This article was originally commissioned as part of an ongoing series for Little White Lies. As the photograph was damaged by rain, and not wanting to revisit to re-do the photograph, the article is published here. Further installments of the column are ongoing and can be read here.
One of the great screen presences of cinema’s Golden Age, Jean Simmons forged a strong career on both side of the Atlantic. Working with the biggest names in British and American cinema, Simmons left an astonishing and accomplished catalogue of work. Considering the heights she would reach in the industry, however, it’s easy to forget how much chance played as a factor in Simmons’ career. The heights of Hollywood glamour that she represents today belie her humble London background and her lucky scouting for a small role when she was barely weeks into her training as a dancer.
Jean Merilyn Simmons was born on the 31st of January, 1929, the youngest of four children. Her mother was Winifred Loveland and her father was the celebrated British gymnast Charles Simmons who won bronze for the British Team in the 1912 summer Olympic Games. There are conflicting stories regarding where Simmons was born precisely, the details shrouded in ambiguity. A 1948 article in the August edition of Picture Show Magazine suggests that she was born in Hampstead while the man behind the Powell & Pressburger Appreciation website Steve Crook suggests it to be Crouch End. The Islington Gazette goes further to specify that this may have been on the never-ending road of Crouch Hill.
Most interesting, however, is research conducted by an Islington local Walter Roberts who suggests the location to be Lower Holloway, his research concluding that Simmons was born at 42 Hillmarton Road, a few minutes’ walk from Caledonian Road tube station. Either way, other facts remain consistent. Wherever Simmons was born, it was not long before the family moved to another house. In 1932, they relocated to 120 Cheviot Gardens in Cricklewood though, before the decade was out, they were evacuated to Winscombe in Somerset to avoid the bombing of the Second World War. After the more intense bombing had subsided, the family returned to London in 1943. Jean’s journey into cinema was soon to begin, albeit unintentionally.
Back in London, Simmons began training at the Aida Foster School of Dance and Drama that was then situated on Finchley Road, the school that produced such varied alumni as Shirley Eaton, Barbara Windsor and Linda Hayden. Yet it was not drama that she had gone there to learn but dance. Pictures exist today of her training in the school, attending everything from ballet to ballroom lessons. Her aim was not dissimilar to her father’s, wanting to perform professionally as an acrobatic dancer. In later years, the performer attributed her time there to her world-beating career. ‘If I hadn’t gone to dancing school,’ she said, ‘I would have married and had children like my mum and had a normal life.’
Her move from dance to drama came swiftly and abruptly. She had only been attending the school for a number of weeks when she was spotted. It was around this time that the school had started to develop its agency capacities, allowing industry representatives in to scout early talent. In Simmons’ case, the opportunity came when director Val Guest spotted her. He was on the hunt for a new face for his own film Give Us the Moon (1944), the role in support of Margaret Lockwood. Sadness hangs over Simmons early career simply because the time her roles became more pivotal coincided with the death of her father in 1945. Though she starred in a number of projects after Give Us the Moon, including an all singing cameo in Anthony Asquith’s The Way to the Stars (1945), her full breakthrough occurred in 1946.
A role that would define her work in Britain, Simmons’ performance as Estella in David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1946) set her career on a steep, upward trajectory. Until this point, her relationship to film and acting had still been slight, perhaps due to the sheer chance of it with Guest’s scouting. The year before Great Expectations, her small role in Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) had resulted in her signing a seven year contract with Pascal, so Lean’s film was the final step in taking acting seriously as a profession. Pascal’s film was also the first time she would meet her future husband Stewart Granger with whom she would move to Hollywood in 1951.
By the end of the 1940s, she would be comfortably voted into the top five favourite British stars, such was her success in roles for directors such as Michael Powell, Frank Launder and Laurence Olivier. Roles in big American pictures soon came on offer, her contract sold from the British Rank Studios to Howard Hughes in 1950, leading her to some of her most memorable performances in a number of RKO films. It would be the decade that built her career, acting opposite the most famous faces in cinema, then and now (Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum and many more). London was always a part of her, however, and even if she traded the suburbs of Holloway for Hollywood, she never forgot her roots.
Today, the house where the star was purported to have been born still stands though the rain rendered my Polaroid of it like something from a horror film. Walter Roberts has since helped promote Simmons legacy and has campaigned for a plaque to be adorned to the building. No doubt one day, the ordinary beginnings of the star will be celebrated.
In 1960, Simmons returned to London and visited the Aida Foster School once more for a big press affair in which she brought along Tracey Granger, her daughter with Stewart Granger named in honour of Simmons’ friendship with Spencer Tracey. It was the same year that her divorce with Granger came through and clearly she was looking back at the school which sparked her great success with a sense of nostalgia, for the days when, as Simmons once said, ‘acting was just a lark.’