Nova Pilbeam was one of the early Hitchcock blondes before he went off to Hollywood. She starred in two of his English feature films in the 1930s, including the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, when she was only 14. Unlike some of his later leading ladies she was spared the director’s notoriously cruel sense of humour and mischief.
When Hitchcock went to America at the end of the decade she was very much in the running to play the lead role of the young bride in his Hollywood debut, Rebecca. Hitchcock had been thinking of Pilbeam and Ronald Colman. But Colman dropped out and the roles eventually went to Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Pilbeam continued working in films and theatre in England for another decade before retiring from acting in her early thirties.
Born Nova Margery Pilbeam in Wimbledon in 1919, she acquired the unusual first name as a result of Canadian family connections – her grandparents met in Nova Scotia. She was possibly thankful that they did not meet in the Yukon.
Her father was an actor and theatre manager and she was on stage in small parts from the age of five. By the time she was 12 she was working professionally and appeared in Toad of Toad Hall in London’s West End. Two years later she made her film debut in Little Friend, a drama about a marital breakdown from the daughter’s perspective. While forgotten now, the film was a huge hit and catapulted Pilbeam to stardom. Kinematograph Weekly acclaimed a “brilliant performance by the newly discovered English protegee”, Gaumont British signed her to a seven-year contract and she was cast as Leslie Banks’s daughter – kidnapped by Peter Lorre – in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Patrick McGilligan noted in his 2003 biography of Hitchcock that the director “doted” on the young star.
Pilbeam gave an award-winning performance as Lady Jane Grey in 1936 costume drama Tudor Rose, holding her own against a distinguished cast that included Sybil Thorndike, Cedric Hardwicke and John Mills. She was the lead in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, one of several of his films in which someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, ends up pursued by the police and often the villains as well, and must clear his name.
Hitchcock lined Pilbeam up to star in another film, called False Witness, but it fell through.
In 1939 she married Penrose Tennyson, great-grandson of the poet. She met him when she was 14 and he was Hitchcock’s assistant director on The Man Who Knew Too Much. He was seven years older than her. During the Second World War he joined a Naval film unit and had been filming at Scapa Flow at Orkney and was on his way back south when his plane crashed, leaving Pilbeam a widow at 21.
As Hitchcock’s star rose in Hollywood, Pilbeam’s dimmed in England, though she also did a lot of theatre, which she said she preferred. She appeared at the Dundee Repertory Theatre in Nightmare in 1945 and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in Flowers for the Living in 1950.
Pilbeam wed a second time in 1950, to BBC radio journalist Alexander Whyte, had a daughter Sarah Jane in 1952 and retired from view. In a rare public reappearance in 1990 she expressed surprise at continuing interest in her films, after being persuaded to go to see Young and Innocent at a local cinema. “My daughter had never seen the film until it came to a little cinema in Camden Town recently, and she insisted on seeing it,” she said. “I hate to watch my films but I took a large sip of gin beforehand and we went.What amazed me was that firstly the cinema was full and secondly it was full of young people. I would have thought Young and Innocent was a very dated film, yet they seemed to find it fascinating.”
Her husband died in 1972. She is survived by her daughter.