An eight-hour glance at celebs covering 1900-93, being served up by PBS in four two-hour chunks, plays like a flip-card, subjective look at people who’ve made a name. Inferences, vague observations, omissions, and snide potshots at America plague at least the first four hours, a combo of tongue-in-cheek humor and foot-in-mouth gaucheries.
Australian-born Clive James doesn’t pin down how he chose his subjects between 1900-52. “Al Capone’s fame put him beyond good and evil,” James observes , and tosses in clips from films featuring Capone-like characters played by American film actors.
James’ segment about Fatty Arbuckle includes worn-out gossip about Virginia Rappe’s death but doesn’t mention that at his trial for murder the accused Arbuckle was declared innocent.
While he mentions Aussie cricket player Don Bradman, he overlooks major American sports figures except for boxers and Babe Ruth.
Film figures are often subjects of James’ offbeat assessments. Sarah Bernhardt’s “Queen Elizabeth” was a “flop,””Keaton was a great artist whose fame just happened to him!” and “The people in closeups were symbols, but what they symbolized was the people watching them.” Mebbe.
The clip of America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford comes not from her brilliant early appearances but as Kate in “Taming of the Shrew.” As the world prepared for WWII, “America was dreamland. Everywhere else famous people made history; America made movies. It was as if America were a world apart.”
The program flits through history, asserting, about Britain’s WWII leader, “Churchill’s nation and the free world were inspired by what was really an act. But it was a real act,” he adds reassuringly. “He was really like that.”
Hitler “was a ham actor but he had timing.” Commenting on Errol Flynn, James intones drolly that the actor “was born in Australia and thus blessed with a physical perfection common to Australian males.”
Fragmentary, historically lopsided, “Fame in the 20th Century” bites off more than it can chew — then nibbles.