Courtneidge, Cicely (1893–1980)

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Courtneidge, Cicely (1893–1980)

British comedian. Name variations: Dame Cicely Courtneidge. Born Esmeralda Cicely Courtneidge on April 1, 1893, in Sydney, Australia; died on April 26, 1980, in London, England; daughter of Robert Courtneidge (an actor, manager, and producer); educated in London and Switzerland; married Jack Hulbert (an actor), in 1915 (died 1978).


Elstree Calling (1930); The Ghost Train (1931); Jack's the Boy (Night and Day, 1932); Soldiers of the King (The Woman in Command, 1933); Aunt Sally (Along Came Sally, 1934); Me and Marlborough (1935); The Perfect Gentleman (US, 1935); Things Are Looking Up (1935); Everybody Dance (1936); Take My Tip (1937); Under Your Hat (1940); Miss Tylip Stays the Night (1955); Spider's Web (1960); The L-Shaped Room (1962); The Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965); The Wrong Box (1966); Not Now, My Darling (1973).

Comedian and musical comedy star Dame Cicely Courtneidge credited half her success to her husband Jack Hulbert, her acting partner, producer, and, often times, director from 1913 until his death in 1978. Known affectionately as Cis and Jack, the couple were beloved by British theatergoers. By all accounts, the energy with which they performed was remarkable right to the end. At a performance of the revival of Dear Octopus in 1967, a young man, who had never seen the couple before, was overheard remarking to his equally young companion, "The Mother, you know, Cicely what's-her-name—she's got such fantastic, such extraordinary … vitality!"

Courtneidge, daughter of theater impresario Robert Courtneidge, was born in Australia. Her given first name, Esmeralda, was the title of the comic opera in which her father was playing when she arrived. Little is known about her mother. Her father's influence was strong, and it was assumed that she would follow in his footsteps. As a child, Courtneidge received dancing, elocution, and singing lessons along with her regular education. She made her stage debut at age eight, as one of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream (her one and only Shakespearean role). After touring with her father in Australia, she returned to England and continued to work under his management. Her London debut came as Rosie Lucas in the production of Tom Jones (1907), which was followed by a string of ingenue roles in musical comedies, including The Pearl Girl (1913), opposite then newcomer Hulbert. Although Courtneidge admitted that she was not overly impressed with him at first, she eventually succumbed to his enthusiasm for rehearsing the love scenes. They married three years later.

Around 1916, when a series of flops drove her father into debt, Courtneidge was forced for the first time to look for employment independent of him. Unable to find anything in musical comedy, she set aside her dream of becoming the second Gertie Millar (one of the famous "Gaiety Girls") and went to work putting together a music-hall act. Courtneidge, who never envisioned herself a comedian, was an instant success, especially with her male impersonations that she would continue to perform in shows for over 30 years. Her most popular number was the Guardsman singing "There's Something About a Soldier," although she was also cited for her impersonation of Noel Coward in the revue Over the Moon.

While Courtneidge toured the variety circuit, her husband, recently returned from World War I, reestablished his career. The couple first appeared together in a revue called Ring Up, but it was not until 1923 that their stage partnership began to take off, with successes like Little Revue Starts at Nine O'Clock (1923), By the Way (1925, and in New York, 1926), Clowns in Clover (1927), and The House That Jack Built (1929). Although they became one of the top draws at the West End and should have been a very rich couple, their business manager was less than capable, and they found themselves seriously

in debt. In order to double their income potential, Courtneidge went back to the music halls, while Hulbert took theater roles.

During the 1930s, film work also helped them achieve solvency. Courtneidge mostly costarred with her husband, but also did several solo films, including one of her biggest successes, Soldiers of the King (1933), in which she played both mother and daughter. In 1935, she appeared in Things Are Looking Up, considered by some to be her best film, in which she played a circus equestrian who impersonates her twin sister, a prim schoolteacher. Less successful was an MGM effort, The Perfect Gentleman, which was released as The Imperfect Woman in Britain. In her memoirs, Cicely (1953), Courtneidge assessed the film: "I didn't think the result very good. I will go further. I thought it was rubbish. We remade the rubbish, twice with different directors." Her ebullience and broad comedy did not appeal to everyone, especially American audiences, and, according to some critics, it did not transfer well to film. In America, André Sennwald of The New York Times wrote: "Frequently her humour is down around its old level of elephantine burlesque and vaudeville athleticism. But she can be surprisingly effective on occasion." Of her few later films, Courtneidge's featured role of the aging and lonely lesbian in The L-Shaped Room (1962) is considered outstanding.

The couple returned to the stage in Under Your Hat (1938), written and directed by Hulbert, which enjoyed a two-year run (it was later made into a film). During World War II, they had success in Hulbert Follies (1941), Full Swing (1942), and Something in the Air (1943). After the war, Hulbert produced a solo vehicle for his wife called Under the Counter, a topical satire on the black market during the war. They took the show to New York in 1947, where the British humor fell flat.

From the first days of her marriage, Courtneidge relied on her husband to help guide her career. She credited Hulbert with believing in her even when she doubted herself. "Only Jack firmly believed I could switch from romantic parts to the hurly-burly of the music halls," she said. When they began their work together on the stage, he became her best critic, possessing what she called a "critical faculty which leaves a sweet taste in the mouth." Offstage, Courtneidge's hobby was her home in Mayfair, where she indulged her actor friends with late-night dinners and shop talk. She also managed the couple's business affairs, which included deciphering complicated performing contracts.

In 1951, Courtneidge and Hulbert starred in the Ivor Novello musical Gay's the Word, in which Courtneidge sang "Vitality." This number, delivered in her characteristic "singing speech," became her theme song. (Novello died suddenly just three weeks into the run.) Courtneidge then returned to revue with Over the Moon, followed by a tour with Hulbert in Scotland. In 1960, the couple appeared together in the farce The Bride Comes Back, their first partnership in a non-musical play. A reviewer in Plays and Players praised Courtneidge for her pacing and the use of devices that were beyond actresses half her age: "I shall not soon forget the brilliant technique with which she 'stumbles' down the staircase on high stiletto heels on the morning after the night before."

In 1961, at age 65, Courtneidge took on her first solo leading part in a straight play (and without her husband directing), The Bride and the Bachelor, by Ronald Millar. This production was a difficult undertaking for her, as she was surrounded by new faces and confronted with a challenging script that had to be rewritten during its pre-London tour. Millar was overwhelmed by her professionalism. "Nothing mattered to Cis except the job at hand," he said. "She was prepared to work night and day and try any suggestions that looked promising." Although initial press was poor, television clips enticed audiences for a run of 500 performances. (Courtneidge avoided reviews of her work, saying she was easily hurt and that she needed to remained buoyed up, especially if a show was not an immediate success.) In 1967, with her husband beside her, she triumphed in another straight role, that of Dora Randolph in Dodie Smith 's Dear Octopus. The reviews were glowing. Wrote John Russell Taylor: "Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge play with the sort of splendid confidence that only a lifetime of being applauded at every entrance can give."

Courtneidge went on to play in Move Over, Mrs. Markham (1971), her last appearance in the West End. In 1972, she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE). In 1976, she toured with Hulbert in the autobiographical Once More with Music. When Hulbert died in 1978, Courtneidge could not regroup. On what would have been her husband's 88th birthday, she fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. She died on April 26, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Courtneidge, Cicely (1893–1980)

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