Saturday, 17 September 2016

Burning Issue

In recent times I’ve been trying to trace the life of Thorley Walters. I started by tracking his family tree to see if we are related. He was born in Devon and my Walters ancestors are all from Somerset and Devon; so I thought there may be a chance that I shared some DNA with someone who had worked at the Old Vic under Lilian Baylis, appeared in St Trinian’s films AND was a Hammer regular. Alas I found nothing definite, although it turned out that his grandparents had been married in the next village along from where my bunch were living…so I cling to this in the hope that it shows that there MUST be a diluted connection somewhere. Surely there weren’t that many Walters families living in Somerset at this point.

Youthful Thorley
Anyway, then I moved onto Thorley’s career and discovered that after his spell at the Old Vic in the early1930s, he moved into film roles – though only in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-him” way. His very first film was the 1935 quota quickie ‘The Love Test’. I was interested to see this because for one thing it co-starred my fave Googie Withers; and it was directed by William Powell before his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Finally, someone shared this film onto You Tube and I was able to see it. 

Thorley has a role as a chemist who is working away in the background and I only got a definite sighting of him in the very final scene.  The story involves these chemists seeking a formula to prevent celluloid from bursting into flames (with a bit of romantic shenanigans thrown in). This is an interesting piece of history – and one that relates to cinema itself. Celluloid was a widely used material – in the film they are carrying out tests on dolls made from the substance – a hideous and astonishing thought that children’s health was put at risk in this way. However, in 1929, just six years before this film was made, 70 children were killed at a cinema in Paisley. The cause of the disaster was celluloid film, which has begun smoking in the projection room after being placed on top of a battery. The combination of fumes and crush led to the horrible tragedy. But many ordinary household and personal items were also made from it – including jewellery and cutlery handles. And what with the prevalence of open fires back then it must have been the cause of several accidents in the home.

The search for a non-combustable material to replace celluloid must have kept many chemists busy. This is something that we have forgotten now…but I don’t think we should. So many of us collect old artefacts from the 1920s and 30s – we perhaps need to bear this danger in mind before putting our prized collections on display in our homes, or wearing the jewellery.

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