Gracie Fields (1898-1979) [Grace Stansfield] b. Rochdale, England.
By the time she made her film debut in 1931, ‘Our Gracie’ was already a star of the music hall and a major recording star, with an audience that had followed her progress since 1915 when she left Rochdale and the Lancashire cotton mills to join musical revue. By 1936 she was the most popular British film star and remained among the top three until 1940. Though her popularity dipped during the war, when she elected to remain in Hollywood (where she made three modestly successful films), it recovered afterwards and she continued into retirement abroad as a British national institution, created Dame of the British Empire in 1979, the year of her death.
The secret of her popularity can be heard most clearly in the recordings of her live performances. She plays an audience, goading it into enjoyment, feeding it the kind of cheek that passes for affection, and appealing to a shared contempt for pretension. Even her own claims to be taken seriously as an ‘artiste’ are constantly undermined by physical and vocal clowning. In the films, she creates the same solidarity with her working-class audience but also functions as the bridge to a national community which crosses class boundaries. Gracie tends not to have a plot or a romance of her own but facilitates the plots and the romances of others, her own romantic inclinations only hinted at with a glance and quickly suppressed with a shrug or a funny face.
In Sing As We Go (1934), probably her best film, it is she who mediates with management on behalf of the workers, and when her mediation fails (despite the benign good intentions of the managers) it is Gracie who leads the redundant workforce into a rousing chorus of ‘Sing As We Go’ as they march jauntily into unemployment, the Depression and the hunger marches. The films are sentimental and reassuring, but they also tap into real social anxieties, and the sentiment is sometimes laced with vinegar. As the 1930s progressed, the national interest asserted itself and the films, while retaining their class roots, increasingly served the needs of a cheerful patriotic consensus.