Posted by Moira Finnie on October 14, 2009
In the third week of an appreciation of character actors, the transition and development of a famed leading lady of some repute into a good character actress and at times, a plain great actress, is outlined below. As the mass media developed over the course of the twentieth century this individual grew from anonymity into a “living legend”. The subject of this week’s blog will be examined in two parts:
Some time ago, in a visit to a museum in Toronto, I wandered through an exhibit on The Great War that featured the contents of a young Canadian Tommy’s kit bag from the trenches in 1916. There, amid the personal items, a battered mess tin, a scarred bayonet, a small, chipped shovel for digging a trench, an Enfield rifle and the letters from home, was a yellowing post card.
Used often in this period for sending a brief message to loved ones, this small, dog-eared object bore an image similar to that seen at left. Bringing a touch of homey glamour to a homesick soldier, it featured the pin-up girl of the First World War, the British actress, Gladys Cooper (1888-1971).
It may be hard to believe that this same winsome creature would evolve into the sometimes frosty character actress whose hauteur chilled filmed audiences in the 1940s as she laid down the law for her screen daughter Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, or questioned the truth of Jennifer Jones‘ visions of the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette. At the stage of her life when this photo was taken, the model-actress had been in front of the cameras for twenty-two of her twenty-eight years, beginning at the age of six, when her mother had given in to a request to photograph the exceptionally lovely child with her thick blond hair, and unsettling blue eyes set into a heart shaped face.
The English-born daughter of a middle class journalist William Frederick Cooper and his wife Mabel Barnett, projected something aloof and intriguing in her steady gaze and intelligent yet self-possessed air, even as a small girl. The genetic roll of the dice gave her an idealized beauty that made her an unexpectedly popular subject for numerous companies producing postcards in the late Victorian and Edwardian age. Eventually, thousands of photographs of the girl and young woman were published, sold, mailed or treasured throughout the then vast British empire. As she became more familiar and popular with the public, her signature was also included on the post cards. To this day, you can easily find original (and affordable) Gladys Cooper post cards available on the internet. Caught on film rarely smiling but aging quite gracefully from the cherubic looking if somewhat somber little girl into an English rose whose unwavering poise and inexplicable seriousness became a nascent pop culture fad. This popularity led to her being photographed in a variety of prosaic, everyday settings as well as increasingly outlandish ones. The latter included some fairly ludicrous poses in a rain slicker, wearing everything from a demure harem outfit to a bored look, and was even captured on film gamboling with her own young children.
Looking at dozens of these images while researching this piece, and reading Cooper express her early puzzlement over her luck in her autobiography from 1931, I began to wonder if she really saw this all as “a profitable lark”. I suspect that the girl was learning how to detach herself from her surroundings, as well as developing a keen sense of the absurd while also learning the tricks of posing–all of which would come in handy in her acting career, when she became known for her deft comedy touch and lending less than ideal dramatic vehicles some gravity. Gladys Cooper certainly must have developed a sense of dry good humor, discipline and patience while sitting for endless shots of herself in a knitted tam, with dogs, horses and, in the one instance that momentarily brought a smile to her face, behind the wheel of an early car.
In any case, her career would coincide with the beginning of the mass media. The power of this legacy followed her all her long life. When making a film of A.J. Cronin’s The Green Years (1946-Victor Saville), she played a fire-breathing, Calvinist grandmother in her eighties (she was actually about 58 at the time) whose attentions to the young orphan played by Dean Stockwell included fashioning a green flowered suit for the humiliated boy to wear. One day, an RAF air vice marshal was visiting MGM and happened to mention that he “worshiped” her as a boy. Her postcards, he explained, had lined the walls of his room when he was at Eton. Asked if she would meet her high ranking fan, Miss Cooper left the dressing table in grizzled character to greet him while looking quite forbidding, she murmured that he was in for “quite a shock.”
While Cooper reportedly never found her early modeling exactly stimulating, it must have been a bit of a relief to get to be more animated when she began acting in 1905 as “Bluebell in Fairyland”. Describing herself as more energetic and outdoorsy than “stage struck”, the young woman felt that she somehow, mysteriously “gravitated” to the theatre. In a surprise to her, after accompanying a friend to an audition, the 17 year old found herself offered a role in the cast of a show, which led to her winning a position in one of the popular Edwardian musical chorus line known as The Gaiety Girls. Beginning to learn her business, she was primarily appreciated for her beauty and grace on stage, but she was also able to become a more serious actress beginning with a production of “The Importance of Being Ernest” in 1911. One of the interesting aspects of this career path was that Cooper had no formal training, and learned all she would know about acting entirely on the job. Eventually, she would become so adept at her profession that she became an actress-manager with Frank Curzon at the Playhouse Theatre in Londson from 1917 until the early 1930s, coordinating the operations of her own production company as well as mothering three children from her first and second marriages.
Novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham recalled meeting her just as she began the transition from a “stage beauty” to a real actress. In 1908, Charles Hawtrey (a famed actor-manager in the Edwardian era), asked Maugham to take a look at her in his office, since Hawtrey was considering casting her in one of his legitimate stage plays, rather than the Gaiety Girls diversions she had been appearing in prior to that time. Preparing his friend for something special, he said “wait till you see her. She’s a knock-out.” When Maugham, a skeptical veteran of many introductions to girls pronounced as the “most beautiful girl in the world”, he wasn’t quite expected the quiet power of this 20 year old. The author recalled decades later that “she smiled and shook hands with me.
She was very simply dressed in a coat and skirt, and singularly composed considering that she was being considered for her first speaking part…” I think that Maugham‘s words may describe the impression she left on those who saw her in person, something most of us have never experienced, when he wrote “her beauty was fresh, healthy and spring-like. Perhaps because not withstanding the calmness of her demeanour she was inwardly a trifle nervous, she had a pensive look which reminded me of that beautiful Greek statue, no more than a fragment alas, of a girl in the museum at Naples which bears the name of Psyche. She had the same delicate features and the same virginal air”…”She [was] the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life…”
During this same period, while making her way in the theatre, her renowned beauty always gained her more attention than she seemed to think warranted by reality, even extending to the United States, though she would not appear there until the 1930s. Under headlines in papers as far away as Chicago crying “ENGLAND’S MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN “, reporters would seek her out for interviews. While she would endorse some products to make some money, her advice reporters in the teens and twenties who asked about her alleged perfection usually elicited a flinty directness such as “keep it simple”, “wear clothes that elongate the figure”, “learn to think”, as well as claiming that she used some magic elixir she was being paid to mention in interviews. She might have added “work hard”.
Cooper‘s initial footlight fame came during this long stage career in Britain, which included a turn as the eternal boy in J.M. Barrie‘s “Peter Pan”, a part that pleased her enormously, even if she allowed her feminine charm to show through the knockabout exterior. Cooper enjoyed playing in Barrie’s works very much, and said about the leader of the lost boys that “I am inclined to hold and maintain that Peter Pan is really more of a play for grown-ups than children. Additional plays, such as Barrie‘s gender-bending experimental 1915 play, “The Fatal Typist” (in which Cooper and frequent stage partner Gerald du Maurier exchanged the socially constructed postures and habits of the male and female), allowed the actress to experiment with her stage persona and develop her abilities, as did more mainstream works such as Pinero‘s “The Second Mrs. Tanquery”, her originating the role of Leslie Crosbie (played by Bette Davis in Wyler’s famed 1939 version) in Maugham‘s “The Letter” in 1927, and eventually appearing in America for the first time in “The Shining Hour” in 1934. Though we might think of Cooper‘s career as defined by English archetypes, her stage career was considerably more adventurous in subject matter and were often quite innovative. Finding herself a critical and popular success in the States with a hit on Broadway, the actress tried to parlay that into a series of different roles, including two stabs at Shakespeare, as Lady MacBeth in “MacBeth” and Desdemona in “Othello” opposite her third and soon-to-be last of three husbands, Philip Merivale. Friends such as John Gielgud and Noel Coward were impressed with her stamina and bravery for tackling these daunting roles, despite her total lack of Shakespearean experience and her well known penchant for forgetting her lines.
After experiencing an embarrassing and costly divorce, (in which her second husband, Sir Neville Pearson, named Merivale as co-respondent), and a series of unfortunately unsuccessful producing and acting ventures on the American stage; the call, at age 52 to appear in an uncharacteristically dowdy role as Maxim de Winter’s tweedy sister in Rebecca (1939) was very welcome. Cooper had only appeared in one talkie, The Iron Major (1934 with George Arliss, but she had been in silents since 1913, none of which, unfortunately, appear to be available to most of us, though a few may exist in archives. I am most curious about a 1916 film satirizing how early Hollywood might tackle Shakespeare. Called The Real Thing at Last, it starred future character lead Edmund Gwenn as an actor with the impressive named of “Rupert K. Thunder” who was preparing to play a luridly cinematic version of MacBeth. The cast also featured Cooper as a character described as “An American Witch”, and with the comically sinister Ernest Thesiger as another Witch. Accounts describe the cast as “four murderers, two murdered, one willing to murder” and a crowd of about four hundred adding color to the background. In one sequence a messenger rode up to Gwenn‘s befuddled MacBeth with a note that read “If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch” and Lady MacBeth wrote a note to her hubby reading “Dear MacBeth, the King has gotten old and silly, slay him. Yours sincerely, Lady M.” I sincerely hope that this “classic” might exist still in the vault of the BFI, ready to re-emerge someday to give us a new and amusing perspective on Gladys Cooper‘s career, which would be best remembered for her work in Hollywood.
Alfred Hitchcock‘s first American movie, based on the popular Daphne du Maurier novel under the aegis of producer David O. Selznick, also allowed Cooper to work with one of her best platonic friends, Nigel Bruce. In a part that called for her to be blunt and obtuse simultaneously, Cooper initially wrote home that she found Joan Fontaine “curiously untalented”, though she may have been reflecting the deliberate air of stiffness on the set created by the director to isolate his leading lady, which may have assisted the leading lady’s very good characterization enormously. For the supporting player, new to town, the actress also thought that Laurence Olivier was “wrongly cast as Max de Winter”, (a position Olivier held about Fontaine, since he would have preferred appearing opposite Vivien Leigh), but for Gladys Cooper the biggest problem may have been just getting to work on time, though she was a bit dazzled by the sums being paid by the colonials in awe of the British actors. “The main trouble I have here,” she wrote home, “is finding the studios each morning: I have rented a car, but all the roads all go very straight and unless you turn off them at just the right moment, you end up in thhe hills miles away from anywhere within a few minutes. All the English here stick together…it is really fantastic what people are getting out here for doing comparatively little work.”
Best remembered for his role as Dr. Watson in a series of Sherlock Holmes movies made with Basil Rathbone, Bruce was already ensconced in the center of the “Hollywood Raj” set of British-born actors who had found a place in the sun to exploit the studio era’s rampant anglophilia. Soon, Cooper and Merivale were caught up in the Hollywood hubbub and trapped in America at the start of the Second World War. While many younger actors were able to return to serve in the military, others, including Cooper and her husband, Merivale, who were too old to serve, were vilified in the more rabid British press for not returning home, even though they were told privately by their consulate that they might serve best through their work in film projects, charities, and the media to encourage American support for the British stance against the Nazis. Soon Cooper reported home that she was helping to fund an organization to assist British orphans with Dame May Whitty, and “sewing pyjamas (you would laugh if you saw my sewing)…[with] Mrs. Ian Hunter and Mrs. Boris Karloff and Mrs. Melville Cooper…who are doing our best, but I fear it isn’t enough…” Perhaps to buck up her own flagging spirit as much as to demonstrate her own loyalty, Cooper also described how fastening a Union Jack sticker emblazoned with the words “Alone and Unafraid” onto that rented auto was better than doing so little at so great a distance as Britain experienced the Blitz.
Perhaps the most practical service for her country was in her appearances on screen in the forties, though, when she met moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, they were a bit nonplussed to find that “she appeared so young” in private, since they had assumed she’d have been much more decrepit and ideal casting for elderly dowagers rather than middle-aged women, (then as now, a group vastly under-represented on screen). Feeling the pinch monetarily and emotionally at this “awkward age”, Gladys let down her guard in one letter home, lamenting that “My name still means so little out here that I’m not even much good for raising money [for war relief], and when they asked for $500 from each of us…I realized I hadn’t even got that in the bank [after which] I got very, very depressed…if only I could get one good film.” After landing the role of Dennis Morgan‘s mainline mother in Kitty Foyle (1940-Sam Wood), thwarting the intermarriage of a genial WASP with the stylish, bright and only slightly brassy but decent girl Ginger Rogers, things would begin to be better for Cooper professionally. Before she got on a roll, however, there was an arid patch which led to her appearance in the programmer, The Gay Falcon (1941-Irving Reis), one of the better entries in that series with George Sanders as the sleuth and a detour into a very modest B version of a Universal horror film, The Black Cat (1941-Albert S. Rogell) took her down an unexpected career bypath. She must have begun to wonder if these features were to set a pattern for her future on the West coast.
This film, which bore no relation to Edgar Ulmer’s perversely entertaining 1934 movie, starred a quite good cast, led by an understandably subdued Basil Rathbone (as Cooper’s husband), Gale Sondergaard, Broderick Crawford, Hugh Herbert, a very young Alan Ladd in a small role as Cooper’s mouthy, bellicose son. Poor Bela Lugosi, a veteran of the earlier black cat film, shows up in an even smaller part as an ominous gardener. This odd little movie was a comedy-old dark house programmer about an eccentric old lady (Cecilia Loftus) surrounded by her nasty relatives and many felines, (though she thought that black ones were omens of death). The 71 minute movie allowed me to see Gladys Cooper in an unexpected déclassée setting and a role that highlighted some very surprising feats of strength on the part of the slight, even deceptively frail actress. Since this movie is readily available on DVD, I won’t spoil your own experience of seeing this flick, which you won’t quite believe, but might enjoy if you are a connoisseur of unbelievable forays into this genre.
As a fellow cast member, veteran horror actress Anne Gwynne explained to an interviewer, though it seemed as though “she [Cooper]was slumming” by being in this movie, her work ethic and eagerness to be a part of the ensemble, not necessarily the star, made her a pleasure to work with in The Black Cat. I suspect that the unexpected twists in the plot which involved Cooper may have amused and intrigued her–though she probably did it primarily for the paycheck.
Since this movie is readily available on DVD, I won’t spoil your own experience of seeing this flick, which you won’t quite believe, but might enjoy if you are a connoisseur of unbelievable forays into this genre. Fortunately for film goers, Hollywood began to believe in Cooper‘s ability as the former leading lady transformed herself into character actress as the war years slipped the dream factory activities into high gear. More about that phase of the career of this essential actress next week.
Please click here to go to Part Two of Gladys Cooper: A Natural Aristocrat
Griffin, Gabriele, Difference in View: Women and Modernism, Taylor & Francis, 1994.
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