‘The last of the romantics’?

Over fifty years have elapsed since the death of Anton Walbrook, which took place on this day in 1967, and sometimes it feels like I have been researching and writing his biography for almost half that period. This project is nearing its end, which has often given me cause to reflect upon what it means to complete a lifetime’s work – or more specifically, the nature of the legacy left by AW in his career.

What initially intrigued me about his life was the relationship between the different eras of his life – the prominent stardom of his film and stage career in Germany (which is still under-appreciated in Britain), his contributions to British stage and screen as a wartime exile, and his latter years finding work in a world that had been dramatically changed in terms of the cultural and political landscape, social expectations and technical media. His acting career spanned several different ‘worlds’ – cultural, geographical, chronological – and the decision to migrate between these was not always a free one. Like many great performers, AW was forced to adapt to successively changing circumstances and the creative choices he made reflect this – in such instances, it is not always clear how much is innovation and how much is reaction. Was his acting career moulded by his environment, or can it be argued that he played an overlooked role in the transition between the performance styles of one generation of British actors and the next?

After his death, one British newspaper hailed Walbrook as ‘one of the last of the romantics’ and there is no doubt that he represented the end of a noble tradition that stretched back to the previous century. Notices continued to be placed in newspapers for many years after his death, on either his birthday or the anniversary of his passing, with variations of the same message: ‘His bright and unique talent gave ever-recalled pleasure… Fond and treasured memories of him and his bright talents undimmed’ and expressing ‘much gratitude and happiness for his brilliant work on stage and screen.’ I can do no better today than to echo those sentiments.

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Anton Walbrook and the Courtney Affair

Birdie Courtney, the mother of AW’s fiancee, in 1915

On Sunday 23 October 1938 an ‘eighteen-year-old girl’ named Maude Courtney announced to the press that she and Walbrook – whom she had known for three months – were engaged to be married. She then withdrew the statement, issuing a denial of their engagement, before announcing it again a few hours later. It was stated that official notice of their intention to marry had been submitted to St Pancras Registry Office, but within 48 hours the engagement was called off again, this time for good. What on earth was going on? And why did Maude’s mother take such a prominent role in the story? As both mother and daughter belonged to Charles B Cochran’s famous company of ‘Young Ladies’, some background may help.

Fannie Barbara Birdie Coplans was born in Canterbury in 1891, the daughter of Russian emigres from Poland named Koplanski. No occupation was given in the 1911 census and she seems to have made her debut under the stage name of Birdie Courtney in Charles B. Cochran’s revue More at the Ambassadors Theatre in June 1915, from which the photograph at the top was taken. She caught the eye of both critics and audiences, and was soon featuring prominently in the press, as well as having her portrait taken by notable society photographers such as E.O. Hoppé

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Tatler (16 February 1916), taken while she was performing in More.
Another photograph of Birdie, this time by Bertrand Park, from The Tatler (19 April 1916)

Having been singled out from a large line-up of chorus girls for attention, it was natural that Birdie would be offered a more prominent role, and she moved from the Ambassador to the Comedy Theatre to play a number of colourful parts in Half Past Eight.

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Sketch (31 May 1916), showing her in the butterfly costume worn in Half Past Eight.

Evidently the press were interested in Birdie in more ways than one, for on 22 July 1916 she married Mr Randal Charlton, a novelist member of the Daily Mirror‘s editorial staff, at the church of Our Lady and St Edward, Chiswick. His best man was Horatio Bottomley MP and it was quite a society wedding, with MPs and show-business personalities among the guests. Charlton (whose real name was Lister) was the author of novels such as Mave (1906) and The Virgin Widow (1908) and had been a devoted fan of music hall star Marie Lloyd. Their daughter Maude was born eight months later, on 24 March 1917. Two sons followed, Warwick in 1918 and Frederick in 1928. The latter was only three years old when Randal Charlton died in 1931, by which time Birdie had established a reputation as a writer of short stories.

Birdie in 1920, photographed by Malcolm Arbuthnot, from The Bystander (5 May 1920)

At some point Maude followed her mother onto the stage: although newspapers described her as a ‘London dancer’ and ‘one of Charles B. Cochran’s “Young Ladies”’, she seems to have worked under a stage name, doubtless to avoid confusion with the well-known American vaudeville performer Maude Courtney (1884-1959), who was a regular feature in London music halls during this period, often appearing alongside her husband ‘Mr. C’ – Finlay Currie, who later co-starred with AW in 49th Parallel and Saint Joan. It is therefore not easy to trace details of any of her stage appearance, or work out where she might have met AW. He was, however, just about to launch his theatrical career in Britain with Design for Living and had been meeting with actors, producers, theatre managers and performers since his arrival in the UK the previous January. Although Cochran’s association with dancing girls and variety shows might be taken as implying a certain frivolity, he was a brilliant showman and took his work seriously. He had gone to see Max Reinhardt’s Oedipus Rex at the Circus Schumann in Berlin, and – impressed by his imaginative use of the vast space – persuaded Reinhardt to collaborate in a staging of The Miracle in London in 1912, at which the huge Olympia hall was transformed into a medieval cathedral. Cochran had a shrewd eye for picking out stars, and worked with the likes of Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews, Diana Manners, Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward and Leonard Massine during the interwar period, as well as collaborating with Diaghilev and Oliver Messel while producing the Ballet Russes. Making no distinction between high culture and popular entertainment, Cochran staged everything from Faust to Houdini, wild west rodeos to Eugene O’Neill.

Looking rather un-Victorian, Anna Neagle wearing a striking dress by Doris Zinkeisen in The Little Damozel (Wilcox, 1933) – a film that is now sadly lost

Anna Neagle, with whom AW had co-starred in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), started her theatrical career as one of Cochran’s chorus girls. Known then as Marjorie Robertson, she had worked her way up from being a dancer and understudy for Jessie Matthews to a leading role in Stand Up and Sing (1931). Perhaps AW’s meeting with Cochran’s company came through Neagle?

Reporters seeking a statement from Walbrook about the surprise engagement were to be disappointed, as inquirers who called at his house in Holne Chase were turned away at the door by one of the servants, who told them he was ‘out of town’. Another member of the Courtney family was willing to talk, however, and told reporters that the couple were going into the country until their marriage, later this month, after which a friend was lending them a yacht on which to take a four-week honeymoon. Maude regarded Walbrook as ‘quite the most romantic person in the world and quite the shyest.’

AW in 1938. Promotional postcard around the time of ‘Design for Living’

Walbrook: ‘A Man without a Country’

Two days later, the story had taken a dramatic twist, as a large article appeared in the same newspaper headed ‘Film Star’s Wedding Vetoed. Girl’s Mother Objects. Miss Maude Courtney as ‘subject of Hitler.’ Nationality bar. Mr Anton Walbrook ‘a man without a country.’ The story went on to explain that as of yesterday, (Wednesday 26 October) the wedding was officially ‘off’. Legal advice had been taken and a formal statement issued by Messrs Henry Solomon & Co., solicitors, dated Tuesday, following a meeting between Walbrook and Maude’s family. Although aware of their close relationship, Mrs Charlton had been ignorant of their intent to marry, and made her views clear: ‘In the present state of European turmoil, I dare not think of my daughter becoming an alien, being married to a man without a country, and a subject of Herr Hitler. Maudie is of course terribly disappointed – broken-hearted. They are still friends, and if there is anyway of surmounting the barrier, the wedding will take place as soon as ever the difficulties can be straightened out. Mr Walbrook is a refugee – he had a Jewish grandmother – and Maudie is a Catholic. Her family is descended from the Plantagenets and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is one of the oldest families in England. How could she sacrifice this heritage to become an outcast?’ Mrs Charlton made it clear that Walbrook’s nationality was her sole objection to his marriage to her daughter, and told reporters ‘Personally, I think he is a very charming man.’

Much of this whole affair makes little sense, and carries with it more than a hint of a publicity stunt. Many of Birdie Courtney’s statements about Maude’s age and ancestry do not tally with public records: Maude’s birth certificate makes clear that she was already twenty one – not eighteen – at the time of the engagement, rendering the entire legal issue about consent a nonsense. Were the solicitors really unaware of her real age? However, given Walbrook’s longstanding dislike of media attention, the idea of a fake publicity stunt sounds almost as implausible as that of an engagement to a young chorus girl whom he had only just met. Little did he know that within a matter of days he would begin a relationship that – in contrast to the Cochran affair – would last for almost a decade. Maude eventually found a husband in 1948, while her mother remarried in 1941, but neither mother or daughter seem to have made further progress with their theatrical careers. One wonders if they retained an interest in Walbrook: did Maude ever go to see the actor on stage and feel tempted to nudge her neighbour and whisper, ‘We were once engaged to be married?’


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Anton Artefact #7

Part of the value of looking at historical artefacts is that they often reveal things about how an artwork or event fitted into its contemporary surroundings. The cutting below was snipped out of a British newspaper in 1940 – the rest of the paper has gone, so I don’t have a precise date, but we know that Gaslight received its general release on 31 August 1940, following the trade and press shows at the end of May and beginning of June.

‘Gaslight’ advert, cut out of a British newspaper from 1940

As many of you will be aware, cinema-going habits in the 1930s and 1940s were very different from ours. Cinema tickets cost only a shilling or two at most, often less, and it was quite common to go to the movies two or three times a week. Films were shown several times a day, but not in isolation as is the case now – they were part of a longer and varied programme which ran almost continuously throughout the day, and would include newsreels, short films, serial episodes, documentary features and cartoons.

It can be seen here that there were four daily screenings – Midday, 2.55, 6.00 and 9.15 pm. Showing alongside Gaslight were two other films – Memories of Poland, which was presumably a short documentary relating to the country’s past prior to the Nazi invasion the previous year, and Alias the Deacon (Cabanne, 1940), a wild west comedy about a card sharp named Deke Caswell who is mistaken for a clergyman. The lead role was played by Bob Burns, a musical comedian famed for playing a home-made instrument which he called his ‘Bazooka’ – a name that was later applied by American soldiers to their anti-tank weapon, due to its similar shape.

For those of us who have only watched old AW films in the comfort of our homes on DVD or video, or at special screenings attended largely by nostalgic fans, film historians and others who may have travelled large distances at some expense to attend these rare events, it is worth thinking about the differences in our cinema-going experience. How would it feel watching Gaslight straight after a cowboy film with a comedian playing his bazooka? Would the contrast make the film seem darker, or would there be a light-hearted atmosphere in the auditorium that might mitigate its sinister psychological undercurrents? What if the audience contained large numbers of casual viewers who had just popped in for something to do, to watch the latest newsreels or catch some cartoons while avoiding the rain? Admission times were not enforced in the same way, and it was not unusual for people to wander in halfway through a film and continue to watch through the entire programme until the first half of the film came round again. There may well have been differences between smaller provincial cinemas and more prestigious venues like the Leicester Square Odeon, to which this advert refers.

Another interesting feature of the advert is he reference to Lady Anne Henrietta Yule (1874-1950), a wealthy widow who became involved in the British film industry following the death of her husband, businessman Sir Andrew Yule. She cofounded the British National film company with Gaslight producer John Corfield and J. Arthur Rank, with whom she shared strong religious views, and went on to invest in the company’s acquisition of Pinewood Studios. She also helped finance The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Eccentric and patriotic, she was a keen supporter of various charitable and wartime causes, such as the Allied Services Club for which the day’s cinema takings were being collected. How might awareness of this collection have influenced cinemagoers’ attendance?

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Saint Joan


Tradition has it that Joan of Arc was born on this day, 6 January, around 1412, so it seemed apt to pen a quick post about the film Saint Joan (Preminger, 1957) in which AW played Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais who played an active role in Joan’s trial and execution.

Saint Joan (Jean Seberg) and Bishop Cauchon (AW)

The film was the first screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, which was published in 1923, three after Joan was canonised by the Catholic Church. Shaw had died in 1950 and the screenplay was written by Grahame Greene, who had converted to Catholicism in 1926 and explored religious themes in many of his novels.

Although the part of Joan was given to newcomer Jean Seberg, the rest of the cast was drawn from a conventional roster of established actors, including experienced Shavian performers such as Felix Aylmer (in his firth of six screen appearances alongside AW) and Harry Andrews. The part of the effeminate Dauphin, Charles VII, went to Richard Widmark, who cinemagoers were more used to seeing as a rough action hero. Richard Todd played Joan’s field commander Dunois, while John Gielgud was cast as Warwick ‘the king-maker’. Margot Grahame – with whom AW had last appeared in Michael Strogoff twenty years previously – played the Duchesse de la Tremouille, and the part of the Archbishop of Rheims was given to Finlay Currie, who had also appeared with AW in 49th Parallel.

Rehearsals started on 17 December 1956. At the first reading at Shepperton studios, the actors all sat all sat round the table ‘like monks at a refectory’, with the bald headed Preminger taking the place of the abbot. Shooting began on 9 January 1957. Although the film was shot in black and white, the cinematographer was Georges Perinal, who had excelled in the glorious technicolour of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) . The imagery is generally restrained, however, and the entire film has a somewhat austere appearance that emphasises its resemblance to a stage play. Despite a number of cuts, Greene’s screenplay remained faithful to Shaw’s text. The epilogue to the play – in which characters appear in a dream to discuss Joan’s fate – was split into two to form a framing device at the beginning and end of the film. 

AW and Richard Todd

Shooting was completed in three months, and Preminger returned to America at the beginning of May to make preparations for the gala French premiere in Orleans and Paris at the Theatre National de l’Opera on 12 May, the Feast of Saint Joan. Preminger seems to have enjoyed his time in England, and was full of praise for the skill and professionalism of the Shepperton studio workers. The British premiere took place in Leicester Square Theatre on Thursday 20 June, with Walbrook among the many stars attending. It was a charity events, Preminger showing his admiration by donating the profits to British Studio Workers Benevolent funds for the unions ACTT, ETU and NATKE.

Although the premiere had been highly anticipated, with seats sold out a week in advance, the film did not prove popular with the general public. I will be rewatching it this evening, but it is fair to say that combination of heavy dialogue and lengthy camera takes gives large parts of the film a static, stagey feel that dampens the visual sparkle that one might have expected from such a star-studded cast.

The performances are excellent nonetheless and AW’s portrayal of Bishop Cauchon conveys the ‘self-disciplined and conscientious’ character that Shaw was keen to emphasise. In the backlash against Joan’s execution, Cauchon was excommunicated and regarded as something of a villain who had allowed his pro-English politics to intrude upon his handling of religious matters. Both Shaw and Greene understood that his position was much more complex and AW captures the sense of a pious and conscientious man who is struggling to find the right course within a web of conflicting principles and motives. As he admits to Joan in the closing dream sequence, ‘I was faithful to my light, I could do no other than I did.’ Even if he failed to protect Joan, whose innocence he sensed, he behaves with calmness and dignity, rising above the threats and bullying of the different factions around him.

Shaw stated Cauchon’s age to be ‘about 60’ and production began just a few weeks after AW’s sixtieth birthday, although he was still allowing people to believe him to be four years younger. He once stated that he had thought about becoming a priest when he was younger, and he brings to the role of Bishop Cauchon a convincing episcopal gravitas, complete with dry wit and a sense of world-weariness. He was almost cast as a priest ten years earlier in a proposed biopic about another canonised saint, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, and it would have been interesting to have known what he might have done with the role. While many of his pre-war German films saw him portraying a stylish bon-vivant character, Cauchon was one of the long series of grand historical figures, soldiers and aristocracy that seem to dominate his post-emigration career.

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Anna Massey, ‘Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture’ (Oxford: Berg, 2000)

Anna Massey’s book takes a very different approach to that of Mary Ann Doane, although there is some overlap in their concern with how women engaged with the content of movies during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than using psychoanalytic theory as her starting point, Massey focuses on ‘edifices and artefacts…object-based material culture’ in order to explore the impact of American movies on British popular culture and design style. Her scope is far ranging, tracing the relationship between films and design by looking at the architecture of shops, cinemas and factories, interior room design, fashion, cigarette brands, advertisements, beauty products and family photographs. Unlike Doane’s work – which she cites – her writing is firmly rooted in real personal experiences, as is brought to life vividly by the inclusion of photographs of her mother and grandmother, with their own anecdotes about how their lives were affected by Hollywood movies.In her introduction to this book, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Personal and the Popular’, Anna Massey argues for the importance of embracing two strands that are often neglected in academic writing: a deliberate choice, spurred by the realisation that in much academic literature ‘affirmation of my own history and experience seems to be missing.’ (p.4)

 Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian in Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) 

Using evidence drawn from these diverse sources and family anecdotes, Massey demonstrates the extent to which British popular and material culture was influenced at all levels by American style, as mediated through Hollywood, noting also how British intellectuals and establishment figures were determined to resist this Americanization which they associated with loose morals and subversive social mobility. There are four chapters, divided into rough chronological periods. The first of these, The Jazz Age, discusses developments between 1918 and 1929 when Hollywood eclipsed Paris in terms of influence on design, leading consumers in Britain to start looking towards America for the lead in matters of taste and style. A large chunk of this section looks at the films Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) and its sequel Our Modern Maidens (Conway, 1929) which propelled Joan Crawford to leading lady status and showcased Cedric Gibbons stunning art deco sets as well as Adrian’s daring costumes – which are discussed at length by Caroline Young’s book. Great concern was felt, both in America and Britain, about the dangers of young women trying to copy the behaviour exhibited in these films, and Massey quotes from women’s personal accounts of how they adopted the short skirts and flapper hairstyles worn on screen. A more specific expression of British resistance to Hollywood’s encroachment was the Cinematograph Film Act of 1927, although as the author makes clear, most of these attempts to hold back the American tide soon gave way in the face of popular and commercial demand – indicative of the tensions between elitist distaste for American culture and its mass popularity.  In Chapter Two, Bright Style in Dark Days, – the largest section of the book – the author traces how art deco evolved into the more streamlined art moderne style and the impact this had on British culture during the early 1930s, particularly in the form of architectural design in the south of England. Films discussed include Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932,) Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) and Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935).

Joan Crawford’s home in Our Dancing Daughters

The third chapter on Cold War Cultures covers the period during and just after the Second World War, including the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ fashion line launched in 1947, and postwar British resistance to American influence in the shape of British design fairs and the moral concern over the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, recalling how the film Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956) was banned by councils in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast. She discusses Bette Davis in Now Voyager, the ‘Americanized left-bank glamour of Hepburn’ (p.160), Hollywood actresses’ endorsement of beauty products and the short-lived British magazine Film and Fashion. A concluding section,  Post-modern glamour. A postscript, brings in some of the author’s own personal experiences of relating filmgoing to choices in dress and cultural attitudes, noting how the 1970s saw a revival of 1930s fashion, for instance through Mia Farrow’s stylish outfits in The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974).

The book should encourage readers to think more broadly about the cultural significance of classic films and the complex intersections that occur between the movies, avant-garde design, high fashion, popular culture and mass market commodities. The diverse and nuanced interplay between personal, popular, architectural and cinematic topics makes for a stimulating read, but it does create some problems for the author in trying to impose some order on the material and draw the various strands of her analysis together into a strong conclusion.

This will be the final post for the #ClassicFilmReading summer challenge this year, and for anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend you check out the Out of the Past website for other reviews in the challenge as well as a wealth of material on all aspects of classic cinema

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