Sybil Thorndike: Of The Stage and Stage Fright

Dame Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) is best known to modern audiences for a handful of screen roles, supporting parts in the film versions of Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941) and Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950). Theatre history buffs may know at least one other thing: Shaw wrote Saint Joan (1923) with her in mind for the lead.

She was the younger sister of author Russell Thorndike, who wrote the Doctor Syn novels on which The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is based. Initially she studied to be a concert pianist, but had trouble with her hands, so she then studied for the drama. In 1908 she married actor Lewis Classon, with who she formed a husband-wife acting team. She performed Shakespearean roles for Charles Frohman, and at the Old Vic for years, and toured the U.S. and played Broadway in addition to roles in her native country. Of especial interest is her appearance in several Grand Guignol productions mounted by Jose Levy at the Little Theatre in London from 1920 to 1922.

In 1922 Thorndike launched a series of silent films wherein she played great characters from literature and the theatre: Lady MacBeth, Hester Prynne, Portia, Marguerite Gautier, Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Nancy from Oliver Twist. In 1927 she reenacted one of her scenes from Saint Joan in an early DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film experiment. She publicly supported John Gielgud when he was outed as a homosexual in 1952. Her last professional credit was a 1970 TV program called The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens with Anthony Hopkins.

To learn more about show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.