A Walking Movie Encyclopedia: Harry Purvis

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by Leonard Maltin
July 25, 2013 1:55 PM
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Charlie Chase: how Harry saw Harry
When I was a kid, I pored over (and saved) every issue of TV Guide. One of my favorite recurring features was a compendium of unintentionally funny lines of dialogue from old movies, compiled by one Harry Purvis. Little did I dream that decades later I’d get to meet this genial gentleman at the annual Cinefest in Syracuse, New York. Like another somewhat elusive fellow, Don Miller (the author of B Movies and Hollywood Corral), he had a crystal-clear memory of every movie he’d ever seen since the late 1920s and loved talking with like-minded buffs. He was also inordinately proud of his home town, Hamilton, Ontario, and delighted in telling people who cared (like me) that it was the birthplace of veteran character actor Douglass Dumbrille.

Upon hearing of Harry’s death last week at the age of 89, TV critic and film aficionado James Bawden, another Hamiltonian (and onetime contributor to my Film Fan Monthly), recently wrote, “Because Hamilton was such a compact city he'd get in up to eight movies on a busy weekend of viewing. When I asked him what he was doing that day in August 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Steel City he blushed and said, ‘There was a triple bill at the Empire I couldn't give up. I could see the King another time.’

          “His three rooms on the top floor of the family home were jam packed with yellowing newspapers, copies of every movie magazine around , thousands of books and more than 10,000 movie stills. Now that I think of it Harry would have been a perfect subject for the currently running TV hit Hoarders.”

          Jim also remembers a time when Harry shared the line while radio host Bob Bratina was interviewing Ginger Rogers on CHML. “The star said how happy she was to finally play Hamilton and Purvis interrupted to say, ‘Ginger, you were here in vaudeville in 1927.’  I understand Ginger departed that interview in a real rage.” You can read Jim’s entire piece HERE.

Another of Harry’s friends and admirers is my friend Bill Brioux, who has granted me permission to reprint his recollection of Harry from his blog, tvfeedsmyfamily.blogspot.ca.

Way, way back when I worked at TV Guide, there was a dapper gentleman who used to hitch a ride in once a week from Hamilton, Ont. He might write a few listings, or do a trivia column, or just chat up the ladies in the art department. His name was Harry Purvis.

Harry was a walking, talking film encyclopedia. Not only could he tell you all the actors in an obscure Columbia release from 1934, he could tell you which theatre he saw it in and what else was on the double bill.

Sadly, word comes from mutual friend Jim Bawden that Harry has passed away in a Hamilton hospital. He was 89. Harry takes with him about 80 years of film history. TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies' host Elwy Yost used to call Harry to check facts before broadcasts. Other film historians, including Leonard Maltin (who would catch up with Harry at the annual Cinefest screenings in Syracuse, N.Y.), would bow to Harry's knowledge of film, especially anything that was released in the '30s.

Harry built up this knowledge base by seeing every film that ever played a Hamilton neighbourhood movie house. In the days before TV, far more movies were released and folks flocked to the cinemas for the newsreels and the shorts as well as the features. A movie ticket would run a youngster about ten cents in the '30s and Harry saw a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 15 per week, totaling well over 400 films a year.

The fact that he was a walking Trivial Pursuit Movie Edition made Harry a welcome visitor once-a-week at TV Guide when I started there in the '80s, but on top of that, Harry had several story credits in Mad Magazine, where he would pen "flicker snickers" and "Lines from the late show..." This made Harry pretty much a God at the Guide.

Then there were his occasional movie listings. Here's one that actually snuck past the editors into print at TV Guide: The Chinese Professionals: The story of a good man gone Wong.

One of his best Mad Magazine "flicker" captions was under a still of a very happy warrior raising his fists in glee from some cowboy movie. Harry's caption: "John Wayne is dead!”

Besides TV Guide and Mad, Harry wrote for Motion Picture Magazine and even Penthouse and Playboy.

Not just movie experts but movie stars would occasionally call Harry at home in Hamilton to check facts from their film pasts. One of his callers was actress/director Ida Lupino, who tried but never could stump the film expert.

One of the things that always impressed me about Harry was while he knew everything about the past, as far as movies were concerned, he was also very current. His all-time favourite TV comedy wasn't I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners but Seinfeld. The last time we spoke, he was raving about The Big Bang Theory.

Part of his legend, of course, was that he had a nick name: "Harry the Hat." The man was rarely seen without a topper. He seemed to take his style cue from the silent and early sound comedy star Charley Chase, not a bad role model for the rest of us.

Harry was also a pack rat and pretty much kept every movie magazine, photograph or newspaper article he ever read. Several years ago, I tried to set him up with a dealer in Los Angeles who auctioned off rare movie items but it was a bit of a harsh reality check for Harry. That window of cashing in on Francis X Bushman, Clara Bow and Roman Navarro seems to have been slammed shut. Even the Dionne Quintuplets aren't the money magnets they used to be. He did make a few bucks from some Marilyn Monroe covers.

In a perfect world there'd be a salute to Harry on TCM this weekend. The films would star Fred MacMurray, an actor Harry always felt was under-rated. There'd also be a screening of the film he considered his favourite, The Adventures of Robin Hood. When Errol Flynn hit the screen in 1938 in blazing Technicolor, Harry was hooked for life. Let's throw in a short: Chase's classic, The Heckler.

About the worst thing you could say about Harry is that he never grew up, never embraced adulthood in any way, was just a big kid pretty much his entire life. Like I said, the man was a God.

 UPDATE: A memorial to Harry in Hamilton is planned for Sunday, July 28; details HERE.


  

 

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8 Comments

  • Christine Marchildon | August 12, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    Thank you for sharing this tribute, Leonard. My Mom and Harry were friends and neighbours for many years but had lost touch with each other. They often compared old movie notes. She still has a great memory if you need someone to consult with. :)

  • Paul Forsberg | July 28, 2013 8:42 PMReply

    I did get to meet Harry at Cinefest. I had no idea who he was. We just happened to be seated next to each other and struck up a conversation between screenings. I was quickly impressed by his film knowledge, of course, but not as much as his kindly, outgoing personality. We have lost an important movie expert and a very nice man.

  • Risa Shuman | July 26, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    Lovely tribute, Leonard. I, too, am a proud Hamiltonian and spent many hours in the same cinemas as Harry when I was growing up in the 50s & 60s...was thrilled to meet him after reading him in TV Guide...would see him at Toronto Film Society screenings over the years and Jim Bawden kept me up to date...Harry moved into the same retirement home where my late father did, but, sadly not at the same time. And, of course, Elwy and I spoke to him often during Saturday Night at the Movies days...sad to think all Harry's collections will end up in the recycle bins...

  • Lee | July 26, 2013 10:33 AMReply

    First time that I've ever heard of Harry Purvis.

  • DBenson | July 25, 2013 7:34 PMReply

    Another great thing he did in MAD was the "Cliche Movie Script": single typewritten pages of quotes (not quite real) summing up an entire genre. "The War Movie" had the sergeant naming the volunteers for the dangerous mission -- a laundry list of ethnicities and nationalities -- and closed with a chaplain assuring the kid it was all worth it. "The Society Movie" had the poor boy telling the rich girl "Don't you see? We come from two different worlds . . . " Aside from an illustrated border on the page, all you had was a list of quotes that deftly dissected the story of a hundred B movies.

  • DBenson | July 25, 2013 7:34 PMReply

    Another great thing he did in MAD was the "Cliche Movie Script": single typewritten pages of quotes (not quite real) summing up an entire genre. "The War Movie" had the sergeant naming the volunteers for the dangerous mission -- a laundry list of ethnicities and nationalities -- and closed with a chaplain assuring the kid it was all worth it. "The Society Movie" had the poor boy telling the rich girl "Don't you see? We come from two different worlds . . . " Aside from an illustrated border on the page, all you had was a list of quotes that deftly dissected the story of a hundred B movies.

  • linda carfagno | July 25, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    Thank you Leonard for this article on Harry Purvis-the photo is terrific. I wish I had
    met and spoken with him.

  • Karen Snow | July 25, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    I am honored to find out that Harry's favorite film is also my own, "The Adventures of Robin Hood". It's the film that kicked off my lifelong obsession with the movies !

    I wish I had taken the opportunity to speak with him at Cinefest. My great loss.

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