At certain points in her career, Gracie Fields (born this day in 1879) was the highest paid film star in the world, and second in record album sales only to Enrico Caruso. Fields’ working class music hall persona was easily come by; she was literally born and raised over her grandmother’s fish and chip shop. At her mother’s instigation, she (and her two younger sisters) began performing professionally when still a child in such acts as the Nine Dainty Dots. She began working with Archie Pitt in 1915. He was to become her performing partner, her manager and eventually her husband. By the late ’20s she was a star of the west end. She came to the states and played the Palace in 1930 with mixed success. In the 30s she was to become a recording and movie star, and a much beloved national figure, helping to rally a public dispirited by depression and looming war. In 1940 she divorced Pitts and married film director Monty Banks, well known to lovers of silent film comedy. The two were married until his passed away in 1950. In later years, Fields made her home in Italy (Banks’ country of origin) and made occasional records and television appearances. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1979 a few months before her death.
Here’s a very cool clip of her performing live in 1938, courtesy the Dame Gracie Fields Appreciation Society:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc