Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The 100th Birthday of British Star Phyllis Calvert

It was 100 years ago today that legendary British film star Phyllis Calvert was born. Today she may remain best known for the many Gainsborough melodramas in which she starred. In the Forties, at the height of her career, she was second only to Margaret Lockwood as the most popular British actress in film. She later moved into television, where she appeared on everything from an adaptation of Little Women to an episode of Mr. Bean.

Phyllis Calvert was born Phyllis Bickle on February 18 1915 in Chelsea, London. As a child she trained as a dancer at the Margaret Morris school of dancing and the Institut Français. She made her stage debut in  Walter de la Mare's Crossings in 1925 at the Lyric in Hammersmith. She made her film debut at age 12 in The Arcadians (1927). She would have uncredited roles in the films Discord (1933), Anne One Hundred (1933), and School for Stars (1935).

It was in 1939 that she made her debut on London's West End in A Woman's Privilege. Although best known for her film roles, Phyllis Calvert would appear on stage throughout much of her career. In 1939 she appeared in Max Catto's Punch Without Judy. In 1942 she had the lead role in Terence Rattigan's Flare Path. In 1947 she played the title role in a revival of Peter Pan at the Scala, a role that would later be played by fellow Gainsborough actress Margaret Lockwood. She would later appear in such productions as Felicity Doulkas's It's Never Too Late (1954), The Rehearsal (1961), and A Woman Of No Importance (1967). In 1973 she played Queen Mary in Royce Ryton's Crown Matrimonial. Her final stage appearance would be at the Chichester festival in Henry James's The Heiress in 1989.

Of course, it would be for her films that Phyllis Calvert would be best known. In the late Thirties and early Forties she appeared in such films as Two Days to Live (1939), They Came by Night (1940), Let George Do It! (1940), Neutral Port (1940), and Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941). Her first major role was in Kipps, released in 1941. She appeared in Uncensored (1942) and The Young Mr. Pitt (1942) before achieving stardom playing opposite Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in Gainsborough Pictures' The Man in Grey (1943). Phyllis Calvert would become one of Gainsborough Pictures, appearing in such films as Fanny by Gaslight (1944), Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), They Were Sisters (1945), The Magic Bow (1946), The Root of All Evil (1947), Broken Journey (1948), and My Own True Love (1949).

Phyllis Calvert's time with Gainsborough Pictures marked the height of her film career, although she continued making movies well after her time with Gainsborough had ended. Over the years she appeared in such films as Appointment with Danger (1951), Mandy (1952), The Net (1953), It's Never Too Late (1956), Indiscreet (1958), Oscar Wilde (1960), and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Her last film appearance was in Mrs Dalloway in 1997.

Starting in the Fifties Phyllis Calvert's career increasingly shifted towards television. She made her television debut in 1951 in an episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre. In 1958 she appeared in BBC adaptations of  Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Good Wives. In the late Sixties and early Seventies she played agony aunt Kate Graham in the Yorkshire Television drama Kate. She later played recurring roles in the series Cover Her Face, All Passion Spent, A Killing on the Exchange, and Jute City. She guest starred on such shows as ITV Play of the Week, Owen M.D., Lady Killers, Tales of the Unexpected, Victoria Wood, Mr. Bean, and Causality. Her last appearance on television (indeed, her last appearance ever) was on an episode of Midsomer Murders in 2000.

Phyllis Calvert died on October 8 2002 at the age of 87 in London.

There can be no doubt that the height of Phyllis Calvert's fame coincided with her time at Gainsborough, even though her roles in the Gainsborough melodramas were not the most rewarding. While Margaret Lockwood got to play a series of very interesting femmes fatales, over all Phyllis Calvert was stuck playing somewhat less interesting good girls. In the Forties her image was a wholesome one for the most part--the loyal Clarissa to Margaret Lockwood's rather less faithful Hesther in The Man in Grey. Even in her various films for Gainsborough Pictures, one could tell Miss Calvert was an actress of some talent. This can be borne out by one of those films in which she departed from her "good girl" image, the movie Madonna of the Seven Moons. Indeed, she played a woman with dissociative identity disorder whose two identities are worlds apart: wholesome wife Rosalinda and the mistress of a jewel thief Maddalena. For an actress who primarily played clean-cut, virtuous women, Phyllis Calvert was surprisingly effective as Maddalena.

While Phyllis Calvert may be best known for her various Gainsborough melodramas, she also had a gift for comedy. This can be seen in one of her later films, It's Never Too Late, in which a humble British housewife finds her life turned upside down when the screenplay she has written is turned into a hit film. Miss Calvert had perfect comedic timing and a wonderfully dry delivery. She was very much at home playing a sensible person in the midst of chaos. Her comedic talents were to put to good effect in such films as Let George Do It, Indiscreet, and A Lady Mislaid.

Even in those films where Phyllis Calvert was not allowed to display the full range of her talent, it was obvious that she was an actress with considerable expertise. She could take sometimes uninteresting roles and give them a sense of individuality through the merest gestures and facial expressions. And when she was given a substantial role, such as that in Madonna of the Seven Moons, she give a better performance than most other actresses of the time. It is perhaps for this reason that in the Forties she was second in popularity only to Margaret Lockwood in the United Kingdom.

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