Sunday, November 10, 2013

What a Character! blogathon: Joyce Grenfell

Joyce Grenfell
(1910 - 1979)

Looking back on the days when I trod the boards of community theatre, those occasions where I got the part or at the very least got a callback where the times when I used one of Joyce Grenfell's monologues as an audition piece.  Shaky though my accent gene may be or however much I may have lacked in the area of finesse, it was the solid material that impressed artistic staff.  In the case of open auditions, other actresses would chase me down asking excitedly where I found that wonderful piece.  Joyce combined her observant nature, understanding and talent for mimicry to create real characters that came to life.  She used delicate brush strokes and pinpoint precision to skewer pretensions and elevate the mundane, finding humour in all.  The effect is rather like singing a Cole Porter song, immediately you are one hundred percent smarter and more witty than in reality.

Joyce Grenfell would have been the dream guest on one of those popular programs that probe a celebrity's family tree.  Her family included British peers and eccentric, wealthy Americans with ties to well-remembered names of the 19th and 20th century.  Her mother was Nora Langhorne, whose father made a fortune in the railway business and whose sister Nancy became the first female British Member of Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor.  Their sister Irene married the artist Charles Dana Gibson and the elegant sisters were the inspiration for his famous Gibson Girls.  If the name Langhorne sounds familiar, it is because the family was related to Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Born in London on February 10, 1910, Joyce grew up an observant and thoughtful youngster with a sense of humour, nurtured and shaped by her intermittently devoted mother and dependable, stolid father.  Not an overly committed student, Joyce could be called the class clown who delighted in spot-on impersonations of staff and creating games with her lifelong friend Virginia Graham.  Joyce loved the idea of being on stage and took the idea as far as completing one term at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  There, she balked at the training, but made another lifelong friend in Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter, The Holly and the Ivy).  At 20, Joyce married Reggie Grenfell and the union would last 50 years until her passing.  The couple were not blessed with children, but with deep affection and support for each other.

The young married lady was drawn into the political activism of her aunt Lady Nancy Astor, as well as caring for her own husband and home, and cultivating her friendships.  The creative longing was deeply seeded.  Her younger brother Tommy would eventually become a writer in Hollywood contributing to screenplays such as A Yank at Eton and several television dramas.  Joyce's first forays into publication were light verses for Punch.  Eventually, this led to radio criticism for The Observer and she is credited with helping to form that branch of professional journalism.

Joyce unsuccessfully auditioned as a singer and actress for the BBC Radio.  Through her radio and journalistic contacts, Joyce's amusing take-offs on different character types began to garner notice and she was asked to write for Herbert Farjeon's popular Light and Shade revue.  Joyce was only too happy to do so, but demurred when first asked to appear on stage.  The producer felt that no one could do justice to Joyce's work like the author herself.  The professional cast of the revue rebelled at the thought of an untried amateur in the ranks.  The lure of the spotlight and the application of a strong work ethic marked Joyce's stage debut.  The 1939 opening night reviews were glowing in their praise of Joyce Grenfell.  One remarked "These monlogues are the best thing of their kind since Miss Ruth Draper, the difference being that Miss Draper's are too long and Miss Grenfell's are too short."  The revered American monologist Ruth Draper was a cousin by marriage to Joyce's Reggie.  The mind boggles at these coincidences.

During the turbulent years of WW2 Joyce Grenfell toured the Middle East, India and North Africa entertaining troops. This also was in her family blood.  As a youngster during WW1 she had witnessed first-hand the medical care, and the entertainment provided for troops at the Astor's estate which had been turned into a convalescent home.  Joyce's popularity as a stage performer and as a radio personality convinced movie producers that there might be something there for them and in the 40s Joyce made the first of her 25 motion picture appearances, with bits leading to progressively larger roles.  Let's look at a few of them.

A Run for Your Money (1949)

This gentle Ealing comedy is a particular favourite of mine.  Donald Houston and Meredith Edwards play Welsh brothers who have won a prize trip to London.  Alec Guinness is the newspaper reporter detailed to chaperone the two fish out of water who have a myriad of adventures in the big town.  Joyce is a very posh boutique manager anxious to make a sale.

Stage Fright (1950)

In Alfred Hitchcock's backstage murder mystery, Joyce is a volunteer carnival barker at a fund raiser who exhorts one and all to "Come and shoot the lovely ducks".  She is ever so sincere and ever so helpful, and ever so detrimental to Alastair Sim's obvious haste.

Another great favourite.  Joyce is gawky games mistress Miss Gossage, employed by a girl's school that is forced to reside with a boy's school due to bureaucratic ineptitude.  Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim as the respective school heads have too much to deal with, including poor, over-worked, never-does-anything-right Miss Gossage.

The Pickwick Papers (1952)

In this perfectly cast adaption of Dickens classic comedy, Joyce is Mrs. Leo Hunter, the pretentious hostess and authoress of Ode to an Expiring Frog.  Surely Joyce was just as author Dickens and illustrator "Phiz" envisioned.

Genevieve (1953)

Joyce's hotel proprietress is nothing if not the perfect embodiment of "the customer is always right".  She tried to explain the deficits of the only room for let to the couple with the poorest showing in the vintage car rally.  Is it her fault they didn't listen?

The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)

In the first of five films based on cartoonist Ronald Searle's fevered imagination Joyce is Sgt. Ruby Gates.  Sgt. Ruby Gates is placed undercover as a teacher to investigate the possibly illegal activities at St. Trinian's girl's school.  The headmistress' (Alastair Sim) brother (also Alastair Sim) is a sharp bookie who has found more than willing accomplices in the wild students of St. Trinian's.  They are the original "girls gone wild".  Imhotep (1932s The Mummy) thinks he suffered for Ankh-es-en-amon!  No one ever suffered for love like Ruby Gates, trying to bust this case for her beloved Supt. Bird, who is seemingly oblivious to her torment.  Joyce played Sgt. Gates again in Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957) and The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's (1960).

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

The classic, biting, thoughtful screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky provides many opportunities for the cast to shine, especially Joyce Grenfell as Emily's (Julie Andrews) mother, Mrs. Barham.  Joyce's touching performance of a not-so-dotty woman coping with life and death is one for the ages.  Surely it was worthy of an Academy Award nomination and, just as surely, the Academy missed the boat.  Pictured above with James Garner.

In 1955 and 1958 Joyce appeared on Broadway in presentations of her One Woman Show.  During those times she appeared eight times on The Ed Sullivan Show.  She continued with stage programs, including two successful tours in Australia throughout the 60s.  Joyce also continued to be a popular radio and television guest and panelist.  Surrounded by family and friends, Joyce Grenfell, a staunch Christian Scientist, passed from cancer in November of 1979.

First Flight is one of Joyce's excellent character studies, full of life, humour and understanding.   

Joyce Grenfell's monologues, poems and songs have been collected in several volumes including Stately as a Galleon, George Don't Do That and Hats Off.  Recordings of her delightful songs, written in collaboration with the celebrated Richard Addinsell, are still available for our enjoyment.

A candid and enthusiastic letter writer, you can learn about Joyce through her own words in the collections Darling Ma (Letters to Her Mother 1932-1944) and Joyce and Ginnie (The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham), edited by Janie Hampton, family friend and author of the biography Joyce Grenfell.

Joyce wrote two volumes of autobiography Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure and In Pleasant Places.  Also of interest is The Time of My Life: Entertaining the Troops - Her Wartime JournalIn the 1990s actress/comedienne Maureen Lipman performed Joyce's monologues in Re-Joyce! A Celebration Of the Work Of Joyce Grenfell.  Her deft impersonation can also be found on YouTube.  The world cannot have enough Joyce Grenfell.

The What a Character! blogathon hosted by Kellee (Outspoken and Freckled), Aurora (Once Upon a Screen) and Paula (Paula's Cinema Club) is a chance to find out about some of the screen's greats and the bloggers who love them.  It runs on November 9, 10 and 11.    


  1. Wait, Alastair Sim played the headmistress in ST. TRINIAN'S too?

  2. Rich, Sim in drag must be seen to be believed! Plus, he returned for "Blue Murder at St. Trinians".

  3. What a great review! I knew absolutely NOTHING about Joyce Grenfell, except that she was delightful to watch and did comedic singing/radio work. Actually, wasn't her pianist someone famous too? Anyway, what a family history! To think that her uncle was Mr. Gibson himself...that's amazing. And thank you for highlighting her very best film roles. Each and every one is a gem. Her roles are always much too brief and she leaves us wanting to see more.

  4. I was certainly remiss in not mentioning (I must amend the post) Joyce's musical collaboration with Richard Addinsell, composer of the celebrated "Warsaw Concerto".

  5. A delightful post. I never knew much about Joyce Grenfell, so thanks for this introduction to her fascinating life and career.

    Community theatre, hey? Something else we have in common. Wish I could have seen you trod the boards. You stage actresses are so glamorous.

  6. Ah yes, you don't know glamour until you've seen Caftan ... No. I can't even carry that on in jest. I can go as far to say that even when playing an older character, I always look young and happy when I'm involved in a play. It seems that that all-consuming, happy involvement brightened Joyce Grenfell's days.

  7. Wonderful choice,CW! If Joyce Grenfell had done nothing but that brief scene in STAGE FRIGHT, I would have loved her. Fortunately, she appeared in a number of first-rate movies--and enhanced all of them. Plus, she created the marvelous Sergeant Gates in the TRINIAN movies. (BTW, we need to hear more about your stage career!)

  8. I'm with Rick -- would love to hear more about your stage career, too.

    Joyce Grenfell is an excellent choice. SUCH a talented actor who always gives you your money's worth. I had NO IDEA that she came from such a well-connected family.

    I admire Joyce Grenfell all the more after reading your marvelous tribute.

  9. I'm with Rick -- would love to hear more about your stage career, too.

    Joyce Grenfell is an excellent choice. SUCH a talented actor who always gives you your money's worth. I had NO IDEA that she came from such a well-connected family.

    I admire Joyce Grenfell all the more after reading your marvelous tribute.

  10. Rick, Joyce Grenfell never fails to make an impression and "Lovely Ducks" is such a hoot.

    Ruth, learning about Joyce's well-heeled and famous relatives was quite interesting. Such personalities from both sides of the Atlantic seems to have sharpened her knowledge and her skill at mimicry.

    As for Caftan Woman on the stage. I spent a lot of time in the chorus in community theatre and playing fun roles like Ermengarde (Hello, Dolly!) and Gertie (Oklahoma!). Later on, I had the opportunity to do Actress #3 in "The Dining Room" and, my favourite, Aunt Abby in "Arsenic and Old Lace". When people make me angry I like to remind them that I once played a serial killer.

  11. Wow, CW - you always bring something new to the table. Great profile and, the more I think of her, the more I remember her in those great films.

  12. Caftan Woman, your post about the delightful Joyce Grenfell was fun and fascinating! I had no idea that Joyce had such wealth and artistic talent in their circle, including Charles Gibson of Gibson Girl fame! My hubby Vinnie adores the St. Trinian's comedies (books and movies), so I'll mention it to him; he'll be tickled pink! Swell post about a funny and talented lady, C.W.!

  13. This was such a lovely tribute to Joyce Grenfell!

  14. FlickChick, I hope you get the chance to check out some of Joyce's monologues on YouTube. They are a treasure.

    Thanks so much, Dorian. Do you know if TCM has ever shown the St. Trinian's flicks? Wouldn't that be a fun night?!

    Thanks, Christy. Joyce is an idol of mine and I hoped to do her justice.

  15. I am so glad you included Grenfell's role in The Americanization of Emily. I love that film and her performance is equal parts comedic and tragic...just like the movie itself.


  16. Jill, I agree. "The Americanization of Emily" is a film that really touches us deeply with both laughter and tears. Joyce is perfection as Mrs. Barham.

  17. Your posts are like film lessons, but more entertaining.
    I'll be sure to pay attention to Joyce when I watch Stage Fright or The Americanization of Emily.
    And that's so cool that she had something to do with your personal life.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  18. Always a pleasure to read your blog, Le. Equally nice to have you visit here and I'm very pleased you enjoyed the article on Joyce Grenfell and will look for her work.

  19. I know I've seen Joyce Grenfell but it wasn't until today, reading your wonderful post, that I put name to face.

    I didn't know she wrote monologues or even that she entertained the troops. And all those coincidences! What a wonderful life. It amazes me that no one's thought to turn it into a musical comedy. Don't you think?

  20. I think you're onto something there, Yvette. Joyce certainly left enough material for some clever someone to work with.

    The comments section on YouTube can sometimes be a nasty place, but the posts connected with Joyce's work are all of a kind and admiring nature.

  21. I have to admit this actress is one I'm really not familiar with (which is what makes this blogathon so great!), but what a fascinating background and biography she has! Really enjoyed it!

  22. Thanks a lot, Cliff. I hope some of Joyce's movies cross your path as I'm sure you'll get a kick out of her performances.

  23. I usually leave this page with mouth agape - this time is no different. This is a wonderful tribute and overview of SOME CHARACTER on- and off-screen! PHEW and MON DIEU! Ms. Grenfell was quite something!

    There are a few films you make note of, Paddy that I've never seen, but for now am adding THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE to my must-see list. That one sounds like it's right up my alley.

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!


  24. Aurora, the blogathon was a highlight of the year. So many great articles. It was my pleasure to share some of Joyce Grenfell's story.

    Thank you so much for the compliment and let me know what you think of "The Happiest Days of Your Life". It's one I can return to again and again and still laugh out loud.

  25. I'm still making my way through the WAC posts and this one was great! I had no idea about her and she is wonderful in the clips you included. Is there any reason you don't embed the video clips into your blog post?

    Thanks for bringing Joyce to my attention and I'll try to find some of those films soon!

  26. "Is there any reason you don't embed the video clips into your blog post?" Well, Chris, sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn't. I think I'm clicking the same thing each time, but I never know what's going to happen. It's an adventure!

    Very pleased that you took the time to get to know more about Joyce Grenfell. She's a keeper.

  27. If you need any help just let me know -- there is some embed code you need for blogger and very easy to do on wordpress.

    I enjoyed the clip of Joyce on the airplane and hope to see more of her! Thanks for the introduction to her!

  28. Thanks for the offer of help, Chris. I may call upon you. I don't use video very often. Most recently for a post on "Odds Against Tomorrow" and one for "Roy and Dale", and didn't have any difficulties. I hope the links here were edifying for readers.

  29. I love Grenfell! She was a life-long Christian Scientist - she attended Claremont/Fan Court School in Esher (a school founded by CSists). I love her plumy voice and the way she uses it for comedy and drama.



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