Belle Chrystall was destined for stardom from the moment her parents blessed her with a name which sounded pure Hollywood. Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the life of Lancashire's forgotten film star
Older generations talk fondly of the cinema days of the past and Preston folk are no exception.
A visit to the pictures was one of the treats of life in the 1930s as the cinema moved from silent films to talkies. Preston was blessed with
numerous cinemas 80 years ago and the listings on the front page of the ‘Lancashire Daily Post’ were read with excitement.
The New Victoria, Palladium, Empire, Theatre Royal, Empress, Plaza, Carlton, Savoy, Rialto, Prince’s Theatre, Picturedrome, Carlton and Star cinema all offering double bills and a parade of stars.
To add to the excitement among those Hollywood stars appearing on screen in Preston we had our very own film actress Belle Chrystall, a Fulwood born lass. Having risen to prominence in ‘Hindle Wakes’ in 1931 she was by 1937 appearing in ‘Edge Of The World’ screened locally at the Picturedrome and
Plaza, earning rave reviews.
Born on April 25, 1910, she was educated initially at Winckley Square Girl’s School, in Preston, later at Westbourne House School, Poulton, and then Cheltenham Ladies College.
A brief spell at King’s College, London, studying law, followed. Despite
disapproval from her parents that experience was short-lived as her desire to be an actress led to her gaining a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Her father William Alexander Chrystall, like his father before him, was a surveyor with the Preston Rural District Council for a number of years. He lived for a while in Brackenbury Street, Preston, before uprooting his family to Sharoe Green Lane, Fulwood. By the time Belle Chrystall rose to fame the family had moved to the outskirts of Fleetwood.
She made her stage debut in ‘Crime’ in 1928, and after more than 20 stage performances set her sights on a film career. She took a small part in the film ‘A Warm Corner’ in 1930, starring Leslie Henson, filmed by the Gainsborough Studios in Shepherd’s Bush. Having tasted the limelight and hearing of the plans of director Victor Saville to produce ‘Hindle Wakes’, she wrote to him asking for a part. A successful screen test, opposite John Stuart, followed and she was given the role as Jenny Hawthorne.
The glamour and the glitz of the days of the ‘talkies’ had arrived and who better to play a role as a Lancashire lass than Belle Chrystall brought up in the county.
In the film the mill workers of Hindle go on holiday to Blackpool during Wakes Week where Jenny Hawthorne meets a mill owner’s son and romance blossoms.
In mid-June 1931 there was great excitement at the mills of Horrockses, Crewdson & Co. Ltd when the company agreed to the film crew travelling from London to film sequences in the mill. Quite naturally all eyes were on Miss Chrystall as scenes were filmed in the weaving sheds and engine room. As the mill girls had moved on in the fashion world since the era of the film’s setting it was necessary to have hundreds of clogs and shawls shipped in so that a scene involving the lasses leaving the factory through the Stanley Street gates looked authentic.
Her success in ‘Hindle Wakes’ led to a starring role in ‘Hobson’s Choice’ as Vicky Hobson later in 1931. The popular comedy drama helped to further enhance her reputation. In 1932 she had a role as Aisla Crane in the film ‘The Frightened Lady’, a film inspired by an Edgar Wallace play.
Next she played the part of Marry Summers in the 1933 horror film ‘Friday The Thirteenth’ starring Jessie Matthews. This rising star by then living in London was often claimed as Fleetwood’s own due to her family having moved there. As a committee member of the Personal Service League, an organisation which collected funds for clothing the poor, she attended charity functions and at one event in London attended by royalty she dazzled the audience in a black velvet gown, black hat and a silver fox fur. In 1934 she appeared in the leading role alongside Stewart Rome in ‘The Girl In The Flat’, in which blackmail and murder were the main ingredients of a film distributed by Paramount British Pictures.
Also in 1934 she featured in ‘The Scotland Yard Mystery’ playing Mary Stanton in the tale of a criminal doctor. It was made at Elstree Studios and the director was Thomas Bentley. When shown in America it was titled ‘The Living Dead’. A busy year also included a supporting role in ‘Youthful Folly’ released by Columbia Pictures, which like so many at the time was a remake of a silent movie.
The film ‘Key To Harmony’ followed in 1935 as she played Mary Meynell in a British drama also made at the Elstree Studios. A woman’s love life is threatened by her career in a movie which was released by Paramount Pictures.
In 1936 Belle Chrystall was cast as Ruth Manson in a film depicting life in the Outer Hebrides, a compelling drama touched with romance. Titled the ‘Edge Of The World’ the film had real life drama when filming on the remote Shetland island of Foula. The October shoot had to be abandoned as a hurricane reaching gusts of more than 90 miles per hour and torrential rain saw a relief ship rescue the islanders, taking them to the safety of Lerwick. When the film came out in 1937 Miss Chrystall gained much praise for her performance.
In October 1937 she was on the film set of a religious feature film called ‘As We Forgive’, the location being the Cornish village of Polkerris. A screen wedding took place there between Belle Chrystall and co- star Michael Hogarth in the roles of a farmer’s daughter and a fisherman’s son. The entire village was invited as extras with a cast of more than 300 witnessing the matrimonial scene for the Gaumont production.
Towards the end of 1937 Belle Chrystall appeared in the musical drama ‘Follow Your Star’ alongside Arthur Tracy, a film produced by Pinewood Studios. Then a role taken at short notice as Lydia Blake in the 1938 film ‘Yellow Sands’, a comedy drama, proved successful.
She then took the leading role in ‘Anything To Declare’ as Nora Belle alongside John Loder and Noel Madison. A British crime thriller, it had been produced at the Nettlefold Studios in Walton-on-Thames. This was followed by a starring role in ‘Breakers Ahead’, a short drama. Also that year she appeared in the popular musical ‘Follow That Star’ alongside Arthur Tracy and Mark Daly in a film made at Pinewood Studios.
In 1939 she played the role of Sucal Hurrin in the ‘Poison Pen’ directed by Paul Stein alongside Flora Robson and Robert Newton. In the 1940 film ‘House of the Arrows’ a British mystery film, directed by Harold French, she played Ann Upcott. When released later in the USA it was called ‘Castle Of Crimes’.
Then came the disruption of the war years and she was married in real life in 1946 to Roy Proctor and after her wedding she announced her retirement from her film star role. The following year she gave birth to a daughter, who was also named Chrystall.
Nonetheless acting remained in her blood and with the advent of television she was persuaded to take part in various TV films, including the ‘Twelve Pound Look’ as Kate Sims and ‘Vanity Fair’ in which she played Becky Sharp in 1950. Like many an actress of her days she appeared in Lux soap adverts as did the likes of Lana Turner and Judy Garland and her voice earned her numerous roles on radio. The popular ‘Saturday Night Theatre’ productions amongst her performances.
Her mother Isabella Chrystall died at her Highgate home, in Fleetwood, in 1953. Belle had a brother Douglas Mercer Chrystall and a sister named Beatrice.
Her brother Douglas earned a reputation as a speedway rider and created his own headlines. In 1928 he came third in the Manx Grand Prix and was a familiar rider at the old Preston Speedway track. He lived at Spring Bank Farm, Samlesbury, and died in 1957.
Belle Chrystall died in June 2003, her husband Roy having died in 1990 and their daughter Chrystall having passed away in 1999. It was recalled at the time of her death that she had once remarked, “I adored my career on screen and the adulation it brought me, but it was no substitute for marriage and a family.”