Constance Collier (1878-1955)

Constance Collier Constance Collier
(signed postcard, gloss, Rotary Photo, 1506X, c.1905) (signed postcard, gloss, Rotary Photo, 4039, c.1905)

Constance Collier (born Laura Constance Hardie in Windsor, Berkshire) was the only child of Auguste Cheetham Hardie (1853-1939) and Eliza Georgina Collier (1854-1914). Both were professional actors, although, certainly later in their careers, neither of them was very successful. According to J P Wearing's The London Stage, 1890-1899, he appeared, during that nine-year period, in but three plays, while his wife was in only two.

Constance made her stage debut at the age of three, when she played Fairy Peasblossom in A Midsummer's Night Dream. In 1893, at the age of fifteen, she joined the Gaiety Girls, the famous dance troupe based at the Gaiety Theatre in London. She was very beautiful and soon became so tall that she towered over all the other dancers. In addition, she had enormous personality and considerable determination. She naturally attracted considerable attention.

Constance Collier
Constance Collier as Cleopatra, 1906
Click photo to enlarge

In 1901, Sir Henry Beerbohm Tree, who was also very tall, invited her to join his company at His Majesty's Theatre, London. She was soon playing leading roles. In Tree's production of Comyns Carr's dramatization of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, which opened on July 10, 1905, she played Nancy to Tree's Fagin. Her performance was much acclaimed. The same year, she married the Irish actor, Julian L'Estrange.

On December 27, 1906, Beerbohm Tree's extravagant revival of Antony and Cleopatra opened at His Majesty's Theatre with Tree as Marc Antony and Constance Collier as Cleopatra, a performance for which she received much critical praise. Famed for his realistic productions, Tree and his designer, Percy Macquoid, dressed Cleopatra is a range of spectacular costumes. Later, Constance Collier commented: 'There is only a mention in the play of Cleopatra appearing as the goddess Isis. Tree elaborated this into a great tableau' Cleopatra, robed in silver, crowned in silver, carrying a golden scepter and the symbol of the sacred golden calf in her hand, went in procession through the streets of Alexandria, the ragged, screaming populace acclaiming the Queen, half in hate, half in superstitious fear and joy as she made her sacrilegious ascent to her high throne in the market-place.'

Constance Collier was now established as a popular and distinguished actress. In January 1908, she starred with Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty's Theatre in J. Comyn's new play The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on Charles Dickens's unfinished novel of the same name. Later that year, she made the first of several tours of the United States. During the second, made with Beerbohm Tree in 1916, she made four silent films, including an un-credited appearance in D W Griffith's Intolerance and as Lady Macbeth in Tree's first and disastrous film interpretation of Macbeth. 'His face at the window,' she later recalled, 'had a look of supreme relief as the train began to pull out of Los Angeles station.'

Tragically, on October 22, 1918, her husband, Julian L'Estrange, died in New York, aged only 40 - one of the multitudinous victims of the influenza epidemic that reaped such world-wide havoc immediately after the end of the First World War.

Back in London, Constance Collier continued to be one of the brightest and most influential stars of the West End. She took the lead part in the record-breaking, 548 performances of W Somerset Maugham's Our Betters. In 1920, she starred with Basil Rathbone in Peter Ibbetson, John Raphael's adaptation of the George DuMaurier novel. The following year she wrote the film script for Forever, the first film version of the novel. (Later, in 1931, she produced with Deems Taylor the libretto for his lyric-opera of Peter Ibbetson that had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.)

In the early 1920s, she established a close friendship with Ivor Novello, who was then a young, handsome actor. His first play, The Rat, was written in collaboration with her in 1924. She also appeared in several plays with him, including the British version of the American success, The Firebrand by Edwin Justus Mayer.

With the advent of talking films, Hollywood had a desperate need for vocal coaches who could train their silent box-office successes to speak. The studio bosses summoned Constance Collier, the famed interpreter of both classical and modern plays. Among her first clients was Colleen More, who in 1928 had starred in several hugely successful silent films, including Lilac Time, playing opposite the young Gary Cooper. In the documentary Hollywood, Colleen More hilariously recalled that it took Constance Collier a complete day to teach her how to say 'mother' another to teach her 'father'. 'Cheer up, dollink,' one of the studio bosses said. 'Tomorrow maybe you'll learn a sentence.'  

Constance Collier quickly became Hollywood's most famous drama and voice coach. Her many clients included some of the greatest stars, including those who were moving from the stage into films. One of these was Eva Le Gallienne, who in her autobiography, At 33, recalls:

'Constance Collier tried to make me see the values in the beautiful speeches, to bring out the music without losing sight of the meaning. She explained to me the two chief dangers in reading Shakespeare's verse: the one, to intone in a stilted fashion losing all feeling or reality; the other, precisely the opposite, in the effort to be natural, the complete disregard of poetic metre. She was a ruthlessly honest teacher'

Although Constance Collier made fewer and fewer stage appearances (her last in New York was in the 1939 production of Aries is Rising), she played many supporting roles in films between 1935 (when she was put on contract by M-G-M) and 1949. Her best-known appearance was in the classic Stage Door (1937) where, among an all-star cast she played (not surprisingly) a drama coach. Her other films included The Perils of Pauline (1947) and Rope (1948).

It is, however, for her coaching of actors that she is most remembered during the latter part of her career.  Although often working in Hollywood, she also worked in the 1930s at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, with an impressive group of instructors that included Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagan and Michale Chekov.

She gave acting lessons to many future stars including Marilyn Monroe about whom she said:

I don't think she is an actress at all, not in any traditional sense. What she has - this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence - could never surface on the stage. It's so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It's like a hummingbird in flight; only a camera can freeze the poetry of it. But anyone who thinks this girl is simply another Harlow or harlot or whatever is mad. I hope, I really pray, that she survives long enough to free the strange, lovely talent that's wandering through her like a jailed spirit.

Constance Collier was presented with the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre Award for distinguished service in training and guiding actors in Shakespearean roles.

CONSTANCE COLLIER

Click photo to enlarge
Constance Collier Constance Collier Constance Collier Constance Collier Constance Collier
Signed photo, in role of Viole in Twelfth Night, 1905 Signed photo, c.1906 As Nancy in Oliver Twist, 1905 Oliver Twist program for Souvenir Night, October 12, 1905 Ivor Novello & Constance Collier in The Firebrand (1926)

Constance Collier died in New York on April 25, 1955.

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Bibliography of Cornish Medieval Drama

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