Neagle was a successful box-office draw in the British cinema for 20 years and was voted the most popular star in Britain in 1949. She was known for providing glamour and sophistication to war-torn London audiences with her lightweight musicals, comedies and historical dramas. Almost all of her films were produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox, whom she married in 1943.
In her historical dramas Anna Neagle was renowned for her portrayals of British historical figures, including Nell Gwynn (Nell Gwynn, 1934), Queen Victoria (Victoria the Great, 1937 and Sixty Glorious Years, 1938) and Edith Cavell (Nurse Edith Cavell, 1939).
Neagle was born in Forest Gate, Essex, daughter to Herbert Robertson, a Merchant Navy captain, and his wife, the former Florence Neagle. Her older brother was the bass-baritone and actor Stuart Robertson (1901-1958). Robertson attended primary school in Glasgow and then St Albans High School for Girls. She made her stage debut as a dancer in 1917, and later appeared in the chorus of C.B. Cochran's revues and also André Charlot's revue Bubbly. While with Cochran she understudied Jessie Matthews.
In 1931 she starred in the West End musical Stand Up and Sing (1931), with actor Jack Buchanan, who encouraged her to take a featured role. For this play she began using the professional name of Anna Neagle (the surname being her mother's maiden name). The play was a success with a total run of 604 performances. Stand Up and Sing provided her big break when film producer and director Herbert Wilcox, who had caught the show purposely to consider Buchanan for an upcoming film, but also took note of her cinematic potential.
Forming a professional alliance with Wilcox, Neagle played her first starring film role in the musical Goodnight, Vienna (1932), again with Jack Buchanan. With this film Neagle became an overnight favourite. Although the film cost a mere £23,000 to a produce, it was a hit at the box office, profits from its Australian release alone being £150,000.
After her starring role in The Flag Lieutenant (also 1932), directed by and co-starring Henry Edwards, she worked exclusively under Wilcox's direction for all but one of her subsequent films, becoming one of Britain's biggest stars.
She continued in the musical genre, co-starring with Fernand Gravey (later known as Fernand Gravet) in Bitter Sweet (1933). This first version of Noël Coward's tale of ill-fated lovers was later obscured by the better known Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy remake in 1940.
Neagle had her first major success with Nell Gwynn (1934), which Wilcox had previously shot as a silent starring Dorothy Gish in 1926. Neagle's performance as the woman who became the mistress of Charles II (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) prompted some censorship in the United States. The Hays Office had Wilcox add a (historically false) scene featuring the two leads getting married and also a "framing" story resulting in an entirely different ending. Graham Greene, then a film critic, said of Nell Gwynn: "I have seen few things more attractive than Miss Neagle in breeches".
Two years after Nell Gwynn, she followed up with another real-life figure, portraying Irish actress Peg Woffington in Peg of Old Drury (1936). That same year she appeared in Limelight, a backstage film musical in which she played a chorus girl. Her co-star was Arthur Tracy, who had gained fame in the United States as a radio performer known as 'The Street Singer'. The film also featured Jack Buchanan in an uncredited cameo. performing "Goodnight Vienna".
Neagle and Wilcox followed with a circus trapeze fable Three Maxims (1937), which was released in the United States as The Show Goes On. The film, with a script featuring a contribution from Herman J. Mankiewicz (later to co-write Citizen Kane with Orson Welles), had Neagle performing her own high-wire acrobatics. Although now highly successful in films, Neagle continued acting on stage. In 1934, while working under director Robert Atkins, she performed as Rosalind in As You Like It and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Both productions earned her critical accolades, despite the fact that she had never performed Shakespearean roles before.
In 1937 Neagle gave her most prestigious performance so far – as Queen Victoria in the historical drama Victoria the Great (1937), co-starring Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert. The script by Robert Vansittart and Miles Malleson (from Laurence Housman's play Victoria Regina) alternated between the political and the personal lives of the royal couple. The Diamond Jubilee sequence that climaxed the film was shot in Technicolor. Victoria the Great was such an international success that it resulted in Neagle and Walbrook playing their roles again in an all-Technicolor sequel entitled Sixty Glorious Years (1938), co-starring C. Aubrey Smith as the Duke of Wellington. While the first of these films was in release, Neagle returned to the London stage and entertained audiences with her portrayal of the title role in Peter Pan.
The success of Victoria the Great and Sixty Glorious Years caused Hollywood studios to take notice. Neagle and Wilcox began an association with RKO Radio Pictures. Their first American film was Nurse Edith Cavell (1939), a remake of Dawn, a Wilcox silent that starred Sybil Thorndike. In this, another Neagle role based on an actual British heroine, she played the role of the nurse who was shot by the Germans in World War I for alleged spying. The resulting effort had a significant impact for audiences on the eve of war.
In a turnabout from this serious drama, the couple followed with three musical comedies, all based on once-popular stage plays. The first of these was Irene (1940), co-starring Ray Milland. It included a Technicolor sequence, which featured Neagle singing the play's most famous song, "Alice Blue Gown". She followed this film with No, No, Nanette (1940) with Victor Mature, in which she sang "Tea For Two", and Sunny (1941), with Ray Bolger.
Neagle and Wilcox's final American film was Forever and a Day (1943), a tale of a London family house from 1804 to the 1940 blitz. This film boasts 80 performers (mostly expatriate British), including Ray Milland, C. Aubrey Smith, Claude Rains, Charles Laughton and – among the few North Americans – Buster Keaton. Wilcox directed the sequence featuring Neagle, Milland, Smith and Rains, while other directors who worked on the film included René Clair, Edmund Goulding, Frank Lloyd, Victor Saville and Robert Stevenson. During the war the profits and salaries were given to war relief. After the war, prints were intended to be destroyed, so that no one could profit from them. However, this never occurred.
Returning to Britain, Neagle and Wilcox commenced with They Flew Alone (1942; shot after but released before Forever and a Day). Neagle this time played aviator Amy Johnson, who had recently died in a flying accident. Robert Newton's co-starred as Johnson's husband, Jim Mollison. The film inter-cut the action with newsreel footage.
Neagle and Wilcox married in August 1943 at the Caxton Hall.
They continued with The Yellow Canary (1943), co-starring Richard Greene and Margaret Rutherford. In this spy story, Neagle plays a German-sympathiser (or at least that is what she seems to be at first) who is forced to go to Canada for her own safety. In reality, of course, she's working as an undercover agent out to expose a plot to blow up Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia. The Yellow Canary received positive comment for its atmospheric recreation of wartime conditions.
In 1945 Neagle appeared on stage in Emma, a dramatisation of Jane Austen's novel. That same year she was seen in the film I Live in Grosvenor Square, co-starring Rex Harrison. She wanted Harrison for the lead in her next film, Piccadilly Incident (1946). However, he (as well as John Mills) proved to be unavailable at the time, so Wilcox cast Michael Wilding in the lead. Thus was born what film critic Godfrey Winn called "the greatest team in British films". The story – of a wife, presumed dead, returning to her (remarried) husband – bears a resemblance to the Irene Dunne–Cary Grant comedy My Favorite Wife. Piccadilly Incident was chosen as Picturegoer's Best Film of 1947. Despite the fact that Neagle was some 8 years senior to Wilding, they proved to be an extremely bankable romantic pairing at the British box office. By now in her mid-forties, Neagle continued to have success in youthful and romantic lead roles.
Neagle and Wilding were reunited in The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947), a period drama that became the year's top box-office attraction. The film featured Wilding as an upper-class dandy and Neagle as the maid he marries, only to have the two of them driven apart by Victorian society.
The third pairing of Neagle and Wilding in the "London Films", as the series of films came to be called, was in Spring in Park Lane (1948). A drama, this depicted the romance between a millionaire's niece and a footman (actually a nobleman who has seen better days). The script was written by Nicholas Phipps, who also played Wilding's brother. Although not a musical, it contains a dream sequence featuring the song "The Moment I Saw You". Spring in Park Lane was the 1949 Picturegoer winner for Best Film, Actor and Actress. Neagle and Wilding were together for a fourth time in the Technicolor romance Maytime in Mayfair (1949). The plot is reminiscent of Roberta, as it had Wilding inheriting a dress shop owned by Neagle.
By now, Neagle was at her peak as Britain's top box-office actress, and she made what reputedly became her own favourite film, Odette (1950), co-starring Trevor Howard, Peter Ustinov and Marius Goring. As Odette Sansom, she was the Anglo-French resistance fighter who was pushed to the edge of betrayal by the Nazis. In 1950, Neagle and Wilcox moved to the top floor flat in Aldford House overlooking Park Lane, which would be their home until 1964. She played Florence Nightingale in The Lady with a Lamp (1951), based on the 1929 play by Reginald Berkeley.
Returning to the stage in 1953, she scored a success with The Glorious Days, which had a run of 476 performances. Neagle and Wilcox brought the play to the screen under the title Lilacs in the Spring (1954), co-starring Errol Flynn. In the film she plays an actress knocked out by a bomb, who dreams she is Queen Victoria and Nell Gwyn – as well as her own mother. As she begins dreaming, the film switches from black-and-white to colour. In Britain, where Neagle had top billing, the film was reasonably successful. In the United States, however, where Flynn had top billing, the title was changed to Let's Make Up, and it flopped, with limited bookings.
Neagle and Flynn reteamed for a second film together, King's Rhapsody (1955), based on an Ivor Novello musical and also starring Patrice Wymore (Flynn's wife at the time). Although Neagle performed several musical numbers for the film, most of them were cut from the final release, leaving her with essentially a supporting role. Shot in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope with location work near Barcelona, Spain, King's Rhapsody was a major flop everywhere. Neagle's (and Flynn's) box-office appeal, it seemed, was fading.
Neagle's last box-office hit was My Teenage Daughter (1956), which featured her as a mother trying to prevent her daughter (Sylvia Syms) from lapsing into juvenile delinquency.
Neagle and Syms worked together again on No Time For Tears (1957), also starring Anthony Quayle and Flora Robson. As directed by Cyril Frankel, this was the first film for over 20 years where Neagle was directed by someone other than Herbert Wilcox. Set in a children's hospital, the film features Neagle as a matron dealing with the problems of the patients and the staff, notably a nurse (Syms) infatuated with one of the doctors (George Baker).
With her husband, Neagle began producing films starring Frankie Vaughan, but these were out of touch with changing tastes, and lost money, resulting in Wilcox going heavily into debt. Neagle herself made her final film appearance in The Lady Is a Square (1957), also Wilcox's last film as director.
Neagle was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions, in February 1958 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre, and in March 1983, when Andrews surprised her at London's Royal National Hotel.
Herbert Wilcox was bankrupt by 1964, but his wife soon revived his fortunes. She returned to the stage the following year and made a comeback in the West End musical Charlie Girl. In it she played the role of a former "Cochran Young Lady" who marries a peer of the realm. Charlie Girl was not a critical success, but it ran for six years and 2,047 performances. It earned Neagle an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for her enduring popularity.
Two years after Charlie Girl – which she also performed in Australia and New Zealand – Neagle was asked to appear in a revival of No, No, Nanette, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, having appeared in the screen version three decades earlier. Later, in 1975, she replaced Celia Johnson in The Dame of Sark and, in 1978 (the year after her husband's death), she was acting in Most Gracious Lady, which was written for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
Although affected by Parkinson's disease in her last years, Neagle continued to be active. She appeared in Cameron Mackintosh's revival of My Fair Lady and in 1985 she appeared as the Fairy Godmother in a production of Cinderella at the London Palladium.
Some sources state that Neagle was suffering from cancer at the time of her death. She was interred alongside her husband in the City of London Cemetery. Their grave was recommemorated by Princess Anne, the Princess Royal on 6 March 2014.
A memorial plaque on her former home at Aldford House, Park Lane was unveiled on 30 May 1996, by Princess Anne and Lana Morris. She also has a memorial plaque in St Paul's Church, the Actors' Church in Covent Garden.
A street named in her honour, Anna Neagle Close, is situated in Forest Gate, London.
Neagle was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1952 and, for her contributions to the theatre, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1969.
The following list contains all of Neagle's acting credits in feature-length films with the exception of Queen Victoria (1942), which is actually a compilation of two earlier films, Victoria the Great and Sixty Glorious Years. All of her films were directed by Herbert Wilcox and produced in the United Kingdom unless otherwise noted.
In addition, Neagle also appeared briefly as herself in a documentary short entitled The Volunteer (1943), and served as narrator for the films The Prams Break Through (1945) and Princess's Wedding Day (1947). Neagle also produced, but did not appear in, three films starring Frankie Vaughan: These Dangerous Years (1957), Wonderful Things (1957) and The Heart of a Man (1959).What More Can I Ask?, with orchestra conducted by Ray Noble
HMV B 4365 (matrix: 0B 4586-3)
Recorded London 4 January 1933
The Dream Is Over, with orchestra conducted by Ray Noble
HMV B 4365 (matrix: 4587-4)
Recorded London 4 January 1933
Tonight, duet with Trefor Jones with Geraldo and his Orchestra
Columbia (England) DB 1316 (matrix: CA 14314-1)
Recorded London 30 January 1934
Kiss Me Goodnight
Decca (England) F 5649 (matrix: TB 1869)
Recorded London 9 August 1935
A Little Dash Of Dublin
Decca (England) F 5649 (matrix: TB 1870)
Recorded London 9 August 1935
Annual polls of British exhibitors for the Motion Picture Herald consistently listed Neagle as a leading box office star in her home country.1936 - 14th most popular British star
1937 – 8th most popular British star
1938 – 8th most popular British star
1939 – 5th most popular British star
1940 - 10th most popular British star
1941 - 7th most popular British star
1942 – most popular female British star
1944 - 9th most popular British star
1945 – 8th most popular British star
1946 – 5th most popular British star
1947 – 3rd most popular star (2nd most popular British star)
1948 – most popular British star (2nd overall)
1949 – most popular star – the first time since the polls started that the most popular star in Britain had been a local
1950 – 3rd most popular star – third year in a row as most popular British star
1951 – 6th most popular star (2nd most popular British star)
1952 – 8th most popular British star – 6th year in a row as most popular female British star
There's Always Tomorrow – Autobiography – 1974, ISBN 0-491-01941-6.