Saturday, 17 March 2018

The first British Invasion - Golden Age Hollywood was also absolutely awash with British actors

Leslie Howard and some American actor in The Petrified Forest
You don't have to have watched many recent American television dramas to realise that there's been a bit of a British Invasion by actors over the past 10 to 15 years. This isn't Brits playing Brits, which has been going on forever - especially if a smart villain in required. It's Brits playing Americans, complete with what are presumably convincing American accents. I'm not sure when the whole TV Brit/Yank thing started, but I do remember the English actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste as an FBI agent in the long-running Without a Trace (which starred the Australian actor, Anthony LaPaglia - again, as an American) from 2002 onwards, but I suspect that House accelerated the trend in 2004, with Hugh Laurie playing a brilliant but semi-deranged drug-addicted hospital diagnostician. Nowadays, watching a new series (usually on Netflix) usually involves playing a game called "Spot the Brits". The reasons...

...American producers cite for disadvantaging their own actors are that the British variety tend to be better trained, more versatile, more professional - and cheaper.

I've watched a lot of old American films in recent months, and I've been struck by just how many leading Golden Age Hollywood stars and character actors were British. I've compiled a list of  the standout performers - the ones who either appeared in a lot of movies, or made a big impact in a handful. I've chosen to focus on the period between 1935 and 1945 - i.e. the very heart of the Golden Age - and I've included only those British-born actors and actresses who made the decision to move to America, rather than those whose parents emigrated for reasons unrelated to their offspring's future career. For instance, although Bob Hope was born in England, he isn't on the list because his parents emigrated when he was 12. Similarly, although Olivia de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine were born to British parents in Tokyo, their mother decamped to California when they were relatively young, mainly for the good of the girls' health. The names are in no particular order:

Charlie Chaplin

Stan Laurel

Ronald Colman
Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon
Boris Karloff

Cary Grant

Herbert Marshall
Herbert Marshall and his loving wife in The Little Foxes
Cedric Hardwicke
Cedric Hardwicke in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Colin Clive
Colin Clive and his creation in Frankenstein
Lionel Atwill
"I love you, you little fool!" - Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein
Charles Laughton

Elsa Lanchester

C. Aubrey Smith (useful fast bowler, once captained England)
C. Aubrey Smith, the tall, moustachioed gent in Another Thin Man
Leslie Howard

Roland Young

Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes)

Basil Rathbone

Henry Wilcoxon (DeMille stalwart and the vicar in Mrs. Miniver)
Henry Wilcoxon making us all blub in Mrs. Miniver
Ida Lupino

Donald Crisp
Donald Crisp in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley
David Niven

Ray Milland

Madeleine Carroll (Robert Donat's sparring partner in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps)
Madeleine Carroll and Ronald Colman in Prisoner of Zenda
Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver)

Merle Oberon

Laurence Olivier

George Sanders

Flora Robson
Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth (just for a change) in The Sea Hawk
Leo G. Carroll
Merle Oberon and Leo G. Carroll, Wuthering Heights
James Mason

Claude Rains

Sydney Greenstreet

Vivien Leigh

Some general observations:

Robert Donat could easily have booked himself a place on the list, but he only made one film in Hollywood - The Count of Monte Christo in 1934 - and just didn't like the place. He was offered the lead role in Captain Blood the following year, but turned it down in order to return to England to star in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. The Australian actor Errol Flynn played Captain Blood instead.

As to why so many Brits made it in Hollywood, the answers seem obvious. When talkies came in, a lot of American and foreign actors found themselves out of work because they couldn't adjust their acting styles to meet the requirements of the new medium, or had voices which didn't fit their screen image or which the microphones simply didn't like, or sported impenetrably thick regional or foreign accents. By definition, British actors spoke English, and (to my ears) their clipped delivery seemed to suit the primitive recording equipment used in the early talkies.

Most of the British actors who made it in Hollywood had started on the stage - often in rep - and many of them had already appeared in British films: they were camera-ready from day one.

A few British actors (e.g. Ray Milland and James Mason) seem to have deliberately adopted mild Transatlantic accents which didn't sound too alien to American audiences, nor (presumably) offensively phoney to British picture-goers. What Cary Grant was up to, God alone knows - but it certainly worked for him. Ida Lupino is a rare example of one who could go Full American when required. Most simply stuck to their guns (Boris Karloff even got away with playing a supposedly American gangster with a posh English accent and a full-blown lisp - but that was before Frankenstein).

The horror boom of the '30s boosted the British onscreen presence. For instance, the English director James Whale - Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - crammed his movies with fellow-Brits.

Nobody could do interesting suaveness like the English (apart from William Powell, who looked as if he'd been born wearing a dinner jacket)- Ronald Colman, David Niven, Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard etc. It just seemed to go with the passport.

I was going to end up singling (or doubling?) out Basil Rathbone and Charles Laughton for praise - but as this post is quite long enough already I'll save that for another day.

I'm bound to have missed out one or two names - if you can think of any, please let me know.


  1. How about Freddie Bartholomew?

    1. You're spot on! The "boy wonder elocutionist" of Warminster had made four films in Britain before George Cukor and David O. Selznick spotted him on a trip to London in 1934 and cast him as David Copperfield in their next film - whereupon little Freddie emigrated and became a true star.

  2. Splendid post. Agree with Helen. Also, Roddy McDowall. For the record, Rathbone was an Egyptian and Sanders a Russian. Laurance Harvey, who had a good Hollywood career, was a Lithuanian. Errol Flynn was a Tasmanian not an A. Big Diff!

  3. Fake News! Rathbone was a South African born Englishman, left S.A. at 3, educated at Repton, won an MC in WW1. The Egyptian connection is not immediately obvious,

  4. I'm with you on Rathbone, Ex-KCS. Like SDG, I was under the impression Rathbone might have been half-Egyptian, but couldn't find any reference to it online. He did play a sheikh in Selznick's "The Garden of Allah" (1936), but I'm not sure that counts.

    As for George Sanders, the picture is murkier. He was born in St Petersburg. The official version is that his father, Henry Sanders, was an Englishman born in London, but a book published in 1990 suggested that Henry was "illegitimately born to a Russian noblewoman of the Czar’s court on October 20, 1868, that his real father was ‘a prince of the house of Oldenburg’ married to a sister of the Czar" (!), and that Henry was placed in the care of an English family living in St Petersburg. Whatever the truth is, it's undoubtedly the case that the Sanders family fled to England at the start of the Russian Revolution in 2017 and that George and his older brother, Tom, attended Bedales School and Brighton College. So, if George Sanders wasn't strictly English, he was officially British by the time he left for America, after appearing in a number of UK films.

    Laurence Harvey was born in Lithuania and raised in South Africa - but as he didn't make his first American picture until 1950, he doesn't get on the list in any case.

    As for Roddie McDowell, he probably makes the list. His family moved to America in 1940, by which time he'd appeared in a number of British films - but whether they emigrated in the hope of establishing Roddie's career in America, I've no idea. He certainly hit the ground running, appearing his first American picture - Fritz Lang's "Man Hunt" - in 1941.

  5. And there is that very fine actor, Leslie Howard. Although born in the United Kingdom, his father was Hungarian and mother half-Prussian.

    Re Basil Rathbone. I once met a guy down the pub who assured me his father met Basil in the backstreets of Port Said. He was wearing a fez and tried to sell him some postcards and addressed him as "effendi". He said he looked like an Arabic "Snidely Whiplash". Perhaps he was confusing him with another Basil who must have been in Egypt during the war as well.

    Am I right in saying that George Sanders was married to two of the Gabor sisters which probably led to his premature death or have I got that wrong as well? The problem is that my research assistant [Miss Rita Chevrolet] who checks my facts is currently away on her holidays.

    1. It was probably Basil's way of picking up some pin-money when he was "resting". Or perhaps he was researching a role. Or perhaps the guy down the pub was spending too much time there.

      I suggest you ask the gorgeous, pouting Miss Chevrolet to arrange some holiday cover when she next jets off to foreign climes.

  6. Pub genealogists aren't what they used to be. It's the Tories and their cuts.

    Sanders was indeed married first to Zsa Zsa and then came back for another bout of misery with her sister Eva. I remember watching a chat show hosted by Eamon Andrews in which he asked Peter Cook what he most admired about fellow guest Zsa Zsa. The reply was along the lines of 'absolutely nothing, she is without any discernible talent and is only famous because of the number of marriages she has had'. However, I have never been able to find any reference to this incident or indeed anyone else who saw it, so it is quite possible that I am suffering from recovered false memory syndrome.

    1. Was this, I wonder, the same programme on which Peter Cook - after Zsa Zsa had told us what a great animal lover she was - asked her why, if that was the case, she had insisted on dragging her evidently terrified little dog into the studio with her? I can't imagine that they appeared on many chat shows together, so I think we can safely conclude that you aren't suffering from delusions (and I reckon I've just saved you a fortune in psychiatric fees).

  7. Just before this chat show appearance Cooke had adopted a "footballer's perm" in an attempt to look like Kevin Keegan and to ingratiate himself with his team of preference [Spurs]. I remember Zsa Zsa said it made him look "silly" and "unmanly" [at least it wasn't a Chris Waddle "mullet"] and the great man was enraged. I always thought it was on the Parkinson show?