Neagle, Anna (1904–1986)

views updated

Neagle, Anna (1904–1986)

British actress. Name variations: Dame Anna Neagle; also performed under the name Marjorie Robertson. Born Marjorie Robertson at Forest Gate, London, England, in October 20, 1904; died in 1986; only daughter and one of three children of Herbert William Robertson (a captain in the British Maritime Service) and Florence (Neagle) Robertson; graduated from St. Albans High School, Herts., England; married Herbert Wilcox (a film producer and director), in 1943 (died 1977); no children.


made her stage debut in The Wonder Tales (Ambassadors' Theatre, London, 1917); in the chorus of Bubbly (Duke of York's Theatre, London, June 1925); in the chorus of Rose Marie (Drury Lane Theatre, London, March 1926); in the chorus of Charlot Revue of 1926 (Prince of Wales Theatre, London, 1926); in the chorus of The Desert Song (Drury Lane Theatre, London, April 1927); in the chorus of This Year of Grace (London Pavilion, March 1928); dancer in Wake Up and Dream (London Pavilion, March 1929); made New York debut with same show (Selwyn Theatre, December 1929); appeared as Mary Clyde-Burkin in Stand Up and Sing (Hippodrome Theatre, London, March 1931), Rosalind in As You Like It and Olivia in Twelfth Night (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London, May 1934); appeared in title role in Peter Pan (London Palladium, Christmas 1937); toured in French Without Tears (1944); appeared as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (St. James's Theatre, London, February 1945), Carol Beaumont, Nell Gwynn, Victoria and Lilia Grey in The Glorious Days (Palace Theatre, London, February 1952), Stella Felby in The More the Merrier (Strand Theatre, London, 1960), Ruth Peterson in Nothing is for Free (Lyceum, Edinburgh, July 1961); toured as Jane Canning in Person Unknown (1963); appeared as Lady Hadwell in Charlie Girl (Adelphi Theatre, London, December 1965), Sue Smith in No, No, Nanette (May 1973), DameSibyl Hathaway in The Dame of Sark (Duke of York's Theatre, London, 1975); toured as Janet Fraser in The First Mrs. Fraser (March 1976); made Silver Jubilee appearance in Most Gracious Lady (TheatreRoyal, Windsor, 1977); appeared as Comtesse de la Brière in Maggie (Shaftesbury Theatre, London, October 1977); toured in My Fair Lady (1978).

Selected filmography:

Should a Doctor Tell? (1930); The Chinese Bungalow (1931); Goodnight Vienna (Magic Night, 1932); The Flag Lieutenant (1933); The Little Damozel (1933); Bitter Sweet (1930); The Queen's Affair (1934); Nell Gwynn (1934); Peg of Old Drury (1935); Limelight (1936); The Three Maxims (1936); London Melody (Girl in the Street, 1937); Victoria the Great (1937); Sixty Glorious Years (1938); Nurse Edith Cavell (US, 1939); Irene (US, 1940); No, No, Nanette (US, 1940); Sunny (US, 1941); They Flew Alone (Wings and the Woman, 1942); Forever and a Day (US, 1943); The Yellow Canary (1943); I Live in Grosvenor Square (A Yank in London, 1945); Picadilly Incident (1946); The Courtneys of Curzon Street (The Courtney Affair or Kathy's Love Affair, 1947); Spring in Park Lane (1948); May-time in Mayfair (1949); Elizabeth of Ladymead (1949); Odette (1950); The Lady with the Lamp (1951); Derby Day (1952); Lilacs in the Spring (Let's Make Up, 1954); King's Rhapsody (1955); My Teenage Daughter (1956); These Dangerous Years (prod. only, 1957); No Time for Tears (1957); Wonderful Things (prod. only, 1958); The Man Who Wouldn't Talk (1958); The Heart of a Man (prod. only, 1959); The Lady Is a Square (1959).

At the height of her career, actress Anna Neagle was heralded as "England's first lady of the screen," although she might well have remained a West End "chorus girl" had it not been for film producer and director Herbert Wilcox, who starred her in a string of successful movies. "As a box-office star-maker, my masterpiece was, of course, Anna Neagle," proclaimed Wilcox, who was also credited with introducing to film Charles Laughton and Dame Sybil Thorndike , among others. While her film career flourished, Neagle continued to appear in stage plays and musicals. With all of her fame and success, however, the actress never won the acclaim of the critics, who often questioned the depth of her talent. It was the public alone that embraced Neagle's girl-next-door image and fueled her enduring career.

Born Marjorie Robertson in Forest Gate, London, in 1904, Neagle was the youngest of three children of Florence Neagle Robertson and William Robertson, a captain in the British Merchant Marine. (One of her two brothers, Stuart Robertson, became a well-known concert singer.) By her own admission, she enjoyed an idyllic childhood. "Of all the good fortune I've had," she once told an interviewer, "the greatest

was a happy home life during my childhood." Neagle began attending dancing school at age 10 and at 13 made her stage debut in The Wonder Tales, a Christmas show at the Ambassadors' Theatre, although her father was then opposed to her performing. She attended boarding school at St. Albans, where she briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a dance and gymnastics teacher. By graduation, however, her father had fallen ill, and she was forced to find a job. The quickest route to a paycheck at the time turned out to be a spot in the chorus of a musical called Bubbly (1925), at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Neagle spent the next five years in the choruses of some of London's top musicals of the day—Rose Marie, The Desert Song, and Noel Coward's This Year of Grace. In 1929, she went to New York City with the revue Wake Up and Dream, and while there began another round of singing and dancing lessons with hopes of breaking out of the chorus. Returning to England a year later, she began auditioning, but found herself almost paralyzed with nerves. After landing only bit parts in two forgettable films, Should a Doctor Tell? (1930) and The Chinese Bungalow (1931), she was rescued by Jack Buchanan, who had performed a leading role in Wake Up and Dream and was now producing a show of his own, Stand Up and Sing. Taking a chance, but limiting her contract for the prior-to-London tryout in case she did not work out, he cast her in a small role. "He gave me my first glimmer of self-confidence," Neagle said of Buchanan, to whom she always remained grateful. In 1931, Wilcox offered her a role opposite Buchanan in his film Goodnight, Vienna (1932). By the end of the three-week shoot, he had fallen in love with his protégé, although it would be 1943 before he obtained a divorce from his wife and was free to marry her.

The most memorable of Neagle's early films and the one that established her as a star was Wilcox's remake of Nell Gwynn (1934), which he had originally made with Dorothy Gish in the title role. It was followed by Peg of Old Drury (1935), in which Neagle portrayed Peg Woffington . In 1937, the Neagle-Wilcox team launched a series of historical films, the first of which, Victoria the Great (1937), brought them financial success. The film was also well received by most of the critics, although James Agate, who found Neagle's portrayal a bit vacuous, could not resist referring to her as "Victoria the Little." The reviewer for the Spectator, while pointing out that the film omitted many events in the 60-year reign of Queen Victoria , concluded that "if the limits are too narrow, the excellence of the portrayals … the authenticity of the settings, and the beauty of the photography make up for much." American critics, generous in their praise, went so far as to proclaim it the best film out of England so far. Basking in success, Wilcox and Neagle immediately went to work on a sequel, Sixty Glorious Years (1938), which abruptly ended their run of good luck. "Anybody who possesses even a small acquaintance with the history and the personalities of the nineteenth century must recognize that the thing is a travesty of the truth," proclaimed the irate reviewer of the New Statesman and Nation. (The team also shot NurseEdith Cavell in 1939.)

During the war years, the couple made several films on the RKO lot in Hollywood, including updates of the musicals Irene (1940), No, No, Nanette (1940), and Sunny (1941). Addressing Neagle's performance in the first of these, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that she performed "with all the city charm and grace of a self-conscious musical comedy actress trying to be a Dresden china Pollyanna doll." Following the short Anglo-British effort Forever and a Day (1943), Wilcox and Neagle returned to England where they turned out They Flew Alone (1942), in which Neagle portrayed English flyer Amy Johnson . They followed the bio-pic with a melodrama, The Yellow Canary (1943).

Neagle's film career peaked in the 1940s and early 1950s, when she was voted the United Kingdom's best-loved star for seven years straight. Particularly successful movies of this period included Picadilly Incident (1946), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947), Spring in Park Lane (1948), and Odette (1950). By this time, Neagle and Wilcox had married, an event which prompted a BBC dramatization of their romance, with the couple portraying themselves. By all accounts, the relationship was unusually close. "Her marriage to Herbert is even more remarkable than their relationship at work," said a friend. "Total absorption in each other, the one complementing the other—not just occasionally, but always. Their behaviour to each other is touching and exemplary."

While her film career flourished, Neagle had frequently returned to the stage. In the spring of 1934, she appeared at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, portraying Rosalind in As You Like It and Olivia in Twelfth Night. At Christmas in 1937, she was featured as Peter Pan at the London Palladium. She then toured England and the Continent with Rex Harrison and Roland Culver in French Without Tears, and in the title role of Gordon Glenn's adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Emma, which opened at the St. James's Theatre in London in February 1945, but had an abbreviated run because of the war. Most of Neagle's stage efforts were panned by the critics, including her performance in The Glorious Days (1953), a revue of sorts recapping her film successes. Kenneth Tynan, referring to the show as "Anna Neagle rolled into one," penned a review bordering on personal attack. Despite his vitriol, the show stayed afloat for 256 performances.

During the 1950s, Wilcox began to lose his magic touch, and by 1960 the film company that he and Neagle had formed in 1934 was bankrupt. Though they were forced to sell their personal property and move to a flat in Brighton, Neagle remained undaunted. "The entire theatrical profession, together with a legion of fans, admired her great courage when Herbert Wilcox was bankrupt," said Herbert de Leon, Neagle's agent and a close friend. "She sold her jewels and worked like a Trojan until their debts were paid." Her perseverance eventually paid off. In 1965, after a tour in the thriller Person Unknown, she opened at the Adelphi in Charlie Girl, an old-style musical which she called "the sort of family show audiences have been waiting for." With no support from the critics (Russell Taylor thought the plot "out of the Ark," though it suited the talents of the cast and "what was so very wrong with that?"), the show ran for 2,000 performances, then enjoyed a successful tour in Melbourne and Auckland. In 1969, during the run of the show, Neagle was named a Dame of the British Empire.

In 1973, following successful cancer surgery, Neagle appeared in the role of Sue Smith in a revival of No, No, Nanette, called a "creaking disaster" by Plays and Players, but attracting audiences for an eight-month run all the same. In 1976, she toured as Janet Fraser in The First Mrs. Fraser, and for the Silver Jubilee in 1977 appeared in Most Gracious Lady at the Theatre Royal in Windsor. Even after the death of her husband that year, Neagle kept working, undertaking a demanding tour as Henry Higgins' mother in My Fair Lady in 1978. The actress apparently worked right up until her death in 1986, continuing to enchant audiences and confound critics to the very end.


Johns, Eric. Dames of the Theatre. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1986.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Rothe, Anne, ed. Current Biography 1945. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts