Wendy Hiller and Love on the Dole

Wendy Hiller (1912-2003) began with the Manchester Repertory Theatre as a ’student’ (a position which offered the chance to learn about many aspects of theatre while doing useful – if unpaid – work) in 1930. She played some small parts before becoming assistant stage manager in 1931. This was presumably a paid position, but she was in fact let go in 1931, before being recalled to play Sally Hardcastle on the basis that she had a genuine Lancastrian accent. At some point George Bernard Shaw saw Love on the Dole and was impressed by Hiller in particular. He invited her to act in Pygmalion at the Malvern Festival in 1936, as well as in St Joan, and then chose her to play the part of Hilda Doolittle in Gabriel Pascal’s 1938 film of Pygmalion. (3)

George Bernard Shaw Discussing the Production of ‘Major Barbara’; unknown photographer; bromide press print, 1940; 7 3/4 in. x 9 7/8 in (197 x 250 mm) overall; given by Terence Pepper, 2014; NPG x 139868. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Wendy Hiller stands between Robert Morley and George Bernard Shaw; to Shaw’s left is his secretary, Blanche Patch, and next to her is the film director, Gabriel Pascal. See https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw254570/George-Bernard-Shaw-discussing-the-production-of-Major-Barbara?LinkID=mp08498&role=sit&rNo=5

Her performance as Sally was praised as a triumph from the Manchester Rep production onwards and her interpretation of the role undoubtedly made her a star and launched her stage and screen career (she always preferred the theatre, however). She played Sally in Manchester, in London and in the New York production; she also married the play’s co-author, Ronald Gow in 1937. In an interview at the beginning of 1938 Hiller showed some reservations about being typecast in Sally-Hardcastle-like roles (whatever they might be?), but later the same year expressed considerable enthusiasm for taking on the same role in a film version. The Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, covering Pascal’s film of Pygmalion and his casting of Wendy Hiller, included an interview with Hiller which is worth quoting at some length for an unusual insight into some of Hiller’s feelings about the role of Sally Hardcastle:

‘Following’ Love the Dole, I did receive a number of rather tempting Hollywood offers, but I turned them all down for two reasons. First, I was not altogether sure that my stage success hadn’t come too quickly. Secondly, I felt I would rather stick to the theatre and later make my acquaintance with the cinema through British films. You see, so far as my future was concerned, I had to live up to my Love-on-the-Dole reputation, and at the same time had to live it down. I was afraid that if I went to Hollywood, I might be faced with the danger of being built up into a player who always features in the same kind of roles (22/1/1938, p.7).

However, Hiller seems to have felt more positive about Sally later in the year. The Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette film critic ‘Stargazer’ reported that Hiller ‘has an ambition’ to be involved in a film version of Love on the Dole and that he ‘has an inkling that it may be one of Pascal’s future productions’ (8/4/1938, p.20). In fact, despite continuing press interest in who might play Sally in a film version of Love on the Dole (see: https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/walter-greenwood-and-gracie-fields/), Greenwood and Gow do not seem to have sent another proposal to make the film to the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) until 1940, and when Greenwood and the director John Baxter were casting the film that year, Hiller was not considered. However, she went on to a long and successful career in film and on stage, but always prioritising her theatre roles. When Hiller went to the US to play Sally in the Broadway production in 1936, this opened up opportunities for other actresses, two of whom, Ruth Dunning and Dorothea Rundle, also launched successful careers from their interpretations of Sally Hardcastle.

See for overviews of her career: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendy_Hiller and the much fuller https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0384908/

For how Hiller’s story fits in with those of other actors in the first productions of the play see: https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/love-on-the-dole-the-actors-1934-1937/

For a cigarette card story featuring Wendy Hiller, see also https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/love-on-the-dole-a-second-cigarette-card-1935/