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Yellow Canary

Yellow Canary(1944)

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teaser Yellow Canary (1944)

RKO's British unit did its part for the war effort with Yellow Canary (1943), a tale of a socialite posing as a Nazi sympathizer to mask her activities as a British agent. Forced to leave England, ostracized by everyone, including her well-to-do family, she is courted by both a Polish aristocrat and a British naval intelligence officer aboard ship to Canada. By the time the vessel docks, it has become apparent that several of the principals are playing a double game in this thriller fashioned by producer-director Herbert Wilcox for his bride, Anna Neagle.

A music hall performer in her native England, Neagle was discovered by Wilcox, who shepherded her career and eventually married her a few months before the release of Yellow Canary. After several successes in Britain, including the biopics Nell Gwyn (1934), Victoria the Great (1937), and Nurse Edith Cavell (1939), Wilcox tried to make Neagle a star in Hollywood. But musicals such as Irene (1940) and No, No Nanette (1940) were not huge successes. In England, however, Neagle's stardom grew even greater during the war years. The personal and professional partnership between the actress and the film impresario was a long and fruitful one, lasting until his death in 1977. Neagle, who returned to the stage when her film career waned in the 1950s, was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1969 for her contributions to the theater and lived until 1986.

The characters of the Polish aristocrat Jan Orlock and his imperious mother may remind viewers a little of the lethal mother-son combo in Alfred Hitchcock's Nazi spy thriller Notorious (1946). There are a few other Hitchcock connections with this picture. Lucie Mannheim, who plays Madame Orlock, was in the director's The 39 Steps (1935). Cast member Nova Pilbeam was in Hitchcock's original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), as well as his Young and Innocent (1937).

Co-scripter Miles Malleson worked with Hitchcock in another capacity: as an actor in The 39 Steps and Stage Fright (1950). He also appeared in several other pictures made by the Wilcox-Neagle team, and wrote several of them, too. The talented and prolific Malleson was for many years a leading light of the British stage and cinema, chalking up film credits in notable productions for Alexander Korda, David Lean and others. In the 1950s, he appeared in an episode of the popular Robin Hood TV series, which starred Richard Greene, seen here as the naval intelligence officer Garrick.

The Yellow Canary script was also written by studio contract writer DeWitt Bodeen, who had a hand in such memorable works as Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), all of them for Val Lewton's acclaimed horror unit at RKO.

Another British entertainment legend in the cast is Margaret Rutherford, two years before her career-defining role as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (1945) and nearly two decades before she first took on what would become perhaps her most famous role, Miss Jane Marple, in a series of films based on Agatha Christie's mysteries.

Director/Producer: Herbert Wilcox
Screenplay: P.M. Bower, Miles Malleson, DeWitt Bodeen
Cinematography: Max Greene (aka Mutz Greenbaum)
Editing: Vera Campbell
Art Direction: William C. Andrews
Original Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Anna Neagle (Sally Maitland), Richard Greene (Lt. Cmdr. Jim Garrick), Nova Pilbeam (Betty Maitland), Lucie Mannheim (Madame Orlock), Margaret Rutherford (Mrs. Towcester).

by Rob Nixon

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