was in the business of reviewing scripts, which meant reviewing dialogue. So no dialogue, no problem. Karno was a huge success until the movies came along and killed his business model. And, given that his prot├ęg├ęs included both Chaplin and Stan Laurel, it's fair to say the early flickers owed a lot to him, too.
In 1914, touring America with Karno, Eric Campbell decided to stay on, as Chaplin and Laurel had done the previous year. In February 1916, visiting New York to sign his Mutual contract, the Little Tramp chanced to see Campbell in a small role on Broadway, in an indifferent operetta called Pom Pom. The actor stood 6'5" and weighed close to 300lbs, and Chaplin must have discerned instantly that the physical contrast between the two of them would be funny in and of itself. He signed him up for his new company, Campbell moved to Hollywood, and his first film, The Floorwalker, was released three months later. Set in a department store, it's mostly the usual Chaplin shtick, with the usual girl (Edna Purviance). What's new is that at the center of the store is a somewhat fast-moving escalator ("Why the hell didn't I think of that?" Mack Sennett chided himself) and struggling to come down it is Chaplin pursued by Eric Campbell. Already in place are the lurid eyebrows and darkened lids, which he apparently modeled on his makeup for a stint in Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado back in England a few years earlier.
In the second film, The Fireman, he plays a corrupt fire chief who lets a homeowner burn down his house for the insurance money in exchange for Campbell getting to marry the guy's daughter. All the essentials of the character were by now established. It's slapstick, but the kicks look real, and vicious. In Easy Street, Campbell's brute has a genuine menace, and beats up inter alia his wife. The actor could bring verisimilitude to almost any bit of business: after locking Chaplin in a room, he swallows the key - and the audience has no difficulty swallowing the idea that this man would do such a thing.
Two-reelers were the TV of their day. Chaplin was contracted to release a new one every four weeks, but he was an artist and he liked to take his time. As the clock ran down on his Mutual contract, he decided to dispense with clock-watching execs and start his own production company. He brought Campbell with him, of course, and put him on full salary, even though the studio on LaBrea Avenue was still under construction and there was nowhere and nothing to film. Knowing that the big guy wanted to do serious drama, he loaned him out to America's sweetheart (and my compatriot) Mary Pickford, his only rival as the world's biggest star.
But in the summer of 1917 Campbell had enough serious drama in his own life. He had brought to Hollywood his English wife, and fellow music-hall artiste, Fanny Robotham, and their daughter Una. They all loved the California life. On July 9th, Mr and Mrs Campbell were dining at a restaurant near their home in Santa Monica, when Fanny was struck by a massive heart attack, and died on the spot. A few days later, their daughter, walking to a store to buy a black mourning dress, was hit by a car and critically injured. At home alone, a devastated Campbell accepted an invitation to attend a Hollywood party on September 12th.
There he met Pearl Gilman, a modestly talented vaudevillian and reputed gold-digger. In fact, she came from an entire sister-act of gold-diggers: Mabelle Gilman, while touring in The Mocking Bird in Pittsburgh, had won the aged heart of William E Corey, the president of US Steel. After divorcing him, Mabelle kept their French ch├óteau and took up with the Infante Luis, a member of the Spanish royal family, brother of King Alfonso XIII, and thus brother-in-law of Queen Victoria's granddaughter Princess Victoria Eugenie. A homosexual and occasional transvestite, Luis was also an even bigger gold-digger than the Gilman girls, and dumped Mabelle a few days before their wedding because he felt her offer of a thousand-dollars-a-month pocket money wasn't enough to keep him in frocks and young men. Mabelle's sister Pearl, meanwhile, was the ex-wife in rapid succession of Charles Alisky, the Alisky Candy heir, and Theodore Arnreiter, a dodgier financier.
But Eric was smitten. Four days after meeting Pearl Gilman-Alisky-Arnreiter, he married her. He decided not to tell his daughter because she was still recuperating. And so Una only found out when she returned home a few weeks later. By then her new step-mom was on her way to becoming her ex-step-mom. After less than two months, Pearl filed for divorce. In a short marriage, the pickings are thin, but Miss Gilman was an old hand and gave it her best: Eric had been cruel to her, at one point snapping, "God damn you, take your feet down!" Also he introduced her to a hula dancer, which she felt was improper.
Eric moved out of the family bungalow and into the Los Angeles Athletic Club, taking the room next to its most famous resident, Charlie Chaplin. In October, their last film for Mutual was released, The Adventurer. By comparison with, say, Easy Street, Campbell seems a little muted, as anyone might be after being widowed, re-married and sued for divorce within a matter of weeks. Still, there's a lovely moment in the picture when Chaplin's on a balcony at a swank country house enjoying an ice cream. A scoop falls off, as they are wont to do, but in this case it drops down the front of his baggy pants, causing some discomfort. So he shakes his leg, and it falls from the bottom of his trouser through the balcony and down below to land between the shoulder blades of an elegant lady in a backless gown. She bristles from the sudden chill, and the scoop drops further down her back. At which point, behind her, Eric Campbell reaches for it, and is rewarded with a slap on his face. With Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose, it would be creepy because you'd know their intention was to get their paws inside the girl's dress. With Campbell, it's funny because you know he wants the ice cream.
The Adventurer was Eric Campbell's final picture. On December 20th 1917, three days after starting work with Mary Pickford, he went to a Christmas party at the Vernon Country Club, drank heavily, and then climbed into his car to go full throttle back to his room at the athletic club...
Was any melodrama for touring Welsh fit-ups ever so absurdly over-plotted? His body was cremated and his ashes sent to Rosedale Cemetery, where they sat in storage for six months waiting for someone to pay for their interment. When no one did, the cemetery sent them back to the undertakers, the Handley Mortuary, where they sat around for another twenty years. When Handley's closed up shop in 1938, the ashes were shipped over to Rosedale again, where they were put in a closet until 1952, when an employee took pity on them and had them buried somewhere in the cemetery. Unfortunately, he neglected to record where. So somewhere or other amid the starry tombstones of Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong and Fernando Lamas lie the ashes of Eric Campbell, in the Rosedale equivalent of a pauper's grave.
His daughter Una was just sixteen, a minor, and so was returned to England to be raised by relatives in the Midlands in modest circumstances. Una's daughter says in Kevin Macdonald's documentary that occasionally she'd point to the screen and say "Oh, that's my grandfather there", but that people are skeptical... I know what she means. I once went to visit the daughter of Clifford Grey, the lyricist of "If You Were The Only Girl in the World" and other hits. She was living in a council flat in a none too salubrious part of Glasgow, and, when she talked about the old days in America when Fred Astaire and George Gershwin would come over to the house, it sounded faintly preposterous. One can understand why you'd cease mentioning it.
In those early days of silent comedy, there were stock figures: The Comic, the Girl, the Heavy... The Girl, to be frank, wasn't always that interesting, so the Heavy became second only to the star in importance. Everyone had one, including Chaplin impersonators like Billy West, who used the pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy. But the real Charlie never found anybody as good for the part as Eric Campbell, either in physical presence or in comedic grace. And so, after December 20th 1917, something went out of Chaplin's comedy: in Campbell's absence, the Little Tramp fell back on what was left, and the cloying sentimentalist side of him took over. Chaplin himself described the Mutual era as the happiest time of his professional life, but, taken as a whole, those eleven films are his best work. He never again had a foil as skilled and compatible as Campbell. He lost his Heavy, and his lightness of touch. And a century after his death, if you ask those even slightly familiar with the dead art of silent comedy, somewhere among the half-dozen fuzzy recollections is a big bearded guy in wacky eyebrows taking a swing at Charlie Chaplin.
There is a famous line attributed to Sir Edmund Kean on his deathbed: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." No one has ever quite made the point like Chaplin's heavy approaching the intersection of Wilshire and Vermont at sixty miles an hour...
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