The 28 December 1895 is heralded as the birthday of cinema, for it was on that day that the Lumiere brothers made their first commercial screening at the Grand Café, 14 boulevard des Capucines, in Paris, and so began the publics infatuation with the new medium and its future “Stars”.
Although South Africa’s connection with the film industry harks back many years, when it comes to famous South African-born actors, most people are only aware of the Oscar-winning actress, Charlize Theron, who won the top award in 2003 for her portrayal as a serial killer in “Monster”.
But, without exaggeration the heyday of South African-born actors can be said to have been during the 1930s and 1940s, where there were to be found a healthy number of South-African-born actors in both the British film industry and Hollywood, namely Basil Rathbone, the quintessential “Sherlock Homes”; Pearl Argyle; Molly Lamont; Sybil Jason; Jeanne de Casalis; Ian Hunter,Cecil Kellaway and Louis Hayward.
Let us begin our reminiscences with Molly Lamont. Lamont was born in Boksburg, Transvaal, South Africa, on the 22 May 1911, and began her film career, as did most of her compatriots, in British movies.
Five-foot four-inches in height and with grey eyes and brown hair, she began her claim to fame as a 19 year-old South African beauty queen who won a prize of a free trip to England and a film test.
Her early days consisted of small and often uncredited roles, but all that changed drastically in the mid-1930s.
By the time she retired from acting in 1951, Molly Lamont had more than fifty films to her credit, including, “Handle with Care”; “Seven Keys to Baldpate”; “Jalna” (1935), appearing as Pheasant Vaughn Whiteoaks ; “The Awful Truth” (1937) in which film she acted as “Barbara Vance”, Carey Grant’s fiancée; “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “Mr Skeffington”, both of which appeared in 1944. Molly Lamont passed away in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California, in July, 2001.
Another well-known South-African-born dancer and actress of the 1930s, although forgotten today, was Pearl Argyle. A famous and vivacious ballerina and dancer, she was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on the 3 February 1910. Noted for her outstanding beauty and graced with dark brown eyes and hair, Argyle initially studied ballet with Rambert and Legat, making her debut in 1926 with Rambert’s company. Thereafter she became a ballerina with the Camargo Society, subsequently fulfilling the role as Principal dancer with the Vic-Wells Ballet Company from 1935-1938.
Discovered by Charles B. Cochran, Pearl Argyle first appeared in films in 1932, in “That Night in London” (1932), taking the part of “Eve Desborough”; “Royal Cavalcade”, also known as “Regal Cavalcade” in the U.S.A., taking the role of “Anna Pavlova” and “Things to Come” (1936), in which film she appeared as “Catherine Cabal”. Pearl Argyle, however, died young, being just shy of her thirty-seventh birthday when she passed away in New York City on the 29 January 1947.
And then we have the celebrated child star, Sybil Jason. Imbued with a mischievous air, this famous child-star was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on the 23 November 1929.
By the time she was five-years-of-age, Sybil Jason was appearing at night-clubs in London, singing, dancing, doing impressions and playing the piano!
It was after appearing in “Barnacle Bill”(1935) that Irving Asher, in charge of Warner Brother’s London Studio, saw the film and subsequently arranged for Sybil to undergo a screen-test at Warner’s.
She was signed up and was at the time the only child star Warner Brother’s possessed. She appeared in a total of eleven feature-films from 1935-1940, and was also featured in a number of Vitaphone shorts.
Her films included “Little Big Shot” (1935), appearing as Gloria “Countess” Gibbs; “I Found Stella Parish” (1935), taking the role of “Gloria Parish”; “The Singing Kid” (1936), appearing as “Sybil Haines”; “Changing of the Guard” (1936), taking the part of “Sybil”; “The Littlest Diplomat”, taking the role of “Sybil Hardwick”; “Comet Over Broadway” (1936), as “Jackie Appleton”; “The Little Princess”, taking the part of “Becky”, a servant at Minchin Seminary and “The Bluebird” (1940), in which film she took the part of “Angela Berlingot”. Extremely popular in her day, she touched the lives of so many, and even today her movies are regularly featured on Turner Classic Movies (T.C.M.).
And, then onto Jeanne de Casalis. Born Jeanne De Casalis De Pury in Basutoland (and thus technically a southern African) on the 22 May 1897, she was a West End stage, radio, and film actress and dramatic writer, best known for her character “Mrs Feather”, and was probably better known in British film industry than in Hollywood. Five foot Four inches tall, grey-eyed and brown-haired, De Casalis was educated in France, her father being the proprietor of one of the largest corset retailers, Charnaux. She began her career in music before working in London. De Casalis appeared in plays including “The Mask of Virtue” with Vivien Leigh (1935) while her films included “Nell Gwynn” (1934), appearing as the “Duchess of Portsmouth”; Alfred Hitchcock's “Jamaica Inn” (1939); “Cottage to Let” (1941); “The Fine Feathers” (1941), as Mrs. Feather; “Medal for the General” (1944), taking the part of Lady Frome; “This Man is Mine” (1946), as Mrs. Ferguson and the “Woman Hater” (1949), appearing as Clair. De Casalis also later hosted “The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery” (1950). She was initially married to the English actor, Colin Clive, of “Frankenstein” fame, in June 1929, but was later married to her second husband, Wing Commander, Cowan Douglas Stephenson, of the Royal Air Force. She remained good friends with Vivienne Leigh and resided at Hunger Hatch, near Ashford, in Kent, until her death on 19 August, 1966.
Another South African-born actress of the 1930s and 1940s was Glynis Johns, whose career on the big screen was really only in its infancy. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, on the 5 October 1923, she was the daughter of the British stage actor, Mervyn Johns. She was born while her parents (both performers), were on a tour of South Africa. Already an accomplished ballerina at the age of twelve, Johns subsequently made her stage debut before appearing in 1937 in her first film, “South Riding”, taking the part of a peevish and tantrum-prone adolescent. Graduating to coquettish leading roles in the 1940s, she was best known during this period for taking the part of an alluring mermaid in “Miranda” (1946). However, Glynis Johns is perhaps better known to the public at large for her role as the determinedly single-minded suffragette, Mrs. Banks, in Disney’s classic movie, “Mary Poppins” (1964). She was subsequently awarded a “Tony” in the early 1970s for her performance in Broadway’s “A Little Night Music”, and was still very active in the 1990s, taking the part of a bellicose mother-in-law in the film, “The Ref” (1994) and as an old dotty aunt in “While You Were Sleeping” (1995).
And now, the men of the “Silver Screen”. We will begin with Basil Rathbone, who is, in my opinion, the quintessential Sherlock Homes. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 13 June 1892, Johannesburg having been foundered only six-years previously. It is said that the family was forced to flee the Transvaal when Rathbone was approximately three-years-of-age, because his father, Edgar Phillip Ratbone (a mining –engineer), had been accused of being a British spy, this during the period leading up to the Second Anglo-Boer War.
It is unlikely then, that the toddler Rathbone was still in Johannesburg when South Africans were introduced to the inception of cinema at Johannesburg’s “Empire Palace” in 1896.
The family having “escaped” to England, Basil Rathbone attended Repton College, being far more interested in sporting pursuits than his studies, but he soon developed an interest in the thespian arts.
Intent on becoming an actor, Rathbone began his acting career in 1911 with a Shakespearean Troupe in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
The First World War (194-1918) interrupted proceedings and Rathbone duly went off to war.
He served as a second-lieutenant with the Liverpool Scottish and was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for bravery.
Following the cessation of hostilities, Rathbone returned to acting and by 1921 had made his film debut, appearing in the silent film, “Innocent”.
He remained on the London and New York stage until the 1930s, whereafter he abandoned his first love, theatre, for a career in film (which proved to be a sagacious move).
His early films included “Captain Blood” (1935); “A Tale of Two Cities (1935); Anna Karenina (1935); “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1935); “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938); “The Tower of London (1939); “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) and he also earned two Oscar-nominations for Best-Supporting Actor as Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet” (1936) and as King Louis XI in “If I Were A King” (1938).
However 1939 can be said to have been the defining year in Basil Rathbone’s acting career, as that fateful year saw this talented actor playing his best-known and most popular character, Sherlock Holmes, in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”. Twelve additional “Sherlock Holmes’s” films followed before Rathbone opted to return to theatre, as he felt his sole identification with the character of Sherlock Holmes was destroying his career.
Rathbone was subsequently awarded a “Tony” for his portrayal as Dr. Sloper in the Broadway play, “The Heiress”.
Although having entered the twilight years of his acting career, Rathbone was still an exceptionally busy man, appearing in a multitude of Television shows as well as the occasional film, including “Casanova’s Big Night” (1954); “The Court Jester” (1955); “Tales of Terror” (1962) and “A Comedy of Errors” (1964), while also touring the United States of America with his one-man show, “ An Evening with Basil Rathbone”. Sadly, Rathbone suffered a heart attack in New York on the 21 July 1967, and so came to an end the life of this gifted South-African-born actor who will, ironically and perhaps not to his liking, be remembered for his portrayal as that most determined of sleuth’s, Sherlock Holmes.
Next, we have Louis Hayward, born Seafield Grant, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 19 March 1909. Hayward was educated in England and on the Continent, and after deciding upon acting as a career, he was backed in his endeavours by the famous British playwright and film producer, Noel Coward. Following a spell with the British film industry, Hayward subsequently journeyed across the Atlantic to New York, and Broadway. His exposure there brought him a Hollywood film contract, acting in his first American film, “The Flame Within” (1935). However, Hayward’s first major role was as the dashing officer, Denis Moore, in “Anthony Adverse” (1936). But, perhaps his most notable role was that of the Simon Templar character in the “Saint in New York” (1938), appearing the following year in the “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1939), and in the “The Son of Monte Cristo” (1940). During the Second World War, Hayward joined the U.S.Marine Corps, commanding a photographic unit that filmed the Battle of Tarawa in a documentary entitled “With the Marines at Tarawa”, earning him the U.S. Bronze Star. Hayward later returned to Hollywood and appeared in Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” (1945), which was a resounding success. Additional movies included “The Fortunes of Captain Blood” and “House by the River”, where-after he ventured into the realm of television, acting in the captivating television series, “The Lone Wolf”.He eventually took leave of the thespian arts in the mid-1970s, subsequently succumbing to lung cancer at Palm Springs, California, on the 21 February 1985.
Then there was Cecil Kellaway, yet another South African-born actor of the 1930s and 1940s. Kellaway was born in Cape Town (The “Mother City”), South Africa, in 1890. His films include Wuthering Heights (1939) – as Earnshaw ; Intermezzo (1939) – as Charles Moler; The Invisible Man Returns (1940) – as Inspector Sampson; The House of the Seven Gables (1940); Brother Orchid (1940); The Mummy's Hand (1940); The Letter (1940); A Very Young Lady (1941); I Married a Witch (1942); It Ain't Hay (1943); Mrs. Parkington (1944); Practically Yours (1944); Love Letters (1945); Kitty (1945) as Thomas Gainsborough; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – as Nick Smith (an absolute classic); Unconquered (1947); The Luck of the Irish (1948) ; Joan of Arc (1948) and Portrait of Jennie (1948). Like fellow South African-born actor, Basil Rathbone, Kellaway was nominated for two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, for his roles in “Luck of the Irish” (1948), in which film he played the role of Horace, and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1968). Cecil Kellaway acted well into the 1960s, and died in Hollywood, California, in February 1973, aged seventy-nine-years.
another South African-born actor was Ian Hunter. Standing six-feet tall and graced with grey eyes and brown hair, Hunter was also born in Cape Town, on the 13 June 1900, during the Second Anglo-Boer War, and first achieved a reputation on the English and American stage before his screen debut in 1934. He appeared in the film, “The Ring” in 1927, but he is best remembered for his appearances in “That Certain Woman” (1937) with Bette Davis; “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), as King Richard the Lionheart; “The Little Princess” (1939), as Captain Reginald Crewe and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941) as Dr. Lanyon. Hunter returned to the Robin Hood genre in the 1955 Television series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the recurring role of Sir Richard of the Lea. He also appeared in “The Battle of the River Plate” in 1956, as Captain Woodhouse of H.M.S. Ajax .
Last, but certainly by no means least, we have Bruce Lester (born Bruce Somerset Lister), who was born in Johannesburg in 1912. He received his education in England, and began his acting career in London in the mid-1930s, his first film being “The Girl in the Flat” (1934). A string of B-movies followed, including “To Be a Lady”, “Death at Broadcasting House” (1934), “Crime over London”,”Mayfair Melody” (1937) and “Thistledown” (1938).
He then moved to Hollywood and it was then that his name was changed to “Lester”.
His Hollywood films included “Boy Meets Girl” (1938);and ”Pride and Prejudice” (1940),appearing as the charming “Mr Bingley”.
During WWII Lester was to appear in typical propaganda-movies of the time, including “A Yank in the RAF”; “Eagle Squadron” and “Desperate Journey”,which starred Errol Flynn, and after the war acted in a few more films before opting to work as a story analyst for Paramount Pictures, passing away in June 2008, aged 96.
So when your eyes next alight upon South Africa’s “Golden Girl”, Charlize Theron, please spare a thought for those other South African denizen’s of the “Silver Screen”, who during the 1930s and 1940s not only wooed countless fans but upheld South Africa’s name with pride. Here’s to these intrepid South African-born film pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s. May their names live forever more.