13 January 2014

Vic Oliver

Austrian born comic actor Vic Oliver (1898-1964) was a popular radio comedian, music hall favourite and film star in Great Britain before and during the war. He was an accomplished violinist and used this musical talent in his comedy act.

Vic Oliver
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. 1397. Photo: British Lion.

Married in a Blaze of Newspaper Publicity

Vic Oliver was born Victor Oliver Von Samek in Vienna, Austria, in 1898. He was the son of Baron Victor von Samek but he relinquished his father's title in 1922.

Oliver studied classical violin before deciding upon a career in show business. Being a Jew, Vic fled to England via America to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis. His mother and sister were murdered in Bergen-Belsen extermination camp.

Vic was a skilled musician and played the violin (badly in his comedy shows). His distinctive trick was to play the violin while telling jokes. He had aspirations as a conductor and founded the Vic Oliver Concert Orchestra which gave light classical concerts along the South coast. His theme tune was Prelude to the Stars.

In 1935 he was the star of the revue Follow the Sun, where he met Sarah Churchill, daughter of soon-to-be prime minister Winston Churchill. Although he was 18 years her elder and had already been married twice, they fell in love.

Winston Churchill warned his daughter that if Vic was not a US citizen “she married to the enemy” and would lose her British passport. Sarah traveled by sea to the USA, where they married in a blaze of newspaper publicity.

In addition to appearing on stage, Vic soon appeared in film musicals like Rhythm in the Air (Arthur B. Woods, 1936) and Who's Your Lady Friend? (Carol Reed, 1937). The latter was based upon the hit German musical Der Herr Ohne Wohnung (The Gentleman Without a Home), that had already been filmed in 1934. Vic Oliver played a famous Viennese 'beauty specialist' (plastic surgeon) in the farce, and Sarah Churchill played the maid of the house.

Vic Oliver
Dutch postcard by HEMO. Photo Eagle Lion.

Vic Oliver
Vintage photo.

Hi Gang!

Vic Oliver was one of the first musical comedians, and was a regular on such Radio programs as Henry Hall's Guest Night and Workers Playtime. His style was later taken up by the likes of Victor Borge.

Female impersonation was a valuable part of his repertoire. In the comedy Room for Two (Maurice Elvey, 1940), based on a stage farce by Gilbert Wakefield, Oliver plays a womanizing Englishman in Venice, who takes a fancy to married tourist Frances Day. In a plot device right out of Charley's Aunt, Oliver disguises himself in drag and hires on as Day' maid. When Day's philandering hubby Basil Radford comes home, the laughs start rolling in.

In the early 1940s Vic Oliver teamed up with Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon on their immensely popular wartime BBC radio series, Hi Gang! In 1941 there was also a film version, Hi, Gang! (Marcel Varnel, 1941). In this musical, the on-air rivalry between a married pair of American radio stars, each hosting a different show heats to boiling when they each have British evacuees on their shows.

Another music comedy, He Found a Star (John Paddy Carstairs, 1941) was based on Monica Ewer's novel Ring O'Roses. Vic is cast as Lucky Lyndon, a seedy but enthusiastic talent agent specializing in small-time variety acts. Lyndon spends the entire picture searching for the next 'big star', never realizing that his secretary Ruth Cavour (Sarah Churchill) is madly in love with him.

In the mid-1940s he was in some Gainsborough films, Give Us The Moon (1944) and I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945), both with Margaret Lockwood and Peter Graves. In Give Us the Moon (Val Guest, 1944) Oliver delivers a broad performance as a dour suicide-prone chap who belongs to an 'I won't work' club.

Oliver was usually at his best on-screen when teamed with an unusually talented leading lady. Oliver's vis-à-vis in I'll be Your Sweetheart (Val Guest, 1945) was again film favourite Margaret Lockwood. Set in the early 1900's, the film concerns the trials and tribulations of musical-hall diva Edie Story (Lockwood), whose happy-go-lucky partner is one Sam Kahn (Oliver).

Sarah Churchill
Sarah Churchill. Dutch postcard. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Margaret Lockwood
Margaret Lockwood. Dutch postcard, no. AX 171. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Org.

Mr. Showbusiness

In 1945 Vic Oliver and Sarah Churchill divorced, which drew again the attention of the press. In his autobiography Mr. Showbusiness, published in 1954, he told many stories about his former father-in-law, Sir Winston Churchill, with whom he was not on good terms.

In the post-war years Oliver continued his variety act and starred in revues like Starlight Roof (1947), which introduced Julie Andrews to London audiences.

He didn’t appear in more films, except for the short film For Old Time’s Sake (Paul Barralet, 1948).

In the 1950s and early 1960s he worked for Television. He was a regular on the TV series Hotel Imperial (1958) as the leader of the orchestra at a posh London hotel. The show proved to be popular, with Oliver clearly revelling in a starring role, and a further 12 episodes were screened in January-March 1960.

Oliver continued performing in England and overseas during the early 1960s.

In 1964, Vic Oliver died in Johannesburg, South Africa. His fourth wife was Natalie Conder. They had one child.

Vic Oliver was one of the artists who performed at the Theatrical Garden Party. It was transmitted on BBC Television on 6th June 1939.

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Chris Wrigley (Winston Churchill - A Biographical Companion), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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