Ivor Novello: Gay icon hit The Rat at the Cardiff Screen Festival
“No Cardiff-born screen actor has ever been remotely as popular at the British box office as Ivor Novello,” says author Dave Berry (Wales and Cinema: The First 100 Years) in the WalesOnline article “Novello Could Have Been a Hollywood Star.”
Cardiff locals were able to check out the playwright-composer-actor’s 1925 big-screen foray The Rat at the 2005 edition of the Cardiff Screen Festival (website) last Nov. 12.
Based on the 1924 Paris-set hit play The Rat: The Story of an Apache, credited to David L’Estrange (a combo pseudonym for both Novello and actress Constance Collier), the film was directed by Graham Cutts for Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures.
The dark and (when required) brooding Novello stars as a Rudolph Valentino type, the low-life “apache” Pierre Boucheron – brutal, ruthless, and irresistible to women. Two of these females are Mae Marsh (Novello’s co-star in his one American silent film, The White Rose) and, like Novello, hailing from the stage version, Isabel Jeans (best remembered as Leslie Caron’s Aunt Alicia in Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi).
Ivor Novello’s face
As found in Bruce Babbington’s British Stars and Stardom: From Alma Taylor to Sean Connery, Pierre’s caddish but alluring behavior led one reviewer to write, “anyone with a face like Ivor Novello must apparently be forgiven everything!”
Moviegoers were apparently more than eager to love him unconditionally. The Rat was so successful – according to Berry, taking in £80,000 (approximately $5 million in 2005) while it cost only £18,000 (approx. $1.1 million in 2005) – that it would be followed by two sequels: The Triumph of the Rat (1926) and The Return of the Rat (1929), both also directed by Graham Cutts and featuring Isabel Jeans.
A leading figure on the London stage, Ivor Novello (born David Ivor Davies on Jan. 15, 1893; Novello was his mother’s family name) was brought to Hollywood by D.W. Griffith to play the young pastor who seduces and abandons Mae Marsh (two years before The Rat) in the 1923 romantic melodrama The White Rose.
Unfortunately for Novello, things didn’t go too well between the Father of the American Cinema and his Welsh import even though The White Rose is one of the best – possibly the best – Griffith film of the decade.
Following a lawsuit against the filmmaker, who had reportedly reneged on his contract to feature Novello in three movies, the actor returned to Britain.
Another Hollywood foray in the early 1930s, via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, resulted in only one role: Ruth Chatterton’s leading man in Guthrie McClintic’s Once a Lady (1931), while on loan to Paramount.
‘Rudolph Valentino for the ’30s’?
“Novello’s work is uneven, with the scripts (usually by others) distinctly variable – but given the right roles in Hollywood he had the looks, dash and elan to become a Rudolph Valentino for the ’30s,” Dave Berry affirms. “All we can do is reflect on what he might have achieved later in the sound era …”
Everything is possible, though by 1934, when Ivor Novello retired from films altogether, he was already past 40. Besides, unlike most top male Hollywood stars of the 1930s, e.g., Clark Gable, James Cagney, Ronald Colman – and including urbane types like Charles Boyer, Warren William, and William Powell – Novello lacked a strong masculine presence.
Ivor Novello movies
Ivor Novello was featured in more than 20 movies; as per Dave Berry’s piece, six of them are lost. Besides The White Rose and The Rat, his most notable films, all in the U.K., were the following:
- Charles Calvert’s Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923), in the title role. Stage star and later Hollywood supporting player Gladys Cooper (Now Voyager, My Fair Lady) played the prince’s cohort, Flora MacDonald.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), in which Novello, in the title role, may or may not be a serial killer à la Jack the Ripper. Hitchcock’s best-known silent would be less successfully remade by Maurice Elvey in 1932 – known as either The Lodger or The Phantom Fiend – with Novello reprising (with a “Continental” accent) his titular role. A pre-Hollywood Elizabeth Allan was his leading woman.
- Downhill / When Boys Leave Home (1927), another Hitchcock effort, featuring the somewhat fey, 34-year-old Novello as a rugby-playing schoolboy. Based on a play by David L’Estrange (Novello & Collier), Downhill seems to refer to the trajectory of said schoolboy, who grows into a theater actor and, later on, a “gigolo” at a Paris music hall. Once again, Isabel Jeans was Novello’s leading woman.
- Adrian Brunel’s The Constant Nymph (1928), with Novello as the married, music-composing object of passion of sexually blossoming teenager Mabel Poulton – who, as the story progresses, becomes the much more mature man’s object of attraction as well. (Poulton was actually in her mid-20s at the time.)
- Brunel’s The Vortex (1928), from a play by Ivor Novello’s British stage “gay rival” Noël Coward. U.S. Broadway actress Willette Kershaw was the leading lady.
- In the sound era, Maurice Elvey’s I Lived with You (1933), which Berry calls Novello’s best big-screen showcase. A romantic comedy originally written (as a play) by the star himself, I Lived with You features him as a penniless Russian prince handing out advice to the members of the bourgeois family with whom he has found a home. Also in the cast: Ursula Jeans as the prince’s love interest and a teenage Ida Lupino.
- Anatole Litvak’s Sleeping Car (1933), another romantic comedy, this time with Novello as a sleeping-car attendant with a girl in every station – until he becomes matrimonially entangled with wealthy, blonde, and beautiful widow and future Alfred Hitchcock heroine Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent).
- Basil Dean’s Autumn Crocus (1934), which marked Ivor Novello’s final big-screen appearance. In this romantic melodrama predating Arthur Laurents’ similarly themed 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo, Novello was cast as a married Tyrolean innkeeper who becomes emotionally involved with visiting English schoolteacher Fay Compton.
Gay stage & screen idol
Although Ivor Novello’s (gay) sexual orientation seems to have been an open secret in British show business, it sure didn’t hinder in any way or form the popularity of his stage musicals.
Among them were Glamorous Nights (1935), The Dancing Years (1939), King’s Rhapsody (1949), and Gay’s the Word (1951), the last of which came out the year of Novello’s death.
Lover Robert Andrews & Gosford Park
After suffering a coronary thrombosis, Ivor Novello died at age 57 on March 6, 1951.
Minor stage and film actor Robert Andrews (1895–1976) had been Novello’s – apparently non-exclusive – companion for 35 years. Among Andrews’ handful of screen appearances were those in the silent films The Warrens of Virginia (1924) and Fascinating Youth (1926); on stage, he was featured in various Novello productions, notably playing the prime minister in King’s Rhapsody.
In Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated Gosford Park (2001), Jeremy Northam portrays Novello at around the time of The Lodger‘s talkie remake.
The Rat box office & Summertime
The inflation-adjusted figures were based on the pound-to-dollar conversion in 1925, and on the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator.
Ivor Novello The Rat image: Gainsborough Pictures.
“Ivor Novello: Gay Icon & Alfred Hitchcock Star Revisited” last updated in March 2018.