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The Guardian (20/Jan/2004) - "What was it like to be in a Hitchcock film? I can't remember"




What was it like to be in a Hitchcock film? I can't remember

Sybil Rhoda, 101-year-old star of the silent screen, talks to Geoffrey Macnab

At the age of 101, Sybil Rhoda has a fair claim to being Britain's oldest movie star. Her movie career was telescoped into a single year, 1927, and consists of only three films: Sinclair Hill's desert-based romance Sahara Love, Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill, and Boadicea, a historical epic shot in Cricklewood. None the less, she is almost certainly the only British silent screen actress still alive.

Visiting Rhoda in her flat in Knightsbridge, you feel a little like William Holden en route to see Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. She's a slender, elegant figure with perfectly coiffed hair who smokes Dunhills and speaks in a rasping voice. In one corner of her drawing room, perched on top of a shiny new television set, is a card with a picture of the Queen on it. This was sent to her when she reached 100. "I'm amazed I've existed so long. I'm surprised about the whole thing. I can't get over it," she says.

Rhoda has a large pile of scrapbooks beside her. First off, she shows me the press book for Sahara Love in which she played a femme fatale called Melody. Judging by the stills, this was a sex, sand and sun melodrama in the vein of the Rudolph Valentino vehicle, The Sheik. The film was shot in Seville. The director took her to a bullfight, which she hated. It was her first time abroad and she was glad to get back home.

In the stills from Boadicea, Rhoda looks like a model from a pre-Raphaelite painting. She is dressed all in white. Her long hair stretches right the way down to her waist. "That's all my own hair," she boasts. "The other actors wore wigs." She was cast as Boadicea's daughter who was raped by the Romans.

Her third and final feature was Downhill. She plays Sybil Wakely, the virginal sister of the philandering public school boy Tim Wakely. Early on, during a visit to watch a rugger match, she catches sight of Tim's best friend (Ivor Novello) with his shirt off and looks suitably shocked and shaken at the sight of his sacred flesh.

Downhill is her only film still in circulation, but she can remember nothing whatsoever about it: nothing about Alfred Hitchcock and nothing about her co-star Ivor Novello. "Nothing, nothing," she repeats forlornly. "That's what so awful. It has completely disappeared ... It couldn't have meant a thing to me. If it had, I would have remembered it."

She was subsequently offered the leading part in a film about to be shot in southern Nigeria, but - according to a newspaper clipping from the time - "declined as she had fears of the climate being unhealthy". Her movie career thus ended almost as soon as it started. One of her abiding memories of silent screen acting is of the music performed off-set to help the actors dredge up emotion: "They'd say to me, 'We're going to have a sad scene: do you want any particular tune to be played?' Then you'd do your best to display your feelings."

Working under punishing lights, the performers were obliged to wear thick layers of makeup. "We used to wear white makeup, no rouge, heavy on the eyes, but that was that. It didn't compare to what we put on our faces on the stage. On stage, we'd put on everything: mascara you'd warm up over a little spoon. And you'd compete with other girls to make your eyelashes as long as you could."

As she admits, she has a very unlikely background for a film star. She was born Sybil Fowler in Plymouth on October 12th, 1902. Her family were far from wealthy. "We had very little money. My father was a dentist. He drank a lot and so we were ... let's say skint."

Though not a Catholic, she was sent to the local convent school. She was expected to become a teacher, but when she was 16, she decided to be an actress. "I told the convent that I was going to go on stage. They were horrified. To go on stage was very bad."

Summoning up her courage, she went off to London for an audition. "I'd never been out of Plymouth in my life. I was scared to death." Despite her nerves, she won a job in a touring musical revue. But when the tour was over she couldn't find another job. In desperation, she auditioned for the chorus at Drury Lane. "It was ghastly. There were millions of girls lined up and they called a few aside. Luckily, I was picked to be in the chorus."

At last, her prospects began to look up. An American director made her the understudy to the leading lady. He also asked her to go to America with him. She almost accepted. "But then I thought that if this man wanted to sleep with me, how the hell was I going to get home. That put me off. I was scared to go. But I often think about it because I was good-looking, I had a beautiful voice and I think I could have done well there."

In the end, she stayed in the chorus line for five years. During these years, the director would supplement her income with modelling assignments. She was the face of Players' cork-tipped cigarettes on the London Underground ("I was paid £20 for that"); she advertised Cow & Gate baby milk ("30 shillings"); she helped hawk corsets; most bizarrely, she was a model for a company selling false teeth. "One did anything."

Rhoda became a movie star - and landed a contract with Stoll's Production Company - by winning a beauty contest. The prize was a part in Sahara Love, then about to shoot in Seville. The theatre managers were furious. "In the contract, it said that you were not allowed to take on anything else. The manager said, 'If you take on this part, we won't have you back.'"

Once she came back from Spain, the manager relented and rehired her. But she had to make her next two movies on the sly. When a day's filming was over, she would rush back to the theatre. Matinees made her double life a nightmare. During the making of Boadicea, she was often obliged to hurry across London still in Iceni costume. "The crowd outside the theatre would see this vision coming ... me with my long hair, my white robes and white face as I dashed into the theatre. And I had to be so careful to avoid the manager - he would have been livid if he saw me."

In 1928 Rhoda married EHR Pollok, a wealthy Anglo-Austrian businessman. He took her to live in Vienna. With war about to break out, Pollok, who was Jewish, was smuggled back to Britain, but they were penniless. Rhoda toyed with the idea of going back on stage, but with a young daughter to support, decided against it. Eventually, Pollok was hired by an American firm and the family moved to the US.

It's over 75 years since Rhoda last saw herself on screen, but she is planning a trip to the National Film Theatre to watch Downhill. Whatever else, she hopes the experience will jog her memories of Hitchcock and Ivor Novello. "I always thought Ivor was a terribly handsome man. It's extraordinary that I have no recollection of working with him," she sighs.