Actress, playwright and novelist
Saturday 24 July 2004
The last star of British silent cinema, Joan Morgan began her career in 1913. It was over by the late Twenties. She turned to scriptwriting, and, during the Second World War, wrote such novels as
Citizen of Westminster and
Camera!, the most affectionate - and the most accurate - account of film-making in Britain in the early days.
Joan Morgan, actress, playwright and novelist: born London 1 February 1905; died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 22 July 2004.
The last star of British silent cinema, Joan Morgan began her career in 1913. It was over by the late Twenties. She turned to scriptwriting, and, during the Second World War, wrote such novels as Citizen of Westminster and Camera!, the most affectionate - and the most accurate - account of film-making in Britain in the early days.
Born in 1905, she was the daughter of the film director Sidney Morgan, a Welshman, and the actress Evelyn Wood. She chose her father's 1920 film Little Dorrit as her favourite role. A remake of Little Dorrit in the 1980s brought her national publicity.
She was first cast in a film not by her father but by the American entrepreneur Charles Urban, the financier behind the Kinemacolor process. Joan, a beautiful blonde of eight, was cast in the title role of Little Lord Fauntleroy, to be made at Teddington. Elaborate costumes had been produced and excitement was running high when Urban received notice from the solicitor of Frances Hodgson Burnett that he was in breach of copyright. The project was stopped, but it led directly to a part in another colour film, which was shot in Marseilles.
Upon her return, she was hired by the producer Joe Bamberger at a considerable drop in salary - 30 shillings as against 50. During a picture shot at the old Crystal Palace, Bamberger's dog bit her in the face, and she carried the scar for life.
Joan acknowledged that she had relatively little education. But her father was passionate about literature, and started her reading at an early age. When she was eight, she was enrolled in a school with only half a dozen pupils, which she loved. An essay of hers, submitted to a competition in The Times, was returned because "it could not have been written by a child under 10".
With the outbreak of the First World War, her father volunteered and was turned down. Realising that the war was going to be a long one, he sent Joan and her mother to America in November 1915. On the trip over was Harry Lauder, who
gave me the loveliest compliment I've ever had in my life. He said, "She's like an English wild rose or a buttercup blowing in the wind."
In New York, she played in a handful of pictures at Fort Lee, one of which - The Reapers (1916), with John Mason and Warner Oland - she remembered as being exceptional. Six months later, she and her mother returned to England. Ideal Films were looking for a child to play opposite Ellen Terry in Her Greatest Performance. Joan was cast as her granddaughter:
Bernard Shaw came over . . . but I don't think he liked children much and I didn't register with him. It was Ellen Terry he came to see. Hers was a very quiet sort of acting. The whole production was frightfully highbrow, frightfully Chelsea!
At this period, the novels of Emile Zola were regarded as so shocking that some libraries kept them under the counter. Sidney Morgan had the courage to make L'Assommoir as Drink in 1916. "I played Gervaise as a child. Fred Groves was in it, playing Coupeau," Joan Morgan told Garth Pedler:
We'd invited him to dinner the previous year, and he came beaming across the room and said, "Joan, dear, you have worn well!" I was only 10 at the time.
After playing Lillian Braithwaite's daughter in Because (1917) - her actual daughter Joyce Carey took over the adult role - Joan was enrolled in the Italia Conti stage school. André Charlot selected her for two wartime revues:
We had consistent air-raids and the little call boy used to bang on the door every night and say, "They've come, miss." Then I had to go on stage with the barrage going off overhead announcing what the next sketch was going to be.
When the war ended, Sidney Morgan took over a little studio on Shoreham Beach - "a glasshouse among the pebbles". Joan starred in Lady Noggs (1920), "about a bossy little aristocrat going around doing good", and, more significantly, in Little Dorrit.
Joan was offered a Hollywood contract in 1920. Famous Players-Lasky had opened a studio at Islington - soon to become Gainsborough - and hired Joan to play opposite Bryant Washburn in The Road to London (1921). For this, her salary went up to £30 a week and she received a bonus for her excellent work:
Famous Players offered me a five-year contract at $100 a week to start with. My father went up to meet them and they said, "What do you think of this offer we've made your daughter?" And he said, "Not much." And that was the end. You could see a complex motivation; the break-up of the family, the loss of his star and a certain amount of jealousy. And I was absolutely the type - the little soft blonde of those days - but I was only 15 - and not a pushy 15. Some girls of that age today would jump in a taxi and go. I didn't. I just died inside.
As if in compensation, another American, the director Leander de Cordova, hired Joan to go to South Africa to make Rider Haggard's Swallow (1922):
De Cordova was absolutely fascinating but a ruthless director. He wanted me to ride across the Vaal River after he had been warned there was barbed wire left in it from the Boer War . . . I wasn't even insured, let alone doubled. But at age 16 in 1921, life in Johannesburg was superb.
Joan's films on her return to England were routine. She and her mother went briefly to America in the hope of recapturing the kind of offer her father had rejected. Back in the West End, she was given some stage roles. Sidney Morgan cast her in his film Shadow of Egypt in 1924, but, when he took his company on location to Luxor, he did not take Joan, since it might have looked like favouritism. "My father's integrity belonged to the Age of Chivalry," she sighed.
In 1926, Joan's parents split up and Joan stayed with her mother in Chelsea. Her last major role was in her father's A Window in Piccadilly, in which she played both the daughter of a famous violinist and her own mother. It was a silent, but Morgan insisted on a famous violinist - De Groot - playing the lead. He also accompanied the film at the trade show.
Although Joan Morgan made a talkie in 1932, Her Reputation, she was no longer in demand as an actress. Luckily, she was able to step sideways into scriptwriting, using the names Iris North and Joan Wentworth Wood.
Her father had been a driving force behind the Quota Bill, which led to the era of "quota quickies", for several of which Joan wrote scripts. Her most successful film was for Herbert Wilcox, the 1932 remake of The Flag Lieutenant, with Henry Edwards.
A play written by Joan Morgan, This was a Woman, was a success on the stage in London in 1944 and in Paris in 1947. "Tim Whelan made a very bad film of it [in 1948], but I didn't mind because, by then, I had become a novelist." Her first novel, published in 1940, was Citizen of Westminster, based on the lives of those who lived in Dolphin Square. In the same year, Camera! came out. During the Blitz, Joan and her mother moved to Henley, and, besides working in the contracts division at the Ministry of Supply, Morgan wrote a book about evacuees, Ding Dong Dell (1943). Her The Hanging Wood (1950), the story of Mary Blandy who was hanged at Oxford in the 18th century, was adapted by the BBC in 1977 for the A Question of Guilt series.
Between 1958 and 1977, Morgan specialised in property conversions - she wrote a book about her experiences, The Casebook of Capability Morgan (1965). At the age of 72, she bought a Palladian toll house, which she converted for herself. It had the scale of a doll's house, its one touch of grandeur being King Zog's four-poster, bought in a sale of the effects of the exiled King of Albania, once a neighbour.
Joan Morgan was engaged a couple of times, but in the end, she said, "I have lived as one of the world's happiest loners." In 1988, Garth Pedler wrote a 17,000-word series on her life in Classic Images. In 1995, Paul Bernard made a video documentary of her career. And, that year, she appeared in a documentary about the European silent film, Cinema Europe, which I directed with David Gill for the BBC.
She went regularly to the cinema until her sight had deteriorated too much. I urged her to put her memories on paper, but she wrote back,
I did try an autobiography once . . . In error, the publisher left a reader's comment on its return: "Oh, these showbiz people!"
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