Well, here we are again with a tribute to one of those wondrous, long-gone character performers who added so much presence and texture to a wealth of films. Today, we take a look at the career of Dame Flora Robson, a highly varied actress who could display both tenderness and steely strength, along with abject desolation, with equal skill.
On March 28th, 1902, Flora McKenzie Robson was in South Shields, England to a ship engineer of Scottish descent and his wife. She was one of six children, three of whom would remain tremendously close throughout their lives, living together and dying a matter of months apart. When little Flora was five years-old, her father detected a skill of hers at recitation and promptly began taking her around to local contests and other venues at which she could show off her talent.
After attending Palmers Green High School, she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she was immersed in the classics of the stage and won many challenging roles. However, standing just two inches shy of six feet and with a face that lacked the contours of conventional beauty, she soon began to edge toward character parts rather than leading lady roles. Youth, extreme talent and the aid of heavy makeup got her through some early leading roles, but the writing was on the wall.
After a couple of years (from 1921 to 1923) on stage in Oxford and London, she grew fearful of the unsteady work in the theatre and the modest income it afforded. She left the stage and began working as a welfare officer in a London factory. The flame of talent within her would not be snuffed out, however, and in 1929, at a friend's urging, she went to the Cambridge Festival Theatre where she made an impression and stayed for two years.
From there she went to the Old Vic (where she worked until 1934) and also into films. Her debut in the cinema came with an unbilled part in 1931's A Gentleman of Paris, a murder trial melodrama. The following year, she was fifth-billed in Anthony Asquith's Dance Pretty Lady, playing the mother of a ballerina. In 1933, she was fourth-billed in One Precious Year, a now-forgotten film that costarred Basil Rathbone.
Her first real mark in the movies came in 1934 with The Rise of Catherine the Great, which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Elizabeth Bergner as the title figure. Robson played Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Fairbanks' once-decadent, but now ill, conspiratorial aunt. It was far from the last time she would be cast as royalty. The film was co-directed by Alexander Korda and he would use Robson again in the future.
He cast her in 1934's The Private Life of Don Juan which, oddly enough, starred Douglas Fairbanks Sr in his final role, but her character was snipped from the final cut. She also had the distinction of appearing in one of British TV's earliest specials, a truncated rendition of Anna Christie, with Robson in the title role.
The British film industry was beginning to really take off during this time, but not without some difficulties. 1937 brought I, Claudius, directed by Joseph von Sternberg, with Charles Laughton playing Nero to Merle Oberon's Messalina and Robson's heavily-aged Livia, but the project was abandoned when Oberon was involved in a serious car accident. (And rumor also has it that von Sternberg was unhappy with Laughton's work, leading him to cancel the film with the accident as merely an excuse.)
Ms. Robson was given top-billing in 1937's Fire Over England in which she played Queen Elizabeth I during the war with Spain. She made a stunning impression on critics and audiences with her portrayal and boasted a supporting cast made up of names no less prominent than Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh! All of these folks would, of course, rise to higher fame in the coming years.
After making one more film in her native land (1939's Poison Pen seen above), Robson traveled to America where she would soon be utilized in a number of prestigious (and now-classic) films. The first was producer Samuel Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights, one of the all-time Hollywood romances, which starred Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Robson played the housekeeper who has witnessed both the bloom and the withering of the lead characters' love. She also got to use her captivating voice as narrator of the piece.
Next came a contract at Warner Brothers and We Are Not Alone, opposite Paul Muni as her husband. Here she played the stern, unfeeling mother to their sensitive, nervous, young son. When a pretty governess (Jane Bryan) comes to care for the boy, things look up, but only for a while. Before all is said and done, the disapproving, disdainful Robson is dead.
Rounding out the busy year of 1939 (a legendary year in the output of motion pictures in quantity, but notably in quality as well), she played George Raft and William Holden's fretful mother in Invisible Stripes. Robson was sixteen years older than Holden, but was actually close to a year younger than Raft! Also on board were Jane Bryan, as Holden's girlfriend, and Humphrey Bogart, as Raft's fellow prison inmate. The story concerned Raft's attempts to go straight after being released the same time as Bogart (who has no interest in doing so himself.)
In 1940, Robson took on the role of Elizabeth I again, this time in The Sea Hawk, a rousing swashbuckler that starred Errol Flynn. Here, Flynn was a pirate who aids Robson in the war against Spain. Just the prior year, Flynn had played the Earl of Essex in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with a rabidly disapproving Bette Davis as the queen. He even wore most of the same costumes despite playing a different character. One assumes that he and Robson got on better than he did with the fiery Davis.
Bahama Passage, released in 1941, had her playing the anxiety-ridden mother of Sterling Hayden, whose fear of the natives where she, Hayden, Madeleine Carroll and Leo G. Carroll are living, festers and balloons until serious consequences arise.
For a stretch in 1940 (late-March through early-August), Ms. Robson made her Broadway debut in the play Ladies in Retirement, playing a murderous housekeeper. Her role was given to Ida Lupino for the film version the year afterwards. Over the next two years, Robson would make further sojourns to The Great White Way with Anne of England in 1941 and The Damask Cheek in 1942-43. In the latter, she had the rather fun character name of Rhoda Meldrum and worked with Zachary Taylor and Celeste Holm.
She then returned to England and worked there on the stage to entertain wartime audiences in sore need of distraction. She also made the film Two Thousand Women in 1944, all about an assortment of British women trapped in France after its capture by Germany and their efforts to help some RAF pilots who've landed near them escape. This was followed by Great Day (pictured at right), a light, morale-building piece about small town ladies who've been making woolen products for allied soldiers, but are about to receive a visit from U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1945, she made two very visually striking appearances in films. The first one, in England, was in Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Claude Rains, Vivien Leigh and Stewart Granger. Leigh as Cleo may have been milky white, but Robson, as Cleopatra's tough, conniving nursemaid Ftatateeta, was done up in dark makeup and a frizzy, brown fright wig! I do like Granger's flimsy little toga, by the way.
Robson's considerable talent as an actress notwithstanding, there was no way anyone was going to steal scenes from her in this guise. Even this vivid appearance would pale in comparison to her other movie role that year.
Filmed in 1943 prior to her departure back to England, but not released until 1945 (due to the plethora of morale-boosting, war-related movies in the meantime), Saratoga Trunk had her working alongside Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman as Bergman's mixed-race, Haitian servant woman! She was slathered down in dark makeup, her stern eyebrows prominently delineated, the better to draw viewers to those forceful eyes of hers.
Far from essaying the role in any sort of demeaning or stereotypical fashion though, she brought forth a commandingly severe and rather ominous presence that was memorable enough to secure her an Oscar nomination as that year's Best Supporting Actress, the film's sole nod. Anne Baxter won for The Razor's Edge that time. It would mark the only time Ms. Robson was ever nominated for a major film or TV award in her long, sterling career. Jack Warner had tried to borrow Lena Horne (!) from MGM for the part, but was unsuccessful.
Still residing back home in England, she filmed 1946's The Years Between, which examined the effects of WWII on the marriage of Michael Redgrave and Valerie Hobson. As had been the case before and would be again, she played a member of the household staff observing the goings on with concern. The next year, she took part in one of the cinema's most startlingly impressive classics, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus. Starring Deborah Kerr and all about the establishment of a convent in a remote section of the Himalayas, the movie is bursting with inventive cinematography, imagery and color. She played one of five nuns who are affected by the people and surroundings of their chosen site.
Also in 1947, she made Freida, about an RAF pilot who marries a German girl and faces prejudice from the people of his village. Robson, as the pilot's older sister, was the chief antagonist of the movie and got to demonstrate some meaty hatred along with some humanity. Far lighter was that same year's Holiday Camp, which cast her as a husband-seeking old maid tossed in with other assorted characters at the title location.
1948 brought a small role in Good-Time Girl, about a tarty young miss who drunkenly drives over a policeman, then hooks up with two G.I.s and proceeds onto a crime spree with them. Saraband for Dead Lovers allowed her far more to do and gave her another one of her unusual looks. She played a ruthless countess trying to break up the affair of Stewart Granger and Joan Greenwood. Vengeful and glamorous, she takes pleasure in exacting revenge for Granger's lack of attention to her.
Now it was off to Broadway again for two productions. In 1948, she played Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, with Michael Redgrave in the title role. The production also included Beatrice Straight, Martin Balsam and Julie Harris within its cast. Then in 1950, she starred in Black Chiffon, the story of a woman so disturbed by the oncoming marriage of her son that she acts out by shoplifting a black chiffon negligee as a cry for help.
In 1952, she was back on screen in the British melodrama The Frightened Bride, about a family with one son who's been convicted of murder and another one who may be tempted down the same path. That year she was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), one of her country's great civil honors. 1953 brought a small role in The Malta Story, a WWII drama about Britain's continuing occupation of Malta while the German's are attempting to occupy it themselves. Alec Guinness was her costar in this one.
She next played the Nurse in a 1954 English-Italian co-production of Romeo and Juliet, which starred Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall as the ill-fated lovers, but with John Gielgud, Bill Travers and Sebastion Cabot rounding out the cast. The very next year, she played the role again on BBC Sunday-Night Theatre with Tony Britton and Virginia McKenna and the famous pair. She appeared on several British television shows until her next film in 1957.
High Tide at Noon was the bittersweet story of the collapse of a Nova Scotian fishing community as seen through the eyes of a young lady played by Betta St. John. She and Alexander Knox had supporting roles as residents of the failing community. She also joined the ensemble cast of No Time for Tears, playing a nurse/nun at a children's hospital and bringing her strong presence to the piece. Her strongest scene involved counseling young Sylvia Syms, who is distraught over the death of a patient.
She went to work for Joseph Losey in 1958's The Gypsy and the Gentleman, a colorful Regency-era melodrama that starred Melina Mercouri and Keith Michell. (June Laverick is pictured with Robson here.) There was also Innocent Sinners, the small, tender story of a little girl deciding to create beauty amidst the bombed out ruins of her slummy neighborhood by growing flowers in an abandoned church. Robson was one of two middle-aged sisters who are affected by the girl.
In 1960, Ms. Robson was created Dame Commander of the British Empire. Though she had demonstrated a stellar career as an actress, both on screen and the stage, this honor was really in response to her tireless charity work, something she made no fuss about and, in fact, did as privately and as quietly as possible.
1963 brought two very diverse roles. In the Samuel Bronston epic 55 Days at Peking, she was given dark contact lenses and Asian makeup in order to portray Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi. The huge (and sometimes troubled) film starred Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven and many other solid character actors. She was paired mostly with the devious and scary-looking Robert Helpmann (best known as The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as Prince Tuan. Check out those fingernails in the shot below!
Then there was Murder at the Gallop, one of Margaret Rutherford's (who would soon become a Dame herself) batty, campy, but always fun, Miss Marple murder mysteries. This was the second in a line of four such films Rutherford did (oddly, this one and Murder Most Foul were both based on Agatha Christie books that featured Hercule Poirot, not Miss Marple!) Robson, as the timid and easily intimidated companion to a now-dead wealthy woman, had the rare chance to dress in contemporary clothing this time out.
In 1964, she joined Richard Attenborough, John Leyton, Jack Hawkins and newcomer Mia Farrow in Guns at Batasi, a tense story about British Colonial Africa during an uprising. Her character is a member of Parliament who believes that she can negotiate with the rebel leader, who she knew as a student in London. She next played the mother of Rod Taylor in Young Cassidy, the thinly-veiled biography of Irish playwright Sean O'Casey. The stellar supporting cast included Julie Christie, Maggie Smith, Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans and Sian Phillips. Also in 1965, she had a role (as a Mother Superior) in the farcical, all-star Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines...
Young Cassidy was to have been directed by the great John Ford, but he fell ill early in the shooting and was replaced with famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Ford, now feeling better, embarked on what would be his final film and utilized Robson again. The movie, 7 Women, was the story of, what do you know, seven women (and a few other folks) at a Chinese mission being set upon by Mongolian bandits. I do love the dramatic poster, though most of the movie's action took place off-screen. She's located to the right of the bottom of the big, red 7.
The line-up also included Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field and Anna Lee, making it a fun watch for fans of character actresses. In a startling bit of unintended (?) racism, there are actually eight women in peril, but the lesser-known Asian TV actress Jane Chang apparently didn't warrant being counted in the title! In any case, it was another troubled film (Bancroft was an eleventh hour replacement for Patricia Neal who suffered a stroke during filming) and not exactly the most fitting end to Ford's awesome career.
She took part in a televised version of David Copperfield in 1966 (with Ian McKellen as the title character) before taking part in a series of thrillers. This was the mid-'60s and the in thing was to put actresses of a certain age through the horror wringer. Kicked off by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, the trend lasted at least a decade. Eye of the Devil was forty-five year-old Deborah Kerr's turn (though she was a replacement for an injured Kim Novak, a dozen years her junior.) Robson played the fretful aunt of David Niven in the movie concerning strange goings on at a French estate.
Next came The Shuttered Room, a creepy story about Carol Lynley and her new husband Gig Young returning to her place of birth where not only gang leader Oliver Reed runs rampant, but a series of grisly murders is occurring. Robson, in full-on Grandmama Addams fright wig, played Lynley's eccentric, concerned aunt, who roams around in her room, kept company by a falcon.
Still another “old lady in distress” outing had her sharing the screen with Beryl Reid in 1970's The Beast in the Cellar. The gals played spinster sisters who have kept their mentally deranged brother locked in the cellar for three decades only to discover that he's suddenly escaped. That same year, she played one of several people who may have been involved in the death of David Hemming's aunt in Fragment of Fear. 1970 marked the final time she starred on stage as well. Fittingly, it was as the title character in Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.
Calling upon her long history of playing monarchs, she was cast as the demanding Queen of Hearts in 1972's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with Dennis Price as her put-upon, henpecked husband. A host of other famous actors were in it as well including Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, Michael Crawford and Sir Ralph Richardson.
An odd blip on her resume was 1973's The Beloved, an adultery drama set in Greece with Raquel Welch, Richard Johnson, Jack Hawkins and Ms. Robson all attempting to portray indigenous members of that nation with the help of tan makeup. The bulk of Robson's remaining career would be on television. She played the grandmother in a televised edition of Heidi (1974), worked on The Canterville Ghost with David Niven and others (1975), played a prioress in the Richard Jordan-Anthony Perkins rendition of Les Miserables (1978) and had a role in 1980's A Tale of Two Cities, which starred Chris Sarandon.
Her career came to a conclusion with two feature films, one very obscure and the other a reasonable hit. In Michael Anderson's Dominique (1980), she joined a rondolet of other stars in a muddled mystery about spousal murder and ghosts. Cliff Robertson, Jean Simmons, Jenny Agutter, Simon Ward, Ron Moody and Judy Geeson made up the cast.
In 1981, she had a small, practically unrecognizable part in the adventure film Clash of the Titans. She played one of three Stygian witches, her eyes covered and a ragged, stringy wig on her head. Though I might have preferred seeing her as one of the goddesses shown in the film (as played by Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress and Susan Fleetwood), the fact that her final role was one involving heavy makeup stands as a fitting cap on her career since she so often worked in parts that called for such augmentation.
Dame Flora Robson, who never married and bore no children, played many a spinster in her career and, in fact, resided in her family's estate along with two of her sisters. One sister, Shela, died in 1984, Flora died (presumably of cancer) in 1984 as well and then the third one, Margaret, died in early 1985. A revered performer of immense commitment and skill, she could say more with a dour glance than some folks could with a page of lines. With so many actresses now opting to stay forever “young” (or a facsimile thereof!) through surgery and whatever else, we're in short supply of these stern, aged, expressive types of character actresses. With Robson in a film, we know we're in for a treat.