Childhood & Early Career
Anna Neagle was born Dame Florence Marjorie Wilcox, on October 20, 1904, in Forest Gate, Essex, to Florence Neagle and Herbert William Robertson. She grew up in a middle-class household. Her father worked in the merchant navy. She had an older brother named Stuart Robertson, who grew up to become an actor.
Due to her father’s job, her family kept moving from one city to another, in the U.K. The family eventually settled in Glasgow, Scotland, where Anna completed her primary education.
In her teenage years, she moved back to England and settled in Hertfordshire, where she joined the ‘St. Albans High School for Girls,’ a Catholic school.
She was interested in performing arts even in her adolescence. She made her stage debut at the age of 13, playing a dancer in a musical. She then appeared in a few revues, such as ‘Bubbly.’
In 1931, she launched her stage career, starring opposite actor Jack Buchanan in the ‘West End’ musical titled ‘Stand Up and Sing.’ Jack was so impressed with her work that he urged her to take the frontline in the musical. She took his advice and changed her stage name to “Anna Neagle.”
The show was a nationwide success and had more than 600 shows. Film director Herbert Wilcox watched the show more than once and noticed Anna’s talent. He considered her for a role in his feature film. Thus, she began her film career in the early 1930s.
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Anna had made her film debut with a small role in the 1929 film titled ‘Those Who Love.’ She played many un-credited roles in the early 1930s before she made her full-fledged feature film debut with the 1932 film titled ‘Goodnight, Vienna,’ directed by Wilcox. The musical became a huge success, and Anna became an overnight film star.
The same year, she appeared in the film titled ‘The Flag Lieutenant.’ In the years that followed, she was mostly seen in director Wilcox’s films, such as ‘Nell Gwynn’ and ‘Bitter Sweet.’ By the mid-1930s, she had already become one of the most celebrated British actors of her time.
In 1936 and 1937, she appeared in two films directed by Wilcox, namely ‘Peg of Old Drury’ and ‘Limelight.’ Both the films turned out to be massively successful, and Anna and Wilcox continued their successful run with many other films.
In 1936, they released the film titled ‘Three Maxims.’ It was one of Anna’s first films that made waves across the U.S., too. In the US, the film was released as ‘The Show Goes On.’ The film had Anna performing high-intensity acrobatics herself, which added to her growing fame.
Despite becoming a popular film actor, she never stopped working in stage productions. In the mid-1930s, she appeared in plays such as ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘As You Like It.’
The year 1937 is widely considered a career-defining year for her. That year, she appeared in the titular role (Queen Victoria) in the film ‘Victoria the Great.’ The film was a massive success and marked the pinnacle of the work relationship between Wilcox and her.
‘Victoria the Great’ was internationally acclaimed, and Anna’s fame reached the U.S. again. She was offered roles in many Hollywood productions back then and eventually made her Hollywood debut with the film ‘Nurse Edith Cavell,’ again directed by Wilcox.
Taking a break from serious dramas, the director-actor duo took on musical comedies next and made three films together: ‘Irene’, ‘No, No, Nanette,’ and ‘Sunny.’
In 1943, they made their last American film together, ‘Forever and a Day.’ The film was made in collaboration with artists from both the U.K. and the U.S., with both countries being in the middle of a war. The profits and salaries earned from the film were sent to the respective armies to support them in the war. The prints of the film were to be destroyed to prevent anyone else from making further profits from the film, but that never happened.
The couple moved back to the U.K. and continued making films such as ‘They Flew Alone,’ ‘Yellow Canary,’ and ‘Piccadilly Incident.’
In 1947, she appeared in the film titled ‘The Courtneys of Curzon Street,’ which was the most successful film of that year.
By the late 1940s, Anna was at the peak of her film career. She was delivering back-to-back successes. In 1950, the film ‘Odette’ was released, which Anna later claimed was her favorite film.
However, in 1964, Wilcox went bankrupt. He had married Anna by then. She took on the responsibility of reviving her husband’s financial situation. Soon, she appeared in many musicals, such as ‘Charlie Girl.’ The ‘West End’ musical was not a critical success but was played for 6 years and eventually completed more than 2,000 shows. This unprecedented success proved that Anna was still popular with the masses.
Apart from acting on stage and in films, Anna had also sung in records, such as ‘A Little Dash of Dublin’ and ‘Kiss Me Goodnight.’
Her contribution to the entertainment industry won her many honors from the British government. In 1952, she was named a ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire.’ In 1969, she was declared a ‘Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.’
Family, Personal Life & Death
Anna Neagle married director Herbert Wilcox in 1943. The two often collaborated on projects. The couple remained together until Wilcox’s death in 1977. They had no children together. However, Herbert had many children from his previous marriages.
Anna passed away on June 3, 1986. The cause of her death was unspecified, but it was rumored to be cancer.