19 December 2013

Gracie Fields

Lusty and loudmouthed Gracie Fields (1898-1979) was a British comedienne on stage and in films, and a singer in music halls. In the 1930s her working-class girl character was a top box office draw and Fields was the best paid actress in Britain, and later in America too.

Gracie Fields
British postcard by Valentine's Postcard, no. 7121.

Gracie Fields
British postcard by Real Photograph, London, in the Picturegoer series, no. 439.

Wildly Popular Music-Hall Singer

Gracie Fields was born as Grace Stansfield over a chip shop owned by her grandmother in Rochdale, Lancashire, in 1898. She started as a child actor in 1905. Her two sisters and brother were all pushed by their mother on stage too, but Gracie proved to be the most successful.

In 1910 she had her professional debut in variety in Rochdale. Five years later Fields met struggling comedian Archie Pitt and joined forces.

Pitt became her manager, and he built a show around her, Tower of London, which toured the provinces for four years. The two married in 1923. With Mr Tower of London, Fields reached the West End in 1924.

She started also a dramatic career and began recording her songs too. Fields became a wildly popular Music-Hall singer with her particular style of “a mixture of self-deprecating jokes, comic songs and monologues, as well as cheerful 'depression-era' songs all presented in a "no-airs-and-graces Northern, working class style”, as Wikipedia writes.

Because of her strong interaction with her audiences, Fields played to sold out theatres all over Britain and she became one of the highest paid performers.

Gracie Fields
British postcard, no. 51.

Gracie FieldsBritish postcard, no. 30. Photo: Radio Pictures.

250,000 Get-Well Cards

In the 1930s Gracie Fields reached the peak of her career and was awarded various honours. Her most famous song was Sally. This was the title song of her first sound film, the First World War drama Sally in Our Alley (Maurice Elvey, 1931), which was an enormous success.

Fields continued to make various films in the UK and the US, though she always preferred to perform in front of a live audience.

After Sally in Our Alley, she continued to make films for the Ealing studios such as This Week of Grace (Maurice Elvey, 1933) with Henry Kendall, Look Up and Laugh (Basil Dean, 1935), and Queen of Hearts (Monty Banks, 1936) with John Loder.

In 1938 she played in a musical comedy set in Australia in the 1880s: We’re Going to Be Rich (Monty Banks, 1938), with Victor McLaglen as Fields’ partner.

Next came two more Banks films, the first still made in the UK, Keep Smiling (Monty Banks, 1938), and the second in the US, Shipyard Sally (Monty Banks, 1939).

After her marriage with Archie Pitt ended, she donated her London house to a maternal hospital.

When she fell ill with cancer in 1939 and retired to her villa in Capri, she was covered in over 250,000 get-well cards. After her recovery she recorded the song Gracie’s Thanks to thank her fans for sending the mail.

Gracie Fields
British postcard by Photogravure. Photo: ATP Studios, London.

Gracie Fields
British collector's card.

Miss Marple

In 1940 Gracie Fields married Italian-born film director Monty Banks (Mario Bianco). Because Banks remained an Italian citizen and would have been interned in the United Kingdom, she was forced to leave Britain for America.

The British press and public hooted bitterly. She entertained the Allied troops all over the world.

During the war she played in two American musical comedies with Monty Woolley: Holy Matrimony (John M. Stahl, 1943) and Molly and Me (Lewis Seiler, 1945). She also appeared in the war drama Paris Underground (Gregory Ratoff, 1945) with Constance Bennett.

After the war she returned to Britain in 1948 to perform, but she never regained the heights of her popularity in the 1930s.

Though Fields stopped playing in films, she continued making records. Her last recording, The Golden Years of Gracie Fields, was made in 1975 at age 77.

Between 1956 and 1963, she played for television, including as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in the American TV-film A Murder is Announced (1956), part of the Goodyear Playhouse Television series.

Fields was also a regular guest in TV shows, including the religiously themed variety show Stars on Sunday (1971).

After the death of Monty Banks in 1950, she married Boris Alperovici, a Romanian radio repairman. In February 1979, Gracie Fields was invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire seven months before her death in her villa on Capri, Italy, aged 81.

In 2009, Jane Horrocks portrayed her in the BBC TV production Gracie!, a drama portraying the life of Fields just before and during World War II and her relationship with Monty Banks.

Sources: David Absalom (British Pictures), Steve Crook (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.