Nova Pilbeam: Alfred Hitchcock's star who vanished from view

As a teenager, she starred in two 1930s films by Alfred Hitchcock, but later vanished from view

Nova Pilbeam was a great lost figure of British cinema – lost because she last appeared on screen in 1948, and on stage in 1951. Thereafter, she lived in obscurity in north London. Yet she had been a Hitchcock blonde, playing leading roles in two of his pre-Hollywood films, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent. With the wartime death of her husband, Pen Tennyson, this famous face faded into private seclusion. And like a British Greta Garbo, she evidently preferred it to be that way.

She was born in Wimbledon in 1919, daughter of the actor and theatrical manager, Arnold Pilbeam, and his wife, Margery Stopher Pilbeam. Her professional debut was as Ellen Brown in Gallows Glorious in 1932, and she played two seasons as Marigold in Toad of Toad Hall at the Savoy Theatre.

Still only 14, she won the lead role in Little Friend, a Gaumont British production directed by Robert Stevenson and written by Christopher Isherwood, playing a child who witnesses her parents’ separation. One reviewer praised the “brilliant performance by the newly discovered English protégée”, and the film broke box-office records, and audiences’ hearts. “Even at that time,” Hitchcock said, “she had the intelligence of a fully grown woman. She had plenty of confidence and ideas of her own.”

She won a seven-year contract with Gaumont and a role in Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Edna Best and Leslie Banks played a couple who learn about an impending assassination and are forced to keep quiet when their young daughter (Pilbeam) is abducted by a characteristically creepy Peter Lorre. Although he called it “the work of a talented amateur”, Hitchcock later said, “I think you’ll find the real start of my career was The Man Who Knew Too Much”. Some critics preferred it to his 1956 James Stewart/Doris Day version.

On Boxing Day 1935 Pilbeam returned to the stage as Peter Pan at the Palladium. Further film roles weren’t so easy to find, given Pilbeam’s age, although that of Lady Jane Grey in Tudor Rose (1936) was apt casting. It won her the Film Weekly medal for best performance in a British film. With the collapse of Gaumont British in 1937, Pilbeam was cast in her second Hitchcock film, Young and Innocent, filmed at Pinewood and in Cornwall. She played the daughter of a police chief who believes a young man (Derrick De Marney) has been falsely accused of murder, and helps him escape to find the real killer as the two go on the run.

To De Marney it seemed Pilbeam was treated with inordinate deference by the director, “both on and off the lot”. Pilbeam recalled it as “the sunniest film I was involved with.” She admitted, “one was rather moved around and manipulated,” but she also liked her director “very much”. To Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock biographer, it seemed he went out of his way “to spoil his young star”. Hitchcock and Pilbeam doted on a dog brought in to play a scene, only to see it taken away by its handler. “We were both so upset,” Pilbeam told McGilligan, “that Hitch decided to write him another sequence, so we kept him for another five or six days.”

In a scarier scene, Pilbeam’s character had to hang on to a crashed car balanced over a mine shaft. “I was so terrified! But Hitch had this quirky sense of humour” – others might see it as torture – “and made that scene go on and on, so that I thought my arm would come out of its socket.” As McGilligan noted, “Pilbeam was never pluckier” and the finished product was “a clear, confident gem of Hitchcockery”.

In 1939, with his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca in pre-production, Hitchcock declared that Pilbeam would be perfect casting for the second Mrs de Winter. Others believed he had his doubts about her suitability for the role and her ability to handle love scenes. But she maintained to McGilligan that he had wanted her for the part. Hollywood producer David O Selznick had been impressed by Pilbeam in Young and Innocent, but Joan Fontaine was cast in Rebecca, and while Pilbeam liked the idea of working in the US, her London agent was concerned by the studio’s five-year exclusion clause.

As a result, Pilbeam did not become a global name. She did not make another film until 1939’s Cheer Boys Cheer, but in any case her attentions were elsewhere. During The Man Who Knew Too Much she had fallen in love with Hitchcock’s assistant, Pen Tennyson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great-grandson and seven years her elder. They married in London in 1939. The following year Pilbeam appeared in the controversial Boulting Brothers film, Pastor Hall. Based on the true story of a German Lutheran minister resisting fascism, it was severely criticised and censored in a still-isolationist US.

Tennyson was seen as a coming man, one of “Hitch’s boys”. But in 1941, having been called up to film instructional shorts, he was killed in a plane crash in the Scottish highlands.

His death seemed to deprive Pilbeam of her ambition. She made a few more films, including Next of Kin, (1942), later marketed as “the film Churchill tried to ban” as a threat to British morale. Made as a training film, telling the story of a Commando raid on a harbour in occupied France, it was considered good enough for a cinema release. There followed Yellow Fever (1943) and Out of Chaos (1944), a short film on war artists directed by Jill Craigie, wife of Michael Foot; then This Man is Mine (1946), and Green Fingers (1947).

She also toured in theatre productions, notably playing Tracy Lord, the Katharine Hepburn role, in The Philadelphia Story in 1951, but with her marriage the previous year, to a BBC journalist, Alexander Whyte, and the birth of their daughter, Sara, her public career gradually evaporated, replaced by a life of domesticity.

Matthew Sweet tried to interview Pilbeam for his book Shepperton Babylon, but “to no avail. Eventually she stopped answering my sycophantic letters.” She had a strange, vicarious re-exposure when a young American artist, Duncan Hannah, a Warhol protégé, became obsessed with her. He painted her repeatedly, sending catalogues with reproductions of his work to her London home, asking her the colour of her eyes. “I’m thinking they’re blue,” he wrote. No reply came.

Nova Pilbeam, actress: born London 15 November 1919; married 1939 Penrose Tennyson (died 1941), 1950 Alexander Whyte (died 1972; one daughter); died 17 July 2015.