Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No Orchids for Miss Travers


She has a rather more exotic air than your average British actress: there's something of Cat People's Elizabeth Russell about her ("moia sestra?"); there may even be a trace of Gale Sondergaard there... It was obvious that a cinema as provincial, sober and pragmatic as Britain's would have trouble coming up with appropriate things for her to do.
So while she maintained a constant presence in British films for over ten years between the late thirties and the late forties, albeit usually in the second female lead, Linden Travers never quite achieved the stardom that was predicted for her.
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Indeed, it may well have been the very obvious streak of steel beneath the elegance that made her difficult to comfortably cast in a decade with far more use for English roses than wicked ladies.
For a time she almost looked set to make a career out of playing second fiddle to Margaret Lockwood, supporting her in four films, including the Gainsborough melodrama Jassy (1947, in which she also had to share the audience’s attention with Patricia Roc).
Perhaps most famous of their joint ventures, made when both were ingénues, is Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Made in 1938, and the tenth of Linden’s two-dozen films, it showcases Lockwood as the perky, plucky heroine, but anyone who has seen the film will have no difficulty recalling Travers in the smaller but equally memorable role of ‘Mrs’ Todhunter, mistress of Cecil Parker’s incognito politician.
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Florence Lindon Travers was born in Durham in 1913. The talented child of a talented family (her younger brother was the British actor Bill Travers) she excelled in drama, painting and sketching and from an early age declared an interest in appearing on stage. Her debut was in rep in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1933 and within two years she had secured her first West End lead in Ivor Novello's Murder In Mayfair.
The same year she made her film debut halfway down the cast list of Children in the Fog (1935), and for a time alternated film and stage roles, often playing a mistress, femme fatale or ‘designing woman’, just as frequently ingénue roles in light comedies.
Carol Reed provided her first real chance to stand out on screen with a small but attention-getting role in Bank Holiday (1938). Her stint with Hitchcock followed, then another for Reed: The Stars Look Down (1939). In all three, Lockwood had taken the lead.
For some reason she then found herself as female lead in a succession of star vehicles for British comics: Tommy Trinder in Almost A Honeymoon (1938), George Formby in South American George (1941), and - wonderfully spooky - in Arthur Askey’s best film The Ghost Train (1941). Here, and briefly, we get a hint of how good she would have been in proper supernatural horror film... Though she's great fun in Edgar Wallace's The Terror, still it's such a shame she wasn't cast in Dead of Night.
. Though she made a number of impressive appearances in forties films, she was rarely given a solo chance to shine. She stood out, despite comparatively limited screen time, in Christopher Columbus (1949), as the all-too understandable reason why King Ferdinand is too busy to give Columbus an appointment, in one of the four stories making up Somerset Maugham’s Quartet (1948) and in The Bad Lord Byron (1948) as one of the poet’s many admirers.
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That same year, however, came her most important lead, one of her few true starring vehicles, and her own personal favourite.
She had, in fact, first played the role on the London stage in 1943 and so was a natural choice for the film version. The film was No Orchids For Miss Blandish, and it is, alas, not a title that means a hell of a lot to most people these days. In 1948, however, it was a sensation.
One review called it “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever shown on a cinema screen.” According to the Observer, it had “all the morals of an alley cat and all the sweetness of a sewer”, while the Sunday Express reviewer hailed it simply “the worst film I have ever seen.”
Brief Encounter it most definitely is not, though probably the most shocking thing about it today is the fact that so controversial a production now merits nothing more prohibitive than a PG certificate on DVD.
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It was nothing new, either, being the same basic set-up as in Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, filmed sensationally (in both senses) with Miriam Hopkins in The Story of Temple Drake. But that had been pre-Code, of course - Hays had held sway for some time when Travers's little nasty showed up, and how it was that the supposedly genteel British cinema came to produce a thriller about a sadistic gangster who kidnaps an heiress for ransom, then forces his attentions on her until she responds by becoming his willing lover, demands some explaining!
Among many British cinemagoers enduring the hardships of the war, a certain cynicism had become fashionable in the movies, typified by the voguish, hard-bitten heroes of American noir. The harsh realities of the conflict had made the world suddenly seem a lot less innocent, and bred a desire for less innocent entertainment. As a result, the censor felt inclined to lower his guard and if necessary avert his eyes somewhat in the interests of morale. The Gainsborough melodramas, such as The Wicked Lady, are one obvious example of this new policy, aimed as they were at the newly emancipated female audience, and filled with sex, sadism and heaving bosoms.
At the end of the war, with servicemen returning home to everyday life, it was noted that the novel of No Orchids by James Hadley Chase, a typical sexy pulp thriller of the sort that had been produced in their millions during the war, had been by some margin the most popular book among members of the armed forces. A film version seemed an obvious money-spinner and, in a way, would serve almost as a reward to those coming home: something they certainly wouldn’t have seen before they left. The film, unsurprisingly, was a smash hit, despite the horrified objections of critics neither prepared for nor willing to overlook its unprecedented harshness and sexual frankness.
. With the shock and controversy now only a memory, the chief value of the film today is as a reminder of just how fine an actress Linden Travers was. Her performance, shading from fear, through revulsion and on to uninhibited desire, is unlike anything else in forties British cinema.
Sadly, this most promising portent of greater glories proved to be not only her last lead role but also one of her last screen appearances of any kind. After Don’t Ever Leave Me (1949), supporting Jimmy Hanley and Petula Clark in a partial spoof of Miss Blandish, she retired from full-time acting to devote herself to her family.
Though she did make a few subsequent appearances on television, she mainly devoted her creative energies to painting and drawing, opening the Travers Art Gallery in Kensington with her sisters Alice and Pearl in 1969. After the death of her husband she travelled the world for a time, spending many months in Africa and India before finally settling in St Ives, Cornwall, where she resumed her painting, studied psychology and psychotherapy, and became a qualified hypnotist. (She certainly had the eyes for it!)
It was in these idyllic surroundings that she died peacefully in 2001 at the age of 88.