Top 10 film performances: Ivor Novello

Black and white photo of Ivor Novello

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Ivor Novello in I Lived With You (1933)

Despite Ivor Novello's huge cinema box office success in Britain, his early biographers rarely took him seriously as a film actor.

They preferred to harp on his stage and musical talents, his Drury Lane triumphs and his personal magnetism. At least Michael Williams in the most recent biography has considered much more of the film work, even though he seems as interested in Novello as 'gay icon'.

Those earlier writers were quick to fall in with Novello's own dismissive assessment of his films even though they had clearly seen very few.

Any doubters of Novello's abilities as a cinema actor - and in particular his aptitude for screen comedy - should see I Lived With You, directed by Maurice Elvey but patently the creative work chiefly of its star, who wrote the script initially as a stage vehicle for himself.

It's doubtful if any other British 'matinee idol' silent-movie actor (e.g. Clive Brook, Brian Aherne or even Ronald Colman) could have eclipsed the humorous subtleties of Novello's performance as he toys with the expectations of fellow characters and the audience.

Cardiff-born Novello plays a Russian prince, Felix, who's found, apparently hotfoot from the Bolshevik Revolution, on a bench in London's Hampton Court maze by shopgirl, Gladys (Ursula Jeans). Felix regales her with a hard-luck tale, and she takes him home. No sooner has this privileged 'waif' placed his feet under the table than he's re-shaping the lives of proletarians who long to be bourgeois.

Novello/Felix affects innocence seemingly to tease out their ambitions and expectations and then seeks to make things happen.

The henpecked hubby, surrounded by wilful women, is urged, for example, to enjoy a fling with a younger model than his blowsy wife, the family's girls are encouraged to shed inhibitions, and during the mayhem this dislocated 'lounge lizard' reclines on the settee polishing off sweets.

How much of Felix's advice is unwitting, the product of a clash of cultures, scarcely matters, for this is a riotously funny film and Novello not for the first or last time on screen, operates, tantalisingly, on different layers.

He's always aware of his screen spectator in the dark, but don't be misled - this performance doesn't reek of the greasepaint in the least. It's just that Novello has the rare ability to maintain a playful, ironic stance which many critics, even today, seem incapable of appreciating or recognising.

We're left to contemplate how much he might have achieved had he not cut his screen career short in 1934, to pursue his many stage touring and West End commitments.

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