OBITUARY : Nancy O'Neil

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The Independent Online
Petite and pretty, Nancy O'Neil was one of the many delightful ingnues who decorated British films during the 1930s. Like so many of this group, she seemed to disappear from sight once the warring 1940s began, remaining but a faded photograph in The Film Star Who's Who of the Screen. She died at the age of 87, although those same issues of the Who's Who would claim she was four years younger.

She was born Nancy Smith, in Sydney, Australia, in 1907 (not 1911), and at the age of 18 came to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and to lose her Aussie accent. Her first stage engagement was with Barry O'Brien's repertory company at Salisbury. Now a full-blown professional, she returned to Australia for a tour in the play Doctor Pygmalion, evidently a cash-in on the George Bernard Shaw classic.

In England again, she began her screen career as the Admiral's winsome daughter whom jolly Jack (Tar) Hulbert saved from a fate worse than Chinese pirates in Jack Ahoy! (1934). In the same year she supported another top musical comedy star of the day, Jack Buchanan, in Herbert Wilcox's Brewster's Millions. These enormously popular films seem somewhat threadbare today, but "cheap and cheerful" was the motto of British films of the 1930s.

Certainly this was true of the so-called "Quota Quickies" that O'Neil then found herself in: low-budget supporting pictures made to suit the terms of the Quota Act which decreed the number of British films that must be made or distributed by American companies. For Warner Bros-First National she supported Jack Hulbert's funny brother Claude in Hello Sweetheart (1935), a musical remake of George M. Cohan's frequently filmed play The Butter and Egg Man. Two more films for Warners followed: The Brown Wallet (1936), directed by the not yet famous Michael Powell, and Head Office (1937).

Other films at this time included Fifty Shilling Boxer (1937) and Darts Are Trumps (1938), both made for RKO. East of Ludgate Hill and There Was A Young Man were both made by Fox in 1937, the latter starring the hugely popular Oliver Wakefield, who had burst into radio via his hesitant humour in Henry Hall's Guest Night. Listeners will still remember Wakefield's classic closure: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart and from Henry Hall's bottom too!" (The BBC promptly banned him.)

During her decade in the cinema, Nancy O'Neil appeared in magazine advertisements, one of the first film stars to be used to endorse expensive products, from fur coats to Cadillacs. A typical line ran, "Little Nancy O'Neil Will Ride In Nothing But A Big Cadillac!" She was only five feet tall. Retiring for marriage and children, she later came back in small supporting roles in films and television. She was in the hugely successful Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and closed her career with a cameo supporting Vivienne Merchant in a television play in the 1960s.

Denis Gifford

Nancy Muriel Smith (Nancy O'Neil), actress: born Sydney, Australia 25 August 1907; married 1938 Dermot Trench (died 1984; one son, one daughter); died London 5 March 1995.

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