Their record speaks for them - Mary Ellis

Article by David Munro

A MONTHLY assessment of the careers of stars of the musical theatre as represented by their commercial recordings.

5 - Mary Ellis

She could give you the starlight

On January 30, 2003, at the age of 105 (or 103 depending on which of her birth dates is to be believed!), died a lady who was the lead in three of Ivor Novello's musicals, Glamorous Night, The Dancing Years and Arc de Triomphe, one for Jerome Kern; Music in the Air, one for Noel Coward; After the Ball and, perhaps most important of all, for Oscar Hammerstein and Rudolf Friml; Rose Marie.

Trained as an opera singer, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1920 where she sang featured roles including, among other works, in the world premiere of Puccini's Il Trittico.

She left the opera after a year, as she wanted to act and appeared in Shakespeare and other notable productions in New York for the next two years.

In 1924, Arthur Hammerstein, a Broadway producer and uncle of Oscar, persuaded her to appear in what he described as a dramatic musical drama set in the back woods of Canada, entitled Rose Marie.

Both she and the show were an instantaneous hit, but she decided after a year that she wanted to return to the dramatic stage and left the show. Hammerstein was not amused and made her sign an undertaking preventing her from singing for any other management but his, with the result she never appeared on the American musical stage again.

In 1930, she came to London with her husband, the English actor, Basil Sydney, to appear in Knave and Queen, with Robert Donat. She then returned to New York, where she was asked to appear in the English premier of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude. During the run, she and Basil Sydney decided to settle in England where she remained off and on for the rest of her life.

In 1933, CB Cochran offered her the lead in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Music in the Air, which marked her return to the musical stage in a palpable hit. It told the tale of a composer and his soprano girlfriend who go to the big city, Vienna, to find their fortunes.

He finds an operetta star, played by Mary, who is more interested in him than his music and the girlfriend gets involved with a similar scenario with the Impresario, who is to present the composer's opus. Being good Bavarian peasants, they return to their village, sadder but wiser, but with a few hit songs under their belt. Not, I would have thought, a good trade for fame, fortune and Mary Ellis.

Mary recorded three numbers from the show 'I'm Alone', 'I've Told Ev'ry Little Star', and 'The song Is You' on Col DB1139 (re-recorded on Jerome Kern in London (World Record Club SH 171), but not on CD so far as I am aware).

During the run, she filmed Bella Donna, in England, and then signed a three film contract with Paramount, appearing in All The King's Horses, Paris Love Song and Fatal Lady.

Ivor Novello was preparing a spectacular musical, Glamorous Night, for Drury Lane and asked Mary to play the female lead opposite him, just as she was about to leave for the States to honour her Paramount contract.

Ivor was determined she should appear in the show, mainly as he had written the part with her in mind, so arranged for the score and lyrics to be sent to her to study whilst in the States, with the result that she was able to join the rehearsals two weeks late fully prepared for her part.

The plot was well watered Ruritanian plonk. King's gypsy mistress meets young inventor on board a ship; there is a shipwreck and they undergo a Gypsy wedding before the gypsies help the King quell a revolution, after which the inventor has to give the mistress back to the king and returns to England to watch their wedding on his new invention - television.

The public loved it and it would have run for well over a year if the Board of Drury Lane Theatre had not booked in a pantomime, which they insisted had to take precedence. So despite Ivor's strenuous attempts to save the day, it closed and has never had a West End revival.

HMV recorded six of the numbers on three 12in 78rpm records. Mary appears on two of these singing 'Glamorous Night', 'When The Gypsy Played', 'Shine Through My Dreams' and 'Fold Your Wings' (with Trefor Jones). (HMV C2742/3).

The third disc (HMV C2741) is devoted to two songs by Elisabeth Welch.

Glamorous Night and The Dancing Years were re-recorded on LP. Ivor Novello - The Great Shows (World Record Club SHB 23) and on CD (Memoir CDMOIR 546 - 'Shine Through My Dreams'. Other CDs devoted to Ivor Novello have some or most of the songs by Mary Ellis but this carries them all on two CDs).

Mary returned to Hollywood, where she appeared in Fatal Lady, the last film in her Paramount contract. Then it was back to Britain to make the film of Glamorous Night in1936.

She appeared in two plays before Ivor again came into her life in 1938 waving the script of The Dancing Years. A basically banal plot, it concerns a composer and his leading lady soprano, cum lover, who fall out over a misunderstanding, which results in her marrying a nobleman and him wedded to his piano. It was given a semi- dramatic twist by a prologue and epilogue with the composer in the hands of the Nazis, but saved by his soprano whose husband is now a Nazi (sic - or should it be -sick?).

Mary played the operetta star and the piece ran at Drury Lane from March 1939 until the outbreak of war in September, when it went on tour, but Mary left to do war work.

HMV produced a wallet of four records to commemorate the show. Mary appears on five sides 'Wings of Sleep' (with Olive Gilbert), 'My Life Belongs To You', 'Waltz of My Heart', 'My Dearest Dear' (all with Ivor Novello at the piano) and 'My Life Belongs To You' (with Dunstan Hart") (HMV B 8890/2).

In 1943, Ivor, who was still appearing in The Dancing Years, wrote a patriotic French musical, Arc de Triomphe, in which Mary starred and appeared in the last act as Joan of Arc in a eponymous opera-within-the- play and in which she sang 'France Will Rise Again', which it did, but not in time to stop the curtain falling on Mary after 222 performances.

Mary did not record 'France Will Rise Again', only 'Waking or Sleeping', 'Man of My Heart' and 'Easy to Live With' (with Peter Graves) on HMV B9356/7, which are re-recorded on LP Ivor Novello World Record Club SH 216, but not on CD.

Mary returned yet again to the drama and, between1944 and 1954, she appeared, mainly out of the West End, in fringe and provincial theatres, including Shakespeare at Stratford.

Her greatest success in these years was when she appeared, in 1948, with Eric Portman in Playbill, two one-act plays by Terence Rattigan. In the second of these, The Browning Version, she created the part of Millie Crocker Harris, the bitter, unhappy yet loving wife of a schoolmaster, to great critical acclaim.

In 1954, Noel Coward, after a series of unsuccessful shows, decided that Oscar Wilde's wit and his would fuse into a hit musical and set about adapting Lady Windermere's Fan for the musical stage.

He then engaged two of Ivor's leading ladies for Lady Windermere and Mrs Erlynne, Vanessa Lee and Mary Ellis, and launched yet another flop.

Vanessa Lee could sing but couldn't act; Mary Ellis could act but now could no longer sing. Coward's adaptation sent up everything where Wilde was sentimental; and was sentimental over things which Wilde sent up. There were frantic revisions and cuts on tour, Mary's big arias were cut, so what arrived at the Globe Theatre was not what either Wilde or Coward had intended.

Phillips recorded the cast recording on LP (BBL 7005). Mary has two songs, ('Light is the Heart', and 'All My Life Ago') - all that remained out of the six pivotal arias written. These were the last records she made.

She continued on the stage until 1970, during which period she appeared in the English premieres of Mourning Becomes Electra and Look Homeward Angel in the West End. She also appeared on television and radio.

Why do I bother with a lady who only appeared in seven musicals and made only nine records? Because the shows she appeared in were important in the canon of the musical and her performances in them made her a leading lady in the true sense.

She was an actress with an opera singer's voice and vocal skills, which enabled her to lift her performances out of the banal into the realms of realism.

She gave her roles character, which was why Coward, Novello and Hammerstein wanted to create parts for her. Something that can be said of few other operetta sopranos of the last half of the last century.

She was a comet, which blazed briefly over the West End firmament, leaving a trail of stardust, that is preserved forever in her records. For a short while, she gave the musical starlight, and for this, she is worthy of remembrance.

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