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.
by: James Bawden
Remembering Harry Purvis
There I was way back in 1971, my first week on the job at the Hamilton Spectator as the kid TV critic, unsure of myself and pounding out a column every day
Then the phone rang and a voice said "Mr. Bawden in the Spec's TV listing yesterday you listed Gunga Din as running 89 minutes. I always thought it ran 91 minutes. Good night."
The next night there was another call.
"Mr. Bawden referring to Boris Karloff as a former Hamiltonian may be a stretch. I know he farmed in Caledonia which is not part of Hamilton."
And so on and on.
"That's Harry Purvis," whispered Jim Clements from the next desk --he wrote the theater reviews. "Don't encourage him. He thinks he knows everything about old movies."
But Harry did know everything. Born in Hamilton in 1924 he'd resisted every attempt to dislodge him from his family. A very shy man it would take me years before I actually met him.
In his tight circle he was legendary --he'd written for Photoplay magazine starting in 1947, Mad Magazine and he wrote all the movie listings for TV Guide Canada off the top of his head. For American TV Guide he had the hysterically funny Flicker Snickers.
He'd started making cast lists when he was eight and a typical Purvis list had dozens of names not actually on the end credits.
Purvis became a movie maniac at a tender age. 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.
Every once in a while he'd venture forth from his nostalgia aerie for a live confrontation with chat show host Bob Bratina on CHML Radio.
The topic was to try to beat Harry on old movies but I don't recall many people ever did.
So wide spread was his fame that actual old movie stars tried to contact him for information on their careers.
After an hour on the phone with Harry supplying hundreds of lines of dialogue she'd mouthed over the years Ida Lupino shouted into the phone "He's too smart, too smart."
On an open line 1972 show with Harry Ginger Rogers 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.
Half way through an interview with Harry, Milton Berle started taking notes.
Harry was a walking encyclopedia of Hamilton history. He knew the guy who has sold the hockey team Hamilton Tigers to New York city to become the New York Americans.
He had even met Evelyn Dick "but I didn't date her of course". He'd watched as a kid as the first building on McMaster's new campus went up.
What I remember about Harry was his niceness. In one epic contest with Elwy Yost for charity Harry was beating the TVO star so badly he later allowed "I let him win a couple of questions."
I set up a radio interview between Harry and Barbara Frum for CBC's As It Happens but Harry blew it when Barbara went off topic. She was supposed to be asking about movie lines that were never actually said.
I think the best article he ever wrote was for The Canadian magazine when he talked about all the awful movie lines relating to Canada. I wish I could find a copy of that story.
The Star's Clyde Gilmour wrote a series of luncheon interviews with Harry I've got to reread --they were hilarious in capturing Purvis's unbelievable memory.
I did survive my years as the kid TV critic for The Spec partly based on the kindness of a stranger named Harry Pirvis.
His death last week aged 89 shocked me --I thought his love of movies would keep him going forever.
One of the last DVD's I sent him was of the 1929 version of The Letter which he'd last seen on his mother's lap at The Century movie palace, aged four. He remembered ever line save for one part --and that happened when little Harry fell asleep for awhile.
In fact I suspect he's still watching his golden oldies up there which would certainly be his definition of heaven.