Bruce Lester: Dapper actor in Forties Hollywood

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:14

The British actor Bruce Lester changed his name from Lister when he went to Hollywood. There, in contrast to his earlier British films, which were mainly "quota quickies", he appeared in such prestigious productions as The Letter (1940), starring Bette Davis (with whom he had an affair), and Pride and Prejudice (1940), with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, in which he played Charles Bingley.

With his dapper appearance, handsome features and amiable personality, he captured the public-school image of the young Englishman with aplomb, and was in demand during the first half of the 1940s, though never rising above supporting status. His roles in the UK had sometimes been leading ones, but the productions were mainly low-budget fare and, with the exception of Death at Broadcasting House (1934), generally forgotten. When it became plain that his Hollywood career was faltering, he developed his writing skills, penning several scripts before becoming a story analyst at the Paramount and Columbia studios.

Born Bruce Somerset Lister in 1912 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to British parents, he was educated at Brighton College, and had thoughts of becoming a tennis player before a friend encouraged him to try the stage – in those days acting paid more than tennis. After gaining experience in the theatre, he made his screen début with a bit role in The Girl in the Flat (1934). He had featured roles in four more films the same year, including Death at Broadcasting House, a whodunnit spiced with radio acts, in which he played a radio producer.

He had his first important role when cast opposite Valerie Hobson in the delightful Ealing-style comedy Badger's Green (1934), in which cricket-loving villagers fight a development plan that would destroy their village green. Lister played a militant cricketer who falls in love with the developer's daughter (Hobson). He made over 20 British films in the next five years, including Old Faithful (1935), Crime Over London (1936), Mayfair Melody (1937) and Quiet Please (1938).

After acting in several films made at the Teddington Studios of Warner Brothers, he was given a role in Warners' Hollywood production Boy Meets Girl (1938), a brisk comedy with James Cagney. Allegedly on Cagney's advice, Warners gave Lester a three-year contract, then promptly loaned him out to appear in Paramount's If I Were King (1938), as a nobleman at the court of Louis X1 of France who befriends vagabond poet Francois Villon (Ronald Colman), and to play a chaplain in Universal's The Invisible Man Returns (1940), notable as Vincent Price's first horror movie. In MGM's lively and opulent Pride and Prejudice, he was ideally cast as Mr Darcy's aristocratic pal Charles Bingley, who, to the displeasure of his sisters, woos Jane Bennett (Maureen O'Sullivan).

He then played his memorable role in William Wyler's masterly transcription of Somerset Maugham's The Letter, in which he convincingly portrayed the callow and gullible District Officer, who is captivated by the calculating Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) and is totally taken in by her fabricated display of injured innocence and her story of justified homicide. "Mrs Crosbie, may I say that I think you behaved magnificently," he says after listening to her description of how she killed a man to defend her honour. He later tells her less convinced lawyer, "I don't know if anything's ever impressed me as much as the way she told that terrible story."

Lester and Davis had a brief affair while the actor was at Warner. "She found Bruce attractive and sweet, but he was a bit tame for her speed," said the writer Jerry Asher, a friend of Davis. During the making of The Letter, Davis had an abortion (her third), and her biographer James Spada includes Lester among the four men who may have been the father.

During the Second World War Lester was cast in several films about the conflict, including four films in which he played flying officers, Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941), A Yank in the RAF (1941) with Tyrone Power and Betty Grable, Eagle Squadron (1942) with Robert Stack, and Desperate Journey (1942) with Errol Flynn. In Above Suspicion (1943), Richard Thorpe's highly enjoyable romp about a couple (Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray) honeymooning in Europe on the eve of war, who are recruited as spies, Lester had an important role as an Oxford-educated pianist who, in a Hitchcockian concert-hall sequence, assassinates a German general.

However, his career failed to progress after this point, and frequently he received no billing. In 1948 he was given a good role (billed fourth) in Mitchell Leisen's Golden Earrings. In this tongue-in-cheek wartime adventure, he and Ray Milland were prisoners-of-war in Austria who escape together with vital information. They split up with plans to meet in Stuttgart, and while Milland is sheltered by a gypsy (Marlene Dietrich), Lester's progress is also shown until his eventual reunion with Milland and his heroic death.

It was typical of Lester's quixotic career that the following year he was playing a bit part in I Walk Alone, and he continued to take small parts until retiring from acting in 1958 after playing a hunter in Tarzan and the Trappers.

Tom Vallance

Bruce Somerset Lister (Bruce Lester), actor: born Johannesburg, South Africa 6 June 1912; married; died Los Angeles 13 June 2008.

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