With her upswept hair, regal poise (she was once a successful model) and sophisticated attire - she seems to have spent most of her career wearing full-length, form-fitting evening gowns of the kind that epitomised the Forties - she was not only one of the screen's most formidable villainesses, but proved an excellent foil to such comics as Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope.
Born Beatrice Peterson in New York in 1914, she was attending Columbia University when she met Johnny Powers, who ran the biggest modelling agency in America, and he offered her work posing for mail-order catalogues. In the mid-Thirties she spent a year in England, where she acted in a play and acquired an English accent that was to give her diction a distinctively clipped tone.
In 1936, on her way to Australia, she was stranded in Hollywood by a boat strike and recalled later: "I didn't want to just sit out there. So I went over to RKO one day and said I would like to do a picture. A very nice casting director said, `We're doing New Faces of 1937.' I said, `I would like to be in it', and that's how I started! Everybody works so hard, and I didn't even have an agent!"
Among the films in which the actress played minor roles as society ladies were The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), but her first important parts came in 1943, when she received excellent reviews for her portrayal of Blanche, Rochester's fiancee in Jane Eyre, and also made an impact as the heroine of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, one of the best of Universal's Holmes series, and displayed for the first time her excellent flair for villainy as a Nazi agent in Fritz Lang's gripping film noir set in London, Ministry of Fear, though she did not have kind words for her director. "I hated him," she said later.
If he didn't like you, he was the nastiest person. Dan Duryea was in the film too, and we became great friends, and Fritz Lang didn't like either of us! If I were sitting in Dan's dressing room, chatting with him, Lang would pull the door open, look in, and just walk away. I know that he was supposed to be a great director, but he wasn't very popular. He didn't seem to like anybody who had any fun.
Brooke's favourite of her films was John Cromwell's The Enchanted Cottage (1945), the story of two plain people who are beautiful in each other's eyes. "I thought that was a very nice film. I played Robert Young's fiancee, the girl who couldn't bear him after he was disfigured during the war. I was a society dame." The same year Brooke was a splendid, villainous foil to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in Road to Utopia, and in the Sherlock Holmes adventure Woman in Green played the title role, another wicked schemer who uses hypnotic powers in an attempt to outwit the sleuth.
Brooke later talked with great affection of her films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson:
They were so wonderful to me. Basil Rathbone was a nice man. He looked very haughty, very elegant, but he was a very real person. And Willie (Nigel Bruce) was always joking. During the string of Holmes pictures, we really had a wonderful time together. And our director, Roy William Neill, was so easy to work with - it was such a happy company. The picture business today has changed a great deal. It's not the family it used to be.
Brooke was less enthusiastic about the Moriarty of The Woman in Green, the past-master of cool malevolence Henry Daniell:
He was a very heartless man. He kept complaining about working late. He was cold, and he was very distant and removed, very much what we saw on screen.
Brooke's sense of humour and skill as "straight-woman" made her a valuable foil for the screen's top comics, and in the 1946 Bob Hope vehicle Monsieur Beaucaire she figured in one of the film's most surreally humorous sequences in which, as Madame Pompadour, she is concealed from her jealous lover, the King, by having her face smothered with shaving lather by the barber Hope.
In 1949 she worked for the first time with Abbott and Costello, in Africa Screams, and she was later to team with them in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952) and their hit television series (1951-52) in which she played Costello's girlfriend. Brooke later recalled,
Africa Screams was one of those pictures where there was more fun off the set than there was on film! Lou was a great ad-libber, funny lines and situations just poured out of him. Bud was one of the great straight men of all time. Lou was the worst one about not giving you your cue. When I first started to work with him, I called my agent and said, "I just can't do this - I never get a cue." He said, "Just stay with him", and, sure enough, it just worked out beautifully. I just used my instinct for when it was time to talk. I'd better talk now, or else the whole scene's going to go.
When we did Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, poor Charles Laughton found it difficult. He came to me one day and said, "I'm not getting any cues from Lou." I said, "Just go alongwith it and enjoy yourself. Just talk when you think you should." And the first thing you know, he loved it!
Recently, Brooke stated,
Between the Sherlock Holmes pictures and the Abbott and Costello pictures - really, that's what keeps me in front of the audience today. I get a lot of fan mail and either a Sherlock Holmes or an Abbott and Costello picture is usually responsible!
From 1952 to 1955 Brooke played a regular role in the hit television series My Little Margie, as the predatory girlfriend of a widower (Charles Farrell) whose daughter Margie (Gale Storm) is constantly scheming to keep her playboy father in check. In 1953 she played a warmly maternal role as the mother of a small boy who sees a flying saucer land in his back-yard during the night in the science-fiction movie Invaders from Mars, directed by William Cameron Menzies, and in 1956 had a role in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much:
I loved Hitchcock. We had one great thing in common, which was cooking. Hitch loved to cook, so we'd talk about recipes. He didn't mean that famous remark about treating actors like cattle. He was a very nice director - at least to girl actors he was. I don't know about boy actors!
After the western Spoilers of the Forest (1957), Brooke retired, having married the vice-president and general manager of MGM, Raymond A. Klune. "I didn't really miss the movie business too much," she said in 1996. "It had become a rough and tough business with the emphasis on money. In spite of what they might say about Mayer and the Warner Brothers, they were the people who really made great pictures." The Klunes lived in a seaside community south of Los Angeles and travelled a lot until Raymond Klune's death in 1988.
"I never thought I was a great actress," Brooke confessed. "Maybe I would have been better if I'd worked harder at it. But I really enjoyed my career and what I was doing. I played a lot of villainesses and rather enjoyed it. It got to the stage where if they wanted a villainess, or someone to play `the other woman', casting directors would say, `Let's get somebody like Hillary Brooke.' "
Beatrice Peterson (Hillary Brooke), actress: born New York 8 September 1914; married Jack Voglin (one son; marriage dissolved), 1960 Raymond Klune (died 1988); died Bonsall, California 25 May 1999.