British actress Cicely Courtneidge (1893 –1980) was an elegantly knockabout comedienne. For 62 years, she formed a husband and wife team with comedian Jack Hulbert on stage, radio, TV and in the cinema. During the 1930’s they also starred together in eleven British films and one disastrous American production.
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series by Real Photograph, London, no. 326.
The Fairy Peaseblossom
Esmerelda Cicely Courtneidge was born in Sydney, Australia in 1893. She was the daughter of the producer Robert Courtneidge, and at the time of her birth, he was touring Australia with the J. C. Williamson company. Her mother was Rosaline May née Adams (stage name Rosie Nott), the daughter of the opera singer Cicely Nott. The family returned to England in 1894. In 1901, at the age of eight, Courtneidge made her stage debut as the fairy Peaseblossom in her father's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester. By the age of 16 she appeared in his Edwardian musical comedies in the West End in London. Her West End debut was at the Apollo Theatre in the comic opera Tom Jones (1907), which had a libretto co-written by her father. Cicely was quickly promoted from minor to major roles. Her first starring role was Eileen Cavanagh in the long-running Edwardian musical comedy The Arcadians, which she took over from Phyllis Dare in 1910. In the piece that followed, The Mousmé (1911), which also featured a book co-written by her father, she was cast in one of the two leading female roles alongside Florence Smithson. Her third musical comedy was The Pearl Girl (1913) with the 21-year-old Jack Hulbert, making his professional debut. Courtneidge and Hulbert starred together in The Cinema Star (1914), an adaptation by Hulbert and Harry Graham of Die Kino-Königin, a 1913 German comic opera by Jean Gilbert. The piece was a hit and played to full houses at the Shaftesbury Theatre until Britain and Germany went to war in August 1914. Anti-German sentiment brought the run to an abrupt halt. Soon after the outbreak of war, Hulbert joined the army. Courtneidge continued to appear in her father's productions in the West End and on tour. But Robert Courtneidge had a series of failures and temporarily withdrew from production. No other producers offered Cicely leading roles in musical comedies, and she turned instead to the music hall, learning her craft as a comedienne. In variety shows she showed off her tuneful voice, forceful humour, and vital personality, and she held the attention of the audience. By 1918 she had firmly established herself as a music-hall artiste, both in the provinces and in London.
British postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons, no. 14. Photo: Gaumont-British.
Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert married in 1916. They formed a professional as well as a private partnership that lasted until his death, 62 years later. Their first revue was Ring Up, by Eric Blore and Ivy St. Helier, at the Royalty Theatre in 1921. They received good notices, but the material was weak, and the show was not a great success. Courtneidge returned to variety, and appeared at the London Coliseum in 1922. In 1923, Courtneidge and Hulbert starred in The Little Revue, produced by Hulbert. The Times: "there is no reason why it should not have a dozen successors, all as good." There were, in fact, five successors, which were a continuous success over eight years. In 1925 they made their Broadway debut in the revue, By-the-Way. In 1931 Courtneidge and Hulbert suffered a serious setback when their financial manager had put their business into liquidation. Hulbert accepted responsibility for all the debts and to repay his creditors he and his wife moved over to the cinema. A boom in the film industry enabled actors to earn lucrative sums. Their first appearance in the all-star Elstree Calling (1930, Adrian Brunel, Alfred Hitchcock, Andre Charlot, Paul Murray, Jack Hulbert) had gone down well enough for them to be offered more film roles. During the 1930’s, Courtneidge appeared in 11 British films, and one in Hollywood. She and Hulbert worked together in such Gainsborough comedies as The Ghost Train (1931, Walter Forde) with Ann Todd, the comedy Jack's the Boy (1932, Walter Forde) and Falling for You (1933, Walter Forde) with Tamara Desni. Hulbert played in The Ghost Train the dashing hero while Courtneidge played a mad spinster - a pattern that was repeated in many of their subsequent films together. For the German Ufa studio, they appeared in the musical Happy Ever After (1932, Paul Martin, Robert Stevenson) starring Lilian Harvey. Solo, Cicely starred in Soldiers of the King (1934, Maurice Elvey) in which she played a double role opposite Edward Everett Horton, and scored a solid hit. Hollywood took an interest and she went over to MGM to make The Perfect Gentleman (1935, Tim Whelan) with Frank Morgan. It was a disastrous production and a massive flop. Back at Gainsborough she starred in Me and Marlborough (1935, Victor Saville) with Tom Walls, Things Are Looking Up (1935, Albert de Courville) and Everybody Dance (1936, Charles Reisner). Then she reunited on screen with Jack Hulbert in Take My Tip (1937, Herbert Mason). In 1937, Courtneidge and Hulbert were also reunited on stage in Under Your Hat, a spy story co-written by Hulbert, with music and lyrics by Vivian Ellis. The production ran at the Palace Theatre until April 1940 and was then filmed for the cinema, Under Your Hat (1940, Maurice Elvey). During the 1930’s they also recorded for Columbia and HMV such songs as Why has a cow got four legs. Solo, Courtneidge recorded her celebrated sketch Laughing Gas (1931).
British postcard in the Film Partners Series, no. P 42. Photo: Gainsborough Pictures.
Gay's the Word
During the Second World War, Cicely Courtneidge entertained the troops and raised funds for the army. In 1941, she presented a nightly three-hour show, raising funds, and then formed a small company which she took to Gibraltar, Malta, North Africa, and Italy, performing for the services and hospitals. She also toured in Hulbert Follies (1941), and Full Swing (1942), which she and Hulbert then brought to the Palace Theatre. At the end of the war, she had a long run in Under the Counter, a comedy in which she received glowing notices. Its theme was the black market in luxury goods and the heroine's shamelessness in manipulating it to her advantage. This struck a chord with British audiences after the privations of the war, and the play, produced by Hulbert, ran for two years. Notable among her other successes was Courtneidge's performance in Ivor Novello's musical Gay's the Word in 1951–1952. In 1951 she was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). In 1955 she made a come-back on the screen in the crime film Miss Tulip Stays the Night (1955, Leslie Arliss) with Hulbert and Diana Dors. During the rest of the decade, she turned from musicals, revues to straight plays. In 1962, she gave what she considered her finest film performance in The L-Shaped Room (1962, Bryan Forbes) starring Leslie Caron. Unlike her usual parts, she played an elderly lesbian, living in a drab London flat with her cat, recalling her career as an actress and forlornly trying to keep in touch with former friends. The Times described her performance as a triumph. In 1964, she appeared in the London production of High Spirits, a musical adaptation of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit. Coward himself co-directed, and the two clashed constantly. The notices for the play and for Courtneidge were both dreadful. The last London production in which the Hulberts appeared together was a well-reviewed revival of Dear Octopus at the Haymarket Theatre in 1967 with Richard Todd. In 1969, Courtneidge turned to television, playing a working-class role as Mum in the first series of the comedy On the Buses, opposite Reg Varney. Her role was played by Doris Hare in the rest of the series’ long run. While appearing in her last West End run in 1971, she celebrated 70 years on the stage. Afterwards, she continued to work for a further five years before retiring. In 1972 she was appointed DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire). Her last film was Not Now Darling (1973, Ray Cooney, David Croft), a farce in which also Hulbert appeared, both in supporting parts. One of her last appearances was in a royal gala performance at the Chichester Festival Theatre in June 1977, celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The performance was called God Save the Queen! and had an all-star cast, including Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller and Diana Rigg. Jack Hulbert died in 1978; Dame Cicely Courtneidge DBE died two years later, shortly after her 87th birthday, at a nursing home in Putney. She was survived by her only child, a daughter.
British autograph card.
Sources: David Absalom (British Pictures), Stanley Greene (Encyclopedia of the Musical theatre), The Cicely Courtneidge & Jack Hulbert Archive, Wikipedia and IMDb.