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A Walking Movie Encyclopedia: Harry Purvis

A Walking Movie Encyclopedia: Harry Purvis

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,

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
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.

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



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