Elizabeth Allan blew up a promising Hollywood career when she took MGM to court in 1939. With two major parts in acclaimed Dickens adaptations topping the work she'd already accomplished, Allan torpedoed an opportunity for even more memorable screen immorality as Katherine Chipping. It was the part that made Greer Garson a star in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Elizabeth Allan sued Louis B. Mayer and never worked in Hollywood again.
But upon returning to her native England, Elizabeth Allan would carve out a second career on British stage, screen, radio and television which, unlike many of her Hollywood peers, kept her working into middle age and beyond.
When Elizabeth Allan left Hollywood in 1938 there was every possibility she'd never be heard from again. Her career could have been a sad footnote. Instead she would spend the the next few decades overachieving, making her mark in her homeland and becoming one of the best known figures among English popular culture of her time.
It was those Dickens adaptations which made me want to learn more about Elizabeth Allan. First she played Freddie Bartholomew's devoted mother in David Copperfield (1935). Widowed Mrs. Copperfield presumes that the strict Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) will be good for both her and David, but upon marrying him she discovers that he is more cruel than anything else. They suffer terribly by him. Then as Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), completely devoted to her father (Henry B. Walthall), in love with Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) but loved desperately by Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman).
Like much of the cast in these two classics it felt as though Elizabeth Allan herself had been the creation of Charles Dickens, so perfectly cast was she. Pretty, polite, loving and caring, the winsome Allan seemed cast with a halo about her.
Elizabeth Allan Before Hollywood
Elizabeth Allan was the youngest of six children born to Doctor Alexander William Allan and his wife, Amelia Morris, of Skegness in Lincolnshire, England. Dr. Allan was 42 years old at the time of Elizabeth's birth, April 9, 1910; his wife just 33. Their eldest, a son, had been born in 1901, nine years prior to Elizabeth's birth. Mrs. Allan had a busy decade. Elizabeth was the third daughter, evening out the sexes amongst the Allan children. Doctor Allan seems to have had a successful practice as he was able to support a groom, a cook, a housemaid, and a nurse for Elizabeth at Sandbeck House by the time of the 1911 census.
Young Elizabeth attended Skegness Day School and then Polam Hall in Darlingon where she excelled in elocution and enjoyed acting in school plays. As a senior she was just one of ten girls in the entire country to be awarded a scholarship to the Old Vic Theater training school for actresses. She returned to Skegness and taught school for six months to put some money in her pocket and fill time before the Winter session at the Old Vic began.
She excelled at the Old Vic and by age seventeen began two years of touring the country in a Shakespearean repertory company organized by Sir Ben Greet, who had himself helped found the Old Vic.
In September 1927, Elizabeth made her London debut in The Taming of the Shrew and she would have her first speaking role in The School for Scandal back at the Old Vic in March 1928. Referring to the Old Vic in an interview appearing in the September 1933 edition of Photoplay, Elizabeth told William H. McKegg that "There is something about a very old theater that gets under your skin. Tradition is vitally useful to any career, but more so in acting."
In February 1930 Allan appeared in Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne's Michael and Mary at the St. James Theatre. Starring the husband and wife pairing of Herbert Marshall and Edna Best along with Frank Lawton it proved a hit and packed the house throughout a 12-month run. As important as Michael and Mary was to Elizabeth's professional life it would have an impact on her personal life as well. Reports vary, but either Marshall or Best introduced Elizabeth Allan to their agent, Wilfrid J. "Bill" O'Bryen, who quickly fell in love with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Allan would make her film debut in 1931's Alibi, the first film featuring Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. One 1930's profile of Elizabeth reports that she landed the part when pal Edna Best turned down the lead and suggested Elizabeth for the part instead ("English Actress"). Perhaps Best did aid Allan in securing Alibi though modern source Gregory Mank puts the puzzle together a little better when he writes that O'Bryen provided the connection, not only to Alibi but to a contract with the company who produced it, Twickenham Film Studios.
Allan proved popular in British produced films over the next couple of years and they provided her a nice steppingstone to Hollywood. She returned as a different character in Black Coffee, Austin Trevor's second go as Poirot; Allan rejoined Marshall, Best and Lawton in a screen adaptation of Michael and Mary directed by Victor Saville; She appeared with John Gielgud in his first top billed film role, Insult (1932); Allan and Benita Hume were both in the cast of Alexander Korda's first British film, Reserved for Ladies aka Service for Ladies (1932) starring Leslie Howard.
It was Allan's work in Korda's Reserved for Ladies which took her to the next level. The film opened in London in January 1932 and soon a Daily Express writer was calling her "the great white hope of the British Isles." The film premiered in New York that June and soon MGM would swoop in and ink her to a deal which would took Elizabeth away to America in February 1933. In between she married O'Bryen in London that June and she'd subsequently appear in The Phantom Fiend, an adaptation of The Lodger starring Ivor Novello as well as a couple of additional films.
In all Allan appeared in 15 British made films between Alibi in 1931 and 1933's The Lost Chord.
Elizabeth Allan in Hollywood
Also arriving in Hollywood about the same time as Elizabeth was her Reserved for Ladies co-star, Benita Hume. They would both appear in Elizabeth's Hollywood debut, Looking Forward (1933) starring MGM old-timers Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone.
Next, Elizabeth got to experience being loaned out, in her case to RKO, to appear in No Marriage Ties (1933) where she replaced originally cast but ailing Karen Morley opposite Richard Dix. The pairing must have worked well because she appeared with Dix again at RKO later that year in Ace of Aces. In between it was back to the home studio for The Solitaire Man starring old friend, Herbert Marshall.
Next she slowed down an otherwise exciting murder mystery as Robert Montgomery's love interest in The Mystery of Mr. X before giving a masterful performance as a young nurse who falls for Myrna Loy's man, Clark Gable, in the medical drama Men in White (Both 1934). Not unlike Michael and Mary had done for Elizabeth on the stage, Men in White would boost her professionally and according to the substantial rumors provide quite a bit of excitement in Elizabeth's personal life as well.
Because I was once an English school teacher, and because I'm told I look like a shy, shrinking violet, I seem to be doomed forever to goody-goody roles," she said to a recent interviewer. "I want to be wicked ... on the screen--a sort of exotic vamp who lures men to their destruction." -- Elizabeth Allan in a 1936 Australian newspaper article ("English Actress").
"When we started the film, Clark developed a pretty serious thing with Elizabeth Allan, a lovely English girl in the cast, and greeted her with coffee and cakes every morning. The crew always put out sweet breads, so Clark would load up and, just to get my goat, walk right past me to Elizabeth." -- Myrna Loy, Being and Becoming (85).
CLARK GABLE'S NEXT BRIDE. New York, Nov. 16 --Although friends are trying to bring about a reconciliation between Clark Gable and his wife, rumour is already naming his next bride.
He has been seen on Broadway with Miss Elizabeth Allan, described here as 'a gorgeous importation from Britain.'
That report was a wire story printed in Kingston Gleaner, December 7, 1935. Just ten days later a headline in the same paper states "Clark Gable Absolutely Means Nothing to Me" from the still very married Mrs. O'Bryen, Elizabeth Allan.
Elizabeth Allan may have been all innocence on screen, especially by the time of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, but behind the scenes she seems to have acquired the vamp reputation that she longed for on film.
Even before Men in White, and her near certain affair with Gable, Allan had shown signs she wasn't as dainty as her screen persona suggested. MGM had loaned her to Fox to appear opposite Spencer Tracy in Shanghai Madness (1933), but Allan had walked out on the film and had to be replaced by Fay Wray.
Her headstrong ways would be an issue again during the MGM horror comedy, Mark of the Vampire (1935), as reported widely by co-star Carroll Borland. Borland told David J. Skal that Allan was too "concerned that (cinematographer James Wong) Howe's grand effects with the vampires were being achieved at the expense of her own glamour" (192).
Borland's most noteworthy and character damning quote as told to author Gregory Mank regarded horror icon Bela Lugosi's number one rule to her on the set of Mark of the Vampire: "Do not associate with Elizabeth Allan--because she has a bad reputation" (262).
Allan was supposedly conducting an affair with producer Eddie Mannix throughout production on Mark of the Vampire and wasn't hiding it very well. That combined with previously rumored indiscretions had managed to make Allan quite notorious with the rest of her cast mates.
Meanwhile husband Bill O'Bryen spent a good deal of his time traveling back and forth between work in London and wife in Hollywood, doing his best to save their marriage. His perseverance would pay off. Perhaps young Elizabeth Allan was just sowing her wild oats amongst the beautiful people of Hollywood or maybe the stories were exaggerated, but she and O'Bryen would eventually reunite and remain married through his death in 1977. Elizabeth was quote devoted towards the end of O'Bryen's life.
Elizabeth Allan's Hollywood career was riding a crest at this time. While the Dickens duo are not to be topped she continued to play in prestige films, most notably in another adaptation, Camille (1936) starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor; over to RKO for A Woman Rebels with Katharine Hepburn; to Fox for Slave Ship (1937) with Warner Baxter and Wallace Beery; and then came the excitement of being cast opposite countrymate Robert Donat in MGM British Studios prestigious production of The Citadel (1938).
Except that last one didn't happen.
Elizabeth Allan Sues MGM
Her part in The Citadel was recast with Rosalind Russell in the role. Elizabeth Allan, already set to play the wife of Donat's hero in what would become an all-time classic, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), did not take her replacement gracefully. She sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios for breech of contract and won the original decision before MGM successfully appealed the case. Just 29 years old, Elizabeth Allan would never work in Hollywood again.
The Guardian reported that The Citadel producer Victor Saville, who you might remember earlier as Elizabeth's director on the screen version of Michael and Mary, had notified Allan's husband and agent, O'Bryen, that "the story had been drastically altered so that she was no longer suitable for the part, and also because the director engaged in Hollywood for the film (King Vidor) did not think she was the right actress for the role" ("Actress Sues").
O'Bryen countered that he very much doubted The Citadel's author, A.J. Cronin, would allow his book to be altered as drastically as Saville says, while Allan complained that "if an actress dropped out of a part after being engaged to play it a doubt would be created in producers' minds as to the ability of the artist" ("Actress Sues"). Her argument was that MGM had ruined her professional reputation.
In March of 1939 came the decision that Elizabeth Allan was to be awarded a total of £3,400 by MGM British Studios: £1,800 for loss of salary; £1,500 for loss of opportunity to enhance her reputation; and an additional £100 over an advertising discrepancy. The Guardian reported that "a stay of execution was granted pending notice of appeal and the defendants announced last night that notice of appeal is being lodged" ("Jury Awards"). Much less fanfare was accorded the November 1939 decision on the appeal which ruled in favor of the studio.
Meanwhile, Allan had already been back on stage in England and in the same month as the ruling against her it was announced that she would play Wendy in a Christmas production of Peter Pan starring Barbara Mullen as Peter and Alastair Sim as Captain Hook.
Elizabeth Allan Post-Hollywood
By this time England was involved in World War II and Allan's husband was now Captain O'Bryen. Allan and O'Bryen seemed closer than ever before as the actress moved to a spot near where her husband served and busied herself working in a London canteen. The boys there called her "Our Liz," though according to the Daily Mirror they referred to her as Mrs. O'Bryen face to face. Allan likely wouldn't have minded: all of her friends called her Liz. In the same story Allan says that "I came up here with Mrs. Brook, wife of the actor Clive Brook, and we started this canteen on our own. I cook for fifty men some days."In 1942 she appeared in the Handel biopic The Great Mr. Handel starring Wilfrid Lawson and later that same year in the Graham Greene based wartime home-front classic Went the Day Well? She continued to appear on stage, a few times opposite old co-star Frank Lawton, and her name cropped up in the radio listings as well. But her next real blast of celebrity came through television when in 1951 she became a very popular member of the panel on Britain's What's My Line?
"She Busy Again--At 41" came the March 1952 headline in the Daily Express explaining that "a parlour game on TV before nearly 4,000,000 viewers has brought her back to fame." A June 1973 article about the seventies comeback of What's My Line? harkens back to the early 50's version that "thanks to some inspired casting soon became a favourite." Fellow panelists, Jerry Desmonde, Marghanita Laski, Gilbert Harding and Eamonn Andrews are mentioned in the article which describes Elizabeth Allan as "the sweet tempered heroine" of the show.
Allan would leave What's My Line in the Fall of 1952 in protest of a schedule change: "I do not wish to work every Sunday," Allan said. "I am a housewife and a home lover and working every Sunday is too much of a strain."
She played in the film No Highway in the Sky, starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, in 1951. She appeared opposite Trevor Howard in another successful Greene-adaptation, The Heart of the Matter, in 1953. She continued to appear in various television productions and, as someone who has now paged through several newspapers from England can confirm, was regularly pitching products in print advertisements.
Allan managed a hilarious quote at a 1954 Conservative Party "brains trust" meeting before an audience of 1,000 when asked, "Who or what would you like to be if you could choose?" The independent Elizabeth Allan answered, "I would much prefer to be my little terrier bitch. She does what she likes, is very spoiled and has eighteen children." The Daily Mirror does not report the reaction of the crowd in their article, titled, "I wish I were my little dog, says Elizabeth Allan." Interesting to note that she's referred to as "television star Elizabeth Allan" at the open of that same article.
Her final role on the big screen came as Boris Karloff's wife in The Haunted Strangler (1958), a nice entry enabling Allan to be able to claim films with both horror icons Karloff and Lugosi.
In the mid-1950's she "starred as a painist-cum-detective" on the television series The Adventures of Annabel and later that decade "devised and created" something called Swop Shop ("Obituary").
The 1960's brought a couple of guest appearances on television series, but Allan's career appears to have been winding down. At some point she converted to Roman Catholicism, her husband's religion, and she would retire to her home in Hove to be with him until his death in 1977. Allan's own final years appear to have passed quietly in Hove, where the movie star died, July 27, 1990 of undisclosed causes at age 80.
When she was younger Allan loved to play tennis, though she made the shift to golf by the time she turned forty. About the time of her legal troubles with MGM, Photoplay reported some of her interests as playing piano, collecting antique jewelry and riding horseback. She was often featured in the newspapers giving out fashion and make-up tips and one time showing off her kitchen which seems to have been an area of special pride.
The Elizabeth Allan who came back home sure seemed a bit more down to earth than the young starlet who raised Hollywood eyebrows. Some of the tantrums and indiscretions I mentioned only serve to make her classic performances as the "goody-goody" types that she rebelled against all the more impressive. But the sweet young girl of the big MGM pictures seems so much more human as the successful woman who wished to be like her little dog and do whatever she liked.
- "Actress Sues Film Company." Guardian. 8 Mar 1939: 14. Digital Archive. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- "Ask the Answer Man." Photoplay. Apr 1936: 81.
- "Clark Gable Absolutely Means Nothing to Me." Kingston Gleaner. 17 Dec 1935: 42. Newspaper Archive. Web. 27 Jun 2012.
- "English Actress Who Is 'Tired of it All'." The Argus. 25 May 1936: 3. Trove. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- Fiddick, Peter. "The notable characteristic." Guardian. 18 Jun 1973: 8. Digital Archive. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- "Film Star Troops' Barmaid." Daily Mirror. 14 Sep 1939: 1. UKPressOnline. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- Great Britain Census Office. England and Wales Census, 1911. National Archives, Surrey, England.
- "I wish I were my little dog, says Elizabeth Allan." Daily Mirror. 2 Oct 1954: 3. UKPressOnline. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- "Jury Awards Actress £3,400." Guardian. 10 Mar 1939: 14. Digital Archive. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- Lewin, David. "She's Busy Again--At 41." Daily Express. 12 Mar 1952: 6. UKPressOnline. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- Loy, Myrna and James Kotsilibas-Davis. Being and Becoming. New York: AlfredA. Knopf, 1987.
- "Lured to Hollywood." The Daily Mirror. 6 Feb 1933: 16. UKPressOnline. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- Macdonald, Julia. "Elizabeth Allan Wants To Be A Sophisticated Young Modern." The Advertiser. 10 Oct 1936: 13. Trove. 26 Jun 2012.
- Mank, Gregory William. Women in Horror Films, 1930s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.
- McKegg, William H. "Two Piccadilly Peaches." Photoplay. Sep 1933: 56-57.
- "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios." Guardian. 11 Nov 1939: 10. Digital Archive. Web. 27 Jun 2012.
- "Mrs. Clark Gable Is Seeking A Divorce." Kingston Gleaner. 7 Dec 1935: 62. Newspaper Archive. Web. 27 Jun 2012.
- "My Favourite Film Self." The Daily Express. 8 Feb 1932: 3. UKPressOnline. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- "Obituary: Elizabeth Allan." Guardian. 2 Aug 1990: 37. Digital Archive. Web. 26 Jun 2012.
- Skal, David J. The Monster Show. Revised ed. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 1993.
- "Theatre News." Observer. 23 Nov 1941: 7. Digital Archive. Web. 27 Jun 2012.
- Wilcox, Grace. "Elizabeth Allan-Lovely as Springtime in England." Oakland Tribune. 23 Dec. 193: 104. Newspaper Archive. Web. 24 Jun 2012.