There are few things more than discovering something fascinating about where you live, like discovering that someone from one of your favourite films of all time was born around the corner from where you live for example. This happened to me recently. Most people will be familiar with Blue Plaques – markers paced on buildings across the county (and since 19th century in London) to mark the homes, birthplaces, and workplaces of famous people. Less well know is the fact that local councils also sometimes place their own (often Brown) Plaques for similar reasons. It was one of these I noticed for the first time just a few months ago on Ennersdale Road in Hither Green, South East London.
The Plaque only went up a year ago, but I was amazed that I missed the announcement and its unveiling. The Plaque was for the actress Gladys Cooper. Cooper, obviously is not a household name. I’d be surprised if anyone reading this is aware of who she was. This is not to say that she wasn’t known during her lifetime (1888-1971), because she was. She was, after all, made a Dame in 1967.
So, who was she?
She was an actress. Born in 1888, she first got noticed due her striking looks, which resulted in her becoming a photographic model from the age of six. By 16 she was acting and on the London stage and by 1913 she was appearing in her first film. Despite her striking looks it would take her until her 50s to really make an impression cinematically. The 1940s saw her deliver two Best Supporting Actress nominated performances in Now Voyager (with Bette Davis) and The Song of Bernadette ( with Jennifer Jones). She would deservedly be nominated again twenty years later for playing Mrs Higgins in My Fair Lady. Personally I think she was unfortunate not to have won at least once.
Outside of these film roles she continued to work regularly in television and on the stage right up until her death
For me, personally, I have had a special place in my cinematic heart for Cooper for many years due to a one of her performances.
She appears in a film that has become part of my Christmas ritual: The Bishop’s Wife. I don’t think there has been a single year in the past decade or more when I have not watched this ; Miracle on 34th Street (Original Fred Gw and Nathlie Wood version) and White Christmas [ And yes, I do usually watch It’s a Wonderful Life too]. The Bishop’s Wife is probably on the lesser known Christmas films amongst most people (it was needlessly remade in the 90s as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston). It starred Cary Grant as an angel called Dudley who was sent to help Bishop David Niven at a time of crisis.
It is a delightfully comic and heartfelt festive tale about asking (or in this case praying) for guidance, and also about the true meaning of Christmas.
Grant and Niven are (of course) both wonderful in their respective roles (according to legend they were originally cast in each other’s role). However, the additional joy is provided by the support cast including the erasable Monty Woolley and Gladys Cooper.
Cooper plays the stern and bitter Mrs Hamilton beautifully.
Here is Cooper as Mrs Hamilton, with Cary Grant on Harp, in one of the key scenes from The Bishop’s Wife (WARNING: It’s a bit of a plot spoiler)
So, as the nights start drawing in and we slowly get closer to Christmas 2013 the more I will think of my new found neighbour, and her part in bringing a smile to my bah-humbug face every Christmas.
The Plaque for Gladys Cooper at 23 Ennersdale Road, Hither Green, SE13
“That gorgeous woman, Miss Cooper… without doubt the most beautiful person as well as actress …” (Betty Davis)