Madeleine Carroll was one of the most gracefully aristocratic performers ever to work at a Hollywood studio.
Author-critic David Thomson put it nicely: “The first English rose transplanted to America, Madeleine Carroll had all the regal beauty of the English leading lady.”
Carroll started making movies in 1928, and made an indelible impression as the first cool-blonde actress type that director Alfred Hitchock favored throughout his career (seeTippi Hedren, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, et al.). Thomson notes that it was her two films for Hitchcock (produced by British Gaumont) that added a little spice to the blondeness.”
Madeleine was literally linked (via handcuffs) to Robert Donat in the 1935 version of The 39 Steps — what a great movie classic! — and costarred with Peter Lorre, Robert Young and John Gielgud in 1936’s Secret Agent. Carroll was regarded at the time as the “Queen of British Cinema.”
Her popularity was such that she became the highest paid actress of her time, making a cool — remember, this is during the Great Depression — $250,000 in 1938.
Carroll’s subsequent Hollywood career that began with that glittering resume never quite matched her early U.K. successes among the general public. Her studio output included such largely forgettable titles as 1936’s The General Died At Dawn, and 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda.
Then she wound up working with Bob Hope when she was cast as Karen Bentley, a British secret agent linking up with a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian — whose onstage partner is a roller-skating penguin by the name of Percy — in 1942’s My Favorite Blonde, a whacky concoction by writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank.
After her sister was killed in a London bombing raid, she interrupted her acting career for a time to become a Red Cross nurse in the war effort, serving in England and France (for which she later received official recognition from the French government).
By the mid-Forties, her Hollywood movie career was largely over. One of her later films, 1949’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” was directed by Otto Preminger.
Carroll’s personal life was turbulent. She was married and divorced four times. One of her husbands was the then ruggedly, handsome, 6-foot-5 actor Sterling Hayden (born in Montclair, New Jersey as John Hamilton). Hayden was 10 years younger that Carroll, who used her influence to land him a studio contract. The two costarred in director Edward H.Griffith’s Virginia in 1940 and Bahama Passage in 1941.
Her last husband, Andrew Heiskell, was chairman and CEO of Time Inc. After their marriage ended in 1965, Madeleine Carroll retired, presumably blissfully, as a single, ex-film-star, spending a lot of her time in Marbella, Spain where she died at 81 of pancreatic cancer in October 1987.