Monday, October 5, 2015

Nova Pilbeam: The Girl Was Young

Nova Pilbeam with Leslie Banks in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). She passed away in July at the age of 95.

When she died in mid-July at the age of ninety-five, the English actress Nova Pilbeam had been retired for six and a half decades, and long forgotten. She appeared in only fourteen feature films, but in three of them – released in a row, between 1934, when she was only fifteen, and 1937 – she was startlingly and unconventionally good. In an age of affected child performances, she was completely natural, with effortless poise and an unobstructed path to her emotions that any Method-trained American actor would envy.

Her debut was in an obscure picture called Little Friend and she followed it, the same year, with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Here she’s Betty Lawrence, the adolescent daughter of a British couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) vacationing in the Alps who get caught up in international intrigue. When the elegant Frenchman they’ve befriended (played by Pierre Fresnay, a star of Marcel Pagnol’s Marius and, a few years later, of Renoir’s Grand Illusion) is shot before their eyes – leaving her father, Bob, with instructions to save a diplomat from assassination – the villains (Peter Lorre is one of them) kidnap Betty to warn him off. The Man Who Knew Too Much provides the blueprint for Hitchcock’s trapped-bystander thrillers; he made many others, including a remake in 1956 where the kidnapped teenage girl was changed into a little boy who’s rescued when his mother (Doris Day), a musical-comedy star, locates him by means of a song, “Que Sera, Sera.” I love both versions, but the English one is more understated and succinct, and simultaneously taut and jocular – all qualities that make it, among other things, a miniature study in Englishness. Bob and his wife Jill, who are put to an unimaginably cruel test of mettle, are models of grace under pressure. Pilbeam holds her own among this distinguished cast: she is fresh, vivid, and the unforced nature of her high-intensity scenes lends her professional authority. After Bob and Jill learn that their daughter has been snatched, Hitchcock cuts to a shot of Betty being taken on skis through the nighttime woods, a hand clapped over her mouth, her eyes wide with panic. At the climax she’s on the roof of a building in her pajamas, being stalked by a German marksman as she negotiates the scary heights. It’s a small but clearly crucial role, and Pilbeam doesn’t just play her as a victim or a device; she imbues her with personality. In the widescreen Technicolor American remake, the child (played by Christopher Olsen) doesn’t have much of a presence. (Hitchcock uses the fact of his kidnapping to focus on the marriage, to which he and his actors, Day and Jimmy Stewart, add some distinctly dark colors.) In Pilbeam’s scenes in the 1934 film, it’s Betty’s consciousness of her peril and her longing for the comfort of home and her mother’s arms that pull us into the scenario. The actress draws on an admirable simplicity of means to put the girl’s plight and her terror at the center of the drama.

Pilbeam’s bearing and speech were aristocratic, so she was a natural choice for the role of Lady Jane Grey in the 1936 Nine Days a Queen (sometimes known as Tudor Rose), who ascends the throne of England when Henry VIII’s young son Edward (Desmond Tester) dies. But she holds it only until an army supporting the claims of Mary Tudor can seize it and send innocent Jane, who never wanted to be a queen, and her unassuming husband Lord Dudley (twenty-eight-year-old John Mills, looking closer to twenty) to the executioner’s block. Robert Stevenson’s movie is more like a costume pageant, with a stage-trained British cast (some, like Cedric Hardwicke and Sybil Thorndike, quite famous) declaiming furiously while their nostrils flare and their eyes pop. Pilbeam, with her glowing smile and her instinctive gentleness, her sedate beauty accentuated by Joe Strassner’s late-Medieval gowns, is like a warm breeze blowing through all this fakery. She and Mills are very sweet together; they keep bringing the movie down to earth. Pilbeam does small wonders with the moment in the Tower where she reflects, with incredulous resignation, “I was queen so short a while”; with Jane’s response to Dudley’s casual wave to her from the courtyard as he strolls to his death, just before hers; and especially with the way she asks her lady-in-waiting (Thorndike) for a cloak to meet the morning chill because she doesn’t want the onlookers to see her shiver, “lest they think me afraid.” The script, also by Stevenson, got hold of a moving dramatic idea: to make the movie about the way children and very young adults are lied to and manipulated by power-hungry politicians and marked for early graves. But it’s really only in Pilbeam’s performance that the idea bears fruit.

Edward Rigby, George Curzon, and Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent (aka The Girl Was Young, 1937).

Hitchcock seized her again for his 1937 Young and Innocent – or The Girl Was Young, as it was called in England. It’s not as well known as The Man Who Knew Too Much or The 39 Steps, Sabotage or The Lady Vanishes (though the climactic scene at the hotel tea dance, with the long, long zoom into the killer in blackface, is justly celebrated), but it ought to be. Hitchcock’s team of writers, headed by Charles Bennett, took considerable liberties with the source material, A Shilling for Candles, one of Josephine Tey’s delightfully off-the-beaten-track murder mysteries: they dramatized only the first half of the novel, leading it away from Tey’s narrative arc and into romantic-comedy territory, pairing Pilbeam’s Erica Burgoyne with the framed murder suspect, a young writer named Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney). (Among other things, Tey’s book has a different murderer.) Young and Innocent plays like a junior adult version of The 39 Steps but shorn of the spy story, with Pilbeam, now eighteen, and De Marney reading about ten years younger than the previous movie’s romantic couple, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll – though in fact the handsome juvenile De Marney was already thirty, only a year younger than Donat and Carroll.

The premise is that Tisdall is befriended by a middle-aged movie actress whose pathologically jealous husband (George Curzon), incorrectly assuming she and Robert are lovers, strangles her, leaves her body on the beach – where Robert discovers it – and plants evidence to incriminate him. Despairing of the ineptitude of his lawyer and presented with an irresistible opportunity to escape from the courthouse where he’s being arraigned (Hitchcock and the writers have some fun with the provincialism of small-town English life), Robert sets out to prove his own innocence, and on the way he crosses paths with Erica, the daughter of the local chief constable (Percy Marmont). Unlike Carroll’s character in The 39 Steps, she doesn’t begin her association with the wronged hero by self-righteously making an effort to turn him into the cops; it doesn’t take much for Robert to persuade Erica that he’s telling her the truth. Here the dramatic tension in the heroine’s character is that her determination to help the hero exonerate himself is at odds with her loyalty to her father, to whom she’s close (her mother is dead) and whose career is threatened when she starts aiding and abetting a fugitive. That conflict is at the heart of Pilbeam’s affecting performance, especially at key moments, as when she hesitates early on in the adventure, protesting – though clearly heart-sick about it – “Can’t you understand? I’m on their side”; and when, having been apprehended along the way by a neighboring constable, she returns home to her father and sees the letter of resignation he’s prepared.

Erica is written as a hardy, self-reliant young woman, brought up among boys (she has four younger brothers, who are played, comically, as varying caricatures of miniature English gentlemen); when the first leg of the escapade takes her and Robert to a truck stop called Tom’s Hat, she’s comfortable bantering with the men, even though she’s the only female in the room. Pilbeam gives the character a core of genuine feeling. Her career may have been short-lived; by the time she reached her twenties, she found herself relegated to supporting parts, which may have been a factor in her early retirement). And she was so completely un-actorish, almost self-effacing, that you can see why, even in the unglamorous British film system, she never quite became a star: the title role in Nine Days a Queen turned out to be ironically perfect for her. But she was a very fine actress. A mere teenager, she provides the emotional ballast that grounds all three of these movies, and she deserves to be remembered.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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