Actress Anna Neagle, Dame of the British Empire, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Anna Neagle, who rendered consummate and definitive performances in roles ranging from Peter Pan to Queen Victoria in a career of more than 60 years, died in a nursing home near London on Tuesday.

She was 81 and the Associated Press quoted a friend as saying "She hadn't been ill. . . . She just faded away." Last month, suffering from exhaustion, she was ordered to leave the cast of "Cinderella," where she was seen at the London Palladium as the Fairy Godmother twice each day.

Honored for her venerable career in 1969 when she was made a Dame of the British Empire, the blonde, blithe actress who was born Marjorie Robertson came to the center of the world's stages from the farthest reaches of the chorus.

Father a Sea Captain

Her father was a sea captain and she was the only one of his three children to evidence any interest in the arts. She prevailed on her parents (Neagle was her mother's maiden name) to give her dancing lessons, and by age 14 she had won a championship at Queen's Hall in London, which in turn led to her being placed in the rear row of the chorus in the then-popular revues of C. B. Cochran.

Shortly the woman who was to one day portray two of the greatest heroines of the world's two biggest wars (Edith Cavell, the martyred nurse of World War I, and Odette Hallowes, the French Resistance fighter of World War II) was being featured in London musicals of the 1920s.

Dame Anna went to New York with one of them and there was seen by Irish-born film producer Herbert Wilcox. He became not only her producer and director in 33 films but, in 1943, her husband.

Her specialty was historical figures and war heroines. Not all the roles came easily.

To qualify as Victoria in "Sixty Glorious Years" in 1938, she had to undergo the personal scrutiny of the British queen's three surviving children.

Researched Parts

She prided herself on the research she did on Florence Nightingale in "The Lady With the Lamp," made a friend of Amy Johnson--Britain's answer to Amelia Earhart--who she portrayed in "Wings and the Woman," and carefully studied the history of the street vendor who became the mistress of King Charles II in "Nell Gwyn."

But she also returned occasionally to musicals and comedies--"Irene" and "No, No Nanette" in 1940, "Sunny" in 1941 and "Spring in Park Lane" in 1948.

The Guinness Book of World Records cited her as the "most durable leading actress" for her 2,062 performances between 1965 and 1971 in "Charlie Girl."

It was not the record she wanted, it was the money. Her husband, already bankrupt, had suffered a thrombosis. He died in 1977 but her work in "Charlie Girl" and revivals of "Nanette," in which she danced and sang while in her late 60s, had restored the couple to solvency.

Her Last Appearance

Although some of her films and many of Wilcox's didn't make money, she remained for years a Top 10 favorite of British film-goers.

Her last screen appearance was in 1959 in "The Lady Is a Square" but she returned to London and character roles and revivals in some of the West End theaters in which she had entertained as a girl.

"I have no thoughts of retiring," she said on her 80th birthday in October, 1984. "I'll only stop if the public doesn't want to see me any more. Otherwise I'll have to be kicked out. . . ."

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