Harry “The Hat” Purvis: 1924 – 2013

Harry with unidentified fan. Photo courtesy
Jerry Van Eerdewijk

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.

Charley Chase: how Harry saw Harry

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 Ramon 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.
UPDATE: A memorial to Harry in Hamilton is planned for Sunday, July 28; details here.

3 Responses to “Harry “The Hat” Purvis: 1924 – 2013”

  1. My close friend, Harry the Hat Purvis is already dearly missed.
    I still remember making several trips to New York City with Harry.
    As we sat in a Times Square Restaurant having lunch, Harry
    would share his vast movie knowledge with me. The only problem with that, was it took him 2 hours to eat his cheeseburger! During our trips we always visited movie memorabilia shops and of course Harry would always want to shop for yet another hat. I still remember him saying “Let’s head to the Derby”. His favorite actor was Richard Dix and his two favorite comedy teams were Laurel and Hardy and Wheeler and Woolsey. Many probably do not even remember these names. Harry’s wealth of movie knowledge could surpass that of any reference book. I have lost a very wonderful friend, however I have a lifetime of great memories of Harry. It may be old hat, but it was Harry’s hat.

    Jerry Van Eerdewijk

  2. We have missed seeing Harry at Cinefest, George Eastman House and Toronto Film Society events. In his spirit of film trivia knowledge — it’s “Charley” Chase and “Ramon” Navarro


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