Friday, September 2, 2011

Call your daughter Googie

The last standing great British star of the forties, the wonderfully named Googie Withers, left us all in July, at the age of ninety-four.

A stylish, elegant but also very quirky actress, with lustrous dark hair and slightly quizzical, slightly imperious features, she ably personified the well-spoken, well-mannered high society dramas and comedies that were the backbone of British cinema in the forties.
But her popularity, I think, attests to the fact that she made sure audiences could see there was more going on underneath all that. Her speciality was playing outwardly refined women finding reserves of resilience in moments of crisis, or revealing hidden depths of desire or duplicity beneath the placid exterior. There was a furtiveness to her screen persona, a haughtiness; male audiences seemed to sense that the posh and proper surface was paper thin, and a tigress growled beneath.
She had a long career, with notable successes before and especially after her forties heyday, and if she never quite became a superstar, she enjoyed a longevity as an actress that others, more briefly cherished, may well have envied.

When she started out, audiences might have been forgiven in seeing little to distinguish her from many another hopeful British starlet. If thirties viewers noted her at all, it was probably in dolly bird bit roles, frequently in a maid’s costume, and usually with her hair dyed blonde.

Did you remember she was in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, for instance?
Surely that was Margaret Lockwood, I hear you cry.
Yes, it was Lockwood in the lead, but Googie’s there if you look for her, with a line of dialogue or two, as one of her pals in the opening sequences. She often appeared in support of star comedians – a thankless job if ever there was one – giving her all alongside the likes of Arthur Askey and George Formby, and rewarded for her pains in the latter case by sharing a dunking with him in an enormous vat of beer, in his 1939 beauty Trouble Brewing.
But with determination, her hair restored to its original rich chestnut, and a natural talent that was, eventually, permitted to flower, she became a regular and reliable presence in several notable movies.
I think I first saw her in the ‘Haunted Mirror’ episode of Dead of Night (1945), an anthology of creepy tales untypically produced at Ealing Studios, that still retains the ability to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. She’s charming, too, and very funny, as the long-suffering wife in Miranda (1948), whose husband brings a real live mermaid – in the fetching form of Glynis Johns – back to their London penthouse after a Cornish fishing holiday. ("She never wears panties?")
And what about her glorious villainess, cold-bloodedly poisoning her husband, in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), an Ealing melodrama that gave the Gainsborough team more than a run for their money?

Born Georgette Lizette Withers in Karachi in 1917, she was the daughter of Edgar Withers, a Captain in the Royal Navy, and his Dutch wife, from whom she inherited her exotic second name. The name under which she became famous, however, was not a corruption of Georgette but a nickname given her by her Indian nurse – it means ‘little pigeon’ in Hindi.
It was often said that she would have escaped ingenue and cheesecake roles and progressed more quickly to serious drama if she had not decided to retain Googie as her professional name, but she fought against all advice to change it. “I have won a certain reputation with it,” she reasoned, “and I don't feel like beginning over again with a fresh name. Besides, my real name sounds even crazier. I was christened Georgette Lizette!”
As it transpired, the golden key that unlocked her mature career was again in the hands of director Michael Powell. Cast as an extra in his 1935 film The Girl in the Crowd (1935) she reported for work to be told by Powell that the second lead actress had been dismissed, and would she like to take her place? The girl in the crowd had arrived, and he used her twice more in the thirties, always in light supporting roles. But had made a point of telling her that he would provide her with the more serious work he felt she deserved as soon as he could, came good on his promise, and basically started her serious career for her by casting her as a member of the Dutch resistance helping stranded British airmen to flee the Nazis in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). Critics seemed amazed that this familiar figure from so many undistinguished movies had turned, seemingly overnight, into a poised, talented and confident leading lady, holding her own opposite Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney in Night and the City (1950), and standing out as the married woman attempting to shelter her former lover, now an escaped convict, in It Always Rains On Sunday (1947).
She made six films at Ealing Studios, but from her own perspective the most important of them was probably The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Not only is she at her gutsiest in it - as a sheep farmer - but it was also on the set of that movie that she met and fell in love with John McCallum, her Australian co-star. They were married the following year and went on to make ten films and three kids together. They eventually returned to Australia in 1959, where Googie went on to become the first ever non-Australian to be given the highly prestigious Order of Australia. (She was also honoured with a CBE back home.) A marriage widely considered among the most successful in showbusiness, it was ended only by McCallum’s own death, last year, at the age of 91.

If she were around in movies now, I suspect her name would have caught on among the general public, but wartime Britons were made of less frivolous stuff. It's a shame she didn't inspire a generation of little Googies, but it's never too late.
Go on. Call your daughter Googie.