Ivor Novello was a romantic matinee idol and Hollywood star in 1936, which is why it was something of a surprise to audiences at His Majesty’s to see him play an ugly, gambling, womanising, rake of a man in Max Beerbohm’s play The Happy Hypocrite, which opened on 8 April 1936.
The Happy Hypocrite, written in 1897, tells the story of Lord George Hall (Novello), who brings his debauched ways to an abrupt end after he is struck by cupid’s arrow while out on the town with his lover La Gambogi. His new heart’s desire is a young dancer called Jenny Mere, who says she will only marry a man with the face of a saint. Lord George subsequently purchases a mask to disguise his ugliness and discards his distinctly un-saintly ways in order to marry Jenny, casting La Gambogi aside in the process.
Starring alongside Novello in this production were Vivien Leigh as Jenny, Isabel Jeans as La Gambosi and Marius Goring as Amor.
Welshman Novello first found public acclaim as a singer and composer during World War One with the song Keep The Home Fires Burning. He went on to write and star in many musical shows and plays in the West End, including The Truth Game – written under the pen name of H E S Davidson – Glamorous Night, Symphony In Two Flats, Party, Murder In Mayfair, Careless Rapture and The Dancing Years, and wrote the music for many more. He began screen acting during the silent era with films including The White Rose, The Rat, Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Downhill, going on to find even greater acclaim in the talkies. He died in 1951 in the flat he owned above the Strand theatre in Aldwych, where he had often performed. In 2005 the theatre was renamed the Novello.
Playwright Beerbohm was the younger half-brother of actor-manager and third SOLT President Herbert Beerbohm-Tree. A radio broadcaster, critic, caricaturist and writer, Beerbohm’s works include the stories A Christmas Garland, Seven Men, the novel Zuleika Dobson and The Happy Hypocrite, which he wrote in 1897. Originally a short story, it was first performed as a play in 1900 at the Royalty, starring Frank Mills and Mrs Patrick Campbell.