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?’


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?

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.

Anton Artefact #6

It’s a delight to have my Anton blog back up and running again after a long hiatus, beginning with the next in the Artefact series, a programme for a screening of Michael Strogoff at the Stoll Picture Theatre in London.

 

Opened as the London Opera House in 1911, it was taken over by Oscar Stoll and converted to use as a cinema in 1917. As befitted a grand opera house, it had a spectacular design and lavish interior, replete with pillared galleries, carved facades and groups of sculpted figures depicting Melody, Harmony, Inspiration, Composition, Comedy, Tragedy, Dance and Song. Although Michael Strogoff is not a hugely popular film among Anton fans, watching the movie in such a setting must have been quite an experience.

We tend to forget sometimes that the 1930s moviegoers’ experience was quite different from our modern Odeons and multiplexes. This programme is for the week beginning Monday 9th August 1937, when Michael Strogoff was shown four times a day. As the page detail below illustrates, the film was not watched in isolation, but was an integral part of a twelve-hour continuous programme that included a live organ recital, orchestral music with comic performances and skaters, news bulletins and trailers, concluding with the National Anthem. (It was common for most people to make a dash for the exits during the end credits so they wouldn’t have to stand to attention for the anthem.)

 

Royal affairs were much on AW’s mind at the time, as filming of Victoria the Great had finished in May and everyone was getting ready for the premiere in September, which was held in Leicester Square. The Stoll Picture Theatre closed in 1940 and despite some postwar use as a theatre, was demolished in the late 1950s.

It was fifty years ago today…

AW in 1961

…that AW died at the home of his old friend, actress Hansi Burg, in Garatshausen, Bavaria, where he had been convalescing from a heart attack he had suffered on stage at the Kleine-Komödie in Munich at the end of March. I have written about this in more detail on previous anniversaries (see here and here.)

It had been my intention to mark this year’s special anniversary with the publication of my biography of the actor, but for various reasons this has not been possible. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the text is complete – watch this space for further news!

The website has been undergoing some behind-the-scenes transformations which have prevented me from uploading any new material in recent weeks, and again, I hope normal service will be resumed very soon. Thank you for continuing to visit the blog.