Sunday, January 29, 2012



Wings, the first movie to win an Oscar, is also remembered in the golden footnote in Hollywood history as the last of the great silent movies. So it has just been released on Blu-ray. Now its distinction as the only silent movie ever to win an Oscar must be shared with The Artist.
Somewhere, Sterling Campbell is giving a dashing smile, just like his buddy Douglas Fairbanks for whom he was a stand-in on quiet days.
Not that there were many lazy days for the handsome pair.
Campbell's link between Toronto politics and fabled Hollywood was not really known to his neighbours on leafy Rowanwood Ave. in old Rosedale. Yet he had drank and danced and fought and directed some of the greatest names in movies. There was even a marriage to a famous star that he never ever talked about. So feature writers from other cities came calling even if the local media ignored him.
When Sterling sat and yarned over rye in the upstairs library of the big old house, with his proud wife, Margaret Campbell, sipping and smiling with him every minute into the wee hours, the talk was not of Maggie's career as a renowned lawyer, alderman, MPP and judge, but what Buddy Rogers and his wife Mary Pickford (always called Toronto's own) had done.
The flames from the fireplace would throw dancing lights over pictures of Sterling with his arm around just about anyone who was anyone in movies.
The first time he mentioned the 1927 movie Wings to me, he did so modestly, not mentioning it was the first movie to win an Oscar. His connection was enormous. Officially he is listed as the technical director of flight sequences, the supervisor of the famous dogfight scenes. Unofficially he not only flew in the sequences (he had been a World War I flying ace) but he also did some acting as he also developed his technical skills that would make him famous half a century before computer tricks.
It was his limp from a war wound that was noticed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille,  who admired veterans. So he worked with C.B.  (which he said was largely standing beside him as armies clashed below and then being told which of 31 takes should be printed.)
He worked with Howard Hawkes too, but fought too much with Howard Hughes to stay on his movies because Sterling didn't believe his guff.
His friends were the stars. He lived with Gary Cooper, the unknown whose career was launched by Wings. He danced with Clara Bow who was the star of Wings and was having a secret affair with Cooper. He golfed and joked with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and drank with Errol Flynn. He told of visiting W.C. Fields in the hospital where a stunning redhead offered him, to his puzzlement,  a vase of flowers and a straw. The vase was filled with gin to be hidden from the doctors.
His success in Wings was noticed, because Hollywood loves a winner, even if Wings was very expensive for its time. So Sterling was involved with any Hollywood movie with pilots, especially the famous Dawn Patrol.
Naturally he was pressed into service in World War Two, which came to a shuddering halt when he was smoking on deck during a blackout. A kid naval officer told him to put it out and Sterling put him out. The difference in age was enormous so the brass decided it would be safer in PR if Sterling resigned rather than be courtmartialled.
He came to Canada to direct the movie Bush Pilot and stayed to work on the early CBC series called Cannonball which is still remembered in nostalgia binges.  His life had been rich enough that he was in Ripley's Believe It Or Not but he retired to Toronto politics which was to be his third war.
The fires still burned. He threatened to get into the ring and punch out a much younger B. Michael Grayson, his wife's ward partner, who he thought had been rude to her.
 Maggie wasn't exactly a shrinking violet either. She had been a spy for Canada in World War Two and was so tough on pimps, one threatened to bomb her house. That night she went out with me and walked the so-called Sin Strip to show she was not intimidated. She was propositioned twice in five minutes and I had to play bodyguard to get her away from her horny admirers.
She only slept several hours each night because of all her energy (she claimed the rye was medicinal.) So she read and wrote and published several who-dun-its under a pseudonym. She was a loyal Toronto Maple Leaf baseball fan and had season's tickets beside the dugout. The players were intimidated by her formidable presence. She seemed a Rosedale matron but then the players found she could curse better than they could.
She got more than 50,000 votes but lost in the 1969 mayoralty race, then went to the Legislature as a Grit. I squeezed into the last pew at  her funeral with four "captains of industry," as we used to say.
Today we would call them a power couple. They sure were fixtures at all the best city events.
 I worked late at City Hall. After I was through chasing the latest silly stories, I headed for the Campbells and the tinkling ice and the library where in the pictures coating the walls, Sterling was dancing with Mary Pickford or mugging with Clark Gable, big toothy grins under their debonair moustaches. And Maggie would listen with fond attention as Sterling fleshed out the pictures, her deep rumbles of laughter punctuating the night
I should have taken a tape recorder along, but that would have ruined the mood. After all, he was reminiscing, not boasting, and it was  nice to sit there as the fire crackled and the liquor burned too and think of yesteryear when the movie stars were the kings and queens of our imagination.

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