When talking pictures reached Europe one of the casualties was Mabel Poulton. In the class-bound British cinema of the time, even a slight Cockney accent could be a drawback.
The year of her triumph was 1928. The Gainsborough company under Michael Balcon had acquired the film rights of the highly successful novel The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy. Basil Dean had helped to adapt the stage play for the screen and became supervisor, with Adrian Brunel directing. Dorothy Gish was rumoured to be the favourite for Tessa, which Edna Best was playing on the stage. Among many Tessas given camera tests was Daphne du Maurier. The final choice was Mabel Poulton.
Basil Dean wrote: "She possessed a quality of emotion that I have not seen surpassed on the British screen either before or since the coming of sound. Her utter concentration on the emotional truth of the scenes she was to play was outstanding. I can se e her now wandering about the mountain paths in the Tyrol, a copy of the novel under her arm and an intense faraway look on her childlike face living introspectively her neglected love. In short, she was Tessa."
The film opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion accompanied by a Eugene Goossens score, and was so successful it was voted the best British film of 1928. No one who saw Poulton's performance could forget it. When the film was revived in British Film Year, 1985, at the National Film Theatre, a packed house applauded Poulton to the echo.
Mabel Poulton was born in 1901, into a poor family; her father was a "clicker", a man who cut the patterns for boots and shoes, and her mother ran a stall selling artificial jewellery in Dalston, east London. Her father belonged to a Working Man's SocialClub and took Mabel to see a stage performance. She was deeply impressed by the leading actress and determined to become an actress herself.
She won a scholarship to the Central Foundation School of Spitalfields and eventually got a job as a typist at the old Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. She saw an advertisement for an acting school but the fees were higher than she could afford. Sheconfided in her mother, "If I don't do something, I'll be a typist all my life." Her mother gave her the money as a birthday present.
Her acting instructor, noting Mabel's Cockney accent, tactfully suggested a course in film acting. The Alhambra, meanwhile, was converted into a cinema and its first presentation was D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish, which had a dramaticprologue. Mabel's boss noticed her similarity to Lillian Gish and asked her one morning, "How would you like to die three times a day?"
She was given a Japanese kimono and installed in the Star Dressing Room. The prologue consisted of the death scene and she was terrified she would cough or sneeze. But three times a day she lay rigid and beautiful and the audience commented on how much like Lillian Gish she looked.
The director George Pearson, a passionate admirer of Griffith and Gish, saw this prologue, gave Poulton a film test and asked her to cry. Poulton discovered she could produce tears to order. Pearson told her she had a quality of pathos which would appealto audiences; and signed her up to play with another new girl, Betty Balfour, in Nothing Else Matters (1920).
Salaries were not in the American class. Poulton earned pounds 20 a week when she worked, pounds 8 when she did not. But British films were made for such tiny sums that Pearson could not afford to keep both actresses on salary. He teamed the two girls in
The British film industry was the poor sister of Europe; investors preferred to put their money into picture palaces, relying on American films to fill them. …