‘SINCE it was impossible to discriminate between them, Broadway had two First Ladies in the periods just before and after World War II. They were Katharine Cornell and Helen Hayes – separate but equal,’ wrote Brooks Atkinson, who was the critic for the New York Times throughout the period. British audiences must take him at his word, for Hayes appeared on the London stage in only one play, The Glass Menagerie, in 1948. She played Amanda Wingfield, Tennessee Williams’s romanticised but angry portrait of his mother, a fading (inevitably) Southern belle, the role played by Laurette Taylor on Broadway. Hayes did not bother with a Southern accent – or at least not when I saw her in the play in Paris in 1961, when she was touring Europe with it for the US State Department.
And so she missed the essence of Amanda, her raison d’etre. It was a performance much stronger in technique than feeling – which seems to be true of most of the American stage actresses of her generation. It is an endlessly difficult subject: Broadway playgoers who come to London regularly to take in the new plays never dispute claims to the superiority of British actresses, from Sybil Thorndike to Dorothy Tutin. Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies’s recent death reminded me of a magical performance she gave in 1956 in a revival of TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion. It was so still; all feeling and no technique.
Hayes did a lot of Barrie, including Dear Brutus and What Every Woman Knows, which was class stuff in those days. Maxwell Anderson wrote Mary of Scotland for her, and she followed that by being Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina, in which she aged 80 years at every performance, 969 times. The two queens, what with Broadway, tours and revivals, took up most of the 1930s. It’s much easier to become a First Lady of the Theatre if you’re playing queens rather than barmaids.
Hayes went on the stage at the age of five. It was a life devoted to the theatre, and not a private one. For this demure woman married the journalist and playwright Charles MacArthur, who wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht, in 1928. MacArthur was a womaniser, drunken and irresponsible – so, as Atkinson said, ‘The public took a personal interest in her courtship and marriage.’ She was then starring in Coquette, directed by Jed Harris and co-written by George Abbott. This was one of the many pieces of the time about a nice girl pretending to be a jazz baby, and was a big success for her. While touring with it she became pregnant and the management sued: the judge found in her favour, but not without huge publicity, for the daughter who was born, Mary, was always known as the ‘Act of God baby’.
When Talkies came in, Hayes refused invitations to go to Hollywood, but her husband thought it foolish to turn down the huge sums offered him. With tongue very much in cheek he wrote the screenplay of The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), one of the maudlin tales of mother-love so popular then. Hayes played Madelon, who in the course of the action goes from seduced virgin to a broken-down old whore, but still sacrificing herself for the noble son who does not recognise her. Both Hayes and MacArthur were amused when she was awarded an Oscar for her performance.
The film was made for MGM, who had put Hayes under contract. She made half-a-dozen films for the company, worthy, literary and seldom revived. In most of them she is never unselfconscious, but she can rise to the occasion, eyes glistening in the best ‘great actress’ tradition. She did do two marvellous films, also from best-selling novels, Arrowsmith (1931), directed by John Ford from the book by Sinclair Lewis, and A Farewell to Arms (1932), directed by Frank Borzage from the Hemingway story. Partnered magnificently by Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper respectively, Hayes is touching, exquisite and without the mannerisms which lesser directors indulged.
When Hayes decided to quit films in 1935, she did not do so quietly: ‘I am leaving the screen because I don’t think I am very good in pictures and I have a beautiful dream that I’m elegant on stage.’ It was a remark precisely calculated to renew her reputation as a dedicated actress – to which end she attempted Shakespeare: Portia in 1938 and Viola in 1940. The critics were only moderately impressed.
When she was rehearsing a play about Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet (1943), Elia Kazan was called in to take over the direction. ‘I believed that Helen was doing what she’d done many times before, giving us her special cliche image: a peppy little woman, energetic and determined yet ladylike, taking charge of a situation but never in a way that might prove humiliating to her man. She would make her miracles happen prudently, ever adorable, sugar and spice. We’d all seen this performance before; the image was totally familiar, her effects threadbare.’ She agreed with him, and they knocked the role into shape. But when he saw the play later, ‘the very elements that I’d been trying to get rid of, the cute mannerisms, were what the audience devoured’. And he had to wonder whether it would have had the same success if she had played the role as he required.
Apart from a guest appearance as herself in Stage Door Canteen (1943) she remained away from movies till My Son John (1952), a ripely anti-Red drama directed and co-written by Leo McCarey. Hayes played the mother of the all-American boy (Robert Walker) who rejects the values of God’s Own Country, secretly plotting to replace them with those of another. Hayes, exuding prestige from her stage roles, is exactly as expected – looking her age, which few stars then did even when playing mothers, and hoping to knock us between the eyes with a performance that is both understated and busy at the same time. Walker died before the film was completed, so the last reel is garbled, with a couple of inserts from Strangers on a Train. Coming at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts, it nevertEheless quickly disappeared.
Hayes’s next screen appearancTHER write errore attracted much more attention, when she played the Romanov Grand Duchess who recognises Ingrid Bergman as one of her family, in the title-role of Anastasia (1956). On the stage she appeared in Anouilh, Time Remembered (1957), with Richard Burton, and O’Neill, A Touch of the Poet (1958), with Eric Portman. She also began appearing regularly on television, notably in Arsenic and Old Lace (1956) with Billie Burke, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.
In 1970 she returned to movies, in Airport, as a stowaway of fey manner and demeanour. Billed as ‘Miss Helen Hayes’ she impressed the Academy voters and became the first player to win Oscars in both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories. This film, unfortunately, typed her and she was thereafter required to be resolutely cute, in, for instance, some Disney throwaways and several Miss Marples adventures made for television. For a while in the Seventies, on television, Hayes and Mildred Natwick were sleuthing spinsters, The Snoop Sisters. But even coasting in such meaningless roles, it was still clear why she had been so much admired: beneath the ‘little old lady’ affectations there is a steely fibre, a sense of integrity. But in the end, it is this Helen Hayes which is left to us, a partial record, not the one who queened it on Broadway. She wouldn’t have minded. When forced to give up stage work she said, ‘I have known very few artists in my time. Laurette Taylor was one. Olivier is another. Me, I’m proud of my craft.’
The above “Independent” obituary can also be accessed online here.
David Shipman’s “Independent” obituary in 1993: