Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) was born on the Fourth of July. She is a frustrating figure for the show biz buff. She may well be the latest (most recent) star of her stature to be so out of reach to contemporary audiences. She is of the modern age, but did very little film, television, or radio, and died comparatively young. It adds up to a legend that happened within the living memory of the older people in our lives but which we have little access to. Other than mentions in books, I discovered her chiefly through the 1968 bio-pic Julie Andrews made about her called Star! based on her own memoir A Star Danced.
The daughter of a professional stage singer, Lawrence began her own career when she was only a child of ten, performing in a Christmas pantomime and the London version of Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle (1912), among other early productions. In 1920, she performed a music hall act with singer Walter Williams. She met Noel Coward when they were only teenagers, a lifelong friendship that later resulted in some of her most legendary stage appearances (London Calling! ; Private Lives ; Tonight at 8:30 ). She was only 18 when she was hired by Andre Charlot to be Beatrice Lillie’s understudy. She would later star in several editions of Charlot’s revues herself, which allowed her to become a major figure of Broadway as well as the West End. This led to the Broadway hit, Oh, Kay! (1926) in which she co-starred with Victor Moore, with music by the Gershwins and book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. She sang the show-stopper “Someone to Watch Over Me”, which became a signature song for her. In 1928 she was teamed with Clifton Webb and Walter Catlett for Treasure Girl, also with songs by the Gershwins, and in which she sang “(I’ve Got a) Crush on You”.
In 1929, she made the first of her nine films, The Battle of Paris, filmed at Paramount’s Astoria studios, directed by Robert Florey and co-starring Charles Ruggles and Arthur Treacher. Other notable pictures included Rembrandt (1936) with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester; and her heavily panned appearance as Amanda, the mother in Tennessee Williams Glass Menagerie (1950).
Other notable stage productions included a Broadway revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1945), and a West End appearance in September Tide (1948), which Daphne Du Maurier had written especially for her, and during the production of which the two became close friends. She was appearing as the original Anna in The King and I when she was felled by an illness that proved to be advanced liver and abdominal cancer, which took her at age 54.
For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.