Flora Robson knew she was no beauty, but her wise and sympathetic face would become a familiar – indeed, shining – ornament of the 1930s and 40s silver screen. Though not sure of acting as a career in her early years, she nevertheless appeared on stage for the first time at 5 years old. She was educated at Palmer’s Green High School and went on still in her teens to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, winning a Bronze Medal in 1921. Between 1921 to 1923 she performed in London and Oxford, but both uncertainty and the unstable income of acting at that time convinced her to spend the next few years working as a factory welfare officer in east London. Still her versatility, even in her youth, as a budding character actress of the first water, was noticed. In 1929 a friend urged her to join the Cambridge Festival Theatre where she remained two years. By 1931 she was in residence at the Old Vic with as varied roles as Herodias in “Salome” (1931), a drunken prostitute in Bridie’s “The Anatomist”, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth”, and Gwendolen in “The Importance of Being Earnest” (both in 1933).
She stayed at the Old Vic until 1934, but she was already turning to the big screen with her film debut in A Gentleman of Paris (1931). Her dexterity as screen monarchs began shortly thereafter as Russian Empress Elisabeth in The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934). And she even had a place in television history in the British pioneering TV production of Anna Christie (1937), although she was initially skeptical of the future of this later powerful medium. She was a forceful Livia in Josef von Sternberg’s ill-fated and unfinished I, Claudius (1937), but gave notice of her future potential with her rousing Queen Elizabeth I in Alexander Korda’s Fire Over England (1937) with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
The year 1939 was extremely busy for Robson. It marked her first association with British director Michael Powell in his The Lion Has Wings (1939) and Smith (1939) and the unsurprising call from Hollywood. There she was lauded quickly for two roles that year: as the domineering wife of Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (1939) and opposite fellow British stars Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven as narrator and housekeeper Ellen Dean in the haunting Wuthering Heights (1939). Her compelling Korda Elizabeth marked her for a reprise of the role in the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk (1940) in which she played the role to the hilt. Among early screen Elizabeth standouts, Florence Eldridge in Mary of Scotland (1936) resembled the historical queen and the more famous Bette Davis displayed the manner and temperament with her usual command (though it is hard not to feel that it is Bette playing her brilliant self and not Elizabeth) in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), but Robson seemed to best personify the total person and spirit of Good Queen Bess
Her continued film career was marked with a like character versatility which had and continued to mark precious time for stage work (as in her murderess Ellen Creed in “Ladies in Retirement” (1940, on Broadway). In fact, in 1941, she returned to war-torn London to boldly continue theater performances to a grateful country. After the war it was a full life of crisscrossing the Atlantic. Though some British critics were not impressed with her return to Hollywood to play the overly protective mulatto servant of Ingrid Bergman in Saratoga Trunk (1945), it was an outstanding tour de force character performance honored with an Oscar nomination. Among other memorable roles in the late 1940s, even her reflective Anglican Sister Philippa in Powell’s visually stunning and provocative Black Narcissus (1947) displays her depth as a solid character actress. Another quarter of a century of roles were accented with memorable theatrical performances as Lady Macbeth on Broadway (1949) and as Paulina in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” (1951), production by John Gielgud, to add to a kaleidoscope mix of movies from 1948 to 1981 and a sprinkling of character pieces on British TV, though she retired from the stage in 1969.
The material success of Hollywood played a part in her much deserved honor as Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1952 and her ascension as Dame Commander (DBE) in 1960. Kenneth Barrow wrote a biography Flora: The Life of Dame Flora Robson (1981). She had the further honor of rating two portraits in the National Portrait Gallery in London for her full and distinguished life.
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