The Black Country roots of a Hollywood screen legend

By Calvin Palmer

Mention West Bromwich and I think of an amorphous town in the industrial region of England known as the Black Country. If asked to name its famous personalities I would list people associated with the town’s football club, West Bromwich Albion. Players such as Ronnie Allen – who attended my old school, Hanley High School; Jeff Astle; Tony Brown; Bryan Robson; Laurie Cunningham; and Cyrille Regis spring readily to mind.

Comedian and TV presenter Frank Skinner also hails from West Bromwich, as does Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.

That used to sum up West Bromwich for me.

But through watching the Turner Classic Movie channel in recent months, I have since learned that West Bromwich was the hometown of one of Hollywood’s top actresses in the 1930s, as well as realizing the enormous presence British actors had in the golden age of Hollywood.

Watching many of the old Hollywood films, I will often detect an English accent in one or more of the players and, when the film has ended, I Google the title and search out their biographies.

Watching The Prisoner of Zenda last night, I detected an English accent in the actress Madeleine Carroll, playing the role of Princess Flavia opposite Ronald Colman.

Madeleine Carroll. Picture courtesy of allstarpics.net.

Sure enough, a Google search revealed she was English, born and raised in West Bromwich. She later attended the University of Birmingham where she gained a Bachelor of Arts in French.

She made her screen debut in the British film The Guns of Loos (1928) and went on to feature in several silent films. She regularly appeared on the London stage and in 1933 British Film Weekly named her as the Best Actress of the Year.

Carroll was chosen by director Alfred Hitchcock to play opposite Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935) and the film launched her into international stardom. She was offered a deal by Paramount Pictures and went on to star with Gary Cooper in The General Died At Dawn (1936) and opposite Ronald Colman in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

The Prisoner of Zenda is a good example of the strong British presence in Hollywood films of that era. Of the seven major roles, four are played by English actors – Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, C Aubrey Smith and David Niven.

Carroll starred in Blockade (1938) opposite Henry Fonda and then teamed up with Fred McMurray in three light comedies in 1939. She appeared opposite Gary Cooper again in the 1940 film Northwest Mounted Police and starred with Douglas Fairbanks Jr in Safari the same year.

In October 1940, Carroll’s sister, Guigette, was killed during a German air raid on London. The death had a profound effect on her and she began to devote more of her time to the war effort and less to film making. Her last film during the war years was with Bob Hope in My Favorite Blonde (1942).

Carroll secured a release from her contract with Paramount and became a nurse with the Red Cross and served in a field hospital in Italy in 1944.

After the war, she became involved in humanitarian relief to war ravaged Europe, especially work involving children. She eventually resumed making movies although not as prolifically as before. Her final film appearance came in Otto Preminger’s The Fan (1949.)

In an interview some years later she said: “Movies? Just say I got out when the going was good.”

Although she became a U.S. Citizen in 1943, Carroll spent her retirement in Europe, first France and then later Spain, where she died in 1987, aged 81.

Her career of 43 films is celebrated in the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a star at 6707 Hollywood Blvd. In 2006, to commemorate the centenary of her birth, a monument was erected in Town Square, West Bromwich, as well as plaques at the two houses she grew up in.

Who would have thought the south Staffordshire town had such a famous daughter?

For more information go to Madeleine Carroll.

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Filed under Cinema, Europe, Movies, United Kingdom, World War Two

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