My Grandfather's Autograph Book


Following on from my previous post, here are some of the autographs that my grandfather acquired while working at London Films.
For some reason the thought of my grandfather walking up to the likes of Charles Laughton and Robert Taylor and - especially! -Miriam Hopkins, and asking for their autographs amuses me no end. (Imagine your grandfather blithely starting a conversation with Miriam Hopkins and you may get a sense of some – though still, I fancy, not all – of the comic incongruity of mine doing so.)
And in these pages it is somehow possible, I think, to get a sense of how these luminaries differed even from the British stars of the period. While Robert Taylor’s signature, for instance, is a florid, confident scrawl that almost fills the page, the British signatures are generally smaller and more formal, often carefully dated like an official document. Edward Chapman signs himself ‘E. Chapman, 2/9/36’, more in the manner of a civil servant than a film actor. (Indeed it was a while before I realised that this even was one of the actors’ signatures: a busy and popular character actor, Chapman is probably best-remembered these days as Mr Grimsdale in several of Norman Wisdom’s comedies. For some reason his was the only autograph he obtained on the set of Things To Come.)


The contrast in styles between the two stars of Knight Without Armour seems especially revealing. Britisher Robert Donat – though a huge star both at home and abroad – writes his full name in a friendly hand, and dates it. His co-star, with aristocratic hauteur and in what feels not by chance to be the exact centre of the page, writes simply ‘Dietrich’.

Not many people remember Annabella these days. She was a French actress who made her debut in Gance's Napoléon and went on to appear in Le Million and many other French films (including one enticingly named Trois jeunes filles nues/Three Naked Flappers in 1929) before being courted by Hollywood and Britain in the late thirties. The English-language films she made over the next ten years were mainly undistinguished, however, and she was more famous for marrying Tyrone Power than for any of her movies. The autograph probably dates from the production of Dinner at the Ritz (1937), a New World Pictures production filmed at Denham.
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A neat and very attractive signature from one of my favourite actresses, the neat and very attractive Elsa Lanchester. This was while making Rembrandt (1936), directed by Korda himself..

And a grand and eccentric one from Rembrandt's star, Elsa's husband and my favourite actor, the grand and eccentric Mr Charles Laughton.
.If you've never seen Men Are Not Gods (1937) I recommend it wholeheartedly: a charming and unusual British comedy drama with lovely period atmsophere, and Miriam Hopkins giving a delightfully relaxed and buoyant performance alongside a very young but already balding Rex Harrison. My grandfather astutely avoided Rex and went straight for Miriam.
.My grandmother's favourite: Robert Taylor, on the set of A Yank at Oxford (1938), an MGM film shot at Denham. I would have been happier with Maureen O'Sullivan's autograph myself. Or Vivien Leigh's, Lionel Barrymore's or the great Tully Marshall's, all of whom appeared in the film. Still, that's women for you.

Despite being a chronic asthmatic, Robert Donat managed to write his full name and the date on the set of Knight Without Armour (1937)...

... unlike his more enigmatic co-star!