17 August 2011

Diana Wynyard

Elegant and aristocratic British actress Diana Wynyard (1906 - 1964) was a leading lady on the London stage. She was the first British actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, but her Hollywood career was brief and largely unsatisfactory. She returned to the screen successfully in England in the first film version of Gas Light (1940), and although she didn't make many films, she had a secure place in the roll call of great British film stars.

Diana Wynyard
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, nr. 729a. Sent by mail in 1934. Photo: MGM.

Three Barrymores
Diana Wynyard was born Dorothy Isobel Cox in London in 1906. The acting bug struck early, and by the mid-twenties she was doing walk-ons in the West End. After a spell in Liverpool rep she returned to the capital, becoming a star in Sorry You've Been Troubled. In 1932 she appeared in New York opposite Basil Rathbone in The Devil Passes. Hollywood noticed and she appeared first as Princess Natasha in the MGM production Rasputin and the Empress (1932, Richard Boleslawski). Wynyard managed to make an excellent impression despite the overshadowing presence of three Barrymores - John, Lionel, and Ethel - in the cast. It was the (offscreen) rape of Wynyard's character by Rasputin (Lionel) that led an expatriate Russian princess to sue MGM, claiming that Natasha was based on the princess - which is why all subsequent American films carried the "any resemblance to any persons living or dead" disclaimer. Fox then borrowed her for their lavish film version of Noel Coward's stage spectacle Cavalcade (1933, Frank Lloyd). As the noble wife and mother she aged gracefully against a background of the Boer War, the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, and the arrival of the Jazz Age. With this performance, she became the first British actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. However, in an era dominated by gangster films and musicals she proved difficult to cast. Other Hollywood appearances were as John Barrymore's old flame in Reunion in Vienna (1933, Sidney Franklin) and most notably in James Whale’s masterpiece One More River (1934) as an abused high society wife trying to wrench free of her extremely nasty husband.

Diana Wynyard
French postcard, no. 34. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Tormented Heiress
After this brief and largely unsatisfactory Hollywood career, Diana Wynyard returned to Britain. Here she concentrated on theatre work, including roles as Charlotte Brontë in Clemence Dane's Wild Decembers, in Sweet Aloes, and as Gilda in the British premiere of Noel Coward's Design for Living. She was tempted to return to the screen to play opposite Ralph Richardson in On the Night of the Fire (1939, Brian Desmond Hurst). Then she had a great success as the frightened heroine of the first film version of Patrick Hamilton's play Gas Light (1940, Thorold Dickinson). This is her most revived performance. It was thought lost for years, because MGM destroyed it when they remade it with Ingrid Bergman. Fortunately, a few prints were illegally smuggled out of England and the film is still in existence. As the heiress tormented by husband Anton Walbrook Diana Wynyard is unforgettable. Thanks to the blitz, legitimate theatre work was unpredictable so she continued to film, including roles opposite Clive Brook in Freedom Radio (1941, Anthony Asquith), John Gielgud in The Prime Minister (1941, Thorold Dickinson) and Michael Redgrave in Kipps (1941). She soon married the director of Kipps, Carol Reed. With the blitz receding, she scored a bit hit in Watch on the Rhine and didn't return to filming until the war (and her marriage) was over.

Diana Wynyard
British postcard in the Art Photo series, no.85. Photo: MGM.

Star Parts
After World War II, Diana Wynyard appeared in the Oscar Wilde adaptation An Ideal Husband (1947, Alexander Korda) as the wife in question, but her remaining film roles were small, usually providing maternal support in roles in the 1950’s such as in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951, Gordon Parry) and The Feminine Touch (1956, Pat Jackson). On television she played Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Mayerling (1957, Anatole Litvak), which starred Audrey Hepburn. Her stage career flourished after the War, and as a Shakespearean leading lady at Stratford, in London's West End, and on tour in Australia, she had her pick of star parts. Between 1948 and 1952, she played Portia, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Katherine the shrew, Desdemona, Katherine of Aragon, Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and Beatrice to John Gielgud's Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. In this production, she succeeded her friend Peggy Ashcroft. Wynyard famously stumbled off the rostrum during the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth in 1948 and fell 15 feet - and continued. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's she also had success in the works of several contemporary writers, including the British production of Tennessee Williams's Camino Real. Her final film appearance was as the secretive mother (of James Mason's character) in Island in the Sun (1957, Robert Rossen). Her stage career continued to thrive. She joined in 1964 the National Theatre in its first year, but died from kidney ailment before the end of the season. She was only 58. Her last television performance was in the play The Man In The Panama Hat (1964). Her death occurred before the intended broadcast in May 1964 and it was eventually shown posthumously. Diana Wynyard was married twice, first from 1943 till 1947 to Sir Carol Reed, and subsequently from 1951 on to a Hungarian physician, Tibor Csato.

Diana Wynyard
British postcard, no. 91. Photo: MGM.

Sources: Wikipedia, British Pictures, Hal Erickson (Rovi) and IMDb.


Classic Maiden said...

I adored her in THE PRIME MINISTER, especially!

Bob of Holland said...

Never seen that one. I am a James Whale fan and One More River is one of his films I've never seen. By the way, tonight I did see a beautiful new restauration of J'accuse (1919, Abel Gance). Beautiful colours. Great music. Very well done. Greetings from Amsterdam!