Fame in the 20th Century

Fame in the 20th Century

"Fame in the 20th Century" was a 1993 BBC documentary television series and book by Clive James. The book and series examined the phenomenon fame and how it expanded to international mass media proportions throughout the 20th century. The 8 episodes were divided in roughly 8 decades, from the 1900s to the 1980s. Each episode highlighted world famous people during that part of the century. James delivered interesting and amusing comments about the portrayed celebrities and the various ways they became famous.

In the USA the series were broadcast on PBS.


James and his team developed the series as a study on the concept fame, and more specifically "world fame". They focused on over 250 people who are "undeniably world famous". Certain artists, musicians or sports figures became well known even for people who don’t know much about their field. Louis Armstrong is for instance world famous, even for non-jazzfans or experts. Pelé became the most famous soccer player, even in the US: the almost only country in the world where the sport isn’t popular. People who nothing about art have heard of the name Pablo Picasso and know his style. People who are not interested in tennis have heard of John McEnroe, due to his bad behaviour on the tennis court. More people know Luciano Pavarotti than Placido Domingo.

Clive James focused on fame in the 20th century, because the arrival of mass media, film and television changed the ways people became famous forever. In the previous centuries people could only become famous by doing something that was remembered ages later. Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte conquered countries, Jesus Christ developed a religion,... In the 20th century people could become world famous in less than no time and without doing anything, thanks to the arrival of mass media. Movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, for instance, have become global stars due to the nearly universal reach of film. James cites Chaplin as the first truly world famous 20th century celebrity. The invention of the film close-up made people on film screens appear larger than life and thus increased the emotional involvement of the audience. This often led to mass hysteria and confusions between an actor's stage persona and the roles he plays on the screen (as in the case of Rudolph Valentino). Certain politicians in the century have used the media to promote their own image to the public, as for instance John F. Kennedy, who looked like a movie star, and Ronald Reagan who even was a former movie star.

People could become world famous in a matter of a few days. Orson Welles became notorious after his radio play "War of the Worlds" caused mass hysteria in the United States. Salman Rushdie, who was already known in literary circles, became a household name to the broader public due to the fatwa spoken out against him in 1989. Clive James sees the U.S.A. as the place where this new type of mass media fame was born. According to him international fame is only possible if the celebrity becomes famous in the USA. Cricketer Jack Hobbs was world famous throughout the British Empire in the interbellum, but unknown in countries where cricket was not popular, like the USA. Babe Ruth did however get internationally famous, even though baseball was hardly played anywhere else outside the US.

Other celebrities have been around for so long that the reason they originally became famous has been almost forgotten. Elizabeth Taylor has been cited by James as an example of someone who originally achieved fame as an actress, but later became more famous for her weddings and lifestyle. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Beatles never remained out of publicity and are nowadays famous for simply being who they are. Some people became famous due to their association with other celebrities. Examples are Yoko Ono (the wife of Beatle John Lennon), Lady Diana (who married Prince Charles in 1981) and Wallis Simpson (whose affair with Edward VIII caused his abdication). Another phenomenon examined in the series is the change of someone's fame during time and thanks to mass media coverage. Charles Lindbergh, first famous as an aviation pioneer, became, to his horror, even more famous when his son was kidnapped and murdered. Dwight Eisenhower's fame as a general in World War II helped him win the presidential elections a decade later. Joseph McCarthy used the media in his hunt against communism, but in the end the media also worked against him. Elvis Presley ‘s fame grew to legendary proportions after his death, when he sold even more albums than during his already successful lifetime.

When Clive James was asked by Charlie Rose in 1993 to name the three most famous people of the century he named: Elvis Presley, Mohammed Ali and Bruce Lee (and Adolf Hitler, "but the fact is the young Neonazis in Germany now don't really know much about Hitler. So that kind of fame not necessarily lasts.").

Famous moments

The television series made use of seldom seen archive material and world famous film and audio material where celebrities did or said famous things. Sometimes the footage wasn’t that famous, but used as a typical example of what the public associates with the celebrity. Examples are:

*A recording of Enrico Caruso's famous delivery of Vesti La Giubba, the first best selling record.
*Harry Houdini escaping while being tied to a chair in the presence of a sleeping guard.
*Isadora Duncan dancing in a forest.
*Charlie Chaplin‘s first appearance as The Tramp in "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (1914).
*Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik" (1921).
*Buster Keaton in the "rock boulder" scene in "Seven Chances" (1925).
*Greta Garbo and John Gilbert sharing the first "horizontal kiss" in "Flesh and the Devil" (1925).
*Benito Mussolini giving one of his bombastic speeches.
*Al Jolson speaking in the first movie with sound "The Jazz Singer" (1927).
*Josephine Baker performing her famous banana skirt dance.
*The Long Count Fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney (1927).
*Charles Lindbergh landing in Paris and greeted by a massive crowd, after flying non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean(1927).
*A recording of Louis Armstrong's West End Blues and What A Wonderful World.
*Johnny Weissmuller swinging from a vine, shouting his Tarzan yell and delivering his famous speech as Tarzan to Jane.
*A recording of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring".
*A recording of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".
*Marlene Dietrich singing while sitting on a crate in "Der Blaue Engel" (1930).
*James Cagney pushing a grapefruit in the face of his lover in "The Public Enemy" (1931).
*Greta Garbo asking to be "left alone" in "Grand Hotel" (1932).
*Mae West asking Cary Grant "to come up and see her some time" in "She Done Him Wrong" (1933).
*George Bernard Shaw describing Mussolini and Stalin in a film reel.
*Adolf Hitler’ s final speech in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph des Willens" (1934).
*Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together in "Top Hat" (1935).
*Clark Gable removing his shirt and revealing himself to be bare chested in "It Happened One Night" (1934).
*Laurel & Hardy using a box of snuff on side of a bridge in "Bonnie Scotland" (1935).
*The Marx Brothers’ parody on the MGM lion logo at the beginning of their film "A Night at the Opera" (1935).
*Shirley Temple singing Animal Crackers in My Soup in "Curly Top" (1935).
*Errol Flynn in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938).
*" (1938).
*Neville Chamberlain declaring "peace in our time" and waving a peace agreement he signed with Hitler at Munich (1938)
*James Stewart's final speech in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939).
*Judy Garland singing Over The Rainbow in"The Wizard of Oz" (1939).
*Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh's final scene in "Gone with the Wind" where Gable says: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. (1939).
*One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’ s fireside chats.
*Glenn Miller performing In the Mood.
*Charlie Chaplin imitating Hitler in "The Great Dictator" (1940).
*Winston Churchill declaring that " we will fight them on the beaches" (1940).
*Humphrey Bogart in the "Play it, Sam"- scene in "Casablanca" (1942).
*Ronald Reagan in his famous "where's the rest of me?"-scène in "Kings Row" (1942).
*Vera Lynn singing We'll Meet Again.
*Rita Hayworth singing "Put the Blame on Mame" in "Gilda".
*Benito Mussolini hung upside down in public after being murdered by partisans (1945).
*The coronation of Elizabeth II (1952).
*Gene Kelly singing Singin’ in the Rain in the movie of the same name (1952).
*The "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucille Ball is about to give birth and must be taken to the hospital (1953).
*Marilyn Monroe standing on the ventilator in "The Seven Year Itch" (1955).
*James Dean in a television commercial for road safety.
*Elvis Presley singing and swinging his hips on the "Ed Sullivan Show" (1956).
*Pablo Picasso painting on the camera in Henri-Georges Clouzot's documentary "The Mystery of Picasso" (1956).
*Nikita Krushchev debating with Richard Nixon during the Kitchen Debate (1959).
*Nikita Krushchev during his shoe-banging incident at the United Nations convention (1960)
*Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy in 1962.
*Martin Luther King delivering his I Have a Dream speech (1963).
*The assassination of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald (1963).
*The Beatles arriving in the United States at the airport in 1964 and performing on the "Ed Sullivan Show".
*Mohammed Ali, declaring himself "the greatest" after winning the 1964 world championship boxing.
*Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther" (1963).
*Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's westerns.
*The Beatles performing All You Need Is Love in an international live television broadcast (1967).
*The Beatles visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1967-1968).
*Elvis Presley performing during his "Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special"
*Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon and saying: "It's one small step for men, one giant leap for mankind." (1969)
*A 1970 commercial for Lanvin chocolate starring Salvador Dalí.
*Frank Sinatra performing My Way.
*Clint Eastwood delivering his "Magnum"-speech in "Dirty Harry".
*Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" (1972).
*Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz and Bobby Fischer at the Olympic Games of 1972.
*Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon" (1973).
*Richard Nixon's resignation speech after the Watergate scandal (1974).
*Robert De Niro during his famous You talkin' to me? speech in "Taxi Driver" (1976).
*Gerald Ford caught on camera during several of his famous falls and other accidents.
*The Sex Pistols performing God Save the Queen.
*John McEnroe shouting and protesting against the referee during his tennis match against Björn Borg (1980).
*A late 1970s commercial for Paul Masson champagne with Orson Welles.
*Larry Hagman being shot in his role as J.R. Ewing in "Dallas" in 1980.
*The wedding of Prince Charles and Diana in 1981.
*Ronald Reagan being shot by John Hinckley, Jr. (1981).
*Michael Jackson in "Thriller" and performing Billie Jean at the "" special in 1983, where he performed his first moon walk dance.
*Arnold Schwarzenegger saying "I'll be back" in "The Terminator" (1984).
*Sylvester Stallone killing people as Rambo.
*Bob Geldof at the Live Aid concert (1985).
*Oliver North trying to defend himself in front of the United States Congress at the height of the Iran-Contra affair (1987).
*Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma at the first "Three Tenors" concert in 1990.

Celebrities portrayed in the series

Early 20th century celebrities who were already famous in the late 19th century

Clive James included them because these celebrities were internationally famous at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century.

William Randolph Hearst, Thomas Alva Edison, Queen Victoria, Leo Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan and Buffalo Bill.

Celebrities who became famous in the 20th century


Enrico Caruso,
Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright,
Louis Blériot,
Marie Curie,
Theodore Roosevelt,
Florence Lawrence,
Francis X. Bushman,
William S. Hart,
Theda Bara,
Harry Houdini,
Robert Falcon Scott,
Roald Amundsen,
Henry James,
Jack Johnson,
Wilhelm II ("der Kaiser"),
Paul von Hindenburg,
Ferdinand Foch,
George V,
Lloyd George,
Lord Kitchener,
The Red Baron,
T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia),
Mata Hari,
Henry Ford,
Douglas Fairbanks Sr.,
Mary Pickford,
Rudolph Valentino,
Charlie Chaplin,
Greta Garbo,
John Gilbert,
Sigmund Freud,
Pablo Picasso,
Igor Stravinsky,
Albert Einstein,
Albert Schweitzer


Suzanne Lenglen,
Anna Pavlova,
Nellie Melba,
Amy Johnson,
Malcolm Campbell,
Henry Seagrave,
Jack Hobbs,
Donald Bradman,
Babe Ruth,
Jack Dempsey,
Charles Lindbergh,
Al Capone,
Louis Armstrong,
Duke Ellington,
Josephine Baker,
F. Scott Fitzgerald,
James Joyce,
Coco Chanel,
Noël Coward,
Gertrude Lawrence,
Al Jolson,
Buster Keaton,
Laurel & Hardy,
The Marx Brothers,
T. S. Eliot,
Marlene Dietrich,
Maurice Chevalier,
Jeanette MacDonald,
Nelson Eddy,
Jean Harlow,
Mae West,
Cary Grant,
George Gershwin,
Fred Astaire,
Ginger Rogers,
Bruno Hauptmann


Benito Mussolini,
George Bernard Shaw,
Adolf Hitler,
Rudolph Hess,
Joseph Goebbels,
Hermann Göring,
Heinrich Himmler,
Eva Braun,
Johnny Weissmuller,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
Eleanor Roosevelt,
Mahatma Gandhi,
Bing Crosby,
Shirley Temple,
Arturo Toscanini,
Walt Disney,
Gary Cooper,
Howard Hughes,
James Stewart,
Henry Fonda,
James Cagney,
John Wayne,
Errol Flynn,
Clark Gable,
Vivien Leigh,
Edward G. Robinson,
Joan Crawford,
Bette Davis,
Walt Disney,
Katherine Hepburn,
Spencer Tracy,
Mickey Rooney,
Ernest Hemingway,
Orson Welles,
Edward VIII,
Wallis Simpson,
George VI,
Salvador Dali,
Jesse Owens,
Joe Louis,
Max Schmelling,
Neville Chamberlain,
Joseph Stalin,
Judy Garland,
J. Edgar Hoover,
Billie Holiday


Winston Churchill,
Charles de Gaulle,
Henri Pétain,
Bob Hope,
Humphrey Bogart,
Ingrid Bergman,
Hideki Tojo,
Erwin Rommel,
Bernard Law Montgomery,
Lord Mountbatten,
George Formby,
Gracie Fields,
Vera Lynn,
Laurence Olivier,
Douglas MacArthur,
David Niven,
Ronald Reagan,
Frank Sinatra,
Benny Goodman,
Tommy Dorsey,
Artie Shaw,
Harry James,
Gene Krupa,
Glenn Miller,
Betty Grable,
Rita Hayworth,
Dwight Eisenhower,
George Patton,
Jean-Paul Sartre,
Simone de Beauvoir,
Jean Cocteau,
Chester W. Nimitz,
Harry S. Truman,
Ava Gardner,
Audie Murphy,
Guy Gibson,
Douglas Bader,
Alfred Hitchcock,
Charlie Parker,
Margot Fonteyn


Lucille Ball,
Edmund Hillary,
Tenzing Norgay,
Roger Bannister,
Elizabeth II,
Richard Nixon,
William Holden,
Joseph McCarthy,
Edward Murrow,
Paul Robeson,
Richard Burton,
Gene Kelly,
Sophia Loren,
Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin,
Marilyn Monroe,
Joe Dimaggio,
Arthur Miller,
Jack Lemmon,
Tony Curtis,
Brigitte Bardot,
Diana Dors,
Guy Gibson,
Richard Todd,
Kenneth More,
Alec Guinness,
Grace Kelly,
Rainier III,
Hugh Hefner,
Doris Day,
Rock Hudson,
Miles Davis,
Farouk I,
Aga Khan III,
Prince Aly Khan,
Juan Manuel Fangio,
Stirling Moss,
Charlton Heston,
Aristotle Onassis,
Maria Callas,
Evita Peron,
Marlon Brando,
James Dean,
Bill Haley,
Elvis Presley,
Colonel Parker,
Nikita Khruschev,
Fidel Castro


John F. Kennedy,
Jacqueline Kennedy,
Elizabeth Taylor,
Sean Connery,
Christine Keeler,
John Profumo,
Sammy Davis Jr.,
D.H. Lawrence,
Peter Sellers,
Steve McQueen,
Rudolph Nureyev,
Yuri Gagarin,
Lee Harvey Oswald,
Lyndon B. Johnson,
Diana Ross,
The Beatles,
The Rolling Stones,
Brian Epstein,
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,
Yoko Ono,
Bob Dylan,
Billy Graham,
Che Guevara,
William Calley,
Muhammed Ali,
Martin Luther King,
Robert Kennedy,
Leonid Brezhnev,
William Shatner,
Clint Eastwood,
Neil Armstrong,
Charles Manson,
Andy Warhol


Henry Kissinger,
Jane Fonda,
Mother Teresa,
Elton John,
Jack Nicholson,
Warren Beatty,
Robert Redford,
Robert De Niro,
Paul Newman,
Raymond Burr (as Ironside),
William Conrad (as Cannon),
Peter Falk (as Columbo),
James Garner (as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files),
Telly Savalas (as Kojak),
The Osmonds,
Gerald Ford,
Mark Spitz,
Bobby Fischer,
Olga Korbut,
Alexander Solzhenitsyn,
Jodie Foster,
Roger Moore,
Björn Borg,
Billie Jean King,
Chris Evert,
John McEnroe,
Bruce Lee,
David Bowie,
Patty Hearst,
Idi Amin,
Woody Allen,
Dustin Hoffman,
Barbra Streisand,
John Travolta,
The Sex Pistols,
Jimmy Carter,
Meryl Streep,
Larry Hagman (as J.R. Ewing in "Dallas"),
Ruhollah Khomeini


Lech Wałęsa,
Margareth Thatcher,
Mark David Chapman,
Sylvester Stallone,
Lady Diana,
Michael Jackson,
Joan Collins,
Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Bob Geldof,
Oliver North,
Nelson Mandela,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
Donald Trump,
Martina Navratilova,
Colonel Gadaffi,
George Bush Sr.,
Tom Cruise,
Julia Roberts,
Mel Gibson,
Harrison Ford,
Salman Rushdie,
Václav Havel,
Saddam Hussein,
Norman Schwarzkopf,
Luciano Pavarotti

More information

* JAMES, Clive, "Fame in the 20th Century", BBC Books, 1993

* Information about the series (http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/series/21704 ) and (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE5D91F3BF934A35755C0A965958260 )

* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbXR5X5yM0A A clip of the series featuring Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland]

* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IZgQ4lSmKM A clip of the series featuring Joan Collins, Madonna and the final scenes of the final episode]

* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmFjS4poF50 Clive James interviewed by Charlie Rose about the series, starting from 38:40]

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