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06 February 2013

Henry Ainley

Distinguished Shakespeare performer Henry Ainley (1879 - 1945) was one of the first prominent stage actors to cross over into the world of filmmaking. He played in some 30 silent films and soon after his feature film debut he became a star, but the stage was his real home.

Henry Ainley
British postcard by Rotophot, no. 7939, sent by mail in 1904.

Henry Ainley
British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 1113 M. Photo: Lizzie Caswall Smith.

Henry Ainley
British postcard in the My Queen & Romance Series. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith.

Hassan
Henry Hinchliffe Ainley was born in Leeds, Great-Britain, in 1879. He was brought up in Morley by his father Richard, a cloth finisher, and his mother Ada. Henry started acting as an amateur before joining Frank Benson’s company, making his professional stage debut as a messenger in Macbeth. During his forty-year career, he acted in literally hundreds of stage productions. His title role in Hassan received an eight-month run in 1923-1924 on the London stage. It was broadcasted by the BBC in 1925 and again in 1933. He played major parts in many Shakespeare plays, beginning with Henry V in 1900 and ending with As You Like it in 1936. Several times he played Hamlet, including a 1930 production that was chosen for a Royal Command Performance. His other important performances included Paolo in Paolo and Francesca (1898), starring in the Broadway production of The Pretty Sister of Jose, and Rudolph Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda (1910). He acted for a period with Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company.

Henry Ainley
British postcard by Aristophot Co Ltd. London, no. 114. Photo: F.W. Burford. Publicity still for the stage production Faust.

Henry Ainley, Nina Sevening
With Nina Sevening. British postcard by Philco Publishing Co., London, Series 2126 O. Photo: Rita Martin.

Henry Ainley
British postcard in the Stageland Series by Davidson Bros.' Pictorial Post Cards, no. 6077. Photo: Lizzie Caswall Smith.

Burned
Henry Ainley made his film debut in the William Shakespeare adaptation Henry VIII (1911, William G.B. Barker) featuring Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As per an exclusivity deal, all prints were required to be burned six weeks after the first screening. No copies have come to light since. Despite his busy stage schedule, he starred in such silent films as She Stoops to Conquer (1914, George Loane Tucker), Sweet Lavender (1915, Cecil M. Hepworth) with Chrissie White, The Prisoner of Zenda (1915, George Loane Tucker) and The Manxman (1916, George Loane Tucker). His last film was As You Like It (1936, Paul Czinner), in which he played the Exiled Duke and a young Laurence Olivier played Orlando. Fifteen letters in the possession of Olivier's widow suggest that Ainley and Olivier may have had a sexual relationship. The letters - said by Olivier's biographer Terry Coleman to be explicitly homosexual in content - suggest that Ainley was infatuated with Olivier, even if, as some members of Olivier's family insist, the feeling was not reciprocated. Henry Ainley married three times: to Susanne Sheldon, Elaine Fearon and the novelist Bettina Riddle, later Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg. He was the father of actors Richard Ainley and Anthony Ainley, and of Sam Ainley, who was not an actor. He was also the father of Henrietta Riddle.

Henry Ainley
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., London, no. 351 F. Photo: Ellis & Walery.

Henry Ainley
British postcard. Photo: publicity still for Sweet Lavender (1915).

Sources: Wikipedia, Collector’s Post.com and IMDb.

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