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The Guardian (10/Jan/2004) - Homme fatal: Ivor Novello

(c) The Guardian (10/Jan/2004)

Homme fatal

How did one of Britain's most beautiful matinee idols end up writing one-liners for Tarzan? Geoffrey Macnab traces the rise and fall of Ivor Novello

It's a measure of how far Ivor Novello's reputation as an actor has slipped that the film work he is now best remembered for is encapsulated in four words: "Me Tarzan, you Jane." In the early 1930s, the Anglo-Welsh matinee idol, author and composer went to Hollywood for a two-year contract with MGM. But the studio bosses told him he was "too English" to appeal as a leading man and fobbed him off with the occasional character part or, more often, writing assignments. He was set to work as a script doctor, on the Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari (1931) and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). And despite his reputation for sophisticated, witty drawing-room dialogue, Novello was reduced to thinking up one-liners for Johnny Weissmuller, the US swimming champion donning the loincloth for the first time.

Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane may have been impressed with Tarzan's chat-up routine, but the writer took no pleasure in the jungle repartee. "I never wrote such rubbish in my life," he later admitted. No wonder Novello broke his contract and returned early to the UK. Later he called his stint at MGM his "greatest failure". "I came away knowing that obscurity and I were bad companions," he reflected. In Britain, it had been different. At Gainsborough, Elstree or any other British studio in the 1920s, Novello was always the cynosure. "The problem was to find someone as beautiful as Ivor to play opposite him," Adrian Brunel, who directed Novello in The Man Without Desire (1923), wrote of the man dubbed Britain's "handsomest screen actor". Not that there was anything planned about Novello's screen career. Born David Ivor Davies in Cardiff in 1893, he was an established composer and songwriter long before he became an actor. He was 17 when his first piece of music, Spring of the Year, was published in 1910, and he became a full-blown national celebrity in the early years of the first world war, after he wrote the hugely popular anthem Keep the Home Fires Burning. When French director Louis Mercanton offered him the role of the philandering English husband in The Call of the Blood (1919), he accepted with alacrity.

He had never acted before. Mercanton had chosen Novello for his look. None the less, the film was a success, "one of extreme beauty", as Novello called it. French actress Sarah Bernhardt praised his performance.

From the start, Novello was, as academic Michael Williams puts it in his book about the actor, British cinema's homme fatal. He was always as much the object of the audience's gaze as any actress cast opposite him. His speciality was playing tortured, introspective public-schoolboy types, or dashing hither and thither in a manner reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks.

The role in which he best combined the dreamy, neurotic side of his screen personality with swaggering, action-hero antics was as the seedy but charismatic 19th-century Parisian jewel thief Pierre Boucheron in The Rat (1925). Adapted from his own play, the film provides fight sequences and chases through murky, night-time streets in which Boucheron, looking vaguely like Adam Ant, disappears down man-holes, leaving the local gendarmes twitching like bewildered monkeys in his wake. These alternate with highly charged romantic interludes, including a scene in which a scowling, saturnine-looking Boucheron dances the tango with one of the many prostitutes who wait for him nightly in the White Coffin, the underworld bar he frequents between jewel heists. He rips her dress at the hip so that she can move more easily.

Novello was equally striking in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog (1927). Here, his character is a strange mix of Jack the Ripper and a tortured, visionary martyr. As the film begins, a serial killer is on the prowl. Blonde chorus girls are his target. Hitchcock mixes sex and murder in the seamy tabloid style he would later use in thrillers such as Blackmail and Murder!, but once Novello turns up, the tone changes. He plays a mysterious stranger who arrives out of the mist at the Buntings' house, looking for lodgings. When we first see him, the bottom half of his face is concealed by a scarf. There's a haunted expression in his eyes.

Hitchcock goes out of his way to make us think that Novello is guilty. The lodger has no alibi for the murders. He slips in and out of the house at curious times. He has a habit of pacing his room. (The film-makers constructed a glass floor so we can see his feet from below.) By the final reel, the London mob is after him, ready to lynch him. If a character actor like Peter Lorre (who was later hunted down in similar fashion in Fritz Lang's M) had played the stranger, there would have been pathos in his plight, but hardly the same sense of ecstatic religious suffering that Novello brings to the role. Just in case we don't realise that he is as much a martyr as a murder suspect, Hitchcock includes a shot in which a crucifix-shaped shadow falls on his eerily white face.

To any 1920s audience, The Lodger was a Novello vehicle, not a Hitchcock film. Novello's importance is underlined in the credits, in which his name is spelled in huge capitals. But the star was soon eclipsed by his director. When Hitchcock - by then one of the most famous film directors in the world - later made mildly dismissive remarks about Novello, critics saw this as licence to launch their own attacks against the actor.

"Novello's performance is throughout extremely crude (and, often, now, very funny)," Lindsay Anderson wrote of The Lodger in one typically unfair attack. "This is partly due to his own limitations as an actor, but partly also to script and direction which, with a quite unscrupulous dishonesty, require him to behave in a blatantly 'guilty' manner in order deliberately to mislead the audience."

Like Valentino in Hollywood, Novello was simply too exotic a screen presence to find favour with dour Anglo-Saxon reviewers. The fact that he called himself Novello rather than sticking to his real name made them suspicious. Nor did they trust his expressionistic approach to acting. He would play Wagner music off set to help him summon up the required level of emotion for the silent melodramas that made his name. He was famously obsessed with costume. As Sandy Wilson notes in his 1975 book on Novello, when he was co-starring opposite Gladys Cooper in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923), he liked his kilt so much, he wouldn't take it off, even when he wasn't shooting. Cooper warned him that the locals resented his appropriation of their national costume. Several hundred hostile Scots followed him throughout shooting on the isle of Arran. "But I wouldn't have cared if there had been thousands," he later told the News of the World. "I fancied myself in my kilt!"

In his second collaboration with Hitchcock, Downhill (1927), based on his own play (written under the pseudonym David Lestrange), Novello was cast to type as a handsome public schoolboy drop-out who ends up in a doss house in Marseilles. When Roddy Berwick (Novello's character), the rugby hero and all-round good egg, sacrifices his career by taking the blame for the misdeeds of a friend (namely, getting a local woman pregnant), he learns he will be expelled from the school. "Does this mean, sir, that I shall not be able to play for the Old Boys?" the crestfallen Berwick asks, as if his world has fallen in.

Film theorist and critic Ivor Montagu, who worked on the Downhill script, was startled at just how self-indulgent Novello's original play was. "I have endeavoured to preserve the hero's character," he wrote in a revealing memo to the producer. "If he [Roddy Berwick] is to marry a clean girl, we must keep him as clean as possible. He can be foolish and quixotic but not unmanly."

It is noticeable how often Novello was drawn to playing masochistic "unmanly" outsiders like Berwick. (In 1928's The Vortex, adapted from his friend Noël Coward's play, he is cast as Nicky Lancaster, the drug-addicted high-society pianist.) Novello's homosexuality was an open secret in theatrical circles. Hitchcock's biographer Donald Spoto points out that he was "never, on or off the set, especially shy about his homosexual life". This perhaps explains the homophobic edge to many of the attacks on his films. Critics called him "effeminate" and "overly pretty". When he was cast as an Austrian innkeeper in Basil Dean's Autumn Crocus (1934), one reviewer even took exception to his legs, writing that "Novello's schoolboy knees under his Tyrolean shorts make the audience, if not the players, feel bashful".

Within a year of Novello's death in 1951, his former manager W Macqueen-Pope published a biography that helped fix the image of the star as the glamorous but slightly camp figure of nostalgic West End myth. "There were two Ivor Novellos," he wrote. "At least, there were two men in that one person. There was David Ivor Davies, the dark-eyed handsome youth from Wales, and there was Ivor Novello, whom the public knew and adored and whom David Ivor Davies created ... The Welshman ... with the good yeoman stock from the very land of his fathers - that stock which had farmed, worked and sung as only Welshmen can - always triumphed over that somewhat exotic creation Ivor Novello."

There is plentiful evidence that Novello wasn't taken seriously as a screen actor by his colleagues. "We always knew he had limitations, of course, but he was such an enchanting character: no side at all, none of the star nonsense," said producer Michael Balcon. Nor did Novello make great claims for his films. Complaining about being type cast as "a ladies' darling", he later said that acting on stage "was so much more satisfying".

Novello's funeral at Golders Green crematorium in London provoked mass hysteria among female fans reminiscent of that at Valentino's death, but his obituaries made scant mention of his movie career.

"It was never really a great part of him, more a lane through which he wandered," claimed Macqueen-Pope, as if describing a youthful indiscretion that was better hushed up. However, it is the very aspects of Novello that reviewers then were embarrassed by - his androgynous looks, his dress sense, his highly theatrical acting style, his "unmanly" and quixotic screen persona and his colourful private life - that make him seem so fascinating today.