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Nova Pilbeam

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The formative years...

Nova Pilbeam was born on November 15th, 1919, the daughter of Arnold & Margery Pilbeam.  Mr. Pilbeam was the manager of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.


Ms. Pilbeam made her first appearance "behind the footlights" was at the age of 5, and since then appeared in many stage productions, among them William Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' and 'Twelfth Night', and Peter Pan, in which she gave her usual sterling performance.  In her latest interview of 1990, Nova said that she preferred the stage over the picture theatre.


She made her film debut in 1934 at the age of 15, appearing with Mattheson Lang in Little Friend, playing a child driven "to the brink of suicide as a result of her failure to settle her parents difficulties".  Nova has said that she has always wanted to appear in a good comedy "but somehow people found it hard to think of me as a comedienne and as a contrast it was suggested to me that I should have undertaken roles in Wuthering Heights and such like instead"


In 1935, she made her first Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, playing alongside Leslie Banks.


Two years later (1936), she gave a distinctive interpretation of Englands ill-fated Jane Grey in Tudor Rose alongside a youthful John Mills.  The composer Ruth Gipps dedicated her Jane Grey Fantasy Op 15 for viola and strings to Nova in 1951.  The first performance of this was on May 19th, '51.  I must confess I havent yet heard the piece, but Im sure it must be a marvelous composition.


In 1937, Nova appeared in her second Hitchcock film, Young and Innocent.  Hitchcock placed her alongside Derrick De Marney, who provided a romantic interest in the film.  She remembers the film as very enjoyable, in particular the bits were they filmed in the country.  "I think it was quite the sunniest film I was involved with", she recalls.


In 1939, she made a film for television, Prison Without Bars, in which she played a reformatory inmate who falls in love with the institutions doctor.  I quite agree with Carole Sharps' lamentation that it is "regrettable" that Prison Without Bars wasnt made into a film.


Also in 1939, she made her first comedy, Cheer Boys Cheer.


In 1939, she announced her engagement to film director Penrose Tennyson.  They were married in Caxton Hall in London, on 19th October 1939, honeymooning in Devon.


On 11th July, 1941, the headlines read "Husband of Nova Pilbeam Killed" the plane that he was on had crashed on the way to Rosyth.  Nova was only twenty one years old.


David O Selznick wanted Nova to go to Hollywood to test for the role of Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca, which would have granted her international acclaim, but Hitchcock expressed the opinion that Nova was too immature for the part, and the rest is history.  Joan Fontaine was cast as Mrs de Winter, and Nova Pilbeam slowly faded into obscurity.  At least on the screen.


She continued to act on the stage until the early 1950s, when she was married to BBC journalist Alexander Whyte.

At a Glance

Date of Birth:  15/11/1919
Education:  Attended R.A.D.A
First Professional Role:  "Marigold" in 'Toad of Toad Hall'
Astrological Sign:  Scorpio