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German born actress Lilli Palmer made her screen debut in 1935's Crime Unlimited. The film was produced by Warner Brothers-First National/Teddington Studios, WB's production arm in Britain, and came at a time when the U.K. was trying to boost its national film industry. The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 required that a certain percentage of films screened in British cinemas be made domestically (the mandated number started at 5% and rose to 20% by the end of the 1930s). The act also imposed quotas on the number of British citizens who must be employed on a production. It was in this climate that the Jewish Palmer, having fled her homeland, attempted to find work as an actress in England.
Palmer arrived in London at the invitation of producer-director Alexander Korda. She was largely inexperienced, with only Berlin drama studies and Parisian cabaret performances to her credit. Nonetheless, Palmer impressed Korda with her screen test, and she was offered a contract. But the British government nixed the deal, refusing to give Palmer a labor permit. She tried again, finding an agent with Myron Selznick, who sent her that very day to Teddington to test for Crime Unlimited. It seemed the production was in a bit of a fix an actress had already been cast, but had taken ill. It was a doubly lucky break for Palmer. Not only did they want her for the part, but, thanks to the time crunch the delayed shoot was under, her work permit would be approved.
And so Lilli Palmer landed a leading role in her first film. Her co-star in Crime Unlimited was Esmond Knight. In the film, Knight plays an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a gang of jewel thieves. The criminal mastermind of the story is a character named Maddick, who, for most of the movie, never shows his face. Maddick prefers, a la Charlie's Angels, to deliver his messages by intercom. Palmer appears as Knight's love interest and a reluctant member of the gang.
Knight had several years experience on Palmer, having made his film debut as early as 1928. One of Knight's first pictures, 77 Park Lane (1931), would introduce him to then writer Michael Powell. Powell, of course, would go on to become one of England's most respected directors. Knight and Powell would work together on eleven films, including the dance classic The Red Shoes (1948). Meanwhile, on the set of Crime Unlimited, the more seasoned Knight offered up some guidance to the novice Palmer, advising her to "just relax and don't look into the camera." It was apparently a sound recommendation, as the shoot for Crime Unlimited went well -- so well that Warners offered Palmer a 3-year contract.
But her celebration would be short lived. Once again, the British government refused her work application -- and this time Palmer was ordered to leave the country within 48-hours. She did as she was told, returning to England later that same year, again on a visitor's visa. However, in the intervening weeks, a rough cut of Crime Unlimited had been circulated and Palmer's star was suddenly on the rise. This time, an offer came from Gaumont-British studios, who evidently knew how to work around the governmental red tape. And finally, Lilli Palmer got her movie contract.
She would remain in England for 10 years, even marrying a Brit (actor Rex Harrison), before finally making the move to Hollywood in 1945.
Producer: Irving Asher
Director: Ralph Ince
Screenplay: Ralph Smart, Brock Williams
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Art Direction: Peter Proud
Cast: Esmond Knight (Pete Borden), Lilli Palmer (Natasha), Cecil Parker (Assistant Commissioner), George Merritt (Inspector Cardby), Raymond Lovell (Delaney), Wyndham Goldie (Conway Addison).
by Stephanie Thames