Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Centenary of Margaret Lockwood's Birth

 (This post is part of the Margaret Lockwood Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

By the time I was 18 I was already an Alfred Hitchcock fan. I had seen many of his films so that I always looked forward to those I had not seen yet. Quite naturally, then, I eagerly awaited seeing The Lady Vanishes (1938) on television. What I did not anticipate was that I would be seeing more than another Alfred Hitchcock classic, even more than a movie that would become one of my favourite Hitchcock films of all time. Quite simply, I developed yet another classic film crush. The star of the film was a striking, dark haired woman with looks that matched those of Vivien Leigh. What is more, she played an intelligent, resourceful young lady who could handle herself. Alfred Hitchcock may have been known for his blondes, but what would be my favourite of his leading ladies was a brunette.  It was on that day that I fell in love with Margaret Lockwood. Over the years I would see yet more Margaret Lockwood movies: The Wicked Lady (1945), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Slipper and the Rose (1976), and yet others. Margaret Lockwood eventually became one of my favourite film stars of all time.

I certainly am not alone in my adoration of Margaret Lockwood. She was the top British star in the United Kingdom in the Forties. Her film The Wicked Lady still ranks among the most profitable films in Britain of all time. To this day she still has many fans not only in the United Kingdom, but in Australia, Canada, the United States, and yet other countries. It was 100 years ago today. on September 15 1916, that Margaret Lockwood was born in Karachi, British India (now Pakistan).

Margaret Lockwood was drawn to acting while she was still very young. She studied at the Italia Conti School. It was through the Italia Conti School that young Margaret would make her debut at age 12 on stage as one of the fairies in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unfortunately Margaret suffered travel sickness going and back and forth to the Italia Conti School, so she enrolled at the local Haddon School of Dancing. It was through the Haddon School that she would be invited by the Cone School of Dancing to audition for the chorus of a pantomime of Babes in the Wood, which was set to play at the Scala Theatre. It very nearly proved to be Margaret's big break. As it turned out, the girl originally cast in the lead role had contracted measles, and so Margaret was set to take her place. It was the Cone School that suggested Margaret should use a stage name, so Margaret would briefly become "Margie Day". Photographs of young Margaret were even hung outside the Scala bearing her new stage name. As things turned out, Margie Day would not get to play the lead. The original lead actress made a recovery from the measles and as a result resumed her role. Margaret once more simply became one of the fairies in Babes in the Woods. While Margaret was disappointed, one good thing came out of the entire affair. Grace Cone was so impressed with Margaret's talent and diligence that she invited her to study at the Cone School of Dancing.

It was in 1933 that Margaret Lockwood enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). It was through a fellow pupil at RADA that Miss Lockwood was introduced to the agent Herbert de Leon. After seeing her in a performance of Hannele at RADA, Margaret Lockwood became Herbert de Leon's client. He remained her agent for the next 45 years.

While Herbert de Leon had complete faith in Miss Lockwood's talent, there were others who did not. Not long after leaving RADA she had a meeting with powerful producer and director Alexander Korda, who dismissed her out of hand.  Regardless, Margaret Lockwood had no time to dwell on Mr. Korda's advice to return to "her typing or shorthand or whatever she did for a living", as Herbert de Leon convinced his brother Jack, who ran the Q Theatre, to consider Margaret Lockwood for a part in his production of House on Fire. In 1934 Miss Lockwood proved to be busy as an actress, appearing in Family Affairs at the Ambassador's Theatre, as well. She would later appear in Repayment at the Arts Theatre and  Miss Smith at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1936.

While Margaret Lockwood was quite busy on stage in the years from 1934 to 1937, her destiny was in film. It was while Miss Lockwood was performing in Family Affairs that she had a screen test at Elstree Studios. Unfortunately, the screen test did not go particularly well and Elstree Studios was less than impressed. Surprisingly it would still lead to her career in film. Associated Talking Pictures Ltd., the parent company of Elstree Studios, had seen Margaret Lockwood's screen test and because of it they offered her a small role in their production of Lorna Doone. When leading lady Dorothy Hyson had a nervous breakdown, Miss Lockwood found herself cast in the female lead role of Anne Ridd. It was in 1934, then, that Margaret Lockwood made her screen debut in Lorna Doone.

Over the next few years Margaret Lockwood appeared in such films as Midshipman Easy (1935), The Amateur Gentleman (1936), and The Beloved Vagabond (1936).  It was in 1937 that Gaumont British decided to produce an adaption of Russell Thorndike's novel Doctor Syn. Originally it was set to star George Arliss and Anna Lee. Anna Lee dropped out of the project and as a result Gaumont British offered the lead female role to Margaret Lockwood. Miss Lockwood's performance in the film so impressed Gaumont British that she was signed to a three year contract with their sister company Gainsborough Pictures.

It was not long before Margaret Lockwood would be established as a star. It was in 1937 that Margaret Lockwood would be cast in the starring role in Bank Holiday (1938). Bank Holiday would prove to be an important film for its director, Carol Reed, as well. Bank Holiday proved highly successful upon its release and both established Margaret Lockwood as a true film star and established Carol Reed's reputation as a director. Her next film would prove to be even more important in her career. Initially Alfred Hitchcock had considered such actresses as Nova Pilbeam and Lilli Palmer for the lead role of English socialite Iris Henderson in his next film, The Lady Vanishes. It was Ted Black, head of production at Gainsborough Pictures, who recommended Margaret Lockwood to him. The Lady Vanishes (1938) not only received positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, but also proved to be a box office smash in both the United Kingdom and the United States as well. Not surprisingly, Miss Lockwood found Hollywood knocking at her door.

Unfortunately, Margaret Lockwood would be ill used by Hollywood. In the wake of the success of The Lady Vanishes (1938) 20th Century Fox made a deal to loan Gainsborough their contract players if they could use Miss Lockwood. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox cast her in a vehicle hardly befitting the star of Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes. She played the second female lead in Susannah of the Mounties (1939) to Fox's resident star for much of the Thirties, child actress Shirley Temple. Gainsborough then loaned Margaret Lockwood to Paramount Pictures for Rulers of the Sea (1939). In Rulers of the Sea Margaret Lockwood was the female lead, but unfortunately the film received bad notices and performed very poorly at the box office.

Surprisingly enough, both 20th Century Fox and Paramount considered offering Margaret Lockwood seven year contracts. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox thought Margaret Lockwood looked too much like Hedy Lamarr and Joan Bennett and as a result wanted Margaret Lockwood to dye her hair blonde. Quite naturally Miss Lockwood, now well known for her dark hair, refused. After a disastrous experiment with a blonde wig, 20th Century Fox decided not to sign her. Paramount did not get a chance to sign Margaret Lockwood to a contract. With war looming on the horizon and an offer of the leading role in Carol Reed's next film, she returned to England.

That film would be The Stars Look Down (1940). The Stars Look Down would be historic as it would be the first time that Margaret Lockwood played what could be described as a "bad girl". Previously in her career Miss Lockwood had primarily played good, honest women, from Catherine Lawrence in Bank Holiday to Leslie James in Carol Reed's A Girl Must Live (1939). By contrast, Jenny Sunley was, as Margaret Lockwood described her, "an ungrateful little hussy". In fact, Miss Lockwood initially considered turning down the role. As it turned out, The Stars Look Down proved to be a hit both at the box office and with critics. It remains to this day one of Margaret Lockwood's most popular movies.

Margaret Lockwood would work with Carol Reed two more times, in the thrillers Girl in the News (1940) and Night Train to Munich (1940). It was in 1943 that Margaret Lockwood's career would make another change. She was cast in the role of the villain Hester Shaw, in the first of Gainsborough's notorious bodice rippers, The Man in Grey. Critics were not particularly impressed with The Man in Grey, but it proved to be a huge box office success. As a result it created a formula that Gainsborough would follow for the next few years, one of sex, sadism, and pageantry, often in period settings.

That is not to say Margaret Lockwood only appeared in Gainsborough's melodramas during the period. Give Us the Moon (1944) was a screwball comedy. I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945) was a musical.      Hungry Hill (1947) was a historical drama. That having been said, the Gainsborough melodramas proved to be among the most popular of Margaret Lockwood's career. In fact, short of The Lady Vanishes, The Wicked Lady may be the most successful film that Miss Lockwood ever made. In the film she starred as Barbara Worth, the wife of a landowner who turns to highway robbery. The film proved to be scandalous on both sides of the Atlantic. It also proved to be phenomenally successful as well, particularly in the United Kingdom. With an audience estimated at 18.4 million, it still ranks among the highest grossing films in Britain when adjusted for inflation. The other Gainsborough melodramas starring Margaret Lockwood also remain well remembered, including A Place of One's Own (1945), Bedelia (1946), and Jassy (1947).

The success of the Gainsborough melodramas would make Margaret Lockwood the most popular actress in Britain in the mid to late Forties. She won the Daily Mail National Film Award for Most Outstanding British Actress During the War Years in 1946 and then the award for Best Film Actress of the year in both 1947 and 1948. She consistently ranked in Quigley Publishing's polls of the top money making stars in the Forties. In 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1946 she was the most popular British female star in the polls. In 1947 and 1948 she was second only to Anna Neagle.

Despite the success she had in the many years she had with Gainsborough, she eventually left them because she was not happy with the scripts she was getting. In 1946 Margaret Lockwood signed a six year contract with the Rank Organisation, which by then had become Gainsborough's parent company. Unfortunately many of Margaret Lockwood's films of the late Forties would fall short of the successes she had earlier in the decade. Look Before You Love (1948), The Cardboard Cavalier (1949), and Highly Dangerous (1950) did poorly at the box office, although Madness of the Heart (1949) turned out to be a hit.

It was during the late Forties that Margaret Lockwood made her television debut, playing Eliza Doolittle in a BBC adaption of Pygmalion. She also returned to the stage. She went on a national tour of Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1949, as well as played the title role in Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre. She would play Peter Pan again in 1950 and 1957. In 1951 she once more played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, this time at the Edinburgh Festival.

Sadly, the Fifties would see Margaret Lockwood's film career continue to decline. In 1952 she signed a two picture a year deal with director and producer Herbert Wilcox. Ultimately she would make three films with Mr. Wilcox. The first, Trent's Last Case (1952), received mixed reviews, but did well at the box office. Unfortunately the other two films Miss Lockwood made with Herbert Wilcox--Laughing Anne (1953) and Trouble in the Glen (1954) did not do nearly as well. In 1955 Margaret Lockwood appeared in the film Cast a Dark Shadow opposite Dirk Bogarde. Cast a Dark Shadow received good notices from critics. Miss Lockwood was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress for her role in the film. Unfortunately, it also did poorly at the box office. Although today Cast a Dark Shadow is regarded as one of Margaret Lockwood's best films, it would be the last feature film she would make for around twenty years.

While Margaret Lockwood's film career declined in the Fifties, she saw considerable success on stage during the decade. Agatha Christie wrote the play The Spider's Web for Margaret Lockwood, and the play had a highly successful run starting in 1954. During the Fifties Miss Lockwood also appeared in the plays Subway in the Sky (at the Savoy Theatre in 1957), Murder on Arrival (on tour in 1959), and And Suddenly It's Spring (at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1959).

It was in the 1950s that Margaret's daughter Julia Lockwood began her own acting career. She had appeared in minor roles in Margaret Lockwood's films Hungry Hill and The White Unicorn (1947). In 1953 Julia Lockwood had her first significant acting role, playing the tile character in a BBC adaption of Heidi. She had her first significant role in a feature film in The Flying Eye in 1955. She went on to appear in the films My Teenage Daughter (1956) and Please Turn Over (1959). She made frequent appearances on television.

Margaret Lockwood also made several appearances on television in the Fifties. She appeared in television adaptions of The Spider's Web and Murder Mistaken (the play upon which the film Cast a Dark Shadow was based). She starred in the TV series The Royalty with her daughter Julia. Debuting on October 16 1957 on the BBC, it centred on an exclusive hotel in London.

The Sixties would see Margaret Lockwood continue to appear on television. She starred in the BBC TV series The Flying Swan, once more opposite her daughter Julia. Debuting on March 27 1965, The Flying Swan is often described as a sequel to The Royalty, although it is perhaps better to say that it was inspired by the earlier series. Margaret Lockwood also guest starred on Yorky, ITV Play of the Week, The Human Jungle, and BBC Play of the Month. Perhaps her most significant guest appearance was in an episode of ITV Playhouse. In "Justice is a Woman" Margaret Lockwood played Julia Stanford, a barrister who defends a young man accused of murdering a Scottish girl. It would serve as the inspiration for Margaret Lockwood's series Justice. During the Sixties she continued to appear on stage, including a long run in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband at the Strand Theatre and later the Garrick Theatre. She also appeared in such plays as Signpost to Murder at the Cambridge Theatre, The Others at the Strand Theatre, and Lady Frederick at the Vaudeville Theatre.

The ITV Playhouse episode "Justice is a Woman" was very well received. At the same time Yorkshire Television's series The Main Chance, about a solicitor in Leeds, proved very popular. "Justice is a Woman" then served as the template for the series Justice. Debuting on October 8 1971, Justice starred Margaret Lockwood as Harriet Peterson, a barrister initially in the North of England and later London. Justice proved very popular and ultimately three series were made. Margaret Lockwood continued to appear on stage, appearing in Noel Coward's Relative Values, Double Edge, Quadrille, and Suite in Two Keys. In 1976 she appeared in her final film, The Slipper and the Rose. Directed by Bryan Forbes and inspired by the fairy tale "Cinderella", Margaret Lockwood played the Stepmother in the film. In 1980 she made her final appearance on stage in the play Motherdear at the Ambassadors Theatre.

Margaret Lockwood died on July 17 1990 at the age of 73.

There should be little wonder that Margaret Lockwood still has legions of fans across the English speaking world. She was exquisitely attractive, a brunette beauty on the level of Vivien Leigh, Paulette Goddard, Hedy Lamarr, and Gene Tierney. What is more, as Lyndsy Spence, author of Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen, has pointed out, she was the only dark beauty to achieve her level of stardom in Britain--her closest rivals were blondes. While Margaret Lockwood was beautiful, it does not explain why she became so popular and remains popular to this day. There have been many beautiful actresses over the years in both Britain and Hollywood, and many of those actresses have since been forgotten.

The fact is that not only was Margaret Lockwood exquisitely beautiful, but she was also extremely talented. While she is now best known for playing femmes fatales, she actually played a variety of roles throughout her career. Indeed, her most famous role is hardly a femme fatale at all. Iris Henderson in The Lady Vanishes may be an English socialite, but she is one who is intelligent, resourceful, and has rather strong ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Iris is about as far from Barbara Worth in The Wicked Lady as one can get. That's not to say that Barbara wasn't intelligent and resourceful, but that her ideas of what is right and what is wrong are a far cry from those of Iris! Margaret Lockwood could play a wide variety of roles, from a caring nurse (in Bank Holiday) to a black widow serial killer (in Bedelia) to a low class yet wealthy widow (in Cast a Dark Shadow).

What is more, Margaret Lockwood could do well in any number of genres. In some respects it is a shame that her thrillers and melodramas have so overshadowed her comedies, as she was actually quite good at comedy. Give Us the Moon is a match for any comedy to emerge out of Hollywood during the same era, and Miss Lockwood excels in it. She also did very well in Highly Dangerous, a spy spoof before there really were spy spoofs, as well as the romantic comedy A Girl Must Live. While today many people think of the Gainsborugh bodice rippers when they think of Margaret Lockwood, over the years played in a number of different genres and did well in all of them: thrillers (Night Train to Munich), romances (Love Story), historical dramas (Hungry Hill), musicals (I'll Be Your Sweetheart), and others. Even on television she was able to display her versatility. In the Human Jungle episode  "Solo Performance", Margaret Lockwood played an actress overcome with a fear of ageing.

Of course, much of Margaret Lockwood's appeal went beyond her beauty and her talent. Edward Black, producer of The Lady Vanishes, once said, Margaret Lockwood "...had something with which every girl in the suburbs could identify."  While in the United States people tend to think of the suburbs as strictly middle class, in Britain in the Thirties the suburbs could cover a wide array of classes. Iris Henderson of The Lady Vanishes was clearly upper middle class, while Jenny Sunley in The Stars Look Down was clearly lower class. Over the years Margaret Lockwood played nearly every class in between. Women of nearly all classes identified with Margaret Lockwood. Even with men Margaret Lockwood's appeal went beyond being a woman blessed with a beautiful face and a good figure. Quite simply, for all her beauty Margaret Lockwood still seemed like the sort of girl one might like to walk home. Ultimately, unlike many of the dream girls churned out by Hollywood, Margaret Lockwood seemed approachable in many of her roles.

Ultimately Margaret Lockwood achieved something few British stars ever did. She was able to match Hollywood's stars in popularity in her native Britain. She also accomplished something else few British stars ever did. She attained a modicum of popularity in the United States without ever having made many films in Hollywood. Given what Margaret Lockwood accomplished in her lifetime, it should be no wonder that she is still popular 100 years after her birth.


(Much of this post was written from memory, but when in doubt I turned to Lyndsy Spence's excellent biography of Margaret Lockwood, Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen. Any errors are my own)

3 comments:

Virginie Pronovost said...

Fantastic portrait of a fantastic actress Terence. I really enjoyed reading it! I'm always surprised that Highly Dangerous didn't do well at the box office. It's quite a thrilling and entertaining film, no?

Caftan Woman said...

Margaret Lockwood's longevity and her awesomely varied career is an inspiration and a tribute to her talent and dedication. The more we learn of her, the more there is to admire.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Virginie, it is so hard for me to believe Highly Dangerous didn't do well at the box office! It is such a fun movie. I can only think that maybe it was a little a head of its time--it sort of reminds me of the Sixties spy spoofs (like Hot Enough for June with Dirk Bogarde). Patricia, you are so right about Margaret. She was just such an incredible actress.