Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Patricia Roc: Always the bridesmaid

Nearly three million British cinemagoers annually voted for their favourite British films and stars in the Daily Mail National Film Awards, inaugurated in 1945 to “acknowledge the new prestige of British films, won in the worst days of the war.”


Margaret Lockwood held the title of top female star in the ’46, ’47 and ’48 polls, but in third, sixth and third place respectively was an actress whose name, perhaps, no longer comes readily to those recalling the great British stars of the forties: Patricia Roc.


There's something about the British film industry - because it's small and insular, the pressure on the stars, and the relentlessness of the scrutiny to which they are subjected, tends to be much greater than in Hollywood, where it is more evenly spread over a vastly larger pool of talent. British star careers have a tendency towards rapid ascent and fall, as minor fluctuations in popularity and box-office returns are magnified beyond reason. F. Maurice Speed's Film Review Annual calls 1948 Patricia's comeback year, in that it saw her return to third place from her previous ranking of sixth: how ignominious to be the sixth most popular actress in the country!

And indeed, Lockwood's own descent after '48 was more or less instant. There's something ruthless about the British in this regard. They like clean starts. Nobody went to see George Formby in George In Civvy Street (1946), his big post-war picture, even though his jagged-toothed cheeriness helped them win it. He never made another movie. They kicked out Winnie and they kicked out George and they kicked out Margaret.

And Patricia, always hovering around the pinnacle of stardom and never quite hitting the gong, was never allowed to become the steadily-working, confident, popular actress she should have been. It's as if she was always auditioning, always under pressure.


It’s a shame, because as well as being a great natural beauty, she appeared in several of the decade’s most successful and memorable films, and her cheery, peaches and cream demeanour enlivened many more. But then, perhaps that wholesome cheeriness is part of the problem.

Patricia Roc was the good girl of forties films, the alter ego, in a sense, of Lockwood, with whom she co-starred three times, and who had successfully changed her screen image during the war years from ingénues to bodice-bursting villainesses in a run of hugely successful melodramas for Gainsborough studios. With all eyes on Lockwood it was easy to overlook the contributions made by Roc.


For instance, take The Wicked Lady (1945). It's their most famous collaboration and, for both of them now, probably their best-remembered film. Lockwood is the one who gallops through the film robbing stagecoaches, sneaking through secret passages, killing saintly old men with poisoned blackcurrant cordial, and getting raped by highwaymen who have just survived their own hanging. Meanwhile, Patricia, as Lockwood’s childhood friend, tiptoes about being pure and forgiving and good, standing nobly by as the wicked Lady Skelton callously steals both her fiancé and the audience’s attention.

Roc later admitted: “The character infuriated me. She was a saccharine-sweet little ninny who stood back and allowed another woman to snatch her lover. The only time I had any respect for her was when she lost her temper and walloped Margaret Lockwood across the face.”

It doesn't matter that Roc is fully the equal of Lockwood as a beauty, nor that her costumes proved equally troublesome to the Hays Office, who demanded costly, cleavage-concealing retakes before it could be passed for sensitive American eyes. She simply doesn't get a look-in.

With Lockwood cornering the market in Gainsborough's bad girls, Roc carved herself a niche as, in her own words, “the bouncy, sexy girl next door that mothers would like their sons to marry and the sons wouldn't have minded.”


................ Patricia Roc: The sons wouldn't have minded


Patricia Roc was born Felicia Herold in 1915 in Hampstead, the adopted daughter of a Dutch-Belgian father and a half-French mother.

She was educated at Francis Holland School, Regent's Park, in London and Bertram Gables Boarding School in Kent, before a spell at a Parisian finishing school and, finally, RADA. From here she made her stage debut in a 1938 London revue, and was instantly snapped up by Alexander Korda and then signed long-term by J. Arthur Rank, who called her "the archetypal British beauty."

Over the next few years she appeared in a number of popular films, attracting good reviews and appreciative audience response, but it was the war that pushed her to the forefront of screen stars.

Her fresh-faced beauty and healthy, optimistic demeanour seemed tailor-made for the times, and two films in particular capitalised on this quality magnificently. After a scene-stealing role in support of Vera Lynn in We'll Meet Again (1942), she was cast by producers Launder & Gilliatt in the episodic film Millions Like Us (1943), now recognised as a classic of British cinema for its affectionate but unsentimentalised portrait of the British home front. Roc’s performance as a factory worker who falls for a young airman subsequently killed in action was powerful and moving; in particular her character’s stoicism in the face of tragedy struck an understandable chord with contemporary audiences.

As a result, Roc’s screen image became emblematic of the best spirit of the ‘people’s war’, and Launder lost no time in recasting her alongside Phyllis Calvert in 2,000 Women (1944), as inmates of a French concentration camp giving covert assistance to the underground.

That same year, again with Calvert, she made her first foray into Gainsborough melodrama in Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944), and was then paired for the first time with Lockwood in the Cornish-set weepie Love Story, the everyday story of a rugged young man, slowly going blind, falling in love with a terminally-ill concert pianist.

The beautiful seaside settings, specially-composed Cornish Rhapsody and general air of romantic fatalism made it a huge hit, but the really big one was The Wicked Lady the following year, one of those films that drives a wedge of incomprehension and mistrust between critics - who loathed and mocked it - and audiences - who gobbled it down and begged for more. (And got it; in the form of Jassy (1947), with Lockwood as a gypsy girl with the gift of second sight, and Roc as the good girl again.)

In real life, Roc and Lockwood were firm friends, even though they were always cast as love-rivals, for Dermot Walsh in Jassy and Stewart Granger in Love Story (1944), though the latter at least gave Roc a chance to be the spiteful one, payback for "all those namby-pambies I played", as she once put it.


Warning to American readers: DO NOT look at this woman's cleavage


In 1946, she became the guinea-pig for a new exchange scheme engineered between Rank and America’s Universal Pictures, whereby each would loan a star to the other. Patricia was chosen to make the trip to Hollywood, where she starred in the western Canyon Passage, again as the losing corner of a love triangle (with Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward) though an off-screen romance with Ronald Reagan was reportedly more successful.

More roles in British films followed, and at last she seemed to be getting the chance to be passionate and uninhibited.

The Brothers (1947), her own favourite of her films, is fantastic, with Roc barefoot as a provocative orphan causing erotic consternation in a Scottish fishing village. The Perfect Woman (1949), a very silly but very funny farce, casts her as a glamour girl who substitutes for a robot look-alike created by her inventor uncle. But though she could not have known it at the time, her career was entering its final phase.


In 1949 she married André Thomas, the French cinematographer of One Night With You (1948), her only musical. (She had married first in 1939, at the age of 24, to a Canadian osteopath twenty years her senior but the marriage was not a success and lasted only a few years.)

Following her marriage to Thomas she moved with him to Paris, and found work in French and Italian cinema. Thomas died in 1954, and in 1962 she married a third time, to businessman Walter Reif. Shortly after, she announced her retirement from acting, and the couple bought a house on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. After his death in 1986, she lived here alone until she too passed away at the age of 88, a day before New Year’s Eve, 2003.

If she had thought herself forgotten, however, she would have been pleased at how the British obituaries reeled off her impressive list of credits and recalled her years spent among the most popular of all British stars.

One called her the epitome of the English rose, and several quoted her typically good-natured opinion of her years of stardom:

“I enjoyed making those films, and, as well as having no fault with the actors I worked with, I remember the make-up girls, the wardrobe people, all the crew members, with true affection.”