Noel Coward


Actor, Playwright

About

Also Known As
Sir Noel Coward, Noel Peirce Coward
Birth Place
Middlesex, England, GB
Born
December 16, 1899
Died
March 26, 1973
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

Biography

A prolific British playwright, songwriter and actor whose work reflected both an acidic modern cynicism and a sentimental longing for his Edwardian childhood, Noël Coward became one of the most successful and influential performing artists of the 20th century. From his time as a childhood actor on the stage, Coward achieved great critical and financial success, particularly after coming ...

Photos & Videos

Family & Companions

Jack Wilson
Companion
Grocery store owner. Of Lebanese ancestry.
Jack Wilson
Companion
Theatrical manager. Together from mid-1920s through mid-1930s; later married Natasha Paley.
Alan Webb
Companion
Had two; survived him.
Alan Webb
Companion
Actor. Together in late 1930s.

Biography

A prolific British playwright, songwriter and actor whose work reflected both an acidic modern cynicism and a sentimental longing for his Edwardian childhood, Noël Coward became one of the most successful and influential performing artists of the 20th century. From his time as a childhood actor on the stage, Coward achieved great critical and financial success, particularly after coming into his own as a playwright in the early 1920s with risqué hits like "The Better Half" (1922), "The Vortex" (1924) and "Easy Virtue" (1926). Thriving during the Great Depression, Coward saw many of his plays adapted into successful films like "Cavalcade" (1933) and "Design for Living" (1933), as well wrote his best known work, "Private Lives" (1931). Though his career was sidetracked by World War II, where he began a fruitful collaboration with David Lean on the wartime propaganda film "In Which We Serve" (1942). Lean successfully adapted the play "Blithe Spirit" (1945) and commissioned Coward to write an original script for "Brief Encounter" (1945). But after the war, Coward struggled to regain his prewar success with his pen, though he appeared more frequently on the big screen in films like "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) and "Our Man in Havana" (1959). Following his last onscreen performance in "The Italian Job" (1969), Coward retired from acting and died just a few years later. With his elegant persona, Coward was a modern day Oscar Wilde whose charisma, talent and wit made him a major star both onstage and off.

Born on Dec. 16, 1899 in Middlesex, England, Coward was raised by his father, Arthur, a piano salesman, and his mother, Violet, whose father was a captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy. At seven years old, he began performing in amateur contests and attended the Chapel Royal Choir School as a child. When he was 11, Coward was sent by his mother to a dance academy in London and soon made his debut in the children's play "The Goldfish" (1911). From there, he latched on to actor and theater manager Charles Hawtrey, who mentored the young Coward in performance while casting him in another children's play, "Where the Rainbow Ends" (1911-12). The following year, he played the Lost Boy Slightly in a production of "Peter Pan" and became the protégé of artist Philip Streatfield, with whom he was rumored to have had an affair. Meanwhile, Coward made his feature acting debut in D.W.Griffith's "Hearts of the World" (1917), but his career was briefly put on hold when he was drafted into the British Army during World War I. Fortunately, Coward was deemed unfit for duty due to tubercular tendencies and was dismissed nine months later.

Returning to theatre, Coward began selling short stories to magazines while also writing plays, selling his first solo effort, "The Rat Trap" (1918), while starring in another of his plays, "I'll Leave it to You" (1920). At the time, he was finally generating notice for his biting, satirical style with witty, risqué comedies like "The Better Half" (1922) and "The Young Idea" (1923), which marked his first real success as a playwright. Coward made his mark both critically and financially with "The Vortex" (1924), an ahead-of-its-time play about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son. Around this time, Coward met Jack Wilson, an American stockbroker who became his business partner and lover until the mid-1930s. Meanwhile, he churned out one gem after another, writing such well-known works as "Hay Fever" (1925), "Easy Virtue" (1926), "This Year of Grace" (1928) and his best known effort, "Private Lives" (1931). While most of the world suffered during the Great Depression, Coward thrived and became one of the highest-paid writers of his day, producing such hits as "Bitter Sweet" (1929) and "Cavalcade" (1931), the latter of which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1933.

Having broken through in Hollywood, Coward had one of his biggest successes adapted from his 1932 play, "Design for Living" (1933), a screwball comedy from master Ernst Lubitsch starring Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. Also at the time, he adapted his own play, "Bitter Sweet" (1933), into a drama starring Anna Neagle and Fernand Gravey, while marking his talkie debut on screen as the star of Ben Hecht's redemptive drama "The Scoundrel" (1935). He returned to the stage with the musical "Operette" (1937) while writing two other plays, "This Happy Breed" and "Present Laughter," only to find life interrupted by World War II. Putting aside his career to help the war effort, Coward ran the British propaganda office in Paris and sought to use his celebrity to enlist American assistance. Though criticized at the time for traveling abroad while his countrymen suffered Nazi bombing raids at home, it was later revealed that Coward was working on behalf of the British Secret Service and he was in fact high on the Nazi blacklist to be arrested and killed if ever captured.

During the war, Coward co-directed the propaganda film, "In Which We Serve" (1942) with David Lean, which earned him a special Academy Award for outstanding production achievement that same year. The film was also significant for marking the beginning of his fruitful collaboration with Lean, which continued with him adapting his own play for "Blithe Spirit" (1945), a comic fantasy staring Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings. That same year, Coward wrote the original screenplay for Lean's excellent bittersweet romance "Brief Encounter" (1945), which followed a bored housewife (Celia Johnson) who has a passing love affair with a traveling doctor (Trevor Howard). Meanwhile, Coward struggled to reach his prewar success with his postwar plays, enjoying moderate, but underwhelming successes with "Peace in Our Time" (1947), "Island Fling" (1951) and "Relative Values" (1951). He also continued writing musical revues with "Sigh No More" (1945), "Pacific 1860" (1946), "Ace of Clubs" (1949), and "After the Ball" (1953), but again struggled to match the critical success of his prewar output.

Coward went on to write and star in the British drama "The Astonished Heart" (1950) and suffered one of the biggest screen failures of his career. Despite the setbacks of his stage and screen career at the time, Coward maintained a highly-visible public profile and eventually struck gold once again with a finely-tuned cabaret act staged in both London and Las Vegas. In 1955, the act was recorded on record and released as Noël Coward at Las Vegas, a hugely successful album that prompted CBS to sign him to write and direct three TV specials in the mid-1950s, all of which received high critical praise and solid ratings. Of course, Coward continued to write for the stage and produced a pair of his last musicals with "Sail Away" (1961) and "The Girl Who Came to Supper" (1963). Always game to appear onscreen, Coward did so with more frequency and landed roles in "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956), "Our Man in Havana" (1959), "Surprise Package" (1960) and "Paris, When It Sizzles" (1964), starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. He also appeared in Otto Preminger's cult favorite "Bunny Lake is Missing" (1965) and the much-despised "Boom!" (1968), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

During the 1960s, Coward's writing output declined considerably and he wrote only three plays in the decade, "Waiting in the Wings" (1960), "Suite in Three Keys" (1966) and his final play, "Star Quality" (1967). His final onscreen role was a major supporting role in the classic heist thriller, "The Italian Job" (1969), where he played a prison boss enlisted by a master thief (Michael Caine) to hijack a shipment of gold from the mob in Italy. At the time of this appearance, Coward began suffering from arteriosclerosis, or stiffening of the arteries, and began displaying memory loss that actually affected his performance in the film and led to him promptly retiring from acting. After writing his final two musical revues, "Oh, Coward!" (1972) and "Cowardly Custard" (1972), Coward died on March 26, 1973 of a heart attack in his Firefly Estate in Jamaica. His legacy on stage and screen was incalculable, but his image was enduring. Coward's plays continued to be performed the world over in countless reproductions while several of his works were adapted decades later to great acclaim on both television and in film. A perpetual bachelor who abhorred discussing his private life, Coward's homosexuality came into full light following his death, particularly his relationships with such noted actors as Alan Webb, Graham Payn - who was made the heir to Coward's estate - and Michael Redgrave. A legend both in his day and beyond, Coward's influence was widely felt well into the following century.

By Shawn Dwyer

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

In Which We Serve (1942)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

The Astonished Heart (1949)
In Which We Serve (1942)

Writer (Feature Film)

Easy Virtue (2008)
Source Material
Relative Values (2000)
Play As Source Material
Flames of Passion (1989)
Play As Source Material ("Tonight At 8:30" Episode "Still Life")
Sidste Akt (1987)
Play As Source Material
Brief Encounter (1974)
Play As Source Material
Meet Me Tonight (1952)
Play As Source Material ("Tonight At 8:30")
Meet Me Tonight (1952)
Screenwriter
The Astonished Heart (1949)
Screenwriter
The Astonished Heart (1949)
Play As Source Material ("Tonight At 8:30")
Brief Encounter (1945)
Adaptation
Brief Encounter (1945)
Screenplay
Brief Encounter (1945)
Play As Source Material ("Tonight At 8:30" Episode "Still Life")
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Play As Source Material
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Screenplay
This Happy Breed (1944)
Screenwriter
This Happy Breed (1944)
Play As Source Material ("This Happy Breed")
In Which We Serve (1942)
Screenwriter
The Queen Was in the Parlor (1927)
Play As Source Material ("The Queen Was In The Parlor")
Easy Virtue (1927)
Play As Source Material

Producer (Feature Film)

Blithe Spirit (1945)
Producer
Brief Encounter (1945)
Producer
This Happy Breed (1944)
Producer
In Which We Serve (1942)
Producer

Music (Feature Film)

Easy Virtue (2008)
Song
A Good Year (2006)
Song
Bright Young Things (2004)
Song
Bright Young Things (2004)
Song Performer
The Misadventures of Margaret (1998)
Song
The Misadventures of Margaret (1998)
Song Performer
Paradise Road (1997)
Song
Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989)
Song
Bert Rigby, You're a Fool (1989)
Song
Swastika (1974)
Song
England Made Me (1973)
Song
The Astonished Heart (1949)
Music

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Naughty Boys (1984)
Other
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Other

Director (Special)

Together With Music (1955)
Director

Cast (Special)

Androcles and the Lion (1967)
Caesar
Together With Music (1955)
Host

Writer (Special)

Collins Meets Coward (1992)
Writer
Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill (1987)
From Story
Me and the Girls (1987)
From Story
Star Quality (1987)
From Short Story ("Star Quality")
Bon Voyage (1987)
From Story ("Bon Voyage")
Mrs. Capper's Birthday (1987)
From Story ("Mrs. Capper'S Birthday")
Three in One (1960)
Play As Source Material ("Red Peppers" (Story 3))
Tonight at 8:30 (1954)
From Plays ("Red Peppers" "Still Life" "Shadow Play")

Music (Special)

Collins Meets Coward (1992)
Original Music
Julie Andrews in Concert (1990)
Song

Special Thanks (Special)

Collins Meets Coward (1992)
Writer
Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill (1987)
From Story
Me and the Girls (1987)
From Story
Star Quality (1987)
From Short Story ("Star Quality")
Bon Voyage (1987)
From Story ("Bon Voyage")
Mrs. Capper's Birthday (1987)
From Story ("Mrs. Capper'S Birthday")
Three in One (1960)
Play As Source Material ("Red Peppers" (Story 3))
Tonight at 8:30 (1954)
From Plays ("Red Peppers" "Still Life" "Shadow Play")

Life Events

1911

Stage acting debut in London children's show, "The Goldfish"

1917

Screen acting debut in D.W. Griffith's "Hearts of the World"

1927

First plays (three) adapted for screen

1929

Sketch "Early Mourning" adapted for talking short

1931

First US film adaptation, "Private Lives"

1933

Wrote first screenplay, "Bitter Sweet"

1935

Returned to film acting in "The Scoundrel"

1942

First film as producer and co-director (with David Lean), "In Which We Serve"; received special Oscar for the film

1946

First work adapted for TV, "Blithe Spirit" (NBC)

1955

Began nightclub appearances

1955

First appeared on TV (also directed), "Together with Music", a CBS variety special

1967

Last TV appearance, as Caesar in "Androcles and the Lion" (NBC)

1969

Last film appearance, "The Italian Job"

1970

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II

1987

Five short stories adapted for TV (PBS)

Photo Collections

In Which We Serve - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for the British film In Which We Serve (1942), starring Noel Coward. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.
Noel Coward - State Express Cigarette Card
This is a small cigarette card of actor Noel Coward. These cards were included in Cigarette packs in the 1930s and were collectible items. Customers could even purchase books to organize and collect these cards. State Express was an active Cigarette Card producer, creating a wide range of cards featuring famous people of which film stars were an often popular draw.

Videos

Movie Clip

In Which We Serve (1942) - The Story Of A Ship Heady titles, dedication and credits, from creator Noel Coward and his colleague, sharing his first directing credit, David Lean, the technical and naval opening from In Which We Serve, 1942.
In Which We Serve (1942) - What A Bitter Blow Kinross (the writer, producer and co-director Noel Coward) addressing his crew, including John Mills, Michael Wilding and Bernard Miles, then hearing Prime Minister Chamberlain's announcement, from the government-backed propaganda hit In Which We Serve, 1942.
Design for Living (1933) - Immorality May Be Fun George (Gary Cooper) romancing Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) in her Paris apartment then bumping into her chivalrous employer Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), who delivers the same speech he just made to Cooper's roommate, who's also fallen for her, in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living, 1933.
Design for Living (1933) - Bonjour! Snoozing on a French train, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) can be forgiven for assuming Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) is French, in the first scene from Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living, 1933, from a Noel Coward play and Ben Hecht screenplay.
Design for Living (1933) - Bassington Speaks! American Tom (Fredric March) at his Paris garret writing "un-produced plays" when Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), visiting to discourage his pursuit of his employee Gilda (Constance Bennett), inadvertently inspires him, in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living, 1933.
Design For Living (1933) - Artistic Bums! Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), successful international ad agency executive and chivalrous employer but frustrated suitor of American Paris-based artist Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), visits after having told off her two new romantic interests, a painter (Gary Cooper) and playwright (Fredric March), in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design For Living, 1933.
Design For Living (1933) - No Woman Is Worth It! Broke Paris roommates, painter George (Gary Cooper) and playwright Tom (Fredric March) have decided they must end their friendship because they’re in love with the same girl (Miriam Hopkins) they met on the train, then changing their minds, Ernst Lubitsch directing from the Noel Coward play and Ben Hecht screenplay, in Design For Living, 1933.
Brief Encounter (1945) - Idle Gossip Opening scenes, Godby (Stanley Holloway) working bar girl Myrtle (Joyce Carey), Dolly (Everley Gregg) intruding on Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) who, director David Lean will reveal, are in a desperate private moment, from Brief Encounter, 1945.
In Which We Serve (1942) - Look At The Huns! Crete, 1941, battle scene from which flashbacks will ensue, Captain Kinross (Noel Coward, writer, producer and co-director with David Lean) commanding charges including Michael Wilding, Philip Friend and Bernard Miles, from In Which We Serve, 1942.
In Which We Serve (1942) - Is There Going To Be A War? Stirring moments on the home front, Kinross (Noel Coward, the writer, producer and co-director with David Lean) with wife (Celia Johnson) and kids (Daniel Massey, Ann Stephens), about to deploy, from the box office propaganda effort In Which We Serve, 1942.
Paris When it Sizzles (1963) - Success Is Inevitable An unusual "cold" open from director Richard Quine and screenwriter George Axelrod, shot at the Hotel du Cap, Antibes, on the French Riviera, Noel Coward a highly philosophical movie producer, in Paris When It Sizzles, 1963, starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn.
Brief Encounter (1945) - Noel Coward's Brief Encounter Opening credit sequence for David Lean's acclaimed film from the Noel Coward original screenplay, Brief Encounter, 1945, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

Trailer

Promo

Family

James Coward
Grandfather
Grocery store owner. Of Jordanian ancestry.
James Coward
Grandfather
Organist. Paternal grandfather; born in 1824; died in 1880.
Janet Margaret Coward
Grandmother
Has three children.
Janet Margaret Coward
Grandmother
Paternal grandmother; born in 1833; died in 1890.
Henry Gordon Veitch
Grandfather
Survived by a daughter and a son.
Henry Gordon Veitch
Grandfather
British Navy lieutenant. Maternal grandfather; born in 1814; died in 1863.
Mary Kathleen Veitch
Grandmother
Married.
Mary Kathleen Veitch
Grandmother
Maternal grandmother; born in Ireland in 1837; died in 1908.
Arthur Sabin Coward
Father
Survived him.
Arthur Sabin Coward
Father
Clerk, salesman for music firm. Born in 1856; died in 1937.
Violet Agnes Coward
Mother
Born in 1863; died in 1954.
Violet Agnes Coward
Mother
Survived him.
Russell Arthur Blackmore Coward
Brother
Survived him.
Russell Arthur Blackmore Coward
Brother
Born in 1891; died of spinal meningitis in 1898.
Eric Vidal Coward
Brother
Survived by three.
Eric Vidal Coward
Brother
Born in 1905; died in 1933.

Companions

Jack Wilson
Companion
Grocery store owner. Of Lebanese ancestry.
Jack Wilson
Companion
Theatrical manager. Together from mid-1920s through mid-1930s; later married Natasha Paley.
Alan Webb
Companion
Had two; survived him.
Alan Webb
Companion
Actor. Together in late 1930s.
Michael Redgrave
Companion
Marernal grandparents had been performers in Germany.
Michael Redgrave
Companion
Actor. Had relationship in the late 1930s.
Graham Payn
Companion
Had three.
Graham Payn
Companion
Actor, author. Together off and on from 1945; was made heir to Coward's estate.
Bill Traylor
Companion
Had four; survived him.
Bill Traylor
Companion
Actor. Together briefly in late 1950s.

Bibliography