OBITUARY:Estelle Brody

Estelle Brody, one of the most important stars of the British silent cinema, was actually American.

Since this fact was embarrassing to an industry constantly complaining about American influence, publicity made her out to be Canadian. When sound arrived, she was playing a working-class London girl in a silent film called Kitty (1929). It was decided to convert the last three reels into sound, but the studio, BIP, had no facilities. The director Victor Saville rushed Brody and her co-star John Stuart to New York and, using RKO's experimental sound studio on 7th Avenue, he reshot the final sequences.

For Brody it must have been a strange experience; back in the city of her birth, she had to repress her accent and mimic the English she had just left. She did creditably, although there was not a trace of Cockney in her voice. (This would not have seemed strange to an English audience who accepted the talkie Blackmail, in which the Czech actress Anny Ondra, as a tobacconist's daughter, had her lines spoken in the Mayfair tones of Joan Barry.)

While in New York, Saville directed a short called Me and the Boys in which Brody sang two songs with the Ben Pollack Orchestra, which included Benny Goodman on clarinet and Jack Teagarden on trombone. Teagarden, whose first film this was, also sang with Brody. Alas, the film, released in 1929, has been lost.

But the majority of Estelle Brody's films survive; fortunately, for she was an excellent actress. She came to prominence in a war film, directed by Maurice Elvey, entitled Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1926). This was the British answer to The Big Parade, an American classic directed by King Vidor, and I suspect that Brody got the part of the French girl because she so closely resembled Renee Adoree, who played in the Vidor film.

Brody's finest role was as Fanny Hawthorne, the mill girl, in Hindle Wakes (1927), which was co-directed by Elvey and Saville, her two mentors. The film was not one of those cheap British pictures, all shot in the studio, without a shred of atmosphere. Elvey and Saville went on location to a Manchester cotton mill, giving the story the documentary background more usually associated with films of the Sixties. For the scenes on a Blackpool roller-coaster, the camera travelled with Brody and John Stuart, giving the audience a stomach-heaving thrill which not even the Americans had surpassed. Brody brought to the role that unaffected naturalism so admired when the Americans handled working-class subjects, but which the British could seldom achieve.

When David Gill and I embarked on our series on the European silent cinema (to be transmitted by BBC2 in the autumn) we decided to feature this film. The veteran director Val Guest told us that Brody was still alive, and living in Malta. A friend, the screenwriter and film editor Rodney Holland, who was visiting Malta, agreed to record a preliminary interview. We provided videotapes of Kitty and Hindle Wakes, which had been specially made for Brody by the National Film Archive. When Holland arrived at Casa Arkati, her old people's home, he found the patients lined up in wheelchairs, eager to start. "She was glued to the screen throughout. Apart from one or two who didn't stay the course, all were transfixed. Afterwards, she was mobbed by the others congratulating her. Throughout the screening, the viewers, including some nuns, were constantly comparing the frail old lady in her wheelchair to the image on the screen with fascination and admiration."

Rodney Holland found her charming and disarmingly modest, delighted by the film but dismissing it and her performance as "a bit dated". Alas, her medical condition had affected her memory, and many of his questions were followed by a long pause. She apologised for being slow, but did recall with affection her co-star John Stuart. "He was very, very helpful. He showed a great deal of charm and he was aware like everybody else at the studio that perhaps this was their golden chance."

She had been instrumental in helping a young Welsh actor called Reginald Truscott-Jones, who was quickly whipped off to Hollywood. We know him better as Ray Milland.

Born in New York in 1900, Estelle Brody was the daughter of Joseph Brody, a composer and friend of George Gershwin. Her mother was Leah Wishnew. Like so many silent film stars, she was trained as a dancer, and one vaudeville tour took her for a year around America. When she came to England to play in The Blue Kitten in the West End, she gave up all hope of becoming a movie star, because she felt that nothing could possibly happen so far from Hollywood. Thomas Bentley gave her a supporting role in White Heat (1926), a role she regarded as "fun for me, because I hadn't done an American film. But it was Mademoiselle from Armentieres - that was the one that put me on the map. That was my first starring role and naturally it holds a spot in my life. It brought me a lot of fame. I didn't realise at the time the importance of it."

British film people, she felt, were only too aware that they lacked the experience of their American counterparts: "They also felt that they were following up something that had been started elsewhere." She missed America, but was anxious to prove herself. "Apparently my work went over well. Beyond my wildest dreams."

David Lean told me how impressed he had been with Estelle Brody when he started at the Gaumont Studios as a tea boy in 1927. He always associated her with the tune "In a Monastery Garden", which she asked the three-piece studio orchestra to play for emotional scenes. Mad about aviation, he saw her as the leading lady in Elvey's The Flight Commander (1927), which starred the great pioneer Sir Alan Cobham, playing himself, saving the British in China from a Bolshevik massacre. Her success in Mademoiselle from Armentieres led to a sequel, Mademoiselle Parley Voo (1928), also directed by the prolific Elvey.

Despite her success in Kitty, Brody found further roles so scarce that she made what proved to be a fatal mistake; she went to Hollywood. There, as she put it, she was "neither fish nor fowl" - and she infuriated the chauvinistic British fans. Letters appeared in Film Weekly, quarrelling with her decision to desert the country which had given her such success. The Film Weekly's celebrated girl reporter Nerina Shute (now equally celebrated as an author) revealed that Brody was uncomfortable with sexy roles. Her ambition was to play prim girls with rather more conservative ideas in the matter of sex appeal. "It was her eyes that have been her downfall," Shute explained; "they have always winked, flashed, twinkled, etc, of their own volition. Consequently she was branded with the hated role of 'siren'."

Hollywood offered nothing in the way of work, and Brody's career as a star was over. Back in England, she married Robert Fenn, who became agent for Ian Fleming, and who was introduced by Dallas Bower to William Walton, as a film composer. He eventually represented most of the British film composers, including Bliss and Vaughan Williams.

Estelle Brody returned to films in the late 1940s - she played a war correspondent in They Were Not Divided (1950) and she acted in Safari (1956), with Victor Mature and Janet Leigh, and with Joan Crawford in The Story of Esther Costello (1957). She worked in Italy for the director Bernard Vorhaus.

In 1969, she and her husband applied for permission to take up residency in Malta. they were among the first to take advantage of tax concessions there.

Had Estelle Brody been a Hollywood star, she would have been celebrated around the world. But British films reached few foreign markets, and her talent is only now being rediscovered, thanks largely to the work of the National Film Archive. In this year of the cinema's centenary, it is fitting to pay tribute to a fine actress who was only a few years short of that century herself.

Kevin Brownlow

Estelle Brody, actress: born New York City 15 August 1900; married Robert Fenn; died Malta 3 June 1995.

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