Feature image: Jill Esmond with Laurence Olivier

When I was eleven, an Australian schoolboy already besotted with the movies, I saw a film called My Pal Wolf (1944) at a kids’ holiday matinee in rural Victoria. In it a little girl was left in charge of a governess, Miss Munn, while her parents were engaged on hush-hush war work in Washington. The strict disciplinarian Miss Munn gave the child and the dog of the title and the folksy servants down in Virginia a bad time of it.

What struck me was the notion that, in real life, I’d have hated Miss Munn and found her nasty, cold and mean, whereas I couldn’t take my eyes off her up there on the screen. Jill Esmond played Miss Munn with steely conviction and in doing so taught me an awareness of how different art and life were. I couldn’t have put it that way then, but the fact hit home, and I became her life-long fan.

A recent biography of Laurence Olivier, Terry Coleman’s Olivier (2006), claims to have had access to previously unavailable sources. Yet, among the welter of footnotes in this unappealing ‘life’, one sentence has stayed in my memory: the recollection of one of his secretaries, an exiled Russian princess, who described Jill Esmond, the first Mrs Olivier, as ‘one of the very rare unequivocally nice people [she] had ever met’.

Being ‘unequivocally nice’ is all very well in its way, but I want to suggest that there was a lot more to Jill Esmond than such a phrase implies. My claim is that she was a fine actress and a woman of character: I base the first half of that claim on what I saw of her on screen, and the second half on having had the privilege of becoming her friend.

Who, then, was this briskly incisive character-actress who could make meanness so compelling on screen? She came from theatrical royalty I subsequently found out: her father was actor-manager H.V. (“Harry”) Esmond and her mother was the noted stage actress Eva Moore, and they were buddies with such famous families as the Barrymores and the DuMauriers, Jill later told me. She was already an established actress when she met the aspiring Olivier in 1928 when they were both appearing in Bird in Hand, and she was instrumental in launching his acting career. She was even responsible for changing his looks, so that his forehead was no longer diminished by low-growing hair.

Jill Esmond

Jill Esmond

Married a few months earlier, they both went to New York in 1930 at Noël Coward’s invitation to appear with him and Gertrude Lawrence in his Private Lives on Broadway, and in the wake of its enormous success they were both beckoned to Hollywood. In all her films of the decade, she looks and sounds, far more than Olivier did then, a natural for the screen. She had already appeared in two British films, The Chinese Bungalow (1930), as Jill Esmond-Moore, and for Alfred Hitchcock in The Skin Game (1931), in which she played with an ease before the camera not shared by some of her co-stars. She made several films for RKO, holding her own with such stars as John Barrymore in State’s Attorney (1932) and Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy in Thirteen Women (1932). In the latter she brings a crisp and unaffected sympathy to the role of Dunne’s commonsensical friend.

Garbo turned Olivier down as a possible leading man for Queen Christina (1933), and they left Hollywood at his instigation. Who knows what might have been the effect on her subsequent career if she had played Sydney Fairfield in the Selznick production of A Bill of Divorcement (1932)? Years later she wrote to me: ‘I was offered Bill of Divorcement, George Cukor directing and John Barrymore playing the father. But I had to sign a 7-year contract, as whoever played it was bound to become a star. Larry rightly didn’t want to stay in Hollywood, so I turned it down. Although my marriage broke up, it is a decision I have never regretted. I don’t think I was cut out for a film star.’

Well, Katharine Hepburn, who played Sydney, indubitably did became a film star, and Jill never did, but she went on to become one of those character players who stamp their scenes with the kind of reality that acts as a guarantee for the truth of what’s going on around them. The use of the word ‘rightly’ in her letter points, too, to the kind of generosity that characterised her: there is no recorded sense of the bitterness that many in like circumstances might have felt.

Back in England, she co-starred with Conrad Veidt in the Gaumont-British/UFA futuristic thriller, F.P.1.(1932), and she and Olivier made a film together in 1933, No Funny Business, where he seems stilted by comparison. He would of course go on to scale major heights, and, as the world knows, her marriage collapsed with the arrival of Vivien Leigh on the scene, and divorce ensued in January 1940. It is not my intention to trace these unhappy events which have been more than adequately recorded elsewhere. Their son Tarquin was born in 1936 and early in the war Jill took him to America where they stayed for the duration.

It wasn’t easy at first to get work and she spoke feelingly of the difference between the experience of being in demand in Hollywood in the early 30s and the wartime return, now a divorced woman with a small son who had been seriously ill. She recalled visiting a very grand Greer Garson, to whom Jill and Olivier had been helpful in the pre-war London theatre. Garson’s manner was now so condescending, Jill recalled, that ‘When my little dog lifted its leg a dozen times around her house, I never dreamt of stopping him’. On the other hand, she had nothing but kindness from Joan Crawford, who alone treated her as if she were still being hailed as a promising new star. In the early ’30s, kind-hearted Jill had felt for the under-educated Crawford’s sense of being out of things when the rest of the company was playing clever word games.

When I suggested she’d been busy in Hollywood in the war years, she said, ‘Not nearly busy enough’. Certainly most of the roles she had were more or less cameos but they are memorable enough to make you suppose they were longer and more numerous than they were. She makes a sharp impression as a cynical wife in the breakfast scene in Random Harvest (1942), is shrewdly humane as a nurse dealing with deserting soldier Tyrone Power in This Above All (1942), sorts out with persuasive sympathy, Robert Young’s problems in getting two orphaned children to the US in Journey for Margaret (1942), gives Gladys Cooper a verbal serve in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), and combines crisp professionalism and kindness as a doctor dealing with Gary Cooper’s situation in Casanova Brown (1944).

She would star again on the stage, but in films, she rarely had other than character roles. However, this attractive, now middle-aged actress continued to make her presence felt in the limited running time that was now her lot. On post-war return to England, she appeared three more times on the London stage and nabbed a couple of good character roles in films: as a nurse who is not what she seems in the thriller Bedelia (1946), and the spinsterish and disapproving sister in Escape (1948), but work was not plentiful for returning ex-pats.

In 1951, she did what may be her finest work on film, in one of those unjustly scorned British ‘B’ movies. This was in Private Information, in which she played Charlotte Carson, who takes on the local government which has shut its collective eyes to the shoddy inadequacies of a housing estate. Jill had the chance here of a full-length part and fifty-odd years later she is still impressive to watch in it: short of stature, middle-aged, forthright, devoted to her children, she convincingly confronts and scores a victory over the corrupt council. Everything she does in this film is heartfelt and thoughtful: she makes an ordinary woman with the bit between her teeth someone to cheer for.

There were two more brief but telling character roles in US films in the ’50s: as Frau Schindler, who suicides early in the Cold War thriller, Night People (1954), and, incisive as ever, as the mother of A Man Called Peter (1955).After a couple of episodes of TV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1956, as Queen Eleanor, she retired and threw her very considerable intelligence into various theatre-related charities. She was for years the Chairman of the Welfare Committee of the Actors’ Charitable Trust (TACT) which looked after Denville Hall and she was much involved in the re-design of the building. There were so many loos, for fear of the residents’ being caught short, and they were referred to as ‘Jillies’. I remember her telling me of a famous actress whose sister had to be asked to leave Denville because she would keep smoking in bed and setting fire to the bedclothes. Her other charity was the Theatrical Ladies’ Guild, whose Patrons were Princess Alice of Athlone and Athene Seyler, whom she later sent me to meet.

When I first went to England in 1958, having written to her c/- one of her charities, she invited me to visit and I had the memorable experience of drinks in the back garden of her St John’s Wood house, with George and Mercia (Swinburne) Relph as the other guests. They kindly drew this callow youth out about Australia, whereas I wanted to go on listening to the clatter of great names being dropped – Edith, Johnnie, Gladys, Michael, Gwen, etc – and there were several references by Jill to Larry whom she once endearingly described as a ‘silly arse’.

In the years that followed, I always saw her at least once when I’d go to England. Jill could never quite believe my interest in her films. It could have been anyone who gave me that lesson about art and life, but the fact remained that it was Jill. In after years it was interesting to me to track down what else she’d done – and to feel egoistically gratified that someone important to me as a child was in fact so good an actress. When I’d try to draw her out about this or that film, she’d usually say, ‘Are you sure I was in that? What did I play? Was I any good?’ It wasn’t just a matter of tactful manners to give a firmly positive answer to that last question.

The conversation was quite wide-ranging: she was sharply intelligent with an interest in what was going on in the world at large. Conservative in politics as she said she was, she nevertheless despised the behaviour of people like John Wayne who named names during the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts. Talking about plays once, my wife mentioned how impressed we’d been by Peter Brook’s gym-set Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Oh’, said Jill, ‘the Dream will always be for me the way Vivien Leigh played it [as Titania, in 1937].’ This remark, matter-of-factly made, seemed to me to point to that generosity of spirit I mentioned earlier, and this was borne out in the way she never made any public comment on the break-up of her marriage to Olivier or discussed him with any of the myriad biographers. I never raised the name of Laurence Olivier with her: I was interested in her for her own sake, not for this connection, and, when she mentioned him, as she did, it was without the slightest rancour.

The last time I saw her was in Wimbledon Hospital just a few days before she died at home. There was something very admirable, very straight, about her that compelled respect and liking. She had a good deal of pain in her last years, but it was mainly from sources other than herself that one heard this. Once, in a letter, she wrote that she was feeling better (after a lung cancer treatment) and had just ‘cut the garden hedge, a bit crookedly. But as long as I don’t have to use my brain I’m all right’. In fact, she went on using that very well-stocked ‘brain’ to the end of the life she lived with courage and style.

She fixed my attention when I was eleven and retained it for the next forty-odd years, and I dedicated my 1992 interview book on British cinema, Sixty Voices, to her memory.2008 was the centenary of her birth, and she deserves to be remembered, not just as a footnote in other people’s lives, but in her own right.

About The Author

Brian McFarlane is the editor and compiler of The Encyclopedia of British Film, now available in its 4th edition. His next book is Double-Act, a study of the lives and careers of John McCallum and Googie Withers.