British postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons in the Real Photograph Series, no. 7-8. Photo: Gaumont-British.
British actress Madeleine Carroll (1906–1987) was a blonde beauty of
ladylike demeanour. The first of Alfred Hitchcock's ‘ice-cool blondes’
was immensely popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and was nicknamed The
Queen of British Cinema.
Madeleine Carroll was born in 1906 as Edith Madeleine Carroll in West Bromwich, England. She was the elder of two children of an Irish professor of languages and his French wife. She graduated from the University of Birmingham. Her father wanted her to be a French teacher, but she defied him and became an actress. She appeared on stage from 1927. Her aristocratic allure and sophisticated style were first glimpsed by British cinema audiences in The Guns of Loos (1928, Sinclair Hill). She graced such popular films of the early 1930’s as the elaborate Titanic-like adventure Atlantic (1929, Ewald André Dupont), Young Woodley (1930, Thomas Bentley) based on John Van Druten's play, The School for Scandal (1930, Thorold Dickinson, Maurice Elvey). By the end of 1931 she was considered the top female star in the British film industry and it was somewhat of a shock when she announced her retirement from the screen, due to her recent marriage to Philip Astley of The Kings Guards, the first of four husbands. But when Gaumont-British offered her a reputed £650 pounds a week contract in 1933, she relented and made Sleeping Car (1933, Anatole Litvak) opposite Ivor Novello and the WW I drama I Was A Spy (1933, Victor Saville), with Conrad Veidt and Herbert Marshall. I was a Spy was by far her biggest success up to that time. The British Film Weekly selected her as Best Actress of the Year. She attracted the attention of Alfred Hitchcock and, in 1935, starred as one of the director's earliest prototypical cool, glib, intelligent blondes in The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock) based on the seminal espionage novel by John Buchan. The film became a sensation and with it, so did Carroll, as the hand-cuffed heroine. Hitchcok wanted to re-team Carroll with her 39 Steps co-star Robert Donat the following year in Secret Agent (1936, Alfred Hitchcock), a spy thriller based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham. However, Donat's recurring health problems prevented him from accepting the role and, instead, Hitchcock paired Carroll with John Gielgud. Secret Agent had hardly the critical and box office success of its predecessor, but it enhanced her reputation.
Poised for international stardom, MadeleineCarroll was the first British beauty to be offered a major American film contract. She accepted a lucrative deal with Paramount Pictures, and became the highest-paid Hollywood actress of her time. Her salary in 1938 was reported to be over $250,000. She starred opposite Gary Cooper in the adventure The General Died at Dawn (1936, Lewis Milestone) and with Ronald Colman in the box-office hit The Prisoner of Zenda (1937, John Cromwell). She tried a big musical On The Avenue (1937, Roy Del Ruth) opposite Dick Powell, but others of her films, including One Night in Lisbon (1941, Edward H. Griffith) with Fred McMurray, and the Bob Hope vehicle My Favorite Blonde (1942, Sidney Lanfield), were less prestigious. She became a citizen of the United States in 1943, after she had married Sterling Hayden in 1942. Following her sister's death during the blitz, she gave up filming for war relief work and later was honoured for her wartime and postwar efforts by France with the Legion d'Honneur and also by the USA with the American Medal of Freedom. She made only three further films, including the British alpine-set romance, White Cradle Inn (1947, Harold French). Her final film was The Fan (1949, Otto Preminger), adapted from Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Madeleine Carroll has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A commemorative monument and plaques were unveiled in her birthplace, West Bromwich, to mark the centenary of her birth. She lived in Paris during her retirement and died in 1987 from pancreatic cancer in Marbella, Spain aged 81.
Sources: Madeleine Carroll – Official tribute Website, Brian McFarlane (Encyclopedia of British Cinema), Wikipedia and IMDb.