George’s leading ladies
Star of HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER Each of George Formby's leading ladies has at least one unique claim that sets her apart from the others. Elizabeth Allan, star of HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER (1944) has three. First, all other Formby heroines were just beginning their film careers, some going on to great cinematic success. Only Elizabeth Allan had already achieved film stardom and seemed "on her way down." Second, she was the oldest of his leading ladies, age 36 when the film was made. Third, she never once had to say, "Oh, George, you're wonderful!" George's true co-star in HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER is a Rube Goldberg house, an inventor's dream of modernistic gadgets and bizarre revolving doors. The beautiful Miss Allan doesn't arrive on screen for 42 minutes! She plays Jane Strawbridge, daughter of the eccentric house's equally eccentric owner (Robertson Hare). Jane is a school teacher on holiday who is studying architecture and town planning. This qualifies her to help George Gribble oust the corrupt Tangleton City Council and effect urban renewal.  Of her brief and unchallenging role as a Formby foil, Elizabeth recalled, "I was cycling to work one foggy, drizzly morning during the blitz, and I thought to myself, 'Dear God, it's come to this!'" Happily, television would re-establish her as a popular and sought-after star. Elizabeth Allan was born April 9, 1908 (or 1910) in Skegness, Lincolnshire, the 5th (or 6th) and youngest child of Dr. Alexander William (or William Alexander) Allan and Amelia Morris (or Woodward). The reference books DO agree that her family soon moved to Darlington, South Durham, where she attended Plan Hall School. Although basically shy, she was a good student and won a gold medal in elocution,. However, her parents objected to an acting career, so she worked as a kindergarten teacher until they relented. She attended the Old Vic Training School in London, graduating with honours. In 1927 and early 1928, she had walk-ons in the Old Vic's Shakespeare repertory. Her first speaking part was the plum role of Maria in SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL in March 1928. The next year, she appeared in MICHAEL AND MARY, a hit play starring Herbert Marshall and Edna Best. Marshall recommended "Liz" to his agent, Wilfred J. O'Bryen, who took a major interest in her career and in the lady herself. Two years later, on June 6, 1932, they were married. A common irony of show business is that many performers suffer from excessive shyness. Elizabeth Allan was such a person, and she credited her husband for her success. "I'm one of those stupidly sensitive people. I can't bear being snubbed. And not so long ago, everyone was telling me my face was not photogenic. My husband, who was then my casting agent, had me tested by four different [film] companies. They were all failures...and I reached a point where I couldn't even say 'how do you do?' without wanting to run away and hide." Despite Elizabeth's self-doubts, O'Bryen quickly secured a series of film roles for her. She played a maid in ALIBI, 1931 and appeared in 20 films in the next two years, including THE LODGER with Ivor Novello. She was sought as Maurice Chevalier's leading lady in THE WAY TO LOVE, 1933, but could not get out of her contract at Twickenham. When it expired soon after, she quickly signed with MGM. Hollywood had taken note of her classic beauty and shapely physique. Her new contract, negotiated by her husband, called for £12,000 the first year with increases thereafter, a fortune in the midst of the Depression. (Over the next few years, O'Bryen also negotiated Hollywood contracts for a number of British performers including David Niven, George Sanders, and Brian Aherne.) Hollywood, the golden goal of so many thespians, proved a less than happy experience for Elizabeth. MGM first lent her to Fox Studios for SHANGHAI MADNESS with Spencer Tracy. She walked off the film, shutting down production, and was replaced by Fay Wray. Apparently MGM forgave her and immediately assigned her to THE MYSTERY OF MR. X (1934) opposite Robert Montgomery. She had featured roles in four more films, garnering particular attention for her performance in MEN AND WHITE. Her husband visited her as often as he could, probably trying to establish a Hollywood base, but a rift soon developed. During the shooting of JAVA HEAD back in England, the couple announced a separation. Elizabeth threw herself into the social scene, her wit and vivacity making her a popular dinner and party guest. Gossips sought to tie her romantically with various candidates. Tongues wagged when she was seen on the arm of Clark Gable and wagged harder when she impishly paired with Marlene Dietrich at a costume ball, Dietrich clad as Leda turning into a swan and Miss Allan in formal male dress. Composer George Gershwin and millionaire William Rhinelander Stewart were cited as other frequent companions. She was lent to RKO for LONG LOST FATHER (1934) with John Barrymore, but she claimed illness and was replaced by Helen Chandler. Two of her most memorable film roles followed, A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935) in which she played Lucie Manette opposite Ronald Colman, and DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935) as David's pretty and tragic young mother, destroyed by Basil Rathbone. Her flourishing career came to a sudden halt when she sued MGM for announcing that she would be Robert Donat's leading lady in THE CITADEL (1938) but then replacing her with Rosalind Russell. It was a time when many performers were rebelling against studio arbitrariness and despotism. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, desperate to maintain his sovereignty, struck back hard, and Elizabeth was barred from working in Hollywood. Some Hollywood stars in similar legal confrontations fought on to victory or returned to the New York stage. Elizabeth, thoroughly disenchanted with the Hollywood dream factory, chose to return to England where she and her husband soon reconciled. When war broke out in September 1939, Bill O'Bryen joined the Army as a major. Elizabeth "retired" temporarily and took a house near where he was stationed. In 1942, she played Mrs. Cibber (her singing voice dubbed) in her first Technicolor film, THE GREAT MR. HANDEL. After her unhappy time in HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER two years later, she stayed off-screen until her friend Myrna Loy asked her to appear in Loy's first British film, THAT DANGEROUS AGE (1949). Another friend, Marlene Dietrich, requested her for NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY (1951), filmed in the UK, but most of Elizabeth's footage was left on the cutting room floor. In 1951, Elizabeth became a panellist on "What's My Line?" where she quickly was acclaimed for her "wit, glamour, beautiful clothes, and assorted earrings." In 1952, she was voted top female TV personality, and she had her own TV series in 1954, "The Adventures of Annabel." Her husband, now a senior executive with Alexander Korda and Michael Bacon, eventually retired, and the couple bought a house with a large garden in Hove. She told interviewers that her hobbies were gardening, swimming, playing tennis, and collecting antique jewellery and glass. Bill O'Bryen died in 1977. Elizabeth retired permanently from performing and stayed on in their home. She died on July 27, 1990. Fifty years a performer, Elizabeth Allen had survived career setbacks, bombs, ill health, shyness, Louis B. Mayer, and even a toothy guy with a uke. When George takes her hand and croons "Unconditional Surrender," her wise smile lights up the screen and we feel that even if he has not found a soul-mate, he has a worthy ally for the post-war struggles facing Britain.
Elizabeth Allen
George’s leading ladies
Star of HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER Each of George Formby's leading ladies has at least one unique claim that sets her apart from the others. Elizabeth Allan, star of HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER (1944) has three. First, all other Formby heroines were just beginning their film careers, some going on to great cinematic success. Only Elizabeth Allan had already achieved film stardom and seemed "on her way down." Second, she was the oldest of his leading ladies, age 36 when the film was made. Third, she never once had to say, "Oh, George, you're wonderful!" George's true co-star in HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER is a Rube Goldberg house, an inventor's dream of modernistic gadgets and bizarre revolving doors. The beautiful Miss Allan doesn't arrive on screen for 42 minutes! She plays Jane Strawbridge, daughter of the eccentric house's equally eccentric owner (Robertson Hare). Jane is a school teacher on holiday who is studying architecture and town planning. This qualifies her to help George Gribble oust the corrupt Tangleton City Council and effect urban renewal.  Of her brief and unchallenging role as a Formby foil, Elizabeth recalled, "I was cycling to work one foggy, drizzly morning during the blitz, and I thought to myself, 'Dear God, it's come to this!'" Happily, television would re-establish her as a popular and sought-after star. Elizabeth Allan was born April 9, 1908 (or 1910) in Skegness, Lincolnshire, the 5th (or 6th) and youngest child of Dr. Alexander William (or William Alexander) Allan and Amelia Morris (or Woodward). The reference books DO agree that her family soon moved to Darlington, South Durham, where she attended Plan Hall School. Although basically shy, she was a good student and won a gold medal in elocution,. However, her parents objected to an acting career, so she worked as a kindergarten teacher until they relented. She attended the Old Vic Training School in London, graduating with honours. In 1927 and early 1928, she had walk-ons in the Old Vic's Shakespeare repertory. Her first speaking part was the plum role of Maria in SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL in March 1928. The next year, she appeared in MICHAEL AND MARY, a hit play starring Herbert Marshall and Edna Best. Marshall recommended "Liz" to his agent, Wilfred J. O'Bryen, who took a major interest in her career and in the lady herself. Two years later, on June 6, 1932, they were married. A common irony of show business is that many performers suffer from excessive shyness. Elizabeth Allan was such a person, and she credited her husband for her success. "I'm one of those stupidly sensitive people. I can't bear being snubbed. And not so long ago, everyone was telling me my face was not photogenic. My husband, who was then my casting agent, had me tested by four different [film] companies. They were all failures...and I reached a point where I couldn't even say 'how do you do?' without wanting to run away and hide." Despite Elizabeth's self-doubts, O'Bryen quickly secured a series of film roles for her. She played a maid in ALIBI, 1931 and appeared in 20 films in the next two years, including THE LODGER with Ivor Novello. She was sought as Maurice Chevalier's leading lady in THE WAY TO LOVE, 1933, but could not get out of her contract at Twickenham. When it expired soon after, she quickly signed with MGM. Hollywood had taken note of her classic beauty and shapely physique. Her new contract, negotiated by her husband, called for £12,000 the first year with increases thereafter, a fortune in the midst of the Depression. (Over the next few years, O'Bryen also negotiated Hollywood contracts for a number of British performers including David Niven, George Sanders, and Brian Aherne.) Hollywood, the golden goal of so many thespians, proved a less than happy experience for Elizabeth. MGM first lent her to Fox Studios for SHANGHAI MADNESS with Spencer Tracy. She walked off the film, shutting down production, and was replaced by Fay Wray. Apparently MGM forgave her and immediately assigned her to THE MYSTERY OF MR. X (1934) opposite Robert Montgomery. She had featured roles in four more films, garnering particular attention for her performance in MEN AND WHITE. Her husband visited her as often as he could, probably trying to establish a Hollywood base, but a rift soon developed. During the shooting of JAVA HEAD back in England, the couple announced a separation. Elizabeth threw herself into the social scene, her wit and vivacity making her a popular dinner and party guest. Gossips sought to tie her romantically with various candidates. Tongues wagged when she was seen on the arm of Clark Gable and wagged harder when she impishly paired with Marlene Dietrich at a costume ball, Dietrich clad as Leda turning into a swan and Miss Allan in formal male dress. Composer George Gershwin and millionaire William Rhinelander Stewart were cited as other frequent companions. She was lent to RKO for LONG LOST FATHER (1934) with John Barrymore, but she claimed illness and was replaced by Helen Chandler. Two of her most memorable film roles followed, A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935) in which she played Lucie Manette opposite Ronald Colman, and DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935) as David's pretty and tragic young mother, destroyed by Basil Rathbone. Her flourishing career came to a sudden halt when she sued MGM for announcing that she would be Robert Donat's leading lady in THE CITADEL (1938) but then replacing her with Rosalind Russell. It was a time when many performers were rebelling against studio arbitrariness and despotism. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, desperate to maintain his sovereignty, struck back hard, and Elizabeth was barred from working in Hollywood. Some Hollywood stars in similar legal confrontations fought on to victory or returned to the New York stage. Elizabeth, thoroughly disenchanted with the Hollywood dream factory, chose to return to England where she and her husband soon reconciled. When war broke out in September 1939, Bill O'Bryen joined the Army as a major. Elizabeth "retired" temporarily and took a house near where he was stationed. In 1942, she played Mrs. Cibber (her singing voice dubbed) in her first Technicolor film, THE GREAT MR. HANDEL. After her unhappy time in HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER two years later, she stayed off-screen until her friend Myrna Loy asked her to appear in Loy's first British film, THAT DANGEROUS AGE (1949). Another friend, Marlene Dietrich, requested her for NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY (1951), filmed in the U.K, but most of Elizabeth's footage was left on the cutting room floor. In 1951, Elizabeth became a panellist on "What's My Line?" where she quickly was acclaimed for her "wit, glamour, beautiful clothes, and assorted earrings." In 1952, she was voted top female TV personality, and she had her own TV series in 1954, "The Adventures of Annabel." Her husband, now a senior executive with Alexander Korda and Michael Bacon, eventually retired, and the couple bought a house with a large garden in Hove. She told interviewers that her hobbies were gardening, swimming, playing tennis, and collecting antique jewellery and glass. Bill O'Bryen died in 1977. Elizabeth retired permanently from performing and stayed on in their home. She died on July 27, 1990. Fifty years a performer, Elizabeth Allen had survived career setbacks, bombs, ill health, shyness, Louis B. Mayer, and even a toothy guy with a uke. When George takes her hand and croons "Unconditional Surrender," her wise smile lights up the screen and we feel that even if he has not found a soul-mate, he has a worthy ally for the post-war struggles facing Britain.
Elizabeth Allen