West End theater star: Constance Cummings in ‘Saint Joan,’ Shakespeare
(See previous post: “Constance Cummings: From Harold Lloyd to Eugene O’Neill.”) In the mid-1930s, Constance Cummings landed the title roles in two of husband Benn W. Levy’s stage adaptations in the West End and on Broadway:
- Levy and Hubert Griffith’s Young Madame Conti (a.k.a. Young Madam Conti, 1936), starring Cummings as a demimondaine who falls in love with a villainous character. She ends up killing him – or does she?
Adapted from Bruno Frank’s German-language original and also featuring Bernard Lee (decades later, M in James Bond movies starring Sean Connery and Roger Moore), Young Madame Conti was presented on both sides of the Atlantic.
On Broadway, it had a brief run in spring 1937 at the Music Box Theatre. In the West End, it was staged at the Savoy Theatre.
- Based on the risqué Gustave Flaubert novel, the Theatre Guild-produced Madame Bovary (1937) was presented in late fall at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre.
Referring to the West End production of Young Madame Conti, The Sunday Times critic James Agate wrote that as Regina Conti the American actress had made “a roaring success out of what in other hands might so easily have been an inarticulate, elegant flop.”
The Glasgow Herald critic concurred, opining that “in the heaviest role of the evening,” Constance Cummings “keeps Madame Conti from being the usual doll on the dock. She manages the hackneyed monologue which falls to her lot with a skillful restraint.”
Sex change comedy & sentimental ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’
Cummings’ other stage roles in the late ’30s, whether on Broadway or in the West End, included:
- Nellie Blunt in Benn W. Levy and Paul Hervey Fox’s gender-bending comedy If I Were You (1938), inspired by Thorne Smith’s novel Turnabout and performed at the Mansfield Theater in New York.
Also in the cast: Bernard Lee as Arthur Blunt, who switches bodies with wife Nellie, and Betty Field (Of Mice and Men) as the culprit of the couple’s transgender problems.
- Katherine Chipping opposite Leslie Banks’ devoted schoolmaster Mr. Chips in the original production of James Hilton and Barbara Burnham’s Goodbye Mr. Chips (1938), itself based on Hilton’s 1934 novel, at the Shaftesbury in the West End.
- Kate Settle in the Levy play The Jealous God (1939), set in a sort of serious-minded You Can’t Take It with You residence and staged at the Lyric in the West End.
Inveterate fans James Agate, Robert Donat
“An evening of boisterous dullness. It wields the slapstick as a baseball bat,” complained the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson about If I Were You, adding that “as a vehicle for Miss Cummings, it chiefly demonstrates that she’s strong and in good health. If Mr. Levy had a custard pie among his props, she could probably throw it through the brick wall of the theatre.”
James Agate, however, proved himself an inveterate Constance Cummings fan. Of her Katherine Chipping, he declared that the actress possessed “some of the fragrance and pathos, sensitiveness and radiance of the great actresses of our youth. What I want to know is where Miss Cummings has found the model for acting at once so uncommon and so little common.”
Stage and screen star Robert Donat (The Count of Monte Cristo, The 39 Steps) was equally enthusiastic about the West End’s Hollywood import, remarking that Cummings was “an American guest – of whom we should be so proud that nothing should ever be permitted to tempt her out of England.”
Former Columbia Pictures ingenue tackles Juliet, Joan of Arc on the British stage
Around the time World War II broke out in late 1939, instead of leaving England for safer acting gigs Constance Cummings felt tempted to join the West End-based Old Vic Theatre Company.
At the Buxton drama festival in Derbyshire, the former Columbia Pictures ingenue got to play Juliet opposite Robert Donat’s Romeo; Miss Richland, opposite Donat’s Croaker, in Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th-century comedy Good-Natured Man; and the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Of her Juliet, she would later say, “I didn’t know how to read the verses. That was a sloppy thing. I should have had more sense.” Some British stage critics agreed, finding her Old Vic Company performances below par.
“If I was doing a play with an English cast,” she would tell film historian Anthony Slide decades later, “then I found I must get rid of my American accent to a certain extent. I never got completely rid of it. For the films, it never mattered so much. … [With the Old Vic Company] I did Saint Joan. Her accent would have been Hertfordshire or something like that. My American accent didn’t matter so much.”
According to Cummings herself, Shaw enthused about her American-accented Joan of Arc: “You are perfect for the part, child!”
Slice of West End theater history
Whether or not motivated by Shaw’s praise, Constance Cummings would continue to work on the British stage – frequently in the West End itself – until the late 1990s.
In fact, although she never quite attained the prestige of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Flora Robson, or even Vivien Leigh, Cummings’ six-decade career on the London stage represented a not inconsiderable slice of the history of the West End theater scene.
A brief overview of her numerous West End appearances can be found further below.
Constance Cummings 1930s British movies: ‘The Lady Vanishes’ predecessor ‘Seven Sinners’
Her flourishing Broadway and West End career notwithstanding, as the 1930s progressed Constance Cummings remained a minor box office draw as far as Hollywood was concerned.
That helps to explain why her stage roles were played by other actresses on screen:
- Diana Wynyard in Let’s Try Again (1934), RKO’s film adaptation of Sour Grapes.
- Sylvia Sidney in Paramount’s version of Accent on Youth (1935).
- Eventual Best Actress Academy Award nominee Greer Garson – opposite Best Actor winner Robert Donat – in MGM’s British-made Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939).
- Carole Landis in Hal Roach’s Turnabout (1940), officially a direct adaptation of Thorne Smith’s novel (instead of If I Were You).
Besides James Whale’s Remember Last Night? (mentioned in the previous Constance Cummings article), Cummings would be seen in only two other movies released in the second half of the 1930s. Both were 1936 British productions directed by the now largely forgotten Albert de Courville: Strangers on a Honeymoon and Seven Sinners.
‘Strangers on a Honeymoon’ & ‘Seven Sinners’
In Strangers on a Honeymoon, Cummings plays the high-strung, curiously named bride-to-be October, who, in order to annoy the hell out of her prospective bridegroom (James Arnold), ends up marrying a hobo (Hugh Sinclair) – who turns out to be a nobleman in disguise.
Silent era Hollywood villain Noah Beery (Beau Geste) was cast as one of the American thugs hired to do away with the blue-blooded hobo in this little-known romantic adventure-comedy-drama.
Seven Sinners / Doomed Cargo deserves to be better remembered, as eight decades after its release de Courville’s comedy-thriller remains an entertaining mix of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man.
Replete with murders, trainwrecks, and bon mots, Seven Sinners toplines former Hollywood silent film star Edmund Lowe as a hard-drinking, wisecracking American private eye and Cummings as his sophisticated sidekick. (Back in her Columbia days, Lowe and Cummings had been paired in the curious socially conscious drama Attorney for the Defense.)
Additionally, Seven Sinners is historically important: Two years after its release, Hitchcock’s similarly themed The Lady Vanishes came out. Not coincidentally, the latter was adapted by Seven Sinners’ co-screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (from a story by Ethel Lina White).
‘The Thin Man’ with an English flavor
Following a four-year absence from the screen, Constance Cummings landed what was probably her best film role to date in another British-made comedy-thriller, the 1940 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release Busman’s Honeymoon / Haunted Honeymoon, a sort of The Thin Man with an English flavor.
This movie adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel St. Clare’s 1936 play (turned into a Sayers novel in 1937) paired the former Hollywood actress with fellow American Robert Montgomery, MGM’s leading debonair playboy and a last-minute replacement for a recalcitrant Robert Donat.
Richard Thorpe, who had guided Montgomery in the English-set Night Must Fall (1937), had been brought over to direct Busman’s Honeymoon with Montgomery cast as amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey and Maureen O’Sullivan as his wife, mystery writer Harriet Vane. Filming, however, was abruptly interrupted after England declared war against Germany.
Busman’s Honeymoon was temporarily shelved, with production resuming in early 1940 despite bombing threats from the Nazis. Filmmaker and RAF pilot Arthur B. Woods took over as director – eventually receiving sole screen credit – while Cummings became Montgomery’s new leading lady. (Four years later, Woods would die at age 39 in a midair collision.)
Unlike The Thin Man, the pleasant Busman’s Honeymoon did not lead to any sequels. In fact, it turned out to be the last film made by the Culver City studio’s short-lived British arm.
Few World War II era movies
During World War II, Constance Cummings would perform both for the Allied troops and in the West End, including appearances in Samson Raphaelson’s Skylark (1942), opposite John Clements and Hugh Sinclair, and Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (1943) – in Bette Davis’ 1936 movie role – opposite Owen Nares and Hartley Power. Raphaelson’s comedy was co-directed by William Armstrong and Benn W. Levy; the latter had been injured while serving with the Royal Navy in the Adriatic.
In the ensuing five decades, Cummings would remain basically a stage actress. Besides Busman’s Honeymoon, in the 1940s she was featured in only three other films: This England, The Foreman Went to France, and the supernatural comedy classic Blithe Spirit.
David MacDonald’s five-segment morale-booster This England (1941) covered British history from 1086 (20 years after the Norman invasion) to 1940. Cummings played a modern-day American journalist and four of her forebears.
London blitz or no, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther was unmoved:
As a film to emphasize a new policy [English movies only at New York City’s World Theatre], as well as a point of view This England is peculiarly effective – as effective as waving the Union Jack. But as a sample of motion picture competence it leaves a great deal to be desired, for the story is a manufactured fable with no dramatic cohesion or suspense, the performances are forced and uneven and the production is generally poor. And, in the cold light of reason, its assumptions are ridiculously farfetched.
This England also featured Emlyn Williams, John Clements, Esmond Knight, and Roland Culver.
‘The Foreman Went to France’
Charles Frend’s real-life-inspired The Foreman Went to France / Somewhere in France (1942) featured Cummings as an American sharing the screen with Clifford Evans as the foreman, Gordon Jackson as a soldier, music hall comedian Tommy Trinder as soldier no. 2, and the über-British Robert Morley as a traitorous Frenchman.
Produced by English cinema mogul Michael Balcon, this war thriller was far better received than Cummings’ previous effort.
The New York Times’ (anonymous) critic affirmed that the little-heralded import “is not only a profoundly moving account of human treachery, brutality and suffering, but is as well an exciting chase story across the French countryside of an English factory foreman, an American girl and two Tommies in a lorry.”
Cummings’ performance was deemed “competent.”
British cinema classic ‘Blithe Spirit’
Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit opened at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End on July 2, 1941, running for four years. On Broadway, the supernatural marital comedy had a more modest run: 18 months.
Initially, Coward fended off offers to acquire the film rights to his stage hit, complaining that in years past filmmakers had “vulgarized, distorted and ruined” most of his plays.
Eventually he sold the rights to Cineguild Productions, headed by producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, filmmaker David Lean (with whom Coward had collaborated on the 1942 war drama In Which We Serve), and cinematographer/screenwriter Ronald Neame (decades later the director of The Poseidon Adventure).
The only out-and-out comedy in David Lean’s directorial career – Hobson’s Choice (1954) was a more subtly humorous effort – Blithe Spirit revolves around arrogant, deceitful, upper-class author Charles Condomine and his two wives: one living; one dead.
Constance Cummings was cast as Ruth, Charles’ elegant and very English second wife, unable to see the green specter of her predecessor, Elvira (Kay Hammond).
As found in Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A Biography, Noël Coward was unhappy with Lean’s take on Blithe Spirit, telling the director, “You’ve just fucked up the best thing I ever wrote.”
Possibly, Coward was suffering from migraines that day.
Shot in Technicolor by co-screenwriter Ronald Neame, Lean’s stylish adaptation of the West End comedy hit remains one of the best British films of the period – or of any period.
The flawless cast includes a fantastic Margaret Rutherford as séance leader Madame Arcati, while Cummings does wonders with what amounts to a “straight woman” role, effortlessly managing to either steal scenes or hold her own against her more flamboyant co-stars. Even master ham Rex Harrison – who didn’t get along with Lean – is at his (relatively speaking) subdued best.
According to Brownlow, despite a number of positive notices Blithe Spirit flopped in both the U.K. and the U.S. Lean claimed that the comedy performed well only in India, while producer Havelock-Allan remarked that it never recovered its budget.
If so, that may help to explain why Constance Cummings would stay away from films for several years, returning – sporadically – only in the 1950s.
Constance Cummings in the West End: From Sacha Guitry to Clifford Odets
In the post-World War II years, Constance Cummings’ reputation continued to grow in the West End. Her eclectic appearances on the London stage included the following:
- P.G. Wodehouse (as Stephen Powys) and Guy Bolton’s English-language adaptation of Sacha Guitry’s Don’t Listen, Ladies! (1948), with Cummings as one of the two wives (one present; one past) of shop clerk Denholm Elliott. (Comedy actress Betty Marsden was the other wife.)
“Miss Cummings and Miss Marsden act as fetchingly as they look,” commented The Spectator.
- Rodney Ackland’s Before the Party (1949), delivering “a superb performance of controlled hysteria” in the words of theater director and Michael Redgrave biographer Alan Strachan, writing for The Independent at the time of Cummings’ death.
- Clifford Odets’ Winter Journey / The Country Girl (1952), replacing Googie Withers as the concerned wife of alcoholic actor Alexander Knox, himself a replacement for Michael Redgrave, who left the show after having a falling out with co-star/producer Sam Wanamaker. (Both the Chicago-born Wanamaker and the Ontario-born Knox – a Best Actor Oscar nominee for the 1944 biopic Wilson – were political refugees, having fled the U.S. during the Red Scare.)
- Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike (1953), opposite Sam Wanamaker. Cummings’ performance was described by respected theater critic Kenneth Hurren as “a spiked knuckle duster in a velvet glove.”
Starring for husband Benn W. Levy
In the two decades following the armistice, Constance Cummings also starred in several plays written and sometimes directed by husband Benn W. Levy:
- Clutterbuck: An Artificial Comedy (1946), a marital comedy set on board a Caribbean cruise ship. Clutterbuck turned out to be the most successful play of Levy’s career, running 366 performances.
Also in the cast: Gordon Bell in the title role, and the duo Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford (The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich, Passport to Pimlico).
- Return to Tyassi (1950), with Cummings as a troubled wife and mother whose past comes back to haunt her. Alexander Knox was her leading man.
In 1956, she would reprise her performance for the television anthology series BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, co-starring future Batman actor Michael Gough.
- The Rape of the Belt (1957), as Antiope, playing opposite her Blithe Spirit co-star Kay Hammond, John Clements, and Richard Attenborough (who also directed) in this humorous adaptation of the Hercules myth “placed squarely in the tradition of Shaw and Giraudoux,” according to revered theater critic Kenneth Tynan.
In November 1960, Levy’s West End play was performed for one week in New York, with Cummings reprising her role opposite John Emery, Nydia Westman, Joyce Redman, Peggy Wood, and Philip Bosco (as Hercules/Heracles).
- Public and Confidential (1966), as an MP’s secretary-mistress – a “needle-sharp” performance, according to Eric Shorter in The Guardian. The play, however, was coolly received at the time – a mere five years after the Profumo Affair.
Public and Confidential, which turned out to be Levy’s final effort, would be later published as Member for Gaza.
Movies of the ’50s
In the first half of the 1950s, Constance Cummings found time away from the West End stage to act in only one feature: Man in the Dinghy / Into the Blue (1950), a comedy directed by one of the founding fathers of the British film industry, Herbert Wilcox (Bitter Sweet, Victoria the Great). She was cast in a subordinate role, supporting Michael Wilding, Odile Versois, and veteran entertainer Jack Hulbert.
Additionally, she could also be seen in Terence Fisher and Charles Saunders’ Three’s Company (1954), a big-screen release consisting of three episodes from the British television series Rheingold Theatre (a.k.a. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents).
Cummings and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were showcased in the Saunders-directed segment “The Scream,” the story of a couple who buy a house haunted by the sounds of a screaming woman. Also in the cast: Philip Vickers and MacDonald Parke.
Fighting the Red Scare
Besides Three’s Company, in mid-decade Cummings was featured in two other disparate releases: the light comedy-adventure John and Julie and the psychological mystery drama The Intimate Stranger.
- Directed by William Fairchild, John and Julie (1955) had her in a supporting role as “the prettiest accomplice a pair of felons ever found.”
Also in the cast: Moira Lister, Noelle Middleton, Wilfrid Hyde White, and child actors Colin Gibson and Lesley Dudley as two runaways (the “pair of felons”) out to see the queen.
- Directed by American political refugee Joseph Losey from a screenplay by fellow political refugee and Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch, The Intimate Stranger / Finger of Guilt (1956) presented Cummings in a key secondary role. Speaking in loud, brittle tones, she is memorable in a mere three scenes, portraying a glamorous Hollywood star who ends up saving the film’s beleaguered hero from the doldrums of unemployment and divorce.
An intriguing albeit far-fetched adult-oriented effort, The Intimate Stranger starred two other Americans: Richard Basehart as a happily married executive at a British film studio and a surprisingly effective Mary Murphy as a cooly determined young woman who claims to be the executive’s lover. Also in the cast: Roger Livesey, Mervyn Johns, and Faith Brook.
Cummings’ participation in The Intimate Stranger was no mere coincidence. The liberal-minded former Hollywood actress and husband Benn W. Levy – from 1945–1950, a Labour Member of Parliament for the Eton and Slough Division of Buckinghamshire and, according to fellow Parliamentarian Michael Foot “the best polemicist of the post-1945 period” – actively supported film talent fleeing the United States’ Red Scare, even offering financial assistance to several political refugees.
Driving Peter Sellers to murder
Four years after The Intimate Stranger, Cummings was the female lead in Charles Crichton’s black comedy The Battle of the Sexes (1960), in which her stop-at-nothing American businesswoman just about drives Edinburgh kilt factory accountant Peter Sellers to murder – murder her, that is.
“Constance Cummings, a transplanted American herself, has no trouble with the role of the officious Mrs. Barrow,” wrote A.H. Weiler in the New York Times. “Comely in fancy tailleur or lounging pajamas, she spouts Madison Avenue’s phrases with relish and very likely is the terrifying, domineering beauty [original story author James] Thurber imagined his little men evaded.”
Besides opponents Cummings and Sellers, The Battle of the Sexes also featured Robert Morley, Jameson Clark, Donald Pleasence, and veteran Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein), in addition to voice commentary by Sam Wanamaker.
Unfortunately for film lovers, Cummings would land only two more big-screen roles, both in the early 1960s. Apart from several television appearances, she would proceed with her acting career out of camera range.
‘Marvelous liberation’ as the ‘dreadful’ lesbian Inès
Despite her many good notices on the West End stage and on film, during a period in the 1950s Constance Cummings felt less than satisfied with her work. “I wasn’t acting well,” she would tell People magazine in 1979. “I was just saying the words. I felt absolutely dead. Mechanical. Suddenly a cloud lifted and I felt all right again.”
An Oxford Playhouse production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis-Clos / No Exit / In Camera (1962), in which she was cast as the ugly and inopportune lesbian Inès, apparently helped to lift that deadening cloud.
Initially horrified by Inès, Cummings grew to enjoy bringing that character to life. “I found little seeds of her dreadfulness in myself,” she declared. “Things I could build on. It was a marvelous liberation. I’d never opened myself before and taken such a plunge.”
Huis-Clos was part of a double bill with Max Beerbohm’s A Social Success, in which she played the Countess of Amersham. Next in line was a short-lived production of Aldous Huxley and Beth Wendel’s The Genius and the Goddess, also featuring Paul Massie and George Pravda.
Final Constance Cummings movies
Also in the early 1960s, Constance Cummings made her final big-screen appearances. Both were in 1963 releases:
- Alexander Mackendrick’s children’s tale Sammy Going South / A Boy Ten Feet Tall, also featuring Hollywood veteran Edward G. Robinson and with Fergus McClelland as the ten-year-old, Africa-crossing Sammy.
- Robert Stevens’ In the Cool of the Day, a cross-Atlantic romantic drama about two dysfunctional married couples. As the troubled quartet: Peter Finch, Jane Fonda, Arthur Hill, and Angela Lansbury (who, more than half a century later, would be seen in a West End revival of Blithe Spirit).
In In the Cool of the Day, Cummings had a supporting role as Fonda’s overbearing mother.
Comedy and tragedy: From Noël Coward to Edward Albee & back to Shakespeare
By 1964 – about two years after Huis-Clos – Constance Cummings was surely feeling “all right again,” replacing Uta Hagen as Martha and battling Ray McAnally’s George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End.
“I shall never forget it,” wrote Eric Shorter, “because I never supposed it possible. What Cummings did amid all the sound and fury was to hint at an element of feminine refinement.”
Three years later, she was featured in a West End revival of Noël Coward’s 1925 sex farce Fallen Angels, opposite fellow veteran Joan Greenwood (The Man in the White Suit, The Importance of Being Earnest).
Then it was back to heavy drama in 1969, playing Gertrude to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet both in the West End and on Broadway. (Cummings was replaced by Judy Parfitt in the film version that same year.)
Additionally, she was the ailing, fading beauty Mrs. Goforth in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow, and in 1970 she brought to life billionaire Claire Zachanassian in a Coventry production of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit.
West End career highlight: Mary Tyrone in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’
With the West End-based National Theatre company in the early 1970s, at the time managed by Laurence Olivier, Constance Cummings was seen as Volumnia in a production of Berthold Brecht’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
Additionally, she played Leda in Amphitryon 38, and, what is considered by some to be her greatest West End stage performance, Mary Tyrone in Michael Blakemore’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1971). Olivier co-starred as James Tyrone Sr.
As found in The Telegraph, Cummings’ Mary Tyrone “was a surprise not only because of her power to sustain such a challenging role, but also because she bridged the gap between the gentle, motherly woman who has apparently found a cure for her drug addiction and the closing scenes in which she tragically has not. Cummings here matched Olivier in theatrical power and surpassed him in pity.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night brought her the London Theatre Critics’ Best Actress Award.
Later stage roles: Chekhov, Shaw
Among Constance Cummings’ other stage roles in the ’70s, whether in the West End or elsewhere in Britain and on Broadway, were:
- Madame Ranevskaya in Michael Blakemore’s revival of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1973) at the Old Vic in the West End.
- Also at the Old Vic, Queen Agave of Thebes in future Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wole Soyinka’s Nigerian version of Euripedes’ The Bacchae (1973), directed by future Oscar-nominated filmmaker Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission).
- Lady Champion-Cheney in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Circle (1974) at the Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.
- Mrs. Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1976) at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre.
- The Wife in Edward Albee’s All Over (1976) in Brighton.
- And, to great acclaim, former aviatrix Emily Stilson, struggling to cope with life after a devastating stroke, in Arthur Kopit’s Wings (1979), directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) on Broadway.
‘Most demanding role’ & Best Actress Tony Award
After Wings opened at the Lyceum Theatre in late January 1979, Richard Eder wrote in the New York Times that Cummings’ star turn was “by far the most distinguished work to open on Broadway this season.”
In the Times’ Constance Cummings obit, Robert McFadden explained:
To be in the audience, critics said, was to be inside [Emily Stilson’s] consciousness, lost in the silent pandemonium of the stroke. A ticking clock falters, then stops. The lamp flickers out. She sits alone in the darkness, bewildered by jumbled memories, terrifying voices. Have I crashed in a strange country? Are the doctors Romanians? Why are they talking gibberish? Why can’t they understand my perfectly lucid answers? Is this a snowstorm? What is a toothbrush? Who am I?
About Emily Stilson, Cummings told People: “Oh, there have been ups and downs, but this is a great moment right now. Wings is my most demanding role.”
She then added, “But I’m not sure that the latest part isn’t always the most demanding.”
Wings brought her a Tony (shared with Carole Shelley for The Elephant Man), an Obie Award, and a Drama Desk Award. She would later bring the role to the West End, in a well-received National Theatre Company production.
Final West End performance
Following Wings, Constance Cummings continued working on stage on both sides of the Atlantic, including a portrayal of Amanda in a 1984 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in Miami (taken to London the following year) and as the titular character in Laurie Lister’s Fanny Kemble at Home, a one-woman show about the 19th century British actress, with which Cummings toured several U.K. towns in 1986.
In 1994, while featured as Mrs. St. Maugham in an “off-West End” revival of Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden – a role she had played opposite Irene Worth off-Broadway in 1982 – the 84-year-old Cummings told the London Evening Standard, “I don’t remember things and names … but I don’t find it difficult to remember lines.”
Apparently indefatigable, in 1996 she was seen as Vanya’s mother in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, starring Derek Jacobi at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex. “In the small but crucial role as the formidable bluestocking Maman,” wrote Alan Strachan, “she gave a characteristically incisive performance.”
Three years later, Uncle Vanya would mark her final West End stage appearance.
Constance Cummings’ TV work dates back to 1938, when she was featured as Roxane in an experimental BBC broadcast of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Leslie Banks in the title role and featuring future movie star James Mason as Christian de Neuvillette.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Cummings was a guest star in several anthology series on both sides of the Atlantic, among them:
- Schlitz Playhouse: “Clutterbuck” (1959), reprising her 1946 West End role, opposite Howard Taylor and David Stoll.
- Armchair Theatre: “The Last Tycoon” (1959), with John Ireland; “Late Summer” (1963), with Valerie Bell and John Stride.
- ITV Playhouse: “Bon Voyage” and, reprising her 1966 West End role, “Public and Confidential,” both aired in 1968.
Besides playing the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1951) and reprising her West End role in Return to Tyassi (1956), two other noteworthy BBC productions starring Cummings were The Trial of Mary Dugan (1957) and, as Harriet Craig, Craig’s Wife (1957).
About a quarter of a century later, she had notable roles in Masterpiece Theatre‘s Rodney Bennett-directed Love Song (1985) and in Clive Donner’s Dead Man’s Folly (1986), an Agatha Christie mystery starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.
Additionally, her performances in both Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Wings were recorded for television.
Constance Cummings’ final TV appearances were in 1986. Besides Dead Man’s Folly, she was featured in The Understanding, directed by David Cunliffe from an adaptation by Angela Huth of her own play. Also in the cast: Michael Aldridge, Samantha Bond, and veterans Isabel Dean and Rachel Kempson.
Off and on, Constance Cummings had been featured in front of the camera for more than half a century. Back in the early 1930s, few – if anyone – in Hollywood could have foreseen that the pretty but minor Columbia Pictures contract player would end up enjoying such remarkable professional longevity.
Commander of the British Empire
Although he decided not to run for reelection in the early 1950s, in the ensuing years Benn W. Levy continued to voice his liberal political views, calling for nuclear disarmament and an end to theater censorship. He died at age 73 on Dec. 7, 1973, in Oxford.
Following her husband’s death, Cummings went on running their 600-acre dairy farm in the village of Cote, Oxfordshire. A long-time supporter of the Actors’ Charitable Trust and the human rights group Amnesty and Liberty, the American-born actress was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1974. She also served on committees for the Arts Council and the Royal Court Theatre.
In 1979, she told People, “I have no special beau because I don’t want one. I don’t want to marry again. I’d rather live with the memories.”
Two decades later, when asked by TV presenter Matthew Sweet whether she would accept a role in a projected remake of Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy, the 89-year-old replied, “I’m quite an old lady. But I’m not completely retired yet.”
The following year, she would be featured in a BBC Radio dramatization of Henry James’ Daisy Miller, with future Downton Abbey actress Elizabeth McGovern in the title role.
“When I look back on those old films,” Constance Cummings remarked in the mid-’70s, “I don’t feel it is a different person up there on the screen at all. It’s still me. I suppose in a way you always remain young inside.”
As Alan Strachan recalled, she “remained vibrant to the end …. She always loved the company of younger people and the parties she gave occasionally in her beautiful Walter Gropius apartment in Chelsea cheerfully mixed theatrical luminaries, politicians and journalists with friends of her children and young writers or actors she had come across.”
Anthony Slide, for his part, remembers in A Special Relationship: Britain Comes to Hollywood and Hollywood Comes to Britain:
To her husband, she was always “Cummings,” but to her friends, she was “Connie,” and what a delightful, unassuming actress she was. When one arrived at the Old Church Street home in Chelsea, … Connie would often fling open the window on the third level, where the living room and dining area were, shout a hello, and throw down the key.
I have even known her to be standing at the ironing board, working away, when one arrived, oblivious to her attire or fame as both a Hollywood and a major British theatrical star.
“From the moment I arrived here, I felt at home,” she once said, and that is exactly how she made visitors feel.
Her memory severely impaired, Constance Cummings died at age 95 of “natural causes” on Nov. 23, ’05, at a nursing home in Oxfordshire.
‘West End Theater Raves & Best Actress Tony Award: Minor Columbia Pictures Actress Went Far’ notes
 Information about The Jealous God and other Benn W. Levy plays via Susan Rusinko’sThe Plays of Benn Levy: Between Shaw and Coward.
Benn W. Levy’s The Jealous God is unrelated to John Braine’s 1964 novel of the same name, which was adapted for the big screen in 2005. Directed by Steven Woodcock, the film starred Jason Merrells and Denise Welch.
Robert Donat’s remark about Constance Cummings and her views on her American accent can be found in Anthony Slide’s A Special Relationship.
George Bernard Shaw quote re: Cummings as Joan of Arc via Matthew Sweet’s The Independent article.
As found in Holly Hill’s Playing Joan: Actresses on the Challenge of Shaw’s Saint Joan, besides the 1951 BBC Television production of Saint Joan Cummings reprised her portrayal of Joan of Arc on BBC Radio in 1941 and 1947.
‘Seven Sinners’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’
 Along with Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, Seven Sinners’ writing credits include Bernard Merivale and Arnold Ridley (story), L. du Garde Peach (adaptation), and Austin Melford (additional dialogue).
Like Seven Sinners, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is set aboard a train and features assorted international intrigues. The humorous mystery thriller stars Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, and Dame May Whitty.
Starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne, Tay Garnett’s Hollywood-made Seven Sinners (1940) has nothing to do with the Albert de Courville film.
Some of the information regarding the troubled making of Busman’s Honeymoon via tcm.com.
 In Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier, edited by Christopher Fifield, in an entry dated Jan. 13, 1942, the then 29-year-old English contralto singer wrote: “Went to Skylark. Constance Cummings. Grand!”
Noël Coward vs. The Movies
 In Noël Coward’s view, only Frank Lloyd’s Fox-made Cavalcade (1933) had been a faithful film adaptation of one of his plays. The flag-waving British-set drama starring Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard was the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award winner of the period 1932-33.
Among the other movie versions of Noël Coward plays from the late 1920s to the early 1940s were:
- Easy Virtue (1928).
Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
Cast: Isabel Jeans. Ian Hunter.
- Private Lives (1931).
Director: Sidney Franklin.
Cast: Norma Shearer. Robert Montgomery. Reginald Denny. Una Merkel.
- Design for Living (1933).
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Cast:Miriam Hopkins. Gary Cooper. Fredric March.
- Tonight Is Ours (1933), from The Queen Was in the Parlor.
Director: Stuart Walker.
Cast: Claudette Colbert. Fredric March. Alison Skipworth.
- Bitter Sweet (1940).
Director: W.S. Van Dyke.
Cast: Jeanette MacDonald. Nelson Eddy. George Sanders. Ian Hunter.
- We Were Dancing (1942), from Tonight at 8:30.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard.
Cast: Norma Shearer. Melvyn Douglas. Gail Patrick. Lee Bowman.
Prior to Blithe Spirit, Cineguild released This Happy Breed (1944), a well-received adaptation of a Coward play. Celia Johnson and Robert Newton starred.
‘Blithe Spirit’ West End cast
Constance Cummings and Rex Harrison were two key Blithe Spirit cast members not to have starred in the 1941 West End production. Cummings replaced Fay Compton while Harrison took over from Cecil Parker. Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford reprised their stage roles.
On Broadway, Blithe Spirit starred Clifton Webb as Charles, Peggy Wood as Ruth, Leonora Corbett as Elvira, and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. In a 2009 revival, Angela Lansbury played the Madame.
The making of Blithe Spirit is also discussed in Gene Phillips’ Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean, which, curiously, asserts that the film was a box office success in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Among the variations on the Blithe Spirit theme are Bruno Barreto’s Brazilian blockbusterDona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) and its American remake, Robert Mulligan’s critical and commercial disappointment Kiss Me Goodbye (1982).
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands stars Sonia Braga (the wife), José Wilker (the dead husband), and Mauro Mendonça (the living husband). Kiss Me Goodbye stars, respectively, Sally Field, James Caan, and Jeff Bridges.
‘The Country Girl’ by any other name
Making matters more complicated, as explained in Clive Bloom’s American Drama Clifford Odets used A Winter Journey as the working title of what eventually became The Big Knife.
Also of note, the original Winter Journey female lead, Googie Withers, had a supporting role in Constance Cummings’ 1940 movie Busman’s Honeymoon.
As an aside:
- Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby played the Constance Cummings-Alexander Knox Winter Journey / The Country Girl roles in George Seaton’s 1954 film version, also starring William Holden (Sam Wanamaker in the London production).
- June Allyson and José Ferrer starred in the 1955 Ferrer-directed movie version of The Shrike.
- Arletty played the lesbian Inès in Jacqueline Audry’s 1954 film version of No Exit / Huis-clos. Also in the cast: Frank Villard and Gaby Sylvia.
The Hollywood blacklist, Joseph Losey
 In The Intimate Stranger, Joseph Losey was billed as “Joseph Walton.” (Walton was Losey’s middle name.) In the U.S. release print, renamed Finger of Guilt, the film’s producer, Alec C. Snowden, was Losey’s front. Howard Koch was billed as “Peter Howard” in both the U.K. and U.S. prints.
Information about Constance Cummings and Benn W. Levy helping out American political refugees can be found in A Special Relationship. Cummings told Anthony Slide:
The first I knew of it was when Paul Draper and Larry Adler came over. They were among the first. And then one began to hear about it. Benn spoke out about it, and so did I. We never stopped shooting our mouths off. … I think I would have written off America. But we did go back and forth all the time. I never had any trouble about it.
Michael Foot’s quote about Benn W. Levy found in the Tribune (1973), via Encyclopedia of British Humorists: Geoffrey Chaucer to John Cleese, Volume 2, edited by Steven H. Gale.
One of the most prestigious and most prolific among Hollywood’s political refugees, Joseph Losey would remain in the U.K. until his death at age 75 in 1984.
Besides The Intimate Stranger, Losey’s British (at times part-British) film credits include:
- Time Without Pity (1957).
Cast: Michael Redgrave. Ann Todd. Leo McKern.
- The Servant (1963).
Cast:Dirk Bogarde. James Fox. Sarah Miles.
- Modesty Blaise (1966).
Cast: Dirk Bogarde. Monica Vitti. Terence Stamp.
- Accident (1967).
Cast: Dirk Bogarde. Stanley Baker. Jacqueline Sassard.
- The Go-Between (1971).
Cast: Julie Christie. Alan Bates. Margaret Leighton.
- A Doll’s House (1973).
Cast: Jane Fonda. Edward Fox. Trevor Howard.
- The Romantic Englishwoman (1975).
Cast:Glenda Jackson. Michael Caine. Helmut Berger.
- Mr. Klein (1976).
Cast:Alain Delon. Jeanne Moreau. Juliette Berto.
Under the direction of Frank Hauser, in 1957 Cummings had starred in an Oxford Playhouse production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.
‘Fallen Angels’ & ‘Coriolanus’
 Another American actress, Tallulah Bankhead (replacing original choice Margaret Bannermann), had starred in the original West End production of Fallen Angels – in the role played by Joan Greenwood in the revival. Coincidentally, Bankhead also played Mrs. Goforth in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore on Broadway in 1964.
Edna Best (the leading lady in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934) had Cummings’ role in the 1925 Fallen Angels.
At the the time of its original production, Fallen Angels incensed British prudes. According to Coward himself, “a large section of the press” called the comedy “amoral, disgusting, vulgar and an insult to British womanhood.”
A 1949 revival of Fallen Angels – that left Coward thoroughly displeased – starred Hermione Gingold and Hermione Baddeley.
Noël Coward’s quote can be found in Sheridan Morley’s introduction to Coward Plays: 1: Hay Fever; The Vortex; Fallen Angels; Easy Virtue.
Wig-wearing Constance Cummings goes nuts, kills son
 About Constance Cummings’ role in the West End production of The Bacchae, Kenneth Hurren, hardly a fan of Wole Soyinka’s version of the Greek tragedy, wrote in The Spectator:
Constance Cummings can be said to have a short part but a merry one, though I doubt whether she herself can take much joy in it, grotesquely got up as she is in the tattiest wig in the props room, her natural beauty further disfigured by the gratuitous addition of a ‘classical’ nose that begins somewhere on her forehead and is the nearest the production gets to ‘going Greek.’
Miss Cummings plays Queen Agave of Thebes, whose appearance in the play’s riotous events is delayed until the final scene when the poor lady, temporarily stoned out of her mind on a Dionysian trip, is required to reel about gibbering and purring with triumphant pride over a gory bundle she cradles in her arms and which she believes is the head of a mountain lion she has killed with her bare hands in the course of some fevered rites in the hills outside the town.
In fact, as she realises when she recovers her wits, it is actually the head of her son, King Pentheus …. Naturally, the discovery gives her quite a turn, especially as by this time the severed head has been mounted on a pole and is gushing blood from the mouth, and all in all the scene is as dreadful as anything you’ll find even in the notoriously gruesome world of Greek tragedy.
Architect Walter Gropius
 German architect and Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius was one of the pioneers of modern architecture. So was Edwin Maxwell Fry, who co-designed Benn W. Levy and Constance Cummings’ house in Chelsea, one of London’s most affluent areas.
Constance Cummings biography
Michael Roy Gartside’s Constance Cummings biography, For All Seasons: The Story of Stage and Screen Star Constance Cummings, apparently a self-published effort, came out in 1999.
Some biographical information found in this article via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2005-2008, edited by Lawrence Goldman, which used Gartside’s book as a source.
An extensive list of Constance Cummings’ stage appearances – in the West End, on Broadway, and elsewhere – can be found at Film Reference.
List of Constance Cummings films via the IMDb.
Image of Constance Cummings in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan via the BBC website.
Constance Cummings in Blithe Spirit image: Cineguild Productions, via DVDBeaver.com, which features a review of the film’s DVD.
Clifford Evans and Constance Cummings The Foreman Went to France image: Ealing Studios.
Peter Sellers and Constance Cummings The Battle of the Sexes image: British Lion Film Corporation.
Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings Seven Sinners image: Gaumont British, via Doctor Macro.
Noelle Middleton, Wilfrid Hyde White, Moira Lister, and Constance Cummings in John and Julie trailer: British Lion.
Constance Cummings 1930s image via the blog It’s the Pictures That Got Small…
Screengrab of Constance Cummings and Laurence Olivier – in addition to Denis Quilley and Ronald Pickup in the background – in the televised version of the 1971 West End production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night via Screen Plays.
Constance Cummings Wings image via The ‘Playbill’ Vault.
Image of Ann Lancaster, Joan Greenwood, and Constance Cummings in the West End revival of Fallen Angels via Silver Screens.
Constance Cummings and Benn W. Levy’s E. Maxwell Fry and Walter Gropius-designed Chelsea house: The Steeple Times.