When talking pictures reached Europe one of the casualties was Mabel Poulton. In the class-bound British cinema of the time, even a slight Cockney accent could be a drawback.
The year of her triumph was 1928. The Gainsborough company under Michael Balcon had acquired the film rights of the highly successful novel The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy. Basil Dean had helped to adapt the stage play for the screen and became supervisor, with Adrian Brunel directing. Dorothy Gish was rumoured to be the favourite for Tessa, which Edna Best was playing on the stage. Among many Tessas given camera tests was Daphne du Maurier. The final choice was Mabel Poulton.
Basil Dean wrote: "She possessed a quality of emotion that I have not seen surpassed on the British screen either before or since the coming of sound. Her utter concentration on the emotional truth of the scenes she was to play was outstanding. I can se e her now wandering about the mountain paths in the Tyrol, a copy of the novel under her arm and an intense faraway look on her childlike face living introspectively her neglected love. In short, she was Tessa."
The film opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion accompanied by a Eugene Goossens score, and was so successful it was voted the best British film of 1928. No one who saw Poulton's performance could forget it. When the film was revived in British Film Year, 1985, at the National Film Theatre, a packed house applauded Poulton to the echo.
Mabel Poulton was born in 1901, into a poor family; her father was a "clicker", a man who cut the patterns for boots and shoes, and her mother ran a stall selling artificial jewellery in Dalston, east London. Her father belonged to a Working Man's SocialClub and took Mabel to see a stage performance. She was deeply impressed by the leading actress and determined to become an actress herself.
She won a scholarship to the Central Foundation School of Spitalfields and eventually got a job as a typist at the old Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. She saw an advertisement for an acting school but the fees were higher than she could afford. Sheconfided in her mother, "If I don't do something, I'll be a typist all my life." Her mother gave her the money as a birthday present.
Her acting instructor, noting Mabel's Cockney accent, tactfully suggested a course in film acting. The Alhambra, meanwhile, was converted into a cinema and its first presentation was D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish, which had a dramaticprologue. Mabel's boss noticed her similarity to Lillian Gish and asked her one morning, "How would you like to die three times a day?"
She was given a Japanese kimono and installed in the Star Dressing Room. The prologue consisted of the death scene and she was terrified she would cough or sneeze. But three times a day she lay rigid and beautiful and the audience commented on how much like Lillian Gish she looked.
The director George Pearson, a passionate admirer of Griffith and Gish, saw this prologue, gave Poulton a film test and asked her to cry. Poulton discovered she could produce tears to order. Pearson told her she had a quality of pathos which would appealto audiences; and signed her up to play with another new girl, Betty Balfour, in Nothing Else Matters (1920).
Salaries were not in the American class. Poulton earned pounds 20 a week when she worked, pounds 8 when she did not. But British films were made for such tiny sums that Pearson could not afford to keep both actresses on salary. He teamed the two girls in
The British film industry was the poor sister of Europe; investors preferred to put their money into picture palaces, relying on American films to fill them. France had more pride in its abilities and was able to produce masterworks like La Roue (1922), directed by Abel Gance. Now Gance announced an even greater production, Napoleon. Since he was also a passionate admirer of Griffith and Gish he was interested in Poulton for the part of the Gish-like Violine, the girl who loves Bonaparte from afar. "I was quite nervous at meeting Abel Gance for the first time," said Poulton, who was taken to his apartment in Paris.
"I was ushered into a beautiful room where much to my surprise coloured birds were flying in and out of each other's cages. A very distinguished-looking man was sitting behind a desk. He rose and looked at me searchingly. `Bonjour, ma petite,' he said.
"I spoke a little French I had learned at school, but my nerves seemed to dry me up. I was told he said afterwards, `She is just what I am looking for. She has the virginal eyes that are necessary for the part. But for goodness' sake take her shopping and get rid of that dreadful hat.' "
Poulton was assigned first to another film while the Napoleon company went on location to Corsica: Ame d'Artiste (1924), directed by Germaine Dulac, one of France's few women directors. Although it served as proof of Poulton's acting ability, she lost t h e part of Violine. She did not look like a typical French girl, it was said, and for such a role a French girl was essential. But Gance never forgot her and spoke warmly of her talent.
The quality of British films began to improve in the mid-Twenties and among the most proficient directors were Maurice Elvey and Victor Saville. They collaborated at the Gaumont Studios, Lime Grove, on a number of outstanding productions. In their The Glad Eye (1927) Poulton supported the stars Estelle Brody and John Stuart. But in Palais de Danse (1928, the same year as The Constant Nymph) she played the lead in a thriller about a ruthless gigolo (John Longden) having an affair with an aristocrat whiletrying to break the resistance of one of his dancers (Poulton).
After 1928 actresses from Mabel Poulton's background took elocution lessons and replaced Cockney with cut-glass Mayfair. Poulton took lessons but, despite her talent at mimicry, her natural accent reasserted itself. In her first part-talkie, Return of t h e Rat (1929), she tried out her new accent and felt it sounded ridiculous. She played in a handful of other talkies and even worked on the stage but she always blamed her accent for ending her career.
Although she came close in the late Thirties to winning the role of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion (she said the producer Gabriel Pascal wanted her but that Shaw was set on Wendy Hiller), once she married Richard Phillips, an oil engineer, in Baghd a d in 1939, she only occasionally emerged to do theatre or television work. In the 1950s they settled in London. They built a block of flats in Callow Street, Chelsea, which they named Rima House (Richard-Mabel) and where they lived a somewhat reclusivel ife.
Stephen Peet interviewed her for his BBC television series Yesterday's Witness.
"I was quite astonished," she wrote, "that I again had letters from fans who still remembered and loved the film of The Constant Nymph. One charming writer sent me a wonderful bouquet of flowers which . . . made me feel like a film star again. I still h a ve an old laundry basket full of photographs which my dear Mother saved for me.They were very appreciated when I sent them to the writers of the letters. With all its ups and downs, how rewarding the work of an Artiste is."
Mabel Poulton, actress: born London 13 April 1901; married 1939 Richard Phillips; died London 21 December 1994.
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