18 October 2013

Anna Neagle

Endearing Anna Neagle (1904-1986) was a leading star in British films for over 25 years from 1932 till the late 1950s. She provided glamour and sophistication to war-torn London audiences with her lightweight musicals, comedies and historical dramas. Almost all of her films were produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox, whom she married in 1943.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph in the Picturegoer Series, no. 867a. Photo: Cannons.

Overnight Favourite

Anna Neagle was born Florence Marjorie Robertson in Forest Gate (near London), in 1904. She was the daughter of Herbert Robertson, a merchant navy captain, and his wife, the former Florence Neagle. Her brother was actor Stuart Robinson.

She made her stage debut as a dancer in 1917. In 1925 she appeared in the chorus of André Charlot's revue Bubbly, and later also in C.B. Cochran's revues, where she understudied Jessie Matthews.

Actor Jack Buchanan encouraged her to take on a featured role in the musical Stand Up and Sing (1931), and she began using the professional name of Anna Neagle (the surname being her mother's maiden name). The play was a huge success with a total run of 604 performances.

Her big break came when film producer-director Herbert Wilcox caught the show purposely to consider Buchanan for his upcoming film. He was taken (and smitten) with Anna.

Photographing extremely well, Neagle was a natural for the screen and she played her first starring film role opposite Jack Buchanan in the musical Goodnight Vienna (Herbert Wilcox, 1932).

Neagle became an overnight favourite. Although the film cost a mere £23,000, it was a huge hit at the box office, profits from its Australian release alone being £150,000.

After her starring role in The Flag Lieutenant (Henry Edwards, 1932), she worked exclusively under Wilcox's direction for all but one of her subsequent films, becoming one of Britain's biggest stars.

 She continued in the musical genre, co-starring with Fernand Gravey (aka Fernand Gravet) in Bitter Sweet (1933), the first film version of Noel Coward's tale of ill-fated lovers.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, London in the Picturegoer series, no. 867. Photo: Cannons.

Critical Accolades

Anna Neagle had her first major film success in the title role of Nell Gwynn (1934), as the woman who became the mistress of Charles II (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).

In the United States, the Hays Office had Wilcox add a (historically false) scene featuring the two leads getting married and also a ´framing story´ resulting in an entirely different ending.

Author Graham Greene said of Nell Gwynn: "I have seen few things more attractive than Miss Neagle in breeches".

Two years later, she followed up with another real-life figure, Irish actress Peg Woffington in Peg of Old Drury (1936).

Neagle and Wilcox then made the backstage musical Limelight (1936) and a circus trapeze fable The Three Maxims (1937).

The latter film, with a script co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (who later co-wrote Citizen Kane), had Neagle performing her own high-wire acrobatics.

Although now highly successful in films, Neagle continued to act on stage too. In 1934, she performed as Rosalind in As You Like It and Olivia in Twelfth Night, directed by Robert Atkins. She earned critical accolades in both productions, despite the fact that she had never before done any Shakespeare.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, London in the Picturegoer series, no. 672.

Queen Victoria

In 1937 Anna Neagle gave her most prestigious performance so far – as Queen Victoria in the successful historical drama Victoria the Great (1937), co-starring Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert.

Victoria the Great was such an international success that it resulted in Neagle and Walbrook essaying their roles again in an all-Technicolor sequel entitled Sixty Glorious Years (1938), co-starring C. Aubrey Smith as the Duke of Wellington.

While the first of these films was in release, Neagle returned to the London stage in the title role in Peter Pan.

The two Queen Victoria biographies were successful enough to get Wilcox and Neagle a contract with RKO Radio Pictures, and they moved to Hollywood at the end of the 1930´s.

Their first American film was Nurse Edith Cavell (1939). She essayed the role of the true-life nurse who was shot by the Germans in World War I for alleged spying. The film had a significant impact for audiences on the eve of war.

In a turnabout from this serious drama, they followed with three musical comedies, all based on once-popular stage plays. The first was Irene (1940), co-starring Ray Milland. It included a Technicolor sequence, which featured Neagle singing the play's most famous song, Alice Blue Gown.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, no. 101. Photo: British & Dominions Films.

Entertaining the Troops

Anna Neagle followed this film with No, No, Nanette (1940) with Victor Mature, and Sunny (1941) with Ray Bolger.

During the war Anna entertained the troops. Her final American film was Forever and a Day (1943), a tale of a London family house from 1804 to the 1940 blitz.

This film boasts 80 performers (mostly British), including Ray Milland, C. Aubrey Smith, Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, and – among the few Americans – Buster Keaton.

Wilcox directed the sequence featuring Neagle, Milland, Smith, and Rains, while other directors who worked on the film included René Clair, Edmund Goulding, Frank Lloyd, Victor Saville and Robert Stevenson.

During the war the profits and salaries were given to war relief. After the war, prints were slated to be destroyed, so that no one could profit from them. However, this never occurred.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, London, no. 148.

Undercover Agent

Returning to England, Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox commenced with They Flew Alone (1942). Neagle added another real-life British heroines to her gallery, this time as aviatrix Amy Johnson. The film, released a year after the aviatrix’s death, was noted for inter-cutting the action with newsreel footage.

They returned to filmmaking with the war-time espionage thriller The Yellow Canary (1943), co-starring Richard Greene and Margaret Rutherford. Neagle played a German-sympathiser (or that is what she seems to be at first) who is forced to go to Canada for her own safety. In reality, she's working as an undercover agent.

After making this film, Neagle and Wilcox made their professional relationship a personal one as well when they married in 1943.

In 1945 Neagle appeared on stage in Emma, a dramatization of Jane Austen's novel. That same year she was seen in the film I Live in Grosvenor Square, co-starring Rex Harrison.

For seven straight years after WWII, she was voted top favourite English actress.

Tom Walls, Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 418. Photo: Herbert Wilcox Production / British Lion. Publicity still for Spring in Park Lane (Herbert Wilcox, 1948) with Tom Walls and Michael Wilding.

Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding, Maytime in Mayfair
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 714. Photo: Herbert Wilcox Production / British Lion. Publicity still for Maytime in Mayfair (Herbert Wilcox, 1949) with Michael Wilding.

The Greatest Team in British Films

She wanted Harrison again for the lead in her next film, Piccadilly Incident (1946). He proved to be unavailable, so Wilcox cast Michael Wilding in the lead.

Thus was born what film critic Godfrey Winn called "the greatest team in British films".

The story – of a wife, presumed dead, returning to her (remarried) husband – bears a resemblance to the Irene Dunne-Cary Grant comedy My Favorite Wife. Piccadilly Incident was chosen as Picturegoer’s Best Film of 1947.

Neagle and Wilding were reunited in The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947), a period drama that became the year's top box-office attraction. The film featured Wilding as an upper-class dandy and Neagle as the maid he marries, only to have the two of them driven apart by Victorian society.

The third pairing of Neagle and Wilding in the London films, as the series of films came to be called, was in Spring in Park Lane (1948), which depicted the romance between a millionaire’s niece and a valet. Spring in Park Lane was the 1949 Picturegoer winner for Best Film, Actor and Actress.

Neagle and Wilding were together for a fourth time in the Technicolor romance Maytime in Mayfair (1949). The plot is reminiscent of Roberta, as it had Wilding inheriting a dress shop owned by Neagle.

David Absalom comments on his great website BritishPictures.com: “These films rarely pleased the critics. This is particularly true of the 'London Series' of frothy nonsense, usually co-starring Michael Wilding and usually musicals. The critics wanted neo-realist pictures depicting grim reality - the audience, who were suffering through the Austerity Years and knew all about grim reality, wanted fun and escapism. Anna Neagle pictures provided that in spades.”

Anna Neagle
British postcard, no. 257.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, London in the Picturegoer series, no. W 700. Photo: Herbert Wilcox Prods.

Florence Nightingale

By 1950, Anna Neagle was at her zenith as Britain’s top box-office actress, and in that year she made what reputedly became her own favourite film, Odette, co-starring Trevor Howard, Peter Ustinov, and Marius Goring. As Odette Sansom, she was the Anglo-French resistance fighter who was pushed to the edge of betrayal by the Nazis.

Going from this real-life British heroine, she went straight on to playing Florence Nightingale in The Lady with the Lamp (1951).

Returning to the stage in 1953, she scored a major success with The Glorious Days, which had a run of 476 performances.

Neagle and Wilcox brought the play to the screen under the title Lilacs in the Spring (1954), co-starring Errol Flynn. In the film she plays an actress knocked out by a bomb, who dreams she is Queen Victoria and Nell Gwyn – as well as her own mother. As she begins dreaming, the film switches from black and white to colour.

Neagle and Flynn reteamed for a second film together, King's Rhapsody (1955), based on an Ivor Novello musical. Although Neagle performed several musical numbers for the film, most of them were cut from the final release, leaving her with essentially a supporting role.

Shot in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope with location work near Barcelona, Spain, King's Rhapsody was a major flop everywhere. Neagle's (and Flynn's) box-office appeal, it seemed, was beginning to fade.

Neagle's last box-office hit was My Teenage Daughter (1956), which featured her as a mother trying to prevent her daughter (Sylvia Syms) from lapsing into juvenile delinquency.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, London. Photo: Herbert Wilcox Productions.


Anna Neagle and Syms worked together again on No Time For Tears (Cyril Frankel, 1957), also starring Anthony Quayle and Flora Robson. As directed by Cyril Frankel, this was the first film for over 20 years where Neagle was directed by someone other than Herbert Wilcox.

She produced a series of films directed by her husband, including These Dangerous Years (1957), Wonderful Things! (1958), and The Heart of a Man (1959).

The films all starred pop idol Frankie Vaughan, but they were out of touch with changing tastes, and lost money, resulting in Wilcox going heavily into debt.

Neagle herself made her final film appearance in The Lady is a Square (1959) opposite Frankie Vaughan.

Herbert Wilcox was bankrupt by 1964, but his wife soon revived his fortunes.

She returned to the stage the following year and made a spectacular comeback in the West End musical Charlie Girl. In it she played the role of a former ´Cochran Young Lady´ who marries a peer of the realm.

Anna Neagle
British postcard by Real Photograph, no. 101A. Photo: British & Dominions Films.

Dame of the British Empire

Charlie Girl was a phenomenal success that ran for a staggering six years and 2,047 performances. During the show's six-year run, Anna Neagle was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1970 in recognition of her work.

Two years after Charlie Girl she appeared in a revival of No, No, Nanette, which she had done onscreen three decades earlier.

In 1975, she replaced Celia Johnson in The Dame of Sark and in 1978 (the year after her husband's death), she was acting in Most Gracious Lady, which was written for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Although plagued by Parkinson's disease in her later years, Neagle continued to be active well into her eighties.

On TV she was last seen in an episode of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1983). In 1985 she appeared as the Fairy Godmother in a production of Cinderella at the London Palladium.

Anna Neagle was still working in 1986, just a few weeks before her death in West Byfleet, England, from complications of renal disease and cancer. She was 81.

Movie Legends - Anna Neagle. Source: Basil Nelson (YouTube).

Sources: Roger Phillip Mellor (Encyclopedia of British Cinema), David Absalom (BritishPictures.com), Bruce Eder (AllMovie), Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

No comments: