A quilt, a cat, and a bluebird

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Norman Page as Tylette the Cat, December 1909

This postcard, from my early 20th century theatre collection, is one of my absolute favourites. It shows the British stage and silent film actor Norman Page as Tylette the Cat in a production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1909. It also shows a rather splendid hexagon quilt, in what looks like a simple Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern. It thus rather neatly combines a number of my interests.

I’ve been intrigued by The Blue Bird since I was about eight years old when I first read Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 children’s novel about the theatre, Ballet Shoes. There are two chapters about a charity matinée of The Blue Bird, and, as a child, I was intrigued that there were extracts from Maeterlinck’s play script contained within the text, along with a lot of information about the plot. As a result, I feel I know the play really well even though I’ve never seen it. And a production featuring Norman Page would be my ideal production (outside the fictional world of Ballet Shoes).

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Norman Page (centre) as Ives in Stingaree, The Bushranger (1908) 

So who was Norman Page?  He was born in Nottingham in 1876, and educated at Trent College. After school, and an attempt to become an artist, he underwent theatrical training at the Theatre Royal in Margate, and his first performance on stage was in 1896 at the Opera House in Chatham. In 1904 he first appeared on the London stage as The Gardener’s Boy in Prunella, or Love in a Dutch Garden by Laurence Housman and Harley Granville-Barker. He went on to work as both actor and producer, and had an interest in some of the new styles of acting and the experimental plays that were being staged in the early 1900s. In 1909 a season he produced at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre was considered by The Times to bring ‘that spirit of modernity … which consists in a sense of artistic unity, a repression of the “theatrical”, a reduction of the emotion displayed to the proportions of the occasion – in short, in naturalness’. (Glasgow Repertory Theatre, The Times, October 19 1909)

Page played Tylette the Cat in The Blue Bird in a number of productions – it seems to have been a Christmas favourite in the years before the First World War. On December 27 1911, The Times considered that a ‘chief joy in the acting is still the sinister Cat of Mr Norman Page.’ In 1912 he travelled to Australia to produce the play there. And on 9 January 1928, he reprised the role for a radio production, broadcast on the 2LO London and 5XX Daventry stations. Cats seemed to have been something of a speciality for Page. As well as Tylette, he played the title role in Puss in Boots at the Apollo Theatre in 1926, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre in 1932, when he was ‘the best of many good performing animals’. (The Times, December 22 1932)

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Page also had a long association with the Academy of Dramatic Art (which later became RADA) where he was an instructor for 23 years. After his death in 1935, Kenneth Barnes, the then director of RADA, wrote that:

‘He had a great sense of the dignity of the profession of the theatre, and his talents, as producer-actor, scenic designer, and teacher, it can ill afford to lose. I know this because Norman Page was the hardest worked member of my staff … How we wish he were still with us.’

Like a lot of stage actors of the 1910s and 1920s, Page also acted for the films – and that’s where I first came across him. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that his screen presence has had a huge impact on me.  Nearly a decade ago, I had an idea for a research project about the early work of British film director Maurice Elvey, but back then I’d only seen one or two of his films. So when I heard about a screening of his film of Bleak House in Nottingham, I got on a train so I could find out more. I wasn’t expecting to be so delighted by that film’s exquisite portrayal of Dickens’ lovelorn clerk Mr Guppy – played by Norman Page. That screening – particularly  Norman Page’s performance – was the deciding factor in confirming my Elvey research project.

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Norman Page (right) as Mr Guppy with Teddy Arundell as George in Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film Bleak House

And when I saw Elvey’s Life Story of David Lloyd George (made in 1918 but not released at the time) with Norman Page in the title role, I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film – and a world away from Mr Guppy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am busy writing up my Elvey research at the moment, so I am writing about Norman Page a lot – The Life Story of David Lloyd George plays a major role in my thesis. That leaves very little time for sewing. But a couple of weeks ago, I was clearing out some fabric and I came across a hexagon quilt I started some years ago. It’s just the sort of undemanding project I need at the moment and it fits in with my research nicely. It reminds me of the quilt on stage in The Blue Bird so I think it’s fitting that while I’m sewing it, I remember the role of Norman Page in starting off my research about Maurice Elvey.

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Hexagons for Mr Norman Page

A Movie Star Album: Commemorating Rudolph Valentino

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The elaborate title page of an album made by a dedicated admirer

Ninety years ago, at 12.10pm on 23 August 1926, Rudolph Valentino died at the age of just thirty-one. At the time, he was probably the biggest star in the world – he was certainly the brightest – and an outpouring of public grief followed his untimely death. 

Every 23 August, I spend time remembering Rudolph Valentino – watching a film or two, reading about his work, and reflecting on the impact he had on the filmgoers of the 1920s. Watching his films on television courtesy of Channel Four Silents (when I was a lot younger) awakened my lasting passion for silent film, so I feel I should honour his memory.

I may have my private “Rudolph Valentino Memorial Day”, but back in the day, the Shepherds Bush Pavilion in London held a “Rudolph Valentino Memorial Week”, with revivals of Monseiur Beaucaire, The Eagle, Blood and Sand and Beyond the Rocks. Mr Forsyth, the General Manager of the Pavilion, seems to have taken care over the event, hiring an Italian singer to perform a special “In Memorium” prologue, publishing one of Valentino’s own poems, and giving a detailed synopsis of what he considered the main draw, Monsieur Beaucaire.


Today, Monsieur Beaucaire is one of the lesser-known Rudolph Valentino films. I have seen it just once on the big screen – about eighteen years ago – and I loved it. The costumes are beautiful, Valentino is witty, and the swashbuckling is excellent. It also seems to have been enjoyed by a mysterious Valentino fan who put together a beautiful Rudolph Valentino album between 1924 and 1926 to express some of their feelings about what they were seeing at the cinema.

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The mysterious album maker was definitely dedicated to creating something lovely. The album is beautifully made. Some pages are covered in black paper, the better to create a dramatic effect. Black and white pictures, cut from magazines, have been painstakingly coloured with inks. Blue skies have been cut out and pasted behind a picture of a captured Valentino in The Son of the Sheik. Poetry and prose is carefully written in stylised lettering, some in gold paint.Tiny flourishes are used to highlight the text.

The maker selected poetry with which to honour Valentino. I identified three poems as being by Rupert Brooke: Not With Vain Tears, When We’re Beyond the Sun; The Great Lover; and Beauty and Beauty.

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Another poem – When Thou Art Dead – had me at a loss. The words were used by Erich Korngold as the basis for his song Tomorrow in The Constant Nymph but this was not written until 1943, far too late for a 1920s album. Eventually, I tracked down a song with the same lyrics that had been popular during the First World War by Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens.

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A further poem appeared to have been copied from Valentino’s own book Daydreams. But when I checked the album version against the original words, I realised that the maker had adapted the words. Valentino’s “You are the History of Love and its Justification / The Symbol of Devotion / The Blessedness of Womanhood” seemed to have become slightly darker.

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Sadly the album was never finished. The last dated entry is from October 1926. There are then a few pictures cut with great care from magazines, ready to be pasted on to blank pages. An unfinished page, with illustrations drawn in ink and a poem traced out in pencil, shows how carefully the maker prepared their pages. The pencil marks are faded and just the ghost of a poem remains. I suspect it was written by the maker, who had graduated from copying out poetry, to adapting it, to writing their own.

Perhaps the maker lost interest in the album or found a new object of desire. Maybe the lack of new films and fewer and fewer opportunities to see Rudolph Valentino on the screen made the album feel less important. However, the album wasn’t thrown away. It was kept, and kept in very good condition. We can’t tell who made it, we don’t know what they did after 1926, where they lived, or how old they were.

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I hope very much that the maker wouldn’t have minded their album being shared. It is such a beautiful object that it seems a shame to keep it sitting on my shelf to be taken out once a year on 23 August. We know very little about silent film audiences, but this album tells us that at least one cinemagoer in the 1920s found the inspiration to create something beautiful from what they saw at the picturehouse.