Resurrected by a Song

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No, those aren't obscure Noel Coward songs Jeremy Northam sings in Robert Altman's new film, "Gosford Park." In the film, a comic sendup of '30s-era British murder mysteries, Northam plays Ivor Novello, who--unlike any of the other two dozen or so characters in the ensemble piece--was a real person, the one who actually wrote those tunes.

The similarity to Coward's music (or vice versa) was far from coincidental, and the two men enjoyed a close friendship and professional rivalry for 35 years. Who was this largely forgotten actor-composer, and how did he come to materialize 50 years after his death in this witty film that has already won many pre-Oscar awards for its director, screenwriter and actors?

Novello was Britain's first pop star of the 20th century. A child of humble origins, the drop-dead-handsome Welshman adopted the stage and screen persona of a devil-may-care nobleman. His first success came as a composer of popular songs in the late teens and early '20s. His legend was enhanced as Britain's biggest silent screen star and later as the author of some dreadful stage potboilers, which played in London's West End for years solely because of his star power, and, finally, as the writer of a series of romantic musicals.

His fame was such that five years after his death in 1951, the Ivor Novello Awards, known as the Ivors, were created by the British Academy of Composers & Songwriters to honor outstanding contributions to British music. Paul MCartney, John Lennon, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber are some of the many recipients

Novello's presence in "Gosford Park" is far from haphazard. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes used this commoner posing as a nobleman to underscore the serious theme of this deceptively entertaining thriller.

"I'd already written the screenplay in 2000 when Bob Altman said he wanted to use Ivor Novello's music throughout and have Ivor as an actual character," Fellowes said in a recent phone call from New York, where he'd gone to receive the New York Film Critics award along with director Robert Altman and co-star Helen Mirren. (The three are also nominated, along with actress Maggie Smith, for Golden Globes.) Novello is very much a chorus figure, both with his beautiful melodies and as a symbol of England's class wars.

"If you're not born into the upper classes, you're never one of that crowd," says Fellowes. "Ivor accepts the fact that he's the 'Jester.' When [a character in the film] asks how he can put up with these weekends where he's basically the unpaid entertainment, playing piano on request, he replies poignantly: 'I make my living impersonating them.'"

He was born David Ivor Novello Davies in 1893. His mother was a music teacher who left her 6-month-old child behind in Cardiff, Wales, to shepherd her girls choir to the Chicago World's Fair, where the girls "cleared the board of every prize possible" (according to her son) and were subsequently invited to entertain Queen Victoria. "It was almost a national sensation," Novello wrote years later.

Little wonder that Novello went on to sing and play the piano by age 3 and to win a scholarship to Oxford at 10. At 16, he went to London, where his first song was published the next year. Four years later he became world-famous and wealthy with a World War I tune, the super-patriotic "Keep the Home Fires Burning."

Novello's continued success as a songwriter and his good looks--he was referred to in the press as "the handsomest man in England"--brought him to the attention of movie director Louis Mercanton, who, in 1919, cast him as the lead in "Call of the Blood." With no professional acting experience, Novello became the biggest film star in England until the advent of talkies, while continuing his very successful career as a songwriter. Two years after his first screen appearance, he made his stage debut in the West End, where he remained a force until his death 30 years later.

In 1917, Novello met a struggling 17-year-old actor named Noel Coward outside the Midlands Hotel in Manchester. Coward was in awe of Novello's talent, celebrity and great beauty but later wrote of this first encounter: "Ivor was wearing an old overcoat with an Astrakhan collar and a degraded brown hat, and if he had suddenly produced a violin and played the 'Barcarolle' from the 'Tales of Hoffman,' I should have given him threepence from sheer pity."

Seven years later Coward joined Novello's celebrity circle with the overnight success of his play "The Vortex," in which he also starred. The two men worked together only once, 10 years later in Coward's play "Sirocco," the biggest failure in either man's career. (Coward was spit on by an incensed audience when he left the theater).

Novello's silent films were mostly romantic costume dramas--think of him as the Rudolph Valentino of Britain--with few exceptions, including Alfred Hitchcock's first big hit, "The Lodger," in which Novello played a purported Jack the Ripper. The distributors knew Novello's legion of fans wouldn't stand for "their Ivor" being a serial murderer, so the script was rewritten so that Novello was ultimately revealed not to be the Ripper. Hitchcock's subsequent film "Downhill" also starred Novello and was adapted from "an awful play" (Hitchcock's description) by Novello.

Novello began writing plays for himself in the 1920s. Coward, in awe of Novello's ability to endlessly write beautiful tunes (which clearly influenced much of Coward's own music), did not share this enthusiasm for the Welshman's playwriting skills or acting ability. He would cringe in his seat throughout these performances, steeling himself to go backstage afterward and tell Novello precisely what he thought.

But Novello always thwarted these critical assessments by flinging his dressing room door open and disarming the younger man in his distinctive Welsh tones: "Aaaah, ducky. I knew you'd like it." Coward eventually gave up trying to improve on Novello's success and admitted: "Nobody who ever knew Ivor for five minutes could ever begrudge him anything."

Chain-smoking his Abdullah Turkish cigarettes, driven around the West End by Morgan, his chauffeur, in a maroon Rolls-Royce with "I.N." in gold leaf on each door, dining at the Ivy (the Sardi's of London) with Gladys Cooper and other great beauties of the time (although he and actor Robert Andrews were a couple for 35 years), he held court and served tea in his legendary apartment in the Aldwych "occasionally enhanced but never interrupted," Coward wrote, "by peculiar noises from the next room where Mme. Novello Davies gave interminable singing lessons to small Welsh women in grey clothes."

But by November 1932, the period in which "Gosford Park" is set, circumstances had taken a decidedly unpleasant turn for Novello. Hoping to recapture the success of the silent "The Lodger," he remade it with sound but without Hitchcock. It was a flop. His talking-picture persona was deemed wooden and, by 1932, his career in movies was effectively over. His last film was in 1934.

"There's an element of pathos in Jeremy's performance that makes Novello very moving," says "Gosford Park" screenwriter Fellowes of Northam. "He's at the end of one career not knowing what his next one will be. He's very interesting, not an obvious braggadocio but a depressed show-biz character."

"The film shows the upper classes losing connection with popular culture," says Fellowes. "Constance [Maggie Smith] has never seen Ivor's movies and tries to dissuade the others from listening to his music. On the other hand, the servants hide in corners and listen devotedly. This shows the working classes looking forward to the future and the upper classes looking forward to the past."

What happened to Ivor Novello? He reinvented himself yet again and had his greatest successes on stage beginning in 1935 with "Glamorous Night," an opera-operetta-musical comedy. Although he also starred in this smash hit, he did not sing (unlike Coward) and wrote only the music (unlike Coward, who wrote tunes and lyrics). But he was a superstar. "Glamorous Night" and subsequent Novello shows "Careless Rapture," "Crest of the Wave," "The Dancing Years," "Perchance to Dream" and "King's Rhapsody" ran for years. They were schmaltzy romances capitalizing on Novello's romantic silent-screen image, and the public ate them up.

He would undoubtedly have been knighted for his contributions to stage and film if he hadn't been arrested during World War II for purchasing black-market petrol; he served a brief prison term.

He died of a heart attack in March 1951 after a performance of his hit "King's Rhapsody" (in the second year of its West End run). When the play was filmed four years later, Errol Flynn played the glamorous monarch.

On the day Novello died, Coward wrote in his diary: "I shall miss him very much because, in spite of his plays and his acting, I was very fond of him--also he is another landmark swept away."

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