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Posts Tagged ‘Celia Johnson’

The 1935 production of Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy Written in Three Acts, written by Helen Jerome and played on Broadway, featured Adrienne Allen, an English actress, as Elizabeth Bennet.

Miss Allen, a slender blonde, had been successful in London and Broadway stage productions, such as Private Lives with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, when she was signed to a contract by Paramount. She was married to actor Raymond Massey from 1929 to 1939 and is the mother of Daniel and Anna Massey.

Private Lives, 1930, Laurence Olivier, Adrienne Allen, Noel Coward, and Gertrude Lawrence

Best known for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, Canadian-born Massey also portrayed the character of “Jonathan Brewster” in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace. He played Dr. Leonard Gillespie in Dr. Kildare during the 1960’s.  Raymond Massey Massey died in 1993.

Young Anna Massey’s career might have been decided as early as her christening, for her godfather was the film director John Ford.

Celia Johnson as Elizabeth Bennet in Helen Jerome's Pride and Prejudice

Anna made her stage debut at the age of 17 in the West End hit The Reluctant Debutante with Celia Johnson and Wilfred Hyde-White. Celia, coincidentally, also played Elizabeth Bennet in the Helen Jerome play of Pride and Prejudice (1936).

Janeites know Anna Massey best as Mrs Norris in the 1983 BBC mini-series of Mansfield Park.

Anna Massey as Aunt Norris

In recent years she has played Mrs. d’Urberville in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (left), and as Mrs. Bedwin in Oliver Twist (2008) right.

“If I’d had an education, I’m not sure that I would’ve been an actor,” she once said. “My education ended when I was 15 and it was assumed that I would go into the theatre and I did.” –  Anna Massey The Plain Girl’s Lament

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As I researched material for yesterday’s post about Pride and Prejudice 2005, I ran across several articles that listed the actresses who played Elizabeth Bennet during the 20th century. These lists (click here and here) are excellent, but because they concentrate on films, they largely miss the contribution of one important actress, Celia Johnson, a British stage actress who played Lizzy in 1936. Online references to that play are so obscure that Celia’s performance is generally overlooked.

Celia played Elizabeth Bennet opposite Hugh Williams as Mr. Darcy at the St. James’s Theatre in London. Helen Jerome adapted this successful dramatization, titled Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy in Three Acts, which continues to be performed today. As an interesting aside, Helen Jerome contributed to the screenplay of the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice, and it was said that Celia, who was born just four years after Greer Garson, was not particularly fond of her rival. The reasons were not given.

According to this detailed biographical account by Ian (?) Lloyd, Celia usually played ordinary women in normal settings, but she “was a huge success as Elizabeth Bennet in the hit Pride and Prejudice, in which she played the romantic heroine for once, and not the downtrodden or wronged woman.”
To British audiences of another generation, Celia was a well-known and highly regarded stage actress during the 1940’s and 50’s. She also made a few films shortly after World War II. Film aficionados might recall her turn as Trevor Howard’s love interest in Brief Encounter (see image above), and as a supporting actress in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her last film. People in the UK can still listen to her narration of Pride and Prejudice by ordering the audio cassette. To learn more about Celia, click on the following links:

Post Script: I have added the information about the play to Pride and Prejudice in Wikipedia.


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