Top 10 Welsh actors: Ivor Novello

Black and white image of Ivor Novello playing the piano

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Ivor Novello (David Ivor Davies) (1894-1951)

Ivor Novello, son of once-famous contralto and ladies orchestra leader Clara Novello Davies, was the leading British screen male box office star of the late 1920s.

He was also the lead in films by Hitchcock - The Lodger (1926) and Downhill (1927) - and DW Griffith, often acknowledged as the greatest or most influential of all American silent film directors, cast him for the US feature The White Rose (1923).

These facts alone should be a rebuff to Novello's earliest biographers who harped almost entirely on his admittedly considerable music and stage achievements.

Some might think Novello quit films in 1934 as a casualty of "the talkies" but he was superbly equipped for sound and it's regrettable that he was unable to take advantage in his silent film appearances of his musical talents. It's fascinating to imagine what he might have achieved in the musicals in vogue briefly in British 1930s cinema, directed by the talented Victor Saville.

The fact is Novello was too popular on stage - so much in demand as playwright, lyric writer and actor that he could no longer fit films into his schedule.

Any remote doubts about his screen acting prowess, given a good script, are belied by his irresistible performance in Maurice Elvey's I Lived With You (1933). It's a sublime comedy of manners, with Novello as a Russian aristocrat let loose on a London working class family in the wake of the Revolution, and manipulating them into a variety of hilarious indiscretions.

The Cardiff actor made his debut in films before he made any significant impact on the stage. He was the male lead - an adulterous novelist who meets a violent end - in Louis Mercanton's Call of the Blood (1919).

He was soon good box office - successful as second lead in Harley Knoles's Carnival (1921) and a popular youthful hero in Knoles's The Bohemian Girl (1922), acting in tandem with C Aubrey Smith. Novello also scored in Adrian Brunel's The Man Without Desire (1923), a curiously modern sci-fi fantasy in subject but suffering from indifferent sets and direction.

Novello's American ambitions soon foundered on his first Transatlantic screen visit. In Griffith's The White Rose he was uncomfortable conveying serious emotion as a minister defrocked after impregnating a serving girl (Mae Marsh). The film garnered mixed reactions and Novello threatened legal action for breach of contract when he was then offered a film directed by former actor Elmer Clifton and Griffith tried to farm him out to other studios.

The Welshman insisted he should be directed by the great silent director and was paid off, but some kind of settlement was apparently reached in Novello's favour after the director's Mamaroneck studio went bankrupt in 1925.

Novello's career took flight in Britain the same year, when he saved Michael Balcon (famous as Ealing chief in the 1940s but then at Gainsborough) from bankruptcy with his performance as a Paris gigolo in Graham Cutts's lively The Rat (1925). The film was adapted by Novello and Constance Collier from their own joint stage play and it prompted two follow-ups for Cutts and Novello, Triumph of the Rat (1926) and Return of The Rat (1929).

Novello also featured in a well publicised re-make of The Lodger (1932, dir. Maurice Elvey), a film as surprisingly elusive today as Gaumont's Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923) with the Welsh actor in the Royal role.

Novello led in the screen version of Noel Coward's stage hit The Vortex (1928), which dealt with the vexed question of drugtaking but was criticised for wordy intertitles. The Constant Nymph (also 1928), a version of the popular Margaret Kennedy novel, earned more accolades, and Novello was also impressive as a feckless train attendant exercising his libido in the beautifully crafted Anatole Litvak film Sleeping Car (1933).

He bowed out of film as a flirtatious Tyrolean hotelkeeper bringing transient happiness to Fay Compton's middle-aged traveller in Autumn Crocus (1934).

His second visit in Hollywood was no more fruitful than the first, as he made one - subdued - US screen appearance, supporting Ruth Chatterton, in Once A Lady (1931).

After Novello's death three films were made of his stage musical hits: Glamorous Night (1937) with Barry McKay, Mary Ellis and south Wales baritone Trefor Jones, The Dancing Years (1949) - and King's Rhapsody (1955), with Anna Neagle and Errol Flynn.


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