Husky-voiced, sultry beauty of Forties thrillers who retired from acting to marry a peer
Tuesday 03 October 2006
Constance Vera Stevens (Sally Gray), actress; born London 14 February 1916; married 1951 Lord Oranmore and Browne (died 2002); died London 24 September 2006.
A major screen actress in the Forties, the hazel-eyed blonde Sally Gray was one of the most glamorous of British movie stars, whose life and career can be neatly divided into three phases.
In the Thirties she was a charming soubrette of light movies and musical comedy. After a break from performing, she emerged in the mid-Forties as a sultry beauty who starred in a series of moody dramas and potent thrillers. Her husky voice was particularly attractive, and distinctively different from other stars of the time. The actor Dermot Walsh, describing her as "one of the most beautiful women in the business and a very nice person", said her voice was unusual since "a lot of actors 'up-classed' their voices because class was tremendously important in Britain at that time" .
The final phase of Gray's life found her very much in the upper class, for she married a member of the aristocracy, and led a comfortable life, preferring not to talk about her acting career.
Born Constance Vera Stevens in Holloway, London, in 1916, she was one of five children of a widowed ballet dancer. After training as a child at Fay Compton's School of Dramatic Art, she started her stage career at the age of 10. Four years later she was in a minstrel show at the Gate Theatre in London, and making her screen début, under the name of Constance Stevens, in School for Scandal (1930), a stilted version of Sheridan's play notable for its use of an early colour process, Raycol Colour.
Though she spent several years in the chorus on stage, her beauty and vivacity were noticed. While they were both appearing in Cole Porter's The Gay Divorce (1933) at the Palace Theatre, the star Fred Astaire gave her private dance lessons, and the agent John Gliddon (who had discovered Vivien Leigh) signed her after seeing her in the Vivian Ellis musical Jill Darling (1934).
Her first film as Sally Gray was Lucky Days (1935), a comedy vehicle for Chilli Bouchier, and in the same year she had small roles in Cross Currents, Radio Pirates, Limelight, Marry the Girl and Checkmate. She was back on stage dancing when she was spotted by the multi-talented actor-producer Stanley Lupino, who fell in love with her and cast her as his leading lady in the screen musical Cheer Up (1936). (Lupino was part of a theatrical dynasty that went back to 1634, and he was the father of the actress Ida Lupino.)
In 1937 Gray sang and danced on screen with the debonair Billy Milton in Saturday Night Revue (1937), co-starred in the musical thriller Café Colette, and partnered Stanley Lupino again in one of the best British musicals of the Thirties, Over She Goes (adapted from a stage production written by Lupino). The following year she and Lupino were together in Hold My Hand, in which together they sang the title song by Noel Gay, Harry Graham and Norman Blair (later revived by Robert Lindsay in the 1986 Broadway version of Me and My Girl). In 1938 Gray also starred in two non-musicals, Mr Reeder in Room 13, based on an Edgar Wallace story, and Lightning Conductor, a skilful mixture of spy thriller and comedy starring Gordon Harker as a bus conductor/ inventor whose blueprint for a new type of gas-mask gets mixed up with vital plans for defence.
Gray was primarily decorative as the girlfriend of a Sandhurst cadet (Geoffrey Toone) in Sword of Honour (1939), and in The Saint in London (1939) opposite George Sanders, but she was convincing in her offbeat role as an illusionist's wife in a neatly constructed thriller, A Window in London (1939), and was charming as a cockney waif whose boyfriend (played by Lupino Lane, Stanley's cousin) inherits a castle and a title, in The Lambeth Walk (1939), based on the hit stage musical Me and My Girl, though sadly the film retained little of the score apart from the celebrated title tune.
After The Saint's Vacation (1941), this time with Hugh Sinclair as Simon Templar, Gray starred in her most prestigious film of this period, Dangerous Moonlight (1941). Particularly remembered for its theme music, Richard Addinsell's "The Warsaw Concerto", the story of a Polish pianist (Anton Walbrook) who joins an air squadron against the wishes of his girlfriend (Gray), loses his memory after being wounded in the Battle of Britain, but regains it (and is reunited with his sweetheart) when he starts playing the concerto, had great appeal for wartime audiences.
Stanley Lupino, though knowing he had cancer, then starred with Gray on stage in his show Lady Behave (1941), London's first major musical since the Second World War began. A national hero for his braving the blitz as an Air Raids Precautions Warden (which included locating time bombs), Lupino was hoist upon the shoulders of fans and paraded through the aisles on the show's triumphant first night at Her Majesty's Theatre, and there was talk that he would shortly be knighted. After a month, though, the show had to close because of his illness.
Gray returned to the stage to star with Coral Browne at the Savoy Theatre in a production of the Broadway hit My Sister Eileen (1942). As the glamorous Eileen who constantly overshadows her bright and witty sister Ruth, Gray was hailed not only as a beauty but as a pert and beguiling actress. In the same year, Stanley Lupino died, and the streets of Tooting were thronged with a vast crowd to honour his funeral cortege. Gray, who was left the proceeds of a £10,000 insurance policy, was reported to have suffered an emotional collapse, prompting a retirement from the stage and screen. Lupino had been not only her lover, but her mentor and friend.
When Gray returned to the screen, it was to play a ballerina who makes a tragic mess of her love life in a gloomy melodrama, Carnival (1946), but she followed it with Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's splendid Green for Danger (1946), which was a genuinely eerie mystery with mordantly comic elements (mainly provided by Alastair Sim as a police inspector). Its setting was a hospital, with Gray, a nurse, involved in a sparky relationship with Trevor Howard, a doctor, while a killer stalks the quiet hospital passages in the night.
In The Mark of Cain (1947) she was accused of killing her dour husband, actually murdered by his brother and rival for her affection (Eric Portman). It was a glum affair, enriched by the strikingly atmospheric Victorian settings designed by Alex Vetchinsky.
Gray's finest films are arguably Green for Danger and Alberto Cavalcanti's uncompromising film noir They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), in which she played a gangster's moll. Described by the Herald Tribune as "a dynamic crime drama, brilliantly and broadly realised", it was a superbly photographed (by Otto Heller), gritty and tense tale of black marketeers and dope peddlers, set in a grimy post-war Soho. Griffith Jones was Gray's psychopathic gangster boyfriend who discards her, and Trevor Howard the restless ex-RAF pilot who is initially drawn to Jones's gang, but later exposes them with Gray's help. It was a stylish, brutal thriller that captured the edgy atmosphere of the period and displayed Gray in a more ambivalent and aggressive role than usual.
In Obsession (1948), directed by Edward Dmytryk, she was an unfaithful wife whose husband (Robert Newton) plots to kill her lover and dissolve his remains in acid. Her penultimate film, Lance Comfort's Silent Dust (1949), betrayed its stage origins, but it was a popular tale in which Gray was a member of a family that tries to conceal from their blind patriarch that the son he reveres as a reportedly dead hero is actually a deserter hiding in their house.
Her final film was Escape Route (1952), a slow-paced thriller which teamed her with the American tough guy George Raft (whom she disliked intensely) as investigators tracking down a kidnapping gang. By then, Gray had lost interest in her career. She had met the fourth Baron Oranmore and Browne, who was to become the longest-serving peer in the House of Lords, where he never spoke. She became his third wife in a secret ceremony in 1951 (their union becoming public at the Queen's coronation in 1953), and retired to a castle in County Mayo, Ireland.
Later they moved to Eaton Place in Belgravia, where Gray, whose husband died at the age of 100, resided until her death.
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