Funny how we accepted movie stars in the Golden era who had “titles.” Two notable examples are today’s subjects: Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame May Whitty.
Whitty first stepped the British stage in 1882, and reigned as a leading stage actress for a quarter century. Hardwicke made his London stage debut in 1912, and was a stage and film actor of note by the early Thirties specializing in Shakespeare and Shaw productions and film adaptations of literary works.
Interestingly, it was Hardwicke who was knighted for his acting — by King George V in 1934. Wrote British critic David Thomson: By today’s standards, it is a mystery that Hardwicke should have been knighted for his acting when only 38 years old. By that date he was successful but hardly aristocratic.
May, on the other hand, was named Dame Commander of the British Empire (again by King George, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth) in 1918 largely for her considerable charitable work on behalf of British troops during World War I. Unlike Hardwicke, Whitty consistently used the title in her billing from then on.
Hardwicke flourished in Hollywood, and had much the busier career, credited with more than 100 movie and tv productions. His range was enormous.
He appeared in the unheralded 1939 hit, Stanley and Livingston starring Spencer Tracy, which bears the responsibility of introducing — Dr. Livingston, I Presume. — into the American movie lexicon. The movie has Tracy as 19th century newspaperman Henry Stanley tracking elusive Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingston (Hardwicke) — previously believed to be dead — in the African wilds.
Among the actor’s many notable titles: 1937’s King Solomon’s Mines, 1948’s Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1949’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (see below).
Hardwick even turned up turned up as a crooked doctor in 1957’s Baby Face Nelson. Director Don Siegel remembered the actor as a terrible villain. He drank a great deal and was a great deal of fun and he looked like a sleazy doctor. The picture everyone has is of someone very prim and proper, but he was not that way at all.
Dame May Whitty made most of her movie appearances in imperious and slightly crotchety parts a la Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s 1938’s classic The Lady Vanishes.
She was nominated twice for supporting actress Oscars for 1937’s Night Must Fall and 1942’s Mrs. Miniver.
Whitty and Hardwicke appear together in another Hitchcock 1941 classic, Suspicion.
(There they are bookending daughter Joan Fontaine.)
Whitty died of cancer in 1948 at 82; Hardwicke, a heavy smoker, died of emphysema in 1964 at the age of 71. Aristocrats to the end.