British cinema has traditionally been dominated by male stars, and never was this more true than in the 1950s. It was a decade best remembered for a seemingly-endless supply of war films and smug comedies, with man after man strutting around in uniform and/or falling over trashcans: Jack Hawkins, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Alec Guinness, Kenneth More, Norman Wisdom, Peter Finch, etc, etc, etc.
It was a tough era to be a female star in Britain – indeed, pretty much every genuinely popular one in 1950 had her career strangled through bad movies by 1959: Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Anna Neagle, Pat Roc, Jean Kent; it seemed the only ones who survived the decade with their status intact, did so by fleeing to America (Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, Angela Lansbury).
Still, there were some opportunities for women stars – not as much as for men, but some. Two in particular gave it a red-hot go. They couldn’t make it last but for a while both were among the most famous women in Britain.
They were Diana Dors and Belinda Lee.
The two had many things in common: blonde hair, superbly photogenic faces and figures, a long-term contract with the Rank Organisation, exciting love lives, European sojourns, one-off stints as the sole female in the list of top ten British box office stars.
Both were commonly cast as “the girl” in comedies, or the femme female in dramas – more specifically, both were leads in Hammer B-pictures directed by Terence Fisher. Both co-starred alongside Vitrorio Gassman and “back-up Dirk Bogardes” like Michael Craig and George Baker. Both were photographed by Cornel Lucas, and guested on The Bob Hope Show. Both were seen as the “new Marilyn Monroe” and made splashy appearances at the Venice and Cannes Film festivals. Both rarely had decent roles (in England, at least). Both married when nineteen to men who promoted their careers, and had lovers who wrote tell-all memoirs about their romances. Both died young – Lee in a car crash aged 25, Dors of liver cancer aged 54. Both had unrealised potential.
This piece looks at their life and times.
Diana Dors was the elder of the two and the first to become famous. She was born Diana Fluck in Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1931, the daughter of a railway clerk. The young Fluck wanted to act from an early age; towards the end of World War Two she entered a beauty contest to find a pin-up girl for a magazine and came third, which led to work as a model in art classes (although only a teenager she looked, and seemed, older). She began to appear in local theatre productions and when just 14 years of age was offered a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
Studying acting in an entertainment capital like London has its advantages: Diana was spotted by a casting director, who suggested the teenager for a small role in a film noir, The Shop at Sly Corner (1947). The part was an ideal way to start out – the girlfriend of a slimy blackmailer – and Diana had “it” from the start: looks, warmth, appeal, if a little too young (then) for the nightclub milieu that her character lived in; even watching the movie today, she “pops” off the screen, a complete natural.
Diana decided to take the stage surname “Dors”, after her maternal grandmother – nothing personal against Dad, but “Fluck” had the risk of being taken the wrong way in unsympathetic hands.
There were follow-up roles immediately – dancing the jitterbug in Holiday Camp (1947), a nightclub hostess in Dancing with Crime (1947) – and Dors was voted LAMDA’s “girl most likely to succeed in films” of 1947. At the ripe old age of sixteen she was signed to a long-term contract with the Rank Organisation, who dominated British filmmaking at the time (they owned a large chain of cinemas as well as a number of production companies such as Gainsborough and Ealing).
Rank placed Dors in their “Charm School”, a.k.a “The Company of Youth”, an informal actor’s academy, where the company’s younger contractees were taught acting and deportment and given parts in Rank movies (usually bit parts in “A”s, bigger parts in “B”s). The Charm School was much mocked at the time, and it’s hard to discuss today without laughing, but students included names like Petula Clark, Claire Bloom and Christopher Lee as well as Dors, so somebody associated with it knew what they were doing.
Dors thrived within the studio system: she was a hard worker, keen to learn, and always willing to be photographed in swimsuits, attend factory openings, and be quoted on beauty tips. Her screen presence meant that she was much in demand for acting roles, albeit ones that were small and/or not prestigious: she was Charlotte in David Lean’s stunningly brilliant adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948), a maid in The Calendar (1948), a troubled teen in Good Time Girl (1948), a secretary in Penny and the Pownall Case (1948), a mischievous bike club member in A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (1948).
Penny was seen by Bob Monkhouse who later wrote in his memoirs that Dors’ “acting was raw but promising and her vitality made me remember her afterwards as if her part of the screen had been in colour”; incidentally, that film was the first of many occasions where Dors would outshine the female lead, and make one wonder why she did not get a bigger part.
Her breakthrough came in Here Come the Huggetts (1948), the first in a brief franchise about the working class Huggett family, who debuted in Holiday Camp; Dors played Ma Huggett’s lazy niece, Di Hopkins, who causes trouble when she goes to stay with the family. It’s a hilarious performance, with natural comic timing grounded in truth: every family has a relative like Di, who sleeps in on weekdays, has to be set up with a job because she’s too lazy to find one herself, gets her aunty to wait on her, is always borrowing money, and who is fond of flirting, kissing, and gin.
Any well-run studio would have had Dors reprise the character in a sequel, or do variations on it in other movies – no, not Rank. That would be too… commercial? Smart? Dors did return in Vote for Huggett (1949), but seems to play an entirely different character; she was given a funny scene in the comedy It’s Not Cricket (1949), but is barely in the movie (the filmmakers would have been better off casting Dors in the part played by Susan Shaw, a fellow Charm School alumni).
In Rank’s defence, they did promote Dors to lead roles in Diamond City (1949), but it wasn’t a comedy – it was a “biltong Western”, the story of a boom town in 1870 South Africa. Dors played a part originally turned down by Jean Kent, a saloon owner who is in love with hero David Farrar, who loves a missionary played by Honor Blackman. The film has dodgy racial politics, a terrible script and both Dors and Blackman are at least five years too young for roles that otherwise would have suited them perfectly – Dors was still only seventeen.
She was far more happily cast in Dance Hall (1950), a rare movie from Ealing Studios (then controlled by Rank) that focused on women, in this case Dors and fellow Charm School students Natasha Perry, Petula Clark and Jane Hylton. Dors is easily the best thing about the film, playing a saucy minx out for a good time, and does not get nearly enough screen time. The film focuses more on the adventures of Perry, Hylton and… Donald Houston. (It was typical of Ealing that they would make a 1950 Sex and the City-style movie, and spend a slab of the running time focusing on their Mr Big character).
The Rank Organisation had a genuine talent in Dors but didn’t know how to use her – but then, outside of Ted Black and Alex Korda, not many British producers were adept at exploiting stars. In its defence, Rank were in serious financial trouble in the late 1940s – they had over-expanded and made far too many movies of Diamond City quality; the company was only saved from bankruptcy by stringent economising, which included ending the Charm School and Dors’ contract.
Dors was disappointed, but her work ethic was strong, and her talent undimmed. Also, one of the strengths of the British acting scene at the time was that there was no snobbery about moving between mediums – Dors shifted her saucy minx act to stage and TV, appearing in revues and getting excellent reviews for a recurring role on Terry Thomas’ comedy show How Do You View? (1951).
She returned to features as “the girl” in a comedy starring Ronald Shiner, Worm’s Eye View (1951), one of the biggest hits of the year. She had a showy part in Frank Launder’s Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), a movie best remembered today for someone called Pauline Stroud being selected to play the lead over Dors, Kay Kendall, Joan Collins, Dana Wynter and Audrey Hepburn, all of whom auditioned for the part.
Dors wound up being cast as a beauty contestant who takes Stroud briefly under her wing; once again, she livens up every scene she appears in and her part is too small (she disappears in the second half); once again, the movie would have been better had Dors played the lead.
Still, people were noticing: Dors was offered the female lead in The Last Page (1952) aka Manbait, one of several crime-orientated B-movies made by Hammer Films featuring fading American stars before that studio discovered horror; this one had George Brent, but the best thing about it is Dors’ performance: lonely, put-about, hungry for love, insecure. The movie is never as good once her character disappears, but is still definitely worth seeking out if you like your low-budget British noirs; Terence Fisher directed.
Shortly before filming, Dors had married actor-turned-salesman, Dennis Hamilton, who subsequently dedicated himself to promoting Dors’ career. Hamilton was a shady character, whose life was dogged by lawsuits and scandal, but he knew how to get publicity for his wife. It helped that a few extra years had added to Dors’ allure: she no longer seemed uncomfortably young strutting around in skimpy outfits as she did in Diamond City. If producers of “A” movies were wary of her curves and warmth, “B” filmmakers had no such problem, and Dors popped up in a string of low budget comedies: My Wife’s Lodger (1952), The Great Game (1953), It’s a Grand Life (1953), Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? (1954).
Her playing was consistently excellent: in Honeymoon (directed by the should-be-better-remembered-than-he-is Maurice Elvey), she is particularly full of life and vigour. She was a femme fetale in The Saint’s Return (1954), and continued to appear on stage as well, developing a cabaret act that was to prove lucrative.
By this stage, Dors’ fame probably outstripped her actual value as a movie star, and she would have been all too aware that there were a number of other pretty young girls around as competition. There was one new kid on the block in particular, four years younger and with an even better-connected husband; her name was Belinda Lee.
Lee was born in 1935 in Budleigh Salterton, a small town in East Devon. Her family had money – dad owned a hotel – and Belinda, like many middle class girls of the time, went to boarding school. She later called herself a “spoilt only child” and said she had “a strict and very ladylike upbringing.” Lee had wanted to act ever since she was nine; her parents were not enthusiastic, but Belinda persisted, and she was allowed to appear in various amateur productions.
Lee’s rise to fame was far more rapid than Dors’. She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; while appearing in a production, she was spotted by agents who recommended her to writer-director Val Guest, who was casting a new comedy, The Runaway Bus. This was one of a rash of low-budget comedies that sprung up in England following the phenomenal box-office success of Trouble in Store (1953) with stage comic Norman Wisdom; The Runaway Bus tried to tap this market by showcasing another comic, Frankie Howerd. Val Guest was struggling to cast a key support role, a blonde passenger on the bus of the title who loves mystery novels; he was impressed with Lee’s screen test, and gave her the part. Watching the movie today, Lee is gorgeous to look at and is quite funny; the film did not turn Howerd into a film star (that came later, off the back of TV success) but it is entertaining.
As Diana Dors had demonstrated, there were plenty of jobs going in British cinema at the time for pretty blondes with a bit of spark, particularly in B movies: Lee had support roles in Meet Mr Callaghan (1954) and Life with the Lyons (1954). The latter another comedy from Guest where Lee gives one of her broadest comedy performances; it was based on a radio show starring Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, which had been adapted into a 1952 stage show, co-starring none other than Diana Dors. Lee’s public profile was raised even further via a series of glamorous portraits taken of her by Cornel Lucas, the leading stills photographer of the day; the two hit it off romantically as well, and they were married. Lee was nineteen years old, the same age as Diana Dors when she first wed; Lucas was fourteen years her senior.
Lee was promoted to leading parts in just her fourth movie, Murder by Proxy (1954) which, like The Last Page with Dors, was a thriller made by Hammer Films with director Terence Fisher, starring a fading American leading man, in this case Dane Clark. It’s an entirely decent, unpretentious film noir; the age gap between the leads is annoying, but Lee is an ideal femme-fatale-or-isn’t-she?
The industry noticed and Lee graduated to “A” pictures with a small part in The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), a comedy about a riotous girls’ boarding school from Frank Launder, who had previously directed Dors in Lady Godiva Rides Again; Lee played a Dors-style student sent to seduce a jockey to get inside information – the only one of the females in the movie to be truly sexualised.
Lee then played the second lead in Footsteps in the Fog (1955) an entertaining medium-budget Gothic thriller starring Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons, directed by Arthur Lubin for Columbia. She also had the female lead in low budget comedy No Smoking (1955), an attempt to turn another stage comic, in this case Reg Dixon, into Norman Wisdom.
Duly impressed, the Rank Organisation signed Lee to a long-term contract (as she was under 21, her husband had to co-sign). There was some press at the time that Lee was going to be a rival to Diana Dors.
A rival to Dors, you ask? The star of Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? What had happened? Three words: Women in prison.
Dors’ career had been rejuvenated through her performance in a prison drama, The Weak and the Wicked (1954). This was based on the memoirs of Joan Henry, a former debutante and romance novelist who had gone to prison for fraud; director J. Lee Thompson was enchanted by her story and decided to turn it into a film (he was enchanted by Henry on a personal level, too, leaving his wife and two children to marry her). Glynis Johns played the lead, a woman based on Henry, but Dors was given the chief support part, a fellow inmate who becomes Johns’ close friend. The movie, a rare female-oriented story from ‘50s British cinema, was excellently done and became a big hit, earning Dors excellent reviews and new status within the industry.
In April 1954 she said “I’m picking and choosing my parts now. That doesn’t mean I’m waiting for the perfect part, but I’m sick to death of being the sexy siren.”
The press still had trouble taking Dors seriously. It didn’t help that she was arrested for stealing alcohol, or that questions were asked in Parliament about why she was allowed to claim a mink coat as a tax deduction, or that Hamilton printed a book comprised of 3D semi-nude photos of her that was temporarily banned for obscenity.
But she kept plugging away, particularly in comedies; she was consistently the best things in movies that were, in hindsight, too heavy geared towards the male lead rather than her: As Long as They’re Happy (1955) with Jack Buchanan, Miss Tulip Stays the Night (1955) with Patrick Holt, Value for Money (1955) with John Gregson, An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) with Donald Sinden.
Carol Reed, then one of the most prestigious directors in the country, cast Dors as one of the leads in A Kid for Two Farthings (1955). This was a charming fable about a small boy in the East End who thinks his pet goat is a unicorn; Dors played a shop assistant who wants to marry her bodybuilding boyfriend. It was an archetypal Dors performance in many ways – she’s down-to-earth, warm, kind, the best looking girl in a low-rent area (glamorous, but “East End” glamorous) and contributed to Farthings being one of the most popular movies of 1955 in Britain, which in turn led to exhibitors voting Dors the ninth-most popular British star at the box office that year. She was the solo female star in the top ten, ranking after Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Norman Wisdom, Alastair Sim, Kenneth More, Jack Hawkins, Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave, and in front of Alec Guinness. (Incidentally, Dors never got to co-star with any of these actors throughout her career, which seems like a great opportunity missed).
Dors’ parts in Value for Money and An Alligator Named Daisy had been turned down by Kay Kendall, an actor whose career had some interesting parallels with Dors (she also started very young, appeared in Dance Hall and Lady Godiva, and starred in a Terence Fisher “B” movie at Hammer). Kendall had launched past Dors status-wise on the basis of one movie – Genevieve (1953) – and managed to survive a series of dud British movies to become a Hollywood star in The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955). Another contemporary of Dors (and Lady Godiva Rides Again alumni), Joan Collins, had been plucked from British “B” movies to star in Land of the Pharaohs (1955) and signed a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox. Dors must have been thinking about following them across the Atlantic.
Still, there was plenty happening at home. In August 1955, Dors became the media sensation of the Venice Film Festival after being photographed on a gondola wearing a mink bikini. Even better, J. Lee Thompson then gave her the role of a lifetime when he cast her in the lead of Yield to the Night (1956).
The movie was another prison-orientated tale from Joan Henry, this one fictional (though it predicted the Ruth Ellis case) about a woman on death row for murder; Dors played the woman. It was her greatest challenge as an actor: she’s in almost every scene, and is superb, whether snubbing her family on visiting days, anxiously glancing at envelopes held by the warden, throwing herself at her lover, snapping abuse at visiting prison reformers, calmly shooting to death the woman who broke her lover’s heart. The film was a commercial and critical success (even if far too many reviews were of the patronising “sigh-I-guess-she-wasn’t-awful” kind). It screened in competition at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, where Dors was a publicity magnet, arriving in a turquoise Cadillac with gold handles and wearing a turquoise one-piece swimsuit on the beach embroidered with crystals and pearls. Dors was not invited to a party held by the Rank Organisation; her memoir hints that in response, she drew a moustache on a poster featuring Rank’s biggest female star, Belinda Lee.
Dors had every reason to believe that she was finally established as a movie star. And why not? She was one of the most famous people in England, she was beautiful and could act, she was coming off not one, but three hit films, she was popular with audiences and press agents.
She was definitely confident enough to turn down an offer to play the female lead in a comedy for Rank, The Big Money. “They still think I’m only good for the dumb blonde parts I played five years ago,” she said, a little sniffy. “I thought everyone in the business knew I’d come some way since then.”
She was replaced in the film by another blonde – Belinda Lee.
Most pretty female actors under contract to Rank had to spend at least some time as a straight woman to their comedy stars. The Big Money, with Ian Carmichael, was one of three “straight banana” parts Belinda Lee made for the studio – the others being Man of the Moment (1955) with Norman Wisdom and Who Done It? (1956) with Benny Hill. In fairness, Lee had a decent-ish role in all three. Who Done It? is the best of the trio, with the classiest behind the scenes talent (Basil Dearden directed, T.E.B. Clarke wrote the script) and Lee is fun as a girl who helps detective Benny Hill. In Man of the Moment, Lee plays a movie star/enemy agent who sets out to seduce Wisdom; and in The Big Money – the film turned down by Diana Dors – she’s a materialistic bar maid whose allure prompts Ian Carmichael to attempt a life of crime. Dors’ instincts were right, incidentally – Sir John Davis, who ran Rank, disliked The Big Money so much, the film sat on a shelf for two years (truth be told it’s not that much worse than Man of the Moment).
The other main type of role played by female stars at Rank were “sensible gals”: characters with names like “Molly” and “Jane” who were no-nonsense but kind, not overly glamorous, ideal-girlfriend types. Lee played three of these: in The Feminine Touch (1956), she was one of four nursing students, romancing doctor George Baker; in Eyewitness (1956), a thriller directed by Muriel Box, she was a nurse threatened by a killer; and in The Secret Place (1957), a crime drama which was the directorial debut of Clive Donner, she was a kiosk attendant whose boyfriend commits a heist of which Lee disapproves. (The best of the trio is The Secret Place which is a minor classic.)
None of these films were particularly popular but Rank had faith in Lee and gave her the female lead (note that qualification – “female” lead) in two of their most prestigious movies: Miracle in Soho (1957), the first movie written and produced by Emeric Pressburger after his break up with Michael Powell; and Dangerous Exile (1957), a French Revolution drama with Louis Jourdan.
Again, neither of these was a hit – indeed, Miracle in Soho was a noted flop (aside: if you want a masterclass in bitchiness, read Powell’s memoirs on that movie) – but they were well- publicised films, which tended to be forever on television when I was growing up.
At the end of 1957, British exhibitors voted Belinda Lee the 10th most popular British film star at the box office – like Dors, she was the only woman (out of interest, ahead of her were Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Peter Finch, John Gregson, Norman Wisdom, John Mills, Stanley Baker, Ian Carmichael and Jack Hawkins).
What had happened to Dors in the meantime? Why had she fallen off the list? Hollywood.
In June 1956, Diana Dors relocated to Los Angeles. America had been a career graveyard for several British female stars (Phyllis Calvert, Pat Roc), but not all (Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons, Angela Lansbury) and Dors was smart about the transition – or at least, she seemed to be. She didn’t just rock up and hope for the best, she signed a multi-picture deal with a major studio and made sure her first two films were a comedy and a melodrama, respectively: the two genres where Dors had enjoyed her most consistent success.
Unfortunately for her, the studio was RKO, then in its dying days, and the films were mediocre – I Married a Woman (1957) with George Gobel (a TV comic little remembered today but then quite famous) and The Unholy Wife (1957) with Rod Steiger.
She received a lot of publicity falling in her pool at a party, an incident which was taken in a negative way by the American media, who turned on her. She had an affair with Steiger, her marriage to Hamilton broke up, the releases of her films were delayed, and when they came out both flopped. (Incidentally, both movies have their moments but neither quite get there – like pretty much every film made at RKO in its dying days. Unholy Wife in particular is a fascinating companion piece to Yield to the Night as both have Dors on death row for a crime of passion, but is considerably inferior to the British movie.)
In hindsight, Dors should have stayed on in Hollywood and tried to guts it out, but after only six months she returned to Britain, to play the female lead in The Long Haul (1957). This was a truck driving melodrama with Victor Mature, and American finance; it’s a decent little movie, and Dors was as beautiful and warm as ever, reminding everyone what she was capable of.
There seemed to be few other offers. I used to think this was a mystery – after all, Dors was still one of the most famous women in the country, a performer of proven talent and popularity, someone who could not only give an excellent performance, but who would attract reams of free press for whatever project she appeared in. Researching this article, though, I became more sympathetic to producers’ reluctance to cast her: in the late 1950s, it seemed Dors couldn’t stay out of the papers for something, whether it was being in car accidents, lawsuits, ex-lovers selling memoirs, stalkers, being robbed, the problems of her boyfriends/ex-husbands/friends, planes landing on her property, forgetting visas, Hamilton’s early death.
The Diana Dors publicity machine was in overdrive, much of it was very silly, and it was chipping away at all the credibility gains she’d made. To which you might say “so what?” but you can understand how it contributed to filmmakers forgetting her very real abilities as an actual actor/star.
A colourful private life never deterred the European film industry, though, and Dors received an offer from an Italian studio to star in the French-Italian romantic comedy The Love Specialist (1957) opposite Vittorio Gassman. It’s a gorgeous-looking movie, incidentally, in which Dors never appeared more beautiful on screen; there’s also a climax where she gets to win a horse race, the Palio di Siena – more of a triumphant finale than British cinema ever gave her. However, the film was little seen outside Europe.
Dors made the film in Rome at the same time another English starlet was working in town – Belinda Lee. While Dors’ Italian sojourn was just another gig for her, Lee’s visit would fundamentally change that actor’s life.
Lee had been offered the title role in The Goddess of Love (1957), an Italian sword-and-sandal drama which cast her as the model for the original statue of Aphrodite. Lee apparently got the part after impressing Italian film directors at the Cannes Film Festival by going for a swim and losing the top of her bikini. That’s what they said.
Lee spent a lot of the film posing with a bare back and walking around in short togas. Much of her time off-camera was spent having an extra-marital affair with Prince Filippo Orsini, an Italian noble whose backstory read like it was out of a romance novel: a handsome war hero, a prince descended from one of Italy’s most distinguished families (he was Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne), married to a woman whose wealth propped up said family’s impoverished finances and who he constantly cheated on. Orsini met Lee on a beach; he lied that there were sharks in the water, she was impressed, and the two of them began a not-terribly-discrete affair.
Lee later claimed, “I changed the day I got to Rome. One day I was a quiet English girl – the next I was a woman. What a time I had and how the Italian men love us actresses.” When she returned to England, she ended her marriage to Lucas, although the press did not report Orsini’s involvement. Yet.
Rank gave Lee top-billing in her next movie, Nor the Moon by Night (1958), one of a series of colourful adventure tales the studio made in the late 1950s in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to crack the international market. They were often set in picturesque corners of the British Commonwealth: Nor the Moon was mostly shot in South Africa, a few years before that country became an international pariah. Lee’s part was in the “sensible girl” realm, a spinster who discovers love on the veldt in between being attacked by wildlife.
Joy Packer, author of the novel on which the film was (loosely) based, met the star on location, describing her as such: “Her hips were a little too big and her legs not quite enough for true grace, but what one noted was the beauty of her green cat-titled eyes, her mane of red-gold hair and the young firm contours of her throat and bosom. She was quiet and composed, easy to talk to, with a sleepy well-educated voice… She had a way of tossing her hair constantly as if she could not forget it… She was unaware of Africa, unaware of her surroundings or her job except when she was actually performing. People said that she was unapproachable. Perhaps she was, because she was wrapped in the shining cocoon of an illicit love affair. Her heart and soul were in Rome with her forbidden lover.”
During filming, Lee told a reporter that she wanted to play “passionate exotic parts. I don’t want to be the girl next door, or somebody’s sister. I don’t really like being a simple outdoor girl either – good at heart, even when she’s swept off her feet.”
Lee would get her wish. It’s unlikely she would have predicted how it would happen. During a break in filming, Lee returned to Italy to see Orsini, who told her he was not going to leave his wife/money for Lee. The actor responded by trying to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills; she did not succeed, but wound up spending several days in hospital. Not to be outdone, Orsini overdosed on pills and slashed his wrists; he too was unsuccessful and taken to hospital (Orsini later claimed in his memoirs that he did not try to commit suicide, arguing he had just gotten drunk and slashed his wrists to show a maid he was not afraid of physical pain – an explanation which sounds so absurd one is tempted to believe it is true).
Both incidents were all over the papers, becoming a leading scandal of 1958, at least in Europe where people had actually heard of Orsini and Lee. Orsini’s wife kicked him out and cut him off, and his family lost its hereditary title of Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne. The Pope made a sermon condemning adultery and suicide which was commonly interpreted as being a reference to the couple.
Lee recovered sufficiently to return to South Africa and complete Nor the Moon by Night. There was more publicity when she was essentially smuggled into the country to avoid the local press, causing questions to be asked in South African Parliament about whether Lee received preferential treatment from the immigration department. She eventually went home to London, telling the press “I feel as if I have just come out of prison. I’m 22 and hope to marry again before I’m 80. Love is the important thing. I believe in letting my heart rule my head.” She and Cornel Lucas were divorced; Lucas eventually married another starlet, Susan Travers, who was even younger than Lee; that marriage lasted until his death in 2012.
Rank seemed unsure what to do with Lee. A well-publicised adulterous affairs can increase an actor’s popularity – as Elizabeth Taylor would soon prove when she “stole” Eddie Fisher off Debbie Reynolds. However, in the British film industry of the 1950s, which liked its women sensible and/or straight bananas, it seemed to scare producers.
Just ask Diana Dors.
Only two years after the release of Yield to the Night, Diana Dors’ movie career was flatlining. She made two “B” pictures – Tread Softly Stranger (1958), a film noir starring with George Baker, Belinda Lee’s leading man from The Feminine Touch; and Passport to Shame (1958), a prostitute melodrama in which Dors was the second female lead, once again better than the actual female lead. She had a cameo in Scent of Mystery (1960), again, better than the actual lead. Dors announced plans to make a film of the stage musical, Grab Me a Gondola but it did not eventuate.
RKO terminated their contract with Dors and she sued (she later settled). Hamilton died in 1959, by which stage it was clear his financial mismanagement had left Dors broke, meaning instead of being able to wait/audition for decent film parts, she had to plug away at cabaret shows. She was given her own short-lived variety program on TV, The Diana Dors Show, featuring comedian Richard Dawson, who became her second husband.
But no decent British film roles seemed forthcoming. The Rank Organisation, who could have used Dors around this time, did not seem interested. Neither did Hammer Films, who were experiencing global success with their horror movies. Perhaps most frustratingly for Dors, J. Lee Thompson, who had given her the two best opportunities, made a series of films featuring parts that Dors could have played, but which, for whatever reason, were taken by other actors: Sylvia Syms in Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), Ice Cold in Alex (1959), and No Trees in the Street (1959), and Yvonne Mitchell in Tiger Bay (1959).
That’s not to knock those actors, who are all excellent – one just wonders what cooled Thompson on Dors, who was surely the bigger star, with a higher profile and warmer screen presence (too expensive? Too uppity? A schedule/personality clash? Too much bad publicity?).
In fairness, apathy on Dors’ behalf may also have been a factor – in May 1959 she said she wanted to retire from acting and focus on her other interests, including a shampoo factory.
Still, it seems a great shame. One of the truly individual female stars of 1950s British cinema was being ignored.
Richard Dawson wanted to try his luck in America, so Dors agreed to move back there. Maybe a second stint would work out. After all, emigrating was doing wonders for Belinda Lee…
Like Diana Dors, Belinda Lee had discovered that, while English film producers were scared off by her racy private life, European ones were attracted. She received an offer to star in This Desired Body (1958), a French melodrama in the style of And God Created Woman (1956) set against the background of the mussel-packing industry; Lee plays a former prostitute who is adored by Daniel Gelin and Maurice Ronet, and sleeps with another man on the side. It’s not a bad little movie, helped by location filming and a frank attitude to sex, and Lee looks terrific. The credits announced that Lee appeared “by permission of the Rank organisation”.
She would not need that permission much longer: in October 1958, Rank announced they would not pick up its option on Lee’s contract at the end of the year. This was commonly interpreted as her being fired due to the Orsini scandal; the studio denied it, arguing that they were struggling financially at the time (again), and pointing out that they had also recently let go of other contract players like Patrick McGoohan and Ronald Lewis. However, Rank still kept some actors under contract (including Anne Heywood, who briefly replaced Lee as the studio’s resident “glamour” star); the headaches of Nor the Moon By Night must have contributed to the decision in some way.
Lee decided to relocate permanently to Europe, which resulted in her dropping off the radar in England. A writer from The Sydney Morning Herald later claimed at this point that Lee “threw aside her career for second-rate Italian movies, terrace amours and fast Italian cars”.
There was an element of truth to that, particularly the “fast cars” bit, as we shall see, but it wasn’t the whole story. For one thing, Lee’s career until then had mostly been in second-rate British films, and there had been no indication this would change. Also, she made films in France and Germany as well as Italy – and some of the Italian movies she made were excellent.
Lee wound up appearing in twelve European movies in a little over two years. “Now all the time I make films,” she said in June 1959. “One after the other. It won’t last but now I am in demand. I might as well cash in on it.”
She was almost always cast as a sexually desired/active woman: prostitutes, adulterous wives, strippers, movie stars, etc. Sometimes, her characters were “punished” for transgressions, but most of the time they were allowed to live, and pretty much every role she played in a European movie was more complex, varied and interesting (and better photographed) than her British movies. Not one sensible girl or straight banana.
“Always I am asked now to play wicked women,” Lee said. “On the Continent I’m thought of always in connection with parts like that. Bit of a change from the old Rank Orgy [organisation, we think she meant]. But I’m not ambitious anymore. I don’t care anymore to be a big star. I used to be so ambitious – now it means nothing to me. Now I just wanted to make some money. So I can live the way I want to.”
Half of Lee’s films had her depicting historical figures: Lucretia Borgia, two Roman Empresses (Messalina and Fausta), Rosemarie Nitribitt (a German prostitute who was murdered), Marie Bonnard du Parquet (governor of Martinique) and Potiphar’s wife (the one from the Bible who tries to seduce Joseph). She also appeared in a variety of genres: melodrama, peplums, serious war drama, swashbuckler, broad comedy, fantasy comedy. Two Italian movies were genuine attempts at something classy – I Magliari (1959), directed by Francesco Rossi, about immigrant workers in Germany, and Long Night in 1943 (1960), about fascists executing innocents in 1943 Italy. Another one for the arthouses was Les Dragueurs (1959), from France, the directorial debut of Jean-Pierre Mocky, a serious romantic drama starring Jacques Charrier (a one-time Mr Brigitte Bardot) and Charles Aznavour.
The most fun of Lee’s European movies was Messalina (1960), a silly sword and sandal epic with Lee having a high old time as the notorious empress, taking milk baths and seducing gladiators; also entertaining is Phantom Lovers (1961), a comedy about ghosts with Marcello Mastroianni. The most widely seen in the US appears to have been Constantine and the Cross (1961) with Cornel Wilde, and The Story of Joseph and His Brethren (1961) with, of all people, Robert Morley.
Lee’s performances in her European movies vary in quality – sometimes she seems bored, but mostly she rises to the occasion; in some she was superb, such as Long Night in ’43 (1960). She admittedly never found a part in a truly iconic European film like, say, Anita Ekberg did with La Dolce Vita (1960), but she got to act alongside actors such as Mastroianni, Robert Morley, Cornel Wilde, Walter Chiari and Vittorio Gassman. She always appeared ravishing, particularly in the Italian movies.
“I might as well cash in on the notoriety I have got,” she once said. “It won’t last. I just want to live. I just want to have a good time.”
Lee’s relationship with Orsini did not last – he claimed in his memoirs that this was because he didn’t want to accompany her to Germany to make a movie. “I was heartily tired of carrying my heart around the world in a suitcase,” he whined. “Of the ‘burning passion’ which had scorched me so deeply, there was nothing left but ashes.” (Another reason may have been that he was the sort of man who sold his memoirs to the papers blabbing about their relationship, which he did while Lee was still alive.)
Lee found a new beau in documentary director Gualtiero Jacopetti, famed for making Mondo Cane (1962), the first of the “mondo” movies. He was also notorious for having married a thirteen-year-old, to whom he was still married when he met Lee; also during his time with Lee, Jacopetti was arrested in Hong Kong for molesting three girls, all under eleven; he was gaoled for three months. She stuck by him, but their relationship was to cost her life. Ish.
Dors’ second stint in America lasted longer than her first, but was even more patchy. She raised her kids, toured her cabaret act, and had some small roles in studio films such as On the Double (1961) and King of the Roaring 20s (1962), showing her talent and warmth had not dimmed. She was meant to co-star with Jerry Lewis in The Ladies’ Man (1961) but he replaced her at the last minute. She had better opportunities in television, most notably in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents so gruesome that it was suppressed for decades. “I have been strangled, poisoned, hanged, and gassed on movies and TV,” she once joked, with accuracy.
Dors occasionally returned to Britain for work, appearing in films like Mrs Gibbons Boys (1962) and West 11 (1963), but she was not based in London. In hindsight, this was probably a mistake professionally: the early sixties saw an explosion in creativity in the British film industry that propelled it through the decade, and Dors may have had more opportunities as a local rather than an emigre.
Or maybe not. Her luck was not good around this time. The marriage to Dawson was disintegrating, in part because she had to leave the house to make money (he went on to become famous in his own right, appearing in Hogan’s Heroes and hosting Family Feud for many years). In 1961, she narrowly escaped death at a Guy Fawkes Night party in Wraysbury where fireworks were accidentally ignited indoors; three people died in the fire and Dors was injured while escaping through a window, narrowly escaping death.
Mind you – her luck could have been worse.
Ask Belinda Lee.
In 1961, Lee decided to take some time off from acting and accompanied Gualtiero Jacopetti and another director, Paolo Cavara, around the world to shoot footage for a documentary, The Women in the World (1963). She joined them in Hong Kong, then visited Tahiti, Hawaii, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Lee did not appear in the film, which by the time they left Vegas was three-quarters complete.
On 13 March 1961, Lee, Jacopetti, Cavara and their USA contact, Nino Falenga, were travelling in a station wagon from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on Highway 91; the plan was for the filmmakers to return to Rome, then go on to New York, where they would shoot the remaining quarter of the movie.
Falenga was driving the car, which was going 100 miles an hour just outside the town of San Bernardino when the rear tire blew, causing the vehicle to skid for 1,100 feet, leap a ditch and land upside down. Lee was thrown 63 feet from the car, suffering a skull fracture and broken neck; a doctor who stopped at the site pronounced her dead before the ambulance arrived. Lee’s co-passengers all survived, with varying degrees of injuries; Jacopetti dedicated Women of the World (1963) to the actor.
Gossip columnist Dorothy Killgallen wrote that Lee’s death “caused sadness but little surprise among those who knew her. They had a feeling she was building up toward a ‘big finish’. She had been calm enough when she was married to her first husband but ‘the recklessness took over’, they say, after she went to Italy and became involved with Prince Orsini.”
Maybe that was true.
Or maybe it was simply the sort of thing people tell themselves to minimise the sadness that is felt when a beautiful, talented young woman is senselessly killed in an accident that wasn’t her fault. And when that woman has led an unconventional lifestyle that is threatening in its sexual and professional liberation.
Mind you, she did also date a pedophile. There is that.
Unlike Belinda Lee, Diana Dors survived the sixties, but it was not an easy decade. Her marriage to Dawson ended, and with her career floundering in the US she decided to move back to London, leaving her two children behind with her ex. She made a TV series, The Unusual Miss Mulberry, but the episodes were not aired. She declared bankruptcy in 1968, claiming she had assets of a little over £200. Her figure, always full, started to fill out, limiting the sorts of roles she was offered.
But one of the most admirable things about Diana Dors was that she never gave up. She continued to work regularly in clubs, television and films, continually stealing the show. The quality of her material began to improve: Berserk! (1967), with Joan Crawford, Baby Love (1968) with Linda Hayden; Deep End (1970) with Jane Asher; and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970), with the Boulting Brothers, who probably should have used her years ago.
She married a third time, to actor Alan Lake, who had his flaws (he served time in prison for assault) but genuinely adored her, and fathered her third child. She received excellent reviews for a West End play, Three Months Gone, then had a lead role in a hit sitcom, Queenie’s Castle (1970–72).
Dors remained in demand for work for the rest of her life. The jobs tended to be “bitsy” – guest appearances on TV dramas and game/chat/variety shows, small parts in movies – but there were a lot of them. She fitted in nicely to the three main genres of ‘70s British cinema (sex comedies, horror, and big-screen adaptations of TV shows) and could always be counted to steal the scene or two she was allocated: highlights include Hannie Caulder (1971), Theatre of Blood (1973), From Beyond the Grave (1974), and The Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976).
She had a quick wit and self-deprecating sense of humour that was very endearing, and helped her become a popular author of books. If Dors had kept the weight off, maybe she might have remained a leading lady and been able to engineer a big-time comeback the way Joan Collins did with The Stud and Dynasty.
Still, she was never out of work, which is a hell of an achievement for anyone in showbusiness. I imagine she’d still be plugging away if cancer hadn’t killed her in 1985, aged 54. Her last movie was a classy one: Steaming (1985), directed by Joseph Losey.
I’m old enough to remember when Diana Dors died; news bulletins delighted (it seemed) in showing contrasting photos of ‘50s Dors with the plump figure she became. But at least there was a lot of press coverage – something that she of all people would have appreciated.
Dors has retained her fame post-death – there have been biographical books, a biopic mini-series, even posthumous tabloid news revelations (allegations of a hidden fortune and orgies, Lake’s suicide, the early death of their son). There has been critical re-appraisal too: Yield to the Night is an accepted classic, several of her movies have cults (Deep End, Baby Love, Theatre of Blood, Berserk!), and most of her film work is relatively easy to access, giving her the chance to gain new fans. She remains an icon.
Belinda Lee, in comparison, is mostly forgotten. On one hand, it’s hard to understand: she was a beautiful, talented, blonde film star with an exciting private life who died very young – normally an automatic qualification for cult status (Harlow, Monroe, Mansfield, Barbara Payton, Kay Kendall). Not Belinda Lee though – her name is little remembered outside film buff circles.
Admittedly, her resume lacks an iconic movie – there’s no big hit, no cult classic, no Yield to the Night (there is The Belles of St Trinian’s but she’s only in that briefly; The Secret Place has a growing reputation, but it is still small). Few of her European movies travelled widely. She is not terribly individual as a star in her British films. I have of lot of time for Belinda Lee – it’s what prompted writing this article – but she never jumps off the screen in the way Diana Dors did; you could get her mixed up (and often was) with, say, Mary Ure, or Anne Heywood, or Virginia McKenna, or Shirley Eaton, or Susan Shaw. In her European films, it was a different matter – in those she had “star factor”. In my opinion anyway.
I think Lee made the right decision relocating to Europe. Absolutely, her roles sexualised her, but they were consistently of a higher quality than her parts in England. She continued to improve as an actor – it’s intriguing to imagine how she would have wound up had she lived beyond her 26 years of age. A Bond girl? A TV star? A royal? Careers are hard for ageing glamour girls, but no one quite had a trajectory like Belinda Lee, so who knows?
For me, Diana Dors is the one who was misused. Gorgeous, warm, talented, empathetic; her ability was spotted almost instantly, but British filmmakers never quite knew how to harness it – only a few pulled it off, like J. Lee Thompson and Maurice Elvey.
You could argue that Dors and Lee never quite realised their potential because of poor personal choices. Certainly, that’s a sexy explanation, especially since both women clearly liked a good time, and seemed to have a weakness for dating smooth-talking louts.
But I would argue, far more responsible was the inability of the British film industry of the 1950s to exploit its female stars, particularly ones who looked like they might enjoy sex. Absolutely, the dominance of traditionally masculine genres like comedy and war movies did not help this, but good old fashioned misogyny surely played a part as well.
Still, something is better than nothing. I am grateful for what we have.
And I feel that if someone raised the concept of “missed opportunities” with either Belinda Lee or Diana Dors they would simply laugh, shrug, have a drink and ask where the wrap party was. Because they seem like those sort of girls. And that’s why I love them, and why I wrote this piece.