"As a box office star-maker, my masterpiece was, of course, Anna Neagle."
– Herbert Wilcox
The public life of Herbert Wilcox and his "masterpiece" Anna Neagle is well documented, but curiously unexamined both at the time of its flowering and in contemporary studies. While much has been written of Hitchcock's fetishization of blondes, and of his desire (especially later in life) to be a star-maker of a 'cool blonde' actress, little has been written on this British filmmaker who realized identical goals.
At the time of their collaboration in Hollywood, the life as a blonde star-maker that Hitchcock desired to have, Herbert Wilcox was already living. Wilcox, a self-professed Casanova with "a blind spot for brunettes" (Wilcox, p. 168), entered the film industry after he was discharged from military service at the end of World War I. Originally working in distribution, he segued into producing and directing by the 1920s. During that decade, he enjoyed successful artistic collaborations directing Dorothy Gish and then later the "British Clara Bow," Chili Bouchier.
Forty years after her silent screen stardom, actress Chili Bouchier wrote that she was transformed by Wilcox from her It-Girl persona into "a sleek, sophisticated young woman." According to Bouchier's memoirs, during the production of the first Wilcox/Bouchier sound film collaboration, Carnival, Wilcox confessed to her his private fantasy of possessing his own Trilby: a screen actress he could control both professionally and privately. (Bouchier, p.143) Bouchier admitted that she felt "always uncomfortable when alone with him" (Bouchier, p. 159); and Wilcox's first "tactile approach" to her led to what she termed "an undignified scuffle" (Bouchier,p. 145). A few days after this "scuffle" Bouchier was professionally let go by Wilcox. Soon thereafter, Bouchier noticed Wilcox escorting a young blonde around the film studio. The woman was Anna Neagle.
Looking ahead to the next 35 years of British film, Bouchier wrote in her memoirs that with Neagle, "Wilcox found his Trilby."
While casting his first movie musical, Goodnight, Vienna, Wilcox had caught Anna Neagle performing on stage in the West End and chose her as the movie's love interest. It was only Neagle's third film (and her first starring role); however, for the balance of her cinema career, in 34 feature films, she worked exclusively under Wilcox's direction. [As a sidenote, one can chart societal changes and moviegoers' tastes by studying the titles of these films; the film after Goodnight, Vienna was released in 1933 and entitled Bitter Sweet – the last of her films was released in 1959, entitled The Lady Is a Square.]
For the first eleven years of this collaboration (1932 – 1943), Herbert Wilcox remained married to his second wife (by whom he had several children), but Neagle was continually on public view as his protégée; and the two were frequently presented in romantic terms by the Fleet Street press. Additionally, Neagle was never linked romantically to any other man by the press during those eleven years before their marriage. They were identified as a couple by the media; yet Wilcox was not divorced from his second wife when he and Neagle arrived as a couple in Hollywood to fulfill a contract with RKO in the early days of World War II.
During their brief time in Hollywood, Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle were an unmarried though quite visible couple. By now, the mentoring aspects of Wilcox on the personal and professional dynamics of Anna Neagle were well established and acknowledged within the film communities of both London and Hollywood.
During this time, the British members of the Hollywood community under Wilcox's guidance collaborated (both uncredited and credited) on Forever and a Day, a film conceived as a morale booster and as a fundraiser for the British government (U.S. box office receipts went to British war aid). Among the Hollywood-based British subjects who worked uncredited on this film was Alfred Hitchcock.
Through a variety of methods, Herbert Wilcox constructed a personality for Anna Neagle that was the inverse of her character in Yellow Canary or Ingrid Bergman's character in Notorious: publicly she was adored as a noble and honorable maiden while truthfully in her daily life she was the private consort of a married man with children. (This was the arrangement from almost the beginning: five weeks after the trade showing of their first film collaboration, Wilcox professed his love to Neagle, as she wrote in her autobiography.) A key agent in Wilcox's mentorship of the public image for his "masterpiece" was the selection of star vehicles he chose for Neagle (e.g., portrayals of historical figures such as Queen Victoria and Nurse Edith Cavell, along with ingénue leads in frothy musical comedies). Out of public view, as Neagle repeatedly chronicles in her memoirs, he continually bolstered her self-confidence during frequent periods of professional and artistic self-doubt.
Yellow Canary was their last completed film before marriage, more than a decade after they acknowledged their feelings towards each other. Making their relationship legal was possible due to Parliament's passage of the Private Member's Matrimonial Bill, which allowed for divorce after three years' desertion. (Wilcox had left his wife for Anna seven years before the Matrimonial Bill became law.) Despite the Svengali / Trilby overtones, later in life it seems that the relationship was not based totally upon male domination, as Dame Anna Neagle (yes, she was eventually knighted) took the reigns of the partnership at a time when Wilcox's fortunes and health failed.
In the 1960s, when back-to-back film productions of Wilcox failed (neither of which featured Neagle), the couple was left penniless and heavily in debt. Anna Neagle took to the London stage and performed continuously for many years in a musical play until all debts were paid off and a nest egg was rebuilt. (They refused to declare bankruptcy.) For this feat, Anna Neagle was cited in the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of continuous performances in a theatrical production.
For Wilcox, the fantasy of creating a screen actress to be controlled both professionally and privately was manifested and maintained for over three decades.
"Perhaps Anna, with her fair loveliness, blue eyes and beautiful skin, plus her innate integrity as an actress, sublimated, both as a woman and artist, my spiritual and physical needs and ideals."