In her heyday during the 1930s and 1940s, Gracie was not only Britains Number One female comic but also, by some curious alchemy, after the royal family its best-known and most universally respected personage. She had sprung forth, as it were, from a lowly background to fame against high odds to become affectionately known nationally as Our Gracie. A decidedly down-to-earth, working-class Lancastrian lass, she was billed during the Depression years as Britains greatest cheer-up comedienne". A royal favourite (she made ten Command appearances between 1928 and 1978) she was the highest-paid British female film-star of the inter-War years.
Gracie was born Grace Stansfield, in Rochdale, on 9th January, 1898, the daughter of Fred (a sailor-turned-factory engineer) and Jenny, a mill-worker and a talented amateur soprano who hoped to see her frustrated Thespian inclinations fulfilled by her offspring. Encouraged by her stage-struck mother, at the age of ten Gracie appeared with a local amateur singing-dancing troupe called Haleys Garden of Girls; by the time she was twelve she was already working alongside her mother in the local cotton mill, but opportunity knocked with her first professional singing engagement, at Rochdales New Hippodrome, in 1910. By the following year, now known as Gracie Fields, she was already appearing on northern club and variety circuits and in pierrot shows and by 1915 had reached London, in the touring revue Yes, I Think So. Her meeting with West End impresario Archie Pitt, her future husband, proved an early catalyst to her progress in the capital. After first touring with his long-running Its A Bargain, her career took off in earnest in 1918 with the part of Sally Perkins in Mr. Tower Of London, in which she appeared in London, at the Alhambra, from 1922.
Throughout the 1920s, Gracie was a regular at the Café Royal, the Coliseum and other London theatres. Her first records were issued in 1928 and by 1933 their sales had already topped four million. Her not inconsiderable discography comprises a range of love-songs and ballads (sung "straight" or, at any rate, as straight as she could manage) and a more abundant stock-in-trade of comic and "cheer-up" numbers, many of the latter from her various films. At that time of austerity there was a flourishing market to provide laughs and Gracie, first on disc then via radio and screen, became an almost palpable institution, the vitally cheerful female counterpart of her fellow-Lancastrian George Formby, Jr. Starting with Sally In Our Alley (1931) her earliest films, for the most part unlikely in story-line but geared to cheer the dispirited masses, were made for Basil Deans pioneering British Associated Talking Pictures Company (ATP).
Flimsy of plot but quaintly interesting in musical content, Looking On The Bright Side (1932) offered an archetypal cheer-up title-song and the drolly macabre Hes Dead, But He Wont Lie Down which cast Gracie Fields irretrievably into the mould of screen morale-booster and led to a long and lucrative series in similar tone, including This Week Of Grace (1933), Love, Life And Laughter and Sing As We Go (both 1934), Look Up And Laugh (1935) and The Queen Of Hearts (1936).
Throughout her long and busy career Gracie worked unstintingly for charity (childless, she set up the Gracie Fields Orphanage, for which she was awarded the CBE, in 1938) and from 1939 onwards, under the auspices of ENSA, she "did her bit" for the war effort, as witness the medley Gracie With The Boys In France (introduced from "somewhere in France" by the veteran actor, producer and playwright Seymour Hicks (1871-1949) she is backed by a chorus of the British Expeditionary Force). However, early in 1940, in London, the already divorced Gracie was remarried to Mario Bianchi (aka Monty Banks), the film producer she had met in Hollywood at the studios of 20th Century Fox. In blitz-torn London the Italian Montys status was at that time "enemy alien", so to avoid internment the couple quit Great Britain for the USA, arousing ill-found (if at the time understandable) allegations of treasonable desertion.
By 1940, Gracie was already blossoming as a cult figure in the States. From 1938, Daryl Zanuck had made some brave, if largely unsuccessful, attempts to import her "Ee, by gum" image by pairing her with Victor McLaglen in the British-made 20th Century Fox comedy Were Going To Be Rich and, subsequently, in Smiling Along (for British audiences re-titled Keep Smiling, this contained such numbers as Youve Got To Be Smart In The Army Nowadays). Later, in 1943, she was given a cameo in Sol Lessers star-studded Hollywood morale-booster Stage Door Canteen.
During 1940 Gracie recorded sentimental songs and film tunes in both New York and Hollywood and there too fuelled the founts of American patriotic endeavour with The Thing-Ummy Bob (Thats Going To Win The War). Throughout WW2 she toured tirelessly for ENSA, entertaining both British and American forces stationed in various locations around the world. In 1948 she made a triumphant return to the London Palladium and thereafter, following Montys death in 1950, married again in 1952 to the Yugoslav Boris Alperovici and entered a phase of semi-retirement at the villa on Capri she had purchased in 1933. She appeared regularly on British TV during the 1950s and 1960s and, less frequently, the 1970s. In 1978 she was created a Dame of the British Empire and passed peacefully away at her Capri home on 27th September, 1979.
Peter Dempsey, 2002
Transfers and Production: David Lennick
Digital Noise Reduction: Graham Newton
Original 78s from the collections of David Lennick and Graham Newton
Photo of Gracie Fields in 1940, wearing the uniform of an honorary Captain in the Canadian Women's Volunteer Reserve Corps of Montreal (b/w original, Hulton/Archive)