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Trevor Wedlake's Writings
The Fairest of Them All

Published on the Website January, 2014

On a morning of bright sunshine, a welcome winter interlude on December 17th, I took the Daily Telegraph into the conservatory, the better to enjoy the ingratiating warmth, and, as ever, beginning at the back page, turn to the obituaries.

And there, in large type, the name Joan Fontaine. A little pang of regret pierced me. I had known her since she was a young beauty of 20, and could not believe she had died aged 96. Of course, I had never known her at all except on the cinema screen.

Back in the late 1930s, and until his wartime call-up, Mr Catermaul brought his mobile cinema to Wrington Memorial Hall on Friday evenings. This was a very special treat for us at that time. To get there for an 8pm start, I had had to ask my hard-line employer a special dispensation to leave work slightly early. He looked at me rather pityingly, then relenting said, “Well, I suppose if there were no fools there'd be no fun, my son.”

There was a full programme with Mickey Mouse or Popeye cartoon, sometimes a serial 'Wild Bill Hickock', a second feature and the main film, and always the Gaumont British News “presenting the Truth to the Free Peoples of the World.” Though stiff with propaganda, these newsreels enabled us to see historic events such as the lying-in-state in Rome of Pius XI in 1939, and the inauguration of Mr Roosevelt when he beat his Republican rival Mr Wendell Wilkie to the White House in 1940.

The evening could be rounded off with a visit to the Flying Fish Shop in Station Road for chips and Tizer. Joy Davies, aka Joy Shapley from Cross Cottage, sold the tickets at the door; there came a time when she could not admit patrons unless they had their gas masks with them. These were a sense of embarrassment and nuisance to us. We never thought the Germans would gas us, but more mature people were less trusting. Many of us just had them in their little issue cardboard boxes, though some produced smart shoulder bags.

The Telegraph obituarist told us - or reminded us - that Joan Fontaine was the slightly younger sister of another screen beauty, Olivia de Haviland. Their father was a cousin of the aircraft manufacturer which made the famous Tiger Moth, the all wood fighter-bomber Mosquito, and the rather pretty little biplane Rapide, a small commercial aircraft which flew across Wrington en route to Weston from Whitchurch, and on to Cardiff, completing the triangle back to Whitchurch on summer evenings.

Joan Fontaine's parents divorced when she was very young, and she took the name of her step-father, George Fontaine. Joan and her sister Olivia conducted a life-long feud. Of all the films she made, Fontaine will always be most closely associated with her role in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, although her character was not actually normal, Rebecca herself having been Maxim de Winter's first wife. The film for which she was awarded her only Oscar, and which came to Wrington, was Suspicion, a Hitchcock take on Francis Iles's Before the Fact.

Other famous female leads in that great picture-going era were Phyllis Calvert, Olivia de Haviland, Jean Kent, Patricia Roc, Nancy Kelly (hands up all those who remember her in the 1939 film Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda), Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, Deanna Durbin, Loretta Young - they don't make them like that now !

Of all these, Joan Fontaine was the most beautiful, and that is not a subject for discussion. Indeed, a long-time beer drinking friendship with an RAF friend was put under stress when he went 9 times to see Ingrid Bergman with Humphrey Bogart in (play it again, Sam) Casablanca.

To youngsters sitting in the stalls all that long time ago, on the very cusp of life, they were all a great source of fantasy and desire, as pure as the fresh-fallen snow, glamorous goddesses who unleashed the latent longings, the hidden hungers of their years.

But goddesses are also mortals, and, as mortals, they must die. But they will never die until the very last of all the old men now looking back from afar to that brief, unreturning springtime has himself passed – that old man, or that one – or I.