Belle Chrystall

Fresh-faced leading lady of the Thirties
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The Independent Online

Belle Chrystall, actress: born Fleetwood, Lancashire 25 April 1910; married 1946 Roy Proctor (died 1990; one daughter deceased); died 7 June 2003.

A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, Belle Chrystall was a fresh-faced leading lady from Lancashire who had a decade of film stardom in the Thirties. She was also a prolific radio actress and for a time was the face on advertisements for Lux toilet soap. On screen she made a notable impression as the independent heroine of Hindle Wakes (1931), a boot-maker's daughter in Hobson's Choice (1931) and the stoic member of a Shetlands community in Michael Powell's Edge of the World (1937).

Born in Fleetwood in 1910, she was educated at a convent in Preston, Westbourne High School in Poulton and Cheltenham Ladies' College. (Since her birth certificate was destroyed by fire, it has never been ascertained whether Belle Chrystall was her real name.) She briefly studied Law at King's College, London, before applying for a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in 1917, to the initial displeasure of her parents.

At the age of 18, she made her stage début in Crime (1928) and she had her first screen role with a small part in the Michael Balcon production A Warm Corner (1930), based on a Feydeau farce and directed by Victor Saville. The first talkie for the comedian Leslie Henson, the film also featured the future star Merle Oberon in a small role. Chrystall became a star the following year when Balcon and Saville, impressed by her work in A Warm Corner, cast her in Hindle Wakes.

The third of four screen versions of Stanley Houghton's play (and generally regarded as the best), it featured a sparkling performance from Chrystall as the strong-minded mill girl who has an illicit weekend with her father's employer but, after being found out, refuses to marry him. She then played Vicky, one of the three daughters of a despotic bootmaker in Hobson's Choice (1931), the second of three screen versions of Harold Brighouse's popular comedy. (Brighouse himself collaborated with Frank Launder on the screenplay.)

Chrystall's next film, The Frightened Lady (1932), was also based on a play, Edgar Wallace's The Case of the Frightened Lady. Chrystall was the lady in question, an aristocrat and reluctant houseguest at a manor where guests are being strangled. Emlyn Williams and Cathleen Nesbitt co-starred in the effectively chilling thriller (remade in 1940 with Penelope Dudley Ward as the heroine).

She was back with the team of Victor Saville as director and Michael Balcon as producer for Friday the Thirteenth (1933), an enjoyable omnibus film which depicts 24 hours in the lives of a disparate group of people who are all destined to be passengers in a bus that crashes. Chrystall and Frank Lawton touchingly played young lovers who become involved with a crook (Emlyn Williams).

In the convoluted thriller The Scotland Yard Mystery (1933), she was the fiancée of a doctor suspected of being involved in a scheme to defraud insurance companies by injecting policy holders with a life-suspending serum that disguises their imminent death (the film was called The Living Dead in the United States).

Chrystall's next few films, including Youthful Folly and The Girl in the Flat (both 1934) were undistinguished. By the time she made Key to Harmony (1935), a weak romantic drama in which she played an actress who almost loses her musician husband when success goes to his head, it was clear that her movie career was drifting.

She had her best role in some time when the director Michael Powell chose her to play the heroine in the first film to display Powell's prowess as a poet of cinema, Edge of the World (1937), filmed on Foula, a remote island in the North Sea. Chrystall played a girl whose father (John Laurie) is feuding with the family of her lover. In Follow Your Star (1938) she starred opposite the popular crooner Arthur Tracy (known as "The Street Singer").

She then inherited another of her better later roles when Diana Churchill withdrew from Yellow Sands (1938) in order to honeymoon with her husband, Barry K. Barnes, and Chrystall replaced her. Directed by Herbert Brenon, it was a film of great charm in which an old lady (Marie Tempest) devises her will to best benefit her friends in a small Cornish village. A play by Richard Llewellyn was the basis for Chrystall's penultimate film, Poison Pen (1939), in which she was a wife wrongly suspected of having a lover. Robert Newton played her husband provoked to homicide by the lies of anonymous letters in a gripping adaptation directed by Paul L. Stein.

Over the next few years Chrystall's voice became well-known to radio listeners on such shows as Saturday Night Theatre, her name becoming as familiar as such other BBC stalwarts as Gladys Young, Grizelda Hervey and Marjorie Westbury. She also did some modelling, and for a time was the face of Lux soap. In 1946 she married and announced her retirement. "I adored my career on screen and the adulation it brought me," she stated. "But it was no substitute for marriage and a family."

In 1978 Michael Powell made a documentary, Return to the Edge of the World, which framed the original footage with a newly filmed record of a poignant reunion in Shetland of surviving cast and crew members. "John Laurie and I tramped the hills together," he later wrote, "and talked of Belle Chrystall, who had refused to join us, preferring to leave her 1937 image the way it was."

Tom Vallance

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