Chris Upton recalls Birmingham-born actor Charlie Hall, who became a fixture on Hollywood’s silent movie scene, particularly with Laurel & Hardy.
Like it or not, Hollywood is built on stardom and the glitterati of the film world pull in the movie-goers. But the stars are only the tip of an iceberg, below which are the thousands of foot soldiers, unacknowledged and (in the early days) uncredited, who keep the industry going.
Such a one is Charlie Hall. His story is not quite the rags-to-riches tale of Charlie Chaplin; more a story of relative poverty to relative success. But, as such, Charlie Hall is probably much more representative of Hollywood. He and his unsung companions are far more likely to fill the cemeteries of Forest Lawn.
Charlie was born in Washwood Heath Road on August 19, 1899, the son of a builder’s labourer. Thomas and Maria Hall had eight children, two of whom - Florence and Charles - made a life on the far side of the Atlantic. One brother - Frank - spent his working life in the service of Birmingham City Council.
When Charlie left school in 1914 he assisted his father as a carpenter. Charlie would make use of his carpentry tools both at the beginning and at the very end of his working life. In between, things would be rather different.
There were not many ways out of a labourer’s lot in early 20th-century Birmingham, but Charlie found one of the few exits. He began supplementing his wages by doing comedy sketches and vaudeville in the music halls and clubs of the Midlands and soon signed up with the Fred Karno troupe.
Like Charlie Hall himself, Fred Karno (born in 1866) had clawed his way up from working-class origins in Exeter to become a theatrical entrepreneur, leasing theatres and hiring comedy acts.
The loose affiliation of acts Karno put together was beginning to dominate British music hall and their routines were appearing in the United States, as well. The talented band of performers included Chaplin and Arthur Jefferson, who, in another country and in very different circumstances, would become known as Stan Laurel. Meeting Jefferson changed Hall’s life.
Charlie Hall was only 16 years old when he turned away from Birmingham and headed Stateside. Charlie’s initial point of contact was his sister, Florence, who had married an Irishman and emigrated to New York.
He did not turn his back on carpentry, however; his tools went with him in a large metal trunk and Charlie used them to good effect in New York, finding work as a self-employed carpenter.
He renewed acquaintance with Laurel, who persuaded him to go to Los Angeles. But Charlie’s first sight of the movie capital of the world was hardly awe-inspiring. “Hollywood,” Hall wrote in 1938, “was nothing but cornfields.”
He adds: “Hollywood Boulevard was just a crossroads. I walked down towards Sunset Boulevard and there was my first studio, ‘Lasky’s’, There was not much to it; just a wooden building.”
Charlie asked for work and was told to turn up the following morning at 8.30, when the extras were hired. He was paid £1 for the stint and so began one of the busiest careers in Hollywood.
Charlie never became a star, but he was one of the most reliable extras in the business. And when he was not playing some bit-part, he was assisting with direction, particularly on the Laurel & Hardy films. Hall’s lifelong friendship with Laurel always got him work here.
The name of Charlie’s first film remains in doubt. Some have said it was The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1922, whilst others name a Hal Roach film, Near Dublin, made in 1923. The lack of full credits make it hard to decide.
From this point onwards, however, Hall was rarely off-screen. He appeared in
many silent classics such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and Buster Keaton’s College (1927). In the latter year, Hall worked on his first Laurel & Hardy film, Love ’em and Weep, and went on to appear in 47 of them. The speed with which these two-reelers were put together helped keep Hall in demand throughout the 1930 and 1940s. He was probably the duo’s favourite extra.
Hall worked for Mack Sennett, Cecil B. De Mille, Vitagraph Studios and Hal Roach, amongst others, and one movie website lists 274 appearances in all.
Hall’s part in the Laurel & Hardy film, The Battle of the Century, was typical of the kind of roles he played. He appears as a bakery man, carrying a large tray of pies. He slips on Oliver Hardy’s banana skin and, in retaliation, hurls a custard pie at Ollie, which then triggers a mass pie-fight, a classic of the silent cinema.
Hall did return to Birmingham, staying with his mother for ten months in 1933 and 1934, while Maria herself heroically crossed America to attend Charlie’s marriage to Wilda George in Arizona in 1935.
This was Charlie’s last tangible connection with home. He and Wilda settled down in Hollywood, close to the studios, and Charlie continued to find plenty of work, even after the silent movie era ended. Indeed, Hall’s English accent helped to find him roles in any script set in England. He appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1944) as a comedian, in The Confidential Agent (1945) and a Sherlock Holmes film, Dressed to Kill, in 1946.
By the mid-1950s, however, Charlie’s health was declining. There were liver problems and the life of an extra was taking its toll. Hall, therefore, got out his carpentry tools again and took a job at Warner Brothers as a prop-maker.
Charlie Hall died at his home in Willow Crest Avenue, North Hollywood, on December 7 1959 and was buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, alongside his wife, Wilda.
Nevertheless, there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever Ward End.