Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Dame Flora

Now that most surviving British actresses are automatically made Dames of the British Empire (Joan Collins, Shirley Bassey as well as people like Julie Andrews, Elizabeh Taylor, Angela Lansbury whose careers were created away from the UK) a Dame may be a trifle devalued, but back in the 1940s it certainly meant something as Edith Evans, Flora Robson, Celia Johnson, Gladys Cooper etc earned their honours by hard work and their illustrious careers. Today, we look at Dame Flora, always a pleasure to see and listen to - she had the most perfect speaking voice. Never a great beauty (and she never married or had children), she created a great body of work on stage and screen and also television. I never saw her on the stage, where she had lots of successes at the Old Vic, and in plays like Henry James's THE ASPERN PAPERS and LADIES IN RETIREMENT. She was a memorable Lady Macbeth too on Broadway in 1949.

Flora (1902-1984) had her first screen success as Elizabeth I in the 1937 FIRE OVER ENGLAND, with the young Olivier and Vivien Leigh. James Mason was also a juvenile here. Summoned to Hollywood she re-created the Virgin Queen in that marvellous swashbuckler, Curtiz's THE SEA HAWK in 1940, where she and Erroll Flynn are great together. It was a war effort movie, complete with her stirring speech to her troops at the end. In America she had also been effective in Wyler's WUTHERING HEIGHTS as the housekeeper (she turned down Mrs Danvers in REBECCA as she didn't want to play two housekeepers in a row). She also scored as Ingrid Bergman's Creole servant in SARATOGA TRUNK, filmed in 1943, but not released until 1945, when she also blacked up again to play Vivien Leigh's faithful slave Ftatateeta in CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA. She had also played Livia in Josef Von Sterberg's aborted I CLAUDIUS in 1937, and looks marvellous in the fragments that survive.
She was the embittered spinster in POISON PEN, and another efficient spinster in 2,000 WOMEN, a perfect 1940s British war effort. Other 40s movies include Michael Powell's masterpiece BLACK NARCISSUS where she is the nun who plants flowers instead of vegetables in that Himalayan convent; 
GOOD TIME GIRL, and another perfect spinster in HOLIDAY CAMP in 1947. SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS was another, where her malevolent Countess Von Platen (bottom, right) steals scenes as she tries to hold on to her lover Stewart Granger. She also excelled in MALTA STORY, and Losey's baroque THE GYPSY AND THE GENTLEMAN in 1958.
Her Chinese empress was a fascinating creation in 55 DAYS AT PEKING in 1963, and she was in a good Miss Marple, MURDER AT THE GALLOP (as the murderer, of course). She has a good moment as the Mother Superior in the all-star THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES in 1965, and also played Sean O'Casey's mother for John Ford in YOUNG CASSIDY, that fascinating film began by Ford and finished by Jack Cardiff. Ford also included her as one of his SEVEN WOMEN for his swanslong in 1966. 
She continued as Betsy Trotwood in a TV DAVID COPPERFIELD and roles in films as diverse as THE SHUTTERED ROOM, EYE OF THE DEVIL, THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR and Miss Pross in a TV A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and Miss Prism in a IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, as well as the Queen of Hearts in a ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND in 1972. Her last cinema role was as one of the witches in CLASH OF THE TITANS in 1981. These are just highlights of a long career, where she played her roles with passion and conviction as well as grace and integrity. 

Dame Flora lived in Brighton, where I lived for several years. The Brighton Council named the town's buses after their many famous residents, it always made me smile to see the bus named Flora arrive. 
She is certainly one of the People We Like. As that great site Poseidon's Underworld says about her:  "A revered performer of immense commitment and skill, she could say more with a dour glance than some folks could with a page of lines. With so many actresses now opting to stay forever “young” through surgery and whatever else, we're in short supply of these stern, aged, expressive types of character actresses. With Robson in a film, we know we're in for a treat".  Today, Dames Maggie and Judi continue the great tradition. 
The biography on her by Kenneth Barrow (I got a second hand copy on Amazon signed by Dame Flora and the author) refers to her as "The Avant-garde actress of her generation, she worked in Hollywood during the golden years, won respect for playing Shakespeare and the classics, was a successful star in the commercial theatre, as well as being the first of her great contemporaries to comes to terms with radio and television,and she has worked with the most notable names in theatre and cinema."
Above left: Robson with John Ford. 

3 comments:

  1. Martin Bradley25 June 2015 at 17:48

    I was never really a fan of Dame Flora; her lack of 'looks' meant she was often cast older than her years (a kind of British Jo Van Fleet?) but I found her a tad on the stiff side. Just saying!

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