Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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From Film Illustrated Monthly Vol. 4 No. 9
(undated but approx Aug 1949)
They've labelled me:
* * * By Kathleen byron
"Playing a neurotic kept me off
the screen for eighteen months"
"We see you, Miss Byron, as strictly neurotic." The American casting director who thus summed up my screen personality meant it, I think, as a compliment. More than once during our interview he harked back to my performance as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus.
"That scene where you bust out of the Convent and go nuts; we all admired that tremendously in the States." This indeed, was nice to know, but it was little comfort to me at the time since I had come to him in search of a straight part.
"Look," I said, "I can do other things beside mad scenes." But it was no use; he had made up his mind.
Unfortunately, he was not the only one to see me as "strictly neurotic." A similar attitude among British producers has cost me many parts that I would have given anything to play. It kept me off the screen for eighteen months before Michael Powell gave me the lead opposite David Farrar in The Small Back Room. So I was beginning to think that a success in one particular type of role can be as disabling as a failure.
If I was going to wait for another mad character to come my way, I might wait indefinitely. For insanity is mercifully rare, even on the screen. Meantime people were getting the impression that I was "choosey" and difficult to cast despite my humble assurance that all I wanted was experience, no matter what the part.
Told to "Try something more cheerful"
Before Black Narcissus I had never thought of myself as the neurotic type, though admittedly I struck a slightly morbid note at my first stage audition for the Old Vic Theatre School.
At that time I was a student at London's University College. I had completed an intensive course at the Sorbonne in Paris and was all set to take a degree in modern languages when the urge came upon me suddenly. I went along to the audition without my parents' knowledge.
Full of trepidation, I mounted the stage and delivered a moving speech from "Romeo and Juliet." A voice from the stalls told me to "Try something more cheerful." And in my nervousness I embarked at once on a passage from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Essays on Death."
Despite this wayward choice, I was awarded a scholarship and, after eighteen months' study, made my theatrical debut in John Gielgud's production of "The Tempest." Then I joined the Old Vic Company for a season at the New Theatre.
My first film was The Young Mr. Pitt, starring Robert Donat, in which I had a two-line "bit" as the maid. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger cast me in the slightly larger part of the Dutch schoolmistress in The Silver Fleet and the critics noticed me for the first time.
The ability to go mad convincingly
Meanwhile I had married and when my husband, who was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was posted back to America I went with him. In New York I met Michael Powell again by chance. He had gone there in search of an American girl to take the lead opposite David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death.
Seeing me must have reminded him that he also wanted someone to play the "Other World" W.A.A.F. officer who registers newcomers and issues them with wings, wrapped in Cellophane. Anyway he offered me the part and I came back to England with a film contract.
Then came Black Narcissus, and with it the mantle of neuroticism. It was my first big part and one that offered plentiful opportunity for scene stealing. The critics said a lot of nice things about me and I found myself established as a one-film actress with one particular stock-in-trade: the ability to go mad convincingly.
To escape the odium I went back to the stage and appeared first in Jean Paul Satre's play "Men in Shadow." Later I did the rounds of suburban and provincial theatres, playing a variety of parts including Amanda in "Private Lives." It was a comfort to find that stage producers, at least, could see me in comedy.
All this time I was still under contract to Powell and Pressburger but they were making The Red Shoes in which there was obviously nothing for me.
To escape the odium I went back to the stage and appeared first in Jean Paul Satre's play "Men in Shadow." Later I did the rounds of suburban and provincial theatres, playing a variety of parts including Amanda in "Private Lives." It was a comfort to find that stage producers, at least, could see me in comedy. As for the rest - well it seemed that psychiatric cases were out of fashion for the moment.
"Mad, bad and dangerous to know"
I had almost written off my film career as a dead loss when The Small Back Room came along, as I hoped, to break the spell. In this film I played the cool, competent secretary of the back-room scientist, in love with her boss. Here was a subtle, intelligent, and moreover, completely sane character. It was a more difficult and therefore more enjoyable part to play than Sister Ruth. But although the critics were kind to me again, I am afraid it has not made the same indelible impression.
In Madness of the Heart, as the title indicates, I have partly reverted to type. I appeared as a slightly warped French aristocrat who becomes the jealous rival and would-be murderess of an English girl, played by Margaret Lockwood. The emphasis here is on villainy rather than neuroticism. On the strength of it I have been asked to play a seductress in a new film called The Reluctant Widow, in which Jean Kent is to star. Mad, bad and dangerous to know - this is progress of a kind I suppose.
Given time I may yet succeed in detaching myself from that "strictly neurotic" label. At any rate I am determined to keep on trying.