Victoria Hopper

Star of Thirties stage and screen


Victoria Hopper, actress: born Vancouver, British Columbia 24 May 1909; married 1934 Basil Dean (marriage dissolved 1939), 1951 Peter Walter (deceased); died New Romney, Kent 22 January 2007.

The actress and singer Victoria Hopper was a petite blonde who was at her height of popularity in the Thirties, when she starred in such films as Lorna Doone and The Mill on the Floss, appeared in the West End production of the Kern/ Hammerstein musical Three Sisters, and was one of the pioneering performers on live television. Her marriage to Basil Dean, the producer-director who initiated the building of Ealing Studios, gave a boost to her career, though inevitably there were accusations that he overrated her talents.

Born in Vancouver, in 1909, to a housepainter father, she was raised in Trail, a small town in the Canadian Rockies, where she displayed early musical prowess, winning an all-Canada piano competition. After her family moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1922, she enrolled at the Webber-Douglas School of Singing, where she was spotted in a school production and given the title role in the play Martine at the Ambassadors Theatre (1933).

Among those impressed by her work in the show were directors Carol Reed and Basil Dean. Dean, who had co- written with Margaret Kennedy a stage version of Kennedy's 1924 novel The Constant Nymph, was about to start a film version but had not yet cast the key role of Tess, the sickly schoolgirl passionately in love with a composer who marries her cousin. Hopper was given the role, co-starring with Brian Aherne. (The novel had already been filmed as a silent in 1928 and was to be made again in 1943 with Joan Fontaine winning an Oscar nomination as Tess.) Dean's direction brought out the poignancy of the piece, and Hopper's performance was well received.

Dean then gave her the title role in his film version of Lorna Doone (1934), though this found less favour and is best remembered now for featuring the first speaking part of the later superstar Margaret Lockwood. Hopper, who became Dean's third wife on completion of the film, was judged too delicate as the heroine of the lusty romantic adventure. Dean recorded in his autobiography,

I thought Lorna would be ideal for her: an unspoilt personality, a determined chin, steadfast character, and a pleasant light singing voice seemed exactly suited to Blackmore's heroine.

Hopper's stage career had continued with an appearance in the 1933 Christmas attraction at Drury Lane Theatre, Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel, in which she was admired for her sweetly girlish rendition of the score, and she was next cast in the lavish Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Three Sisters (1934). Hopper played one of three daughters of an itinerant photographer (the others were played by Adele Dixon and the lanky comedienne Charlotte Greenwood) and introduced the song Kern had hoped would be the hit of the show, the lovely ballad "What Good Are Words", but the musical, which was booed by the gallery on opening night, lasted just six weeks and produced only one enduring song, "I Won't Dance", which was written for Adele Dixon, but did not become a hit until interpolated into the Astaire/ Rogers movie Roberta (1935).

In 1936 Dean gave Hopper the role she would later say was her favourite, that of Constance Weber, the wife of Mozart, in the biographical film Whom the Gods Love. Location shooting in Vienna and Salzburg, and music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Beecham, resulted in an inflated budget and a financial failure. The slow pacing, and the inexperience of the leading man (Stephen Haggard, a nephew of Rider Haggard), were blamed, with some critics also questioning Dean's judgement in casting Hopper. "Everyone thought I'd married Basil just to further my career but this just wasn't true," she said recently:

Correct, he was older than me, but he was a charming man and so much more sophisticated than the other men I knew.

The Lonely Road (1936), produced by Dean but directed by James Flood, was a brisk thriller in which Hopper helped an alcoholic (Clive Brook) reform and round up a gang of smugglers. Another of the star's champions, Carol Reed, then directed her in one of her most popular films, Laburnum Grove (1936), a skilful adaptation of the J.B. Priestley play, in which she was persuasive as the daughter of a pillar of suburban respectability who is secretly a forger.

It brought Hopper some of her finest reviews, and was followed by The Mill on the Floss (1937), based on George Eliot's novel about feuding families in rural England. Hopper was Lucy Deane, whose feckless fiancé switches his affections to her cousin and best friend, Maggie (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Sweetly sympathetic, Hopper was particularly touching in her scenes with Fitzgerald, but it was her last film of note.

In 1938 Hopper playedTess again in a television production of The Constant Nymph, performed live at the Alexandra Palace studios. She played in several more television productions before the outbreak of the Second World War, and in 1939 she starred at the Saville Theatre in J.B. Priestley's Johnson Over Jordan.

When war broke out, Dean became a founding director of Ensa (Entertainments National Service Association), responsible for sending entertainers to the fighting men, and Hopper toured France, Italy, Egypt and the Middle East performing in the comedy Springtime for Henry, and she visited RAF bases across Britain, singing with the Central RAF Band. Though Hopper had divorced Dean (whom she later described as "a womaniser"), they remained friends, and she kept in touch with her two stepsons.

As the war drew to a close Hopper returned to the theatre, and, after touring with Cedric Hardwicke in The House on the Bridge (1944), she spent a year at the St Martin's Theatre in the hit thriller The Shop at Sly Corner (1945) playing Margaret Heise, the violinist daughter of an antique dealer, unaware that her father is in fact a convict escaped from Devil's Island.

She made a brief return to the screen starring with John Stuart and John Le Mesurier in John Gilling's neat little (37-minute) suspense movie Escape from Broadmoor (1948). Her last West End role was in the play Serious Charge (1955) at the Garrick Theatre, in which she took over the role of Hester Ryfield, a spinster who, when rejected by the new vicar, maliciously supports a youth who accuses the priest of sexual assault.

In 1951 Hopper married Peter Walter, an actor, a union which lasted until his death, and they made their home in a picturesque cottage on Romney Marsh.

Tom Vallance

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