Devastatingly handsome and abundantly talented, Welsh-born Ivor Novello was one of Britain’s most dazzling matinee idols of the 1920s. Like his friend and contemporary Noël Coward, Novello was a writer, producer, actor, composer, a star of stage and screen—a multi-hyphenate before that term existed. The English actor and writer Simon Callow has called Novello “the most successful British musical theatre composer of the 20th century before the meteoric rise of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and one of the great figures of his time.” Today, Novello’s influence is memorialized in the title of British theater’s highest honor for composing and songwriting, the Novello Awards. But beginning in the silent era, Novello was a magnetic presence in the movies, with his perfect profile, soulful eyes, and cupid’s bow lips, even when playing a shady character, as he does in The Rat. Film historian and critic Geoffrey Macnab writes that Novello’s performance as Pierre Boucheron was “the role in which he best combined the dreamy, neurotic side of his screen personality with swaggering, action-hero antics.”
Based on a 1924 play by Novello and another multi-hyphenate, actress-producer-writer Constance Collier, The Rat is a tale of the Parisian underworld, with a deliciously juicy protagonist, which Novello first brought to life onstage. Swaggering jewel thief Pierre lives with meek, mousy Odile (Mae Marsh) and hangs out at a dive bar called the White Coffin, where he performs a sinuous dance that arouses the lust of the decadent courtesan Zelie De Chaumet (Isabel Jeans). Meanwhile, Odile is pursued and menaced by Zelie’s equally dissolute older lover. There is a killing, self-sacrifice, a trial, and an improbably happy ending, with director Graham Cutts moving the story briskly along. According to the British Film Institute, Cutts was known for daring camera movement and, at the time, was “considered the saviour of the British film industry.” One contemporary journalist called him a “sure fire maker of box office attractions,” which The Rat definitely was. The movie was so successful that it was followed by two sequels, Triumph of the Rat (1926) and The Return of the Rat (1929), both also starring Novello.
Born David Ivor Davies in Cardiff, Ivor Novello demonstrated his musical talent early and was just twenty-one years old in 1914 when he wrote the patriotic hit song of World War I, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” It launched Novello’s career as a songwriter and, for the next few years, he concentrated on writing scores for and performing in British stage musicals (although he usually left the singing to others in those shows, as he did not have an outstanding voice). In 1920, Swiss film director Louis Mercanton cast Novello in his screen debut, the French production The Call of the Blood. The film, and Novello, were box office hits, and English critics dubbed him “the New Valentino,” as he shot to immediate fame in Britain in the same way Rudolph Valentino had recently done in America.
Even though he was a major stage personality in England, Novello’s hothouse appeal did not cross the Atlantic, which he discovered when he tried for Hollywood stardom—twice—but failed to make an impact. The first time was in 1923, when he played the lead in D.W. Griffith’s romantic melodrama The White Rose. But Griffith’s glory days were behind him and, although one American critic called Novello “the most handsome man in England,” the film was not a success. Novello returned to London and the stage, and to new opportunities in film. Producer Michael Balcon snagged the film rights to Novello and Collier’s The Rat (written under the pseudonym David L’Estrange) for the recently formed Gainsborough, which made popular fare, while his Gaumont British company concentrated on “prestige” pictures. There were reports that Rudolph Valentino wanted the lead in The Rat and tried to acquire the rights for himself but, after Novello’s Hollywood disappointment, the playwright was not about to let anyone else take over his flashy creation. After two Rat films, Novello displayed his versatility in a pair by Alfred Hitchcock, playing a creepy suspected killer in the atmospheric thriller The Lodger (1926) and a young gentleman who descends into depravity in Downhill (1927).
In the early 1930s, Novello made his second assault on Hollywood, with a two-year contract at MGM. According to Macnab, “Studio bosses told him he was ‘too English’ to appeal as a leading man and fobbed him off with the occasional character part or, more often, writing assignments.” These humiliating assignments weren’t even screenplays, but script “doctoring,” rewriting or fixing bits of scripts. Among the films he allegedly worked on were the Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari (1931) and, worst of all, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Most film historians believe Novello was responsible for the legendarily bad dialogue, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Novello himself only said, “I never wrote such rubbish in my life.” Not surprisingly, he broke his contract and went back home, calling his time in Hollywood his “greatest failure.” For a writer and performer used to the rosy limelight and lavish praise, it was a lesson in humility. “I came away knowing that obscurity and I were bad companions,” he said. For fifteen years, Novello worked steadily in the movies, appearing in British, French, German, and American films. His last screen appearance was in 1934, in Autumn Crocus. After that, he devoted himself to music and theater. Beloved by the public and his colleagues and happily (though not publicly) gay, Novello was in a lifelong relationship with fellow actor Robert “Bobbie” Andrews.
Both of The Rat’s leading ladies had previously worked with Novello. American actress Mae Marsh had played Flora Cameron in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) but agreed to fewer roles after she married in 1918. In 1922, she appeared in Graham Cutts’s Flames of Passion, the rare British release to crack the American market at the time, and then the following year opposite Novello in Griffith’s The White Rose. Producer Herbert Wilcox and director Cutts were able to entice her back to England to play Odile in The Rat. The elegant British actress Isabel Jeans had played opposite Novello as Zelie on the London stage and later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Downhill. Unlike Novello, she had no problem getting work in American films, usually in supporting roles, starting in the mid-1930s. Jeans is best known to American audiences as the retired courtesan who educates her grandniece to follow in her footsteps in the enchanting MGM musical Gigi (1958).
Ivor Novello died, suddenly and too young, at age fifty-eight in 1951. According to the Guardian, his London funeral “provoked mass hysteria among female fans reminiscent of that at Valentino’s death.” In a 2004 article, Simon Callow mused that “[h]is form of theatre has disappeared without a trace, and it is all but impossible to contemplate reviving any of his shows: apart from anything else, they make considerable musical demands for which it might be hard to find performers.” In 2005, the century-old Strand Theatre in London’s West End theater district, which had survived bombings during both world wars, shut down for refurbishment. Owned by musical theater producer Cameron Mackintosh, the spiffed-up old house was renamed the Novello, in tribute to the legendary composer and star. Ivor Novello had lived for thirty-eight years in a flat over the theater in the midst of his beloved West End where his name had so often been in lights.
Presented at 2017 A Day of Silents with live music by Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet