Walter Greenwood and Grace Fields never worked together, but the public and the press often wanted them to. They did discuss a theatre project in the mid-thirties, and were on friendly terms, and, very soon after the play version of Love on the Dole became a sensation, Gracie expressed in public her admiration for it, and indeed her wish to play the part of Sally Hardcastle in a film version. Greenwood apparently had fluctuating views on this last idea, but the press certainly found the association of Gracie with Love on the Dole an intriguing idea during the nineteen-thirties and returned to it with interest a number of times.
A photo of Gracie Fields in 1937 (from her Wikipedia entry – an uncopyrighted image)
Gracie Fields was first linked to Greenwood’s play in the report of an interview with her by the journalist Hannen Swaffer, which was published in the Daily Herald on 4th February 1935 (p.10). The three paragraphs were part of his column, ‘I Heard Yesterday’, and were printed under the sub-heading, ‘ “Our Gracie” Goes Home’. She had just been to see the play (at the Garrick Theatre) and Swaffer said that she was ‘rapturous’:
‘It was so real that I can hardly believe it … Everyone knows that I am a Lancashire lass. Most people know that I’m proud of it.’
‘Directly the first scene opened, I saw my own home again, as it was when I was a girl. I began like that. It seems a long time ago, but I don’t think I have changed much’.
Gracie pleaded with me to make everyone go to see Walter Greenwood’s play. She urged the need of facing up to its facts … Then supreme comic that she is, Gracie conjured up girlish memories as she thought of the humours of the play … ‘The comedy of the fortune-telling scene is terrific … Seeing Love on the Dole was a great experience … I am glad to have lived that kind of life. It taught me things. I am proud of being Lancashire’.
Swaffer had written a very positive review of the play in the Daily Herald on 1st February 1935, presumably because the play both met with his political sympathies, and those of the paper’s likely readers, and because it was in his view a convincing and moving piece of drama about working-people under the slump. Swaffer did much to support Greenwood’s career thereafter. This interview was probably intended to sustain public interest, and Gracie Field’s extraordinary star status would have added major weight to that mission. It is very noticeable that her interview makes clear that this is a serious play with an important social point, but also that it is entertaining. I would see this as a fair characterisation, but one which is also careful to sound attractive to playgoers with a range of motivations. Also notable is Gracie’s endorsement of the play as authentic and life-like, and really like Lancashire working-class life, a way of valuing Greenwood’s work often prominent in reviews of Love on the Dole, both as novel and play. A quotation from Gracie’s interview became a key part of a newspaper advert for Greenwood’s play. On 19th June 1935 the Leeds Mercury carried an advert for the play with these words: ‘Gracie Fields said to Hannen Swaffer: ‘Seeing LOVE ON THE DOLE was a great experience. It was MARVELLOUS’ (p. 2). The same advert appeared in many newspapers in the next few months.
Three days later, the same paper published an article by its unnamed ‘Theatre Correspondent’, which again links Greenwood and Gracie, and in fact records some aspects of their relationship which I’ve not seen stated anywhere else. The piece is so packed with both information and commentary that it is worth quoting at some length. It is headlined in a way which announces something of the range of topics to be covered:
GRACIE MAY PLAY IN LOVE ON THE DOLE FILM
THERE IS A PUBLIC FOR SERIOUS STAGE SHOWS
The success in Leeds this week of Love on the Dole, played at the Empire, which is normally a music-hall, is striking proof that there is a public in the country for serious plays. Interest in the theatre is more concerned with realism and life as it is lived than with life as imagined by writers of three-act epigrams.
Love on the Dole is a grim little piece; depending more on its characterisation than on its plot. Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle can be met in the meaner streets of any North country industrial town. and it is because of that that the play is so popular.
The cry that people go to the theatre simply to forget their day’s work is false, and those countless plays now being written by the Left Theatre, not seen unfortunately in Leeds, are the things that the theatre will come to—plays that are on subjects about which people think and talk every day of their lives. [This sentence seems slightly unclear, but is correctly transcribed].
Many people have said to me that they would like to see Gracie Fields in the part of Sally Hardcastle in the play. I agree with them, although I think that some alterations would have to be made. There is a chance that [what?] I wish will come true to some degree, for when I met Mr. Walter Greenwood, the author, during the week, he told me he was on his way to Capri to talk to Gracie about a plan to star her in a film version of the play. Lancashire is the setting of Love on the Dole, but Mr. Greenwood has plans for another play which will have the West Riding for its background, and he has almost decided to come over here to live and work for some time in order to collect material for a new book on conditions in hard-hit areas.
Mr. Greenwood is busy on a film called No Limit, in which Florence Desmond and George Formby are playing in the Isle of Man; on a one-act play, The Practised Hand, which is to be produced in Manchester next week; on a dramatisation of his novel, His Worship the Mayor, and on the outline of a new play for Gracie Fields, in which she will play the part of a stage-door keeper’s daughter (Leeds Mercury, 22/6/1935, p.5).
The headline about Gracie is probably meant to draw the reader in with her star status and the new and intriguing piece of film gossip, but equally the second headline offers a serious comment on the seriousness of ordinary play-goers – even at a variety theatre, if the play hits the right note. This echoes the Swaffer / Gracie interview in promising entertainment and social commentary, and this the article itself supplies. Indeed, the article offers two courses, a starter on the nature of contemporary theatre and then a good dessert of theatrical, celebrity and film news mixed. The reference to Left Theatre which does not reach Leeds is unusual in that Greenwood’s play was (and is) generally seen as more mainstream and having little connection to the more specialised and more elite political theatre of the time (the reviewer presumably has in mind the London-based Group Theatre, which Auden and Isherwood wrote for from the early thirties on – the communist Unity Theatre was not active till 1936). (1) Next, Greenwood’s extraordinary productivity and involvement in multiple creative projects is noted, as is his professional closeness to Grace – he would like her to star in a film of Love on the Dole, he is writing a new play specially for her, and he is going to stay at her celebrated villa in Capri. Gracie did not immediately have the chance to star as Sally Hardcastle because Greenwood could not in 1935 get the film past the BBFC (Board of British Film Censors), and Greenwood never did write the stage-door keeper’s daughter play (nor the book about the West Riding), but Gracie did invite him to her celebrated villa in Capri, ‘Il Canzone del Mare’, in June 1935.
Gracie had bought the dilapidated former fort in 1933 and done much to have it refurbished. (2) I have a letter from Greenwood written at the villa, in which he takes great pleasure in the Mediterranean flora and says that Gracie would be happy for him to stay there for six months, but that he must return home in a week for the opening of a new play. The letter (found in a first edition of the novel of Love on the Dole and clearly in Greenwood’s handwriting) is addressed to an unidentified ‘Hannah’ and is undated. However, Greenwood only wrote a single one-act play, The Practised Hand, which was first performed in Manchester on Monday 1 July 1935. The Daily Herald (29/6/1935, p.11) reported the forthcoming premiere of his new play and that Greenwood is to fly home from Gracie Fields’ villa in Capri for it, so the letter probably dates from the week commencing Monday 24th June.
I have no evidence that the two kept in close touch after that, but there were a number of press stories linking Gracie Fields and a projected film version of Love on the Dole, one clearly a little before the Capri visit, others several years later. In March 1935, the Manchester Guardian reported on an interview with Gracie that she very much wished to play Sally Hardcastle in a film version, but that she was sure it would not happen:
The comedian has always longed to play Hamlet … Miss Gracie Fields … wants the film people to let her act the heroine of Love on the Dole, the play made out of Walter Greenwood’s tragi-comic tale of Lancashire folk out of work … [but] the film executives won’t hear of it … ‘It’s too political, they tell me … they want me to be amusing. And there is nothing to laugh at in the heroine of Love on the Dole – it is all too true that story, I can tell you.’
‘Miss Fields, perhaps you will get a Lancashire man to write a story especially for you?’
‘That is just what I propose to do. I am seeing him within a few days about it’ (2/3/1935, p. 12).
In February 1938, the US entertainment business magazine, Variety, reported laconically in its ‘Chatter’ column that there were ‘negotiations still on for “Dole” as Gracie Fields pic, after author turned down $30,000’ (2/2/1938, p.61). If this showbiz chatter is reliable, I suspect that Greenwood turned down this enormous sum not because it was inadequate, but because he was unwilling to alter the ending or any other significant plot events in the story to make the film a better commercial prospect. In a letter to the press in 1940, he recorded that he had refused all film offers which involved unacceptable alterations: ‘Over the past seven years I have declined all offers for the film rights of Love on the Dole because none of the many film companies who wanted to buy would guarantee an unadulterated version’ (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27/2/1940, p.6). He was, anyway, reported by the Evening Chronicle on 11th November 1936 as not being keen on Gracie taking Sally’s role, instead wanting an American actress: ‘[Film] company wants Gracie Fields as Sally, but Mr Greenwood prefers Barbara Stanwyck. “I think she will do it very well,” was his comment’. The company is said to want ‘a Lancashire star [and] with this view Mr Gow, the Altrincham playwright, fully agrees.’ Gow’s view seems the more obvious one to take, while Greenwood’s preference for Stanwyck seems extraordinary. Though undoubtedly a fine actress and a star, the idea of her carrying off the role of an ordinary ‘Lancashire lass’ with a Lancashire accent seems unlikely (though this latter issue did not stop Deborah Kerr being cast in the end). Perhaps Gracie Field’s celebrity was the main issue, and maybe even her strong association with the name Sally in another popular story, that of Sally in Our Ally (3). Her star persona might have swamped the Sally Hardcastle of Hanky Park. There is evidence of a general wish not to cast a star in reports of both Greenwood and John Baxter’s thinking in 1941, once the long-delayed film had been made.
When the film was finally allowed to go ahead by the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) in 1940, the casting decision about Sally was based in a shared conception on the part of author and director. Baxter rejected any star casting at all for Love on the Dole, a decision linked to an ambition to represent ordinary working people in a realist film. Greenwood’s own thoughts were reported as in complete accord. The Star, among other papers, said (before the film’s general release) that ‘The film chiefs wept … the film people wanted a happy ending and Greenwood would have none of it … there are no stars in this film. nothing is glossed over.’ (7 May 1941) (4) The British film star and dancer Jessie Matthews tried out for the part but Baxter rejected her: ‘[it] was the sort of subject that would have been artistically unbalanced by big names. A star of her magnitude billed over the title, would have created the wrong sort of interest’ (5). He maintained that:
The question of casting was to my mind all-important. Contrary to the view expressed by distributors and some others, I felt star names should be avoided. The play was famous in itself, and I felt concerned that if I was to secure complete identification on the part of the audience with the character in the film, I must remove from their minds the picture of a particular star playing a certain part. (6)
Deborah Kerr was finally cast because at audition she was seen as essentially ‘ordinary’ – a perceived quality that may have partly stemmed from her relative lack of previous public exposure, since she had played only small stage parts and appeared in only one film, the adaptation of Shaw’s Major Barbara, which, though filmed first, was released in Britain after Love on the Dole. (7) She thus brought with her no association with previous roles or a ‘film actress’ identity. It is notable that Gracie Fields seems not to have been considered by this stage, and not even invited for audition. Greenwood usually liked working with fellow Lancastrians, and Love on the Dole with Gracie Fields would surely have been a popular hit and have given her the chance she craved of a serious role, but he must have felt there were too many counter-factors. Deborah Kerr had to do her best with learning a Lancashire accent.
Note 1. For a rather brief introduction to the Group Theatre (London) see the Wikipedia entry (its links to individual artists fleshes it out somewhat): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_Theatre_(London); the slightly later leftist Unity Theatre has a fuller Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unity_Theatre,_London
Note 2. Information from the web-site of the ‘Official Dame Gracie Fields Appreciation Society’: http://graciefields.org/wordpress/la-canzone-del-mare/
Note 3. Gracie Fields was very strongly associated with the song ‘Sally’, which she released on an HMV 78 rpm disc, Fall In and Follow the Band, in 1931, and also sung in her film debut Sally in Our Alley (directed by Maurice Elvey, production company, Associated Talking Pictures) in the same year. See the Wikipedia entry for the song and the IMDB entry for the film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_(Gracie_Fields_song); https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022336/
For an introduction to Barbara Stanwyck see her Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Stanwyck
Note 4. WGC/3/2, Greenwood’s Clippings Book, p. 34. Some of this material first appeared in Chris Hopkins, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole – Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018), pp.160-2, but without the same focus on Gracie Fields.
Note 5. Michelangelo Capua, Deborah Kerr – A Biography, McFarland and Co, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2010; kindle edition), location 189, citing Matthew Thornton, Jessie Matthews, Hart-Davis and MacGibbon, London, 1974, p. 156.
Note 6. Geoff Brown, with Tony Aldgate, The Common Touch – the Films of John
Baxter, NFT Dossier No. 5, BFI, London, 1989, p. 79. For an introduction to Jessie Matthews see her Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Matthews
Note 7. Directed by Gabriel Pascal and made by his production company, Major Barbara was released in the US on 4 May 1941, but not till 2 August 1941 in Britain. See IMDB entry: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033868/.