“Ken Doll.” “Mannequin.” “Himbo.” You could call him that.
“School prefect.” “Junior officer”. “The wooden dish.” He was described in those terms, too.
“Matinee idol”. “Skilled lover.” “Terrible drunk.” “Bloody good actor.” “Awful actor.” “Forgotten star.” “Wife beater. “
This was Anthony Steel.
Is he remembered today? Kind of. Sort of. I think he is. To a particular generation of movie fans, at least: ones with a soft spot for British cinema of the 1950s. This used to be a quite sizeable group in Australia a few decades or so back, because (some of) his films were endlessly repeated on the ABC. That’s not the case now – his back catalogue is more commonly found on 9Gem, YouTube or specialist DVD labels. But he has his fans; someone wrote a whole biography about him: it was called The Wooden Dish, a very apt title.
For a time, Anthony Steel was a Big Deal. Not for a long time, but a time: to be precise, from 1952 until 1956, when he regularly appeared in British exhibitor polls listing the most popular local stars in the country. In his heyday, Steel was considered a more potent box-office draw than Peter Finch or Laurence Olivier or Michael Redgrave or Trevor Howard or Richard Burton or countless other figures who became legends in their own lifetimes, while Steel is (mostly) forgotten. He starred in some huge hits, had a paparazzi-magnet marriage to a legendary sex symbol, featured in plenty of scandals, and endured a dramatic fall from grace and tragic end. These things normally ensure some sort of cult, yet Steel drifted into obscurity relatively early and stayed there for forty years while he was alive – and has not leapt back into public consciousness since then. Not really.
Anthony Steel was his real name, and his background was similar to that of many of the characters he played. Born in 1920, he was the son of an Indian Army officer, educated at prep schools and Cambridge, before going into the Grenadier Guards early in World War Two. Steel was a parachutist, and saw active service in Europe and Asia, rising to the rank of major.
Someone with Steel’s pedigree could easily have become a career army officer, but after the war ended, he decided to become a thespian. Nature blessed him with height, handsomeness, a full head of hair and an excellent speaking voice; he didn’t have much natural talent, but those first four things are often more important when it comes to finding acting work. He began to appear on stage in the provinces, and an introduction to J. Arthur Rank led to Steel being offered a long-term acting contract with the latter’s company.
Rank is becoming an increasingly obscure figure, but in the 1940s he was the most powerful person in the British film industry. The son of a flour tycoon, Rank used his (considerable and inherited) fortune to move into film production, distribution and exhibition; over the course of a decade, he gobbled up various companies and cinemas to forge an organisation that dominated British cinema for two generations.
Rank dreamed of creating a studio system analogous to those in Hollywood. Part of this involved building his own stable of stars; thus begat the Company of Youth, a.k.a. Rank’s Charm School, an informal training academy for young actors under contract. Students were given an allowance and basic training (often, to their frustration, in deportment more than actual acting); in return, they would appear at publicity functions, play the occasional role in films, and hopefully become famous, after which (in theory) Rank could use them in his movies at a discount rate. Graduates of the school over the years included names such as Diana Dors, Christopher Lee, Claire Bloom… and the former Major Anthony Steel.
Steel was one of the Charm School’s busier students – it’s easier to get gigs if you’re young, male and handsome, and the British film industry was booming at the time. Steel popped up in around a dozen pictures made in a little over a year, usually as a soldier, guard or policeman: films like Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), Portrait from Life (1948), The Chiltern Hundreds (1949) and The Blue Lamp (1949). He rarely had more than a few lines but often got a juicy close up, indicating Rank Organisation may have had their eye on him as “potential star” relatively early.
Certainly, it didn’t take long for Steel to make it. His big break came when cast as a POW in The Wooden Horse (1950), based on the true story of British soldiers who escaped Stalag Luft III in the war by using a vaulting horse. Steel played one of the three leads (the others were Leo Genn and David Tomlinson); he is clearly meant to be “the cute one” of the trio, spending a considerable amount of the film’s running time walking around in shorts bare-chested. The picture was one of the biggest hits at the local box-office that year and kicked off the British POW-escape movie sub-genre later so brilliantly spoofed in the “Escape from Stalag Luft 112B” episode of Ripping Yarns. It established Steel as a name.
He received offers to play male juveniles in two Hollywood-financed films shot in Britain with American stars. Both parts were very much supporting roles but the projects were prestigious: The Mudlark (1950) with Irene Dunne as Queen Victoria, and Another Man’s Poison (1951), a thriller with Bette Davis; in the latter, he got to play love scenes against Davis who called Steel “a beautiful prop”.
He was given his first real star part when cast as a game park warden in Where No Vultures Fly (1951). This is an interesting movie helped considerably by colour photography and location filming in Kenya; it’s the tale of white man’s burden in Africa, but this was post-war Africa and director Harry Watt was a socialist, so the burden involves protecting animals. The script is paternalistic, so time has not been kind, but in its day the film was seen as a very fresh imperial tale: it was the Royal Command Performance Film for 1951 and was even more popular than The Wooden Horse at the box office; exhibitors voted Steel the equal-fourth most popular British star of 1952. (Out of interest, the top ten consisted of Ronald Shiner, Alastair Sim, Alec Guinness, Steel and Jack Hawkins (equal), Richard Todd, Nigel Patrick, Jack Warner, Anna Neagle, Trevor Howard and Glynis Johns.)
The British film industry had been looking for a new Stewart Granger ever since, well, Granger first came along (which might explain why that actor was so insecure all the time, but that’s a topic for another article), ie. a tall, handsome, romantic leading man. Producers tried names such as Maxwell Reed, Donald Houston, Dermot Walsh, and John McCallum, but none of them enjoyed as much success as rapidly as Steel. It’s interesting to hypothesise why. My theory is that audiences appreciated his lack of “brood” and neurosis; he seemed fresh-faced and decent: the ideal uncomplicated boyfriend/junior lieutenant/game warden. In addition, at a time when many British leading men seemed “indoorsy” (i.e. wimps), Steel was a physically active type. He didn’t come across too sleazy on screen, either (a trait he shared with Dirk Bogarde, incidentally); he could seem romantically interested in women but not lecherous about it. In the wrong role this could hurt – for instance, Steel’s part in Another Man’s Poison as Bette Davis’ toyboy would have been more effective if played by a more obviously sexually charged actor – but in the right part, he served to soften the material.
Steel was also the beneficiary of what I call “the advantages of woodenness”. Stay with me on this one – I would argue that, sometimes, an actor’s lack of expression can help their appeal, if they are attractive enough and cast in the right role; it allows the audience to project its own thoughts and feelings on to their character, giving said audience a greater degree of investment in that character. I’ve seen this happen a number of times with actors on TV soap operas who are wooden, but nice looking, and play characters in positions of authority, so their lack of acting ability is protected – they have status, they portray objects of desire, they are active; such actors can become astonishingly popular, as was the case with Steel. If Steel played characters outside this (limited) range, things could get tricky; but within it, he was effective. That’s not a backhanded compliment: it’s difficult to find actors who could do what Steel could do. For all his flaws as a performer, he did bring something unique to the screen, and audiences responded accordingly.
Rank decided to try Steel in a comedy about newlyweds, Something Money Can’t Buy (1952), with Pat Roc. He was not skilled at comedy and would never appear in another of that genre while a star. During the shoot, he and Roc had an affair, which resulted in the latter becoming pregnant; she raised the child without Steel, who had a few illegitimate offspring around the place, apparently. Incidentally, Roc was an old hand at film set romances – her nickname was “bed rock” – and she rated Steel’s lovemaking technique highly: probably one of his best reviews. (This has nothing to do with a serious analysis of Steel’s career, by the way, it’s just juicy gossip I put in to liven up this piece.)
Steel was more happily cast as a doctor in Emergency Call (1952), an excellent lower-budgeted race-against-time medical thriller, which was a career breakthrough for its director, Lewis Gilbert. Steel appeared alongside Jack Warner, and it was soon clear that the former was most effective on screen when teamed with an older male actor. Rank used that technique for The Planter’s Wife (1952), where Steel supported Jack Hawkins and Claudette Colbert; this was another “new Imperial tale” focusing on the Malayan Emergency, then still going strong, in which Steel has a surprisingly small part as a local police officer. Watching it, I kept expecting his character to die or have an affair with Colbert’s, and the film would’ve been better if he had done either. Still, the public liked the movie: it was one of the most popular British movies of the year.
The Rank Organisation repeated the Planter’s Wife formula with The Malta Story (1953), i.e. a war story (in this case World War Two) set in an exotic locale (in this case Malta), with Steel as a soldier in support of two bigger stars (Hawkins and Alec Guinness). Guinness was a man of thought, Hawkins of action, Steel walked around the island having a chaste romance; it worked a treat for audiences and was another box-office success. So too was Albert RN (1953) which, like The Wooden Horse, was a POW tale based on a true story, this time directed by Lewis Gilbert with Steel supporting Jack Warner and Robert Beatty. Steel had a bigger acting challenge in this one, having a hysterical attack in one scene; he did well enough – it’s one of his best efforts.
These films were not big in America, but Britain was an important market for Hollywood and the studios had noticed Steel. Warner Brothers duly cast him as Errol Flynn’s brother in The Master of Ballantrae, based (loosely) on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Steel didn’t have much to play in a film that is entertaining but badly lacks a villain; he probably should have played that role – but then again, maybe not: his performances lacked the edge needed for memorable wickedness.
Rank kept him in war movies with The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) directed by Lewis Gilbert with Dirk Bogarde, Michael Redgrave and Nigel Patrick. He was given a rare sole lead role in West of Zanzibar (1954), a sequel to Where No Vultures Fly; this was far more colonial, imperialistic and racist than the first movie – it wasn’t as good or successful, either, although Steel did sing a song on the soundtrack which became a surprise hit on the pop charts.
By 1954, Steel was well-established. He was earning 15,000 pounds a year, had the backing of the biggest studio in England, and earned a proven public following, albeit in a very narrow range of parts. The other big star of the Rank Organisation was Dirk Bogarde, who that year appeared in Doctor in the House, launching that actor into the stratosphere. Steel never had Bogarde’s warmth, talent, charisma or versatility; however, he did have the looks, and a pleasant presence on screen, dependable, kind and trustworthy.
Rank tried Steel in something different, an ensemble film set at an airport, Out of the Clouds (1955). It was only a moderate success, as was Passage Home (1955), a ship-set melodrama with Peter Finch and Diane Cilento. Both movies would have been more interesting if they had been turned into war films, incidentally.
More popular was a well-received race car drama shot on location in Italy, Checkpoint (1956), where Steel appeared alongside Stanley Baker. In the entertaining drama The Black Tent (1956), he played a British soldier, who goes missing in the Libyan desert during the war. These films never seemed to stop playing on television when I was growing up; neither did Steel’s last big hit: Storm Over the Nile (1956). This was a shot-for-shot remake of The Four Feathers (1939), with Steel in the lead, the part played by John Clements in the 1939 version. i.e. the coward who redeems himself via putting on blackface and being heroic in the Sudan. To be frank, Steel isn’t terribly convincing as a coward, but he has heroic dash suitable for the part – he completely suits the universe of the movie (as opposed to co-star Laurence Harvey who always seems to be “acting”).
During the making of Storm of the Nile, Steel met Swedish actor Anita Ekberg who became his second wife. Rank had roles lined up for Steel – including The Secret Place (1957) – but the actor decided to break his contract and follow his new wife to Hollywood.
It proved to be a disastrous decision and began a period that I call the emasculation of Anthony Steel. You could get all academic-y about what this means exactly, the changing notions of masculinity, etc, etc – but in simple terms, the man had one blow to his ego after another and suffered a cold streak that would, effectively, last until his death.
Firstly, he did not take Hollywood by storm. He didn’t go over there off the back of a global hit, like James Mason did with The Seventh Veil (1945) or Granger did with King Solomon’s Mines (1950): Steel’s films were popular in the British Commonwealth, not America. This in itself wasn’t fatal for LA casting directors – Steel still had a proven following in an important market – but Hollywood didn’t make the sort of films that he excelled in. They produced war films, absolutely, but of a very different kind to those across the Atlantic (one of the reasons British audiences responded so strongly to their own war movies was due to their uniqueness). Steel could conceivably have found an alternative niche in Los Angeles – one could imagine him, say, as a Michael Rennie-style aristocrat in Ancient World epics, or a John Gavin-ish leading man in melodramas – but he never managed to make the transition. Steel also had an alcohol problem and was arrested several times for drink driving; boozing was almost expected among British actors of his generation (it was the era of Richard Burton and Robert Newton, etc with Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole just around the corner) but it’s only tolerated if the actor in question is considered a great talent, and that was not the case with Steel.
The relationship between Steel and Ekberg made international headlines – they were always being pursued by the paparazzi – and could have been exploited by savvy producers, but the only movie they made together was Valerie (1957), a little-seen film noir Western with Sterling Hayden. Steel has an emasculated part as a reverend who Hayden thinks is having an affair with Ekberg but isn’t; Hayden tries to kill Steel and Ekberg but some other character saves the day, with Steel not doing anything particularly heroic or interesting.
Steel briefly returned to England where he played the lead in A Question of Adultery (1958), a fascinatingly odd courtroom drama about artificial insemination, with Steel as a possessive infertile racing car driver married to Julie London, roused to jealousy at the thought of someone else impregnating her. Frank Thring is superb as a barrister, London sings a random song, and there’s a sequence where Steel ravishes London on a Spanish beach intercut with a flamenco performer; Steel is quite effective as a man tormented by his lack of potency.
He was also emasculated in Harry Black and the Tiger (1958), a Hollywood-financed adventure shot in India with Steel as war time comrade of Stewart Granger. In the story, Steel’s cowardice not only caused Granger to lose part of his leg, it leads to Granger being mauled by a tiger, and his wife Barbara Rush loving Granger, and Granger having to lie about shooting a tiger so Steel’s (hideously dubbed) son will have some respect for dad. The movie was a fine chance for Steel to reinvent himself, but he is unable to suggest the inner demons of his character. (As adventure tale, it is too slow, but is redeemed by location footage.)
Steel was then cast in the lead role of a Spanish-shot movie from one of the greatest British directors of all time, Michael Powell – but Honeymoon (1959) is generally regarded as one of that filmmakers’s weakest, if not the weakest, movies (there appears to be no cult for it). The role had been written for Paul Scofield and Powell was unhappy at having to use Steel, who he called “the archetypal British shit.” Few people saw the movie.
Back in Hollywood, Steel played a guest role on an episode of the TV series Adventures in Paradise (directed by Robert Aldrich), then accepted an offer to make a film in Sweden, 48 Hours to Live (1959), that did not travel widely.
To make things worse, Steel’s marriage to Ekberg collapsed, amidst allegations on her part of his infidelity, alcoholism, and financial and physical abuse. The publicity created by their numerous public squabbles (he would routinely punch out photographers and other men interested in Ekberg), helped inspire Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Ekberg ended up appearing in this movie, which turned her into a global icon: something that presumably made Steel feel even worse about his declining status. He went missing for two weeks in Germany, then sheepishly reemerged. Michael Caine once said a movie star needed one hit every five films or “you’re out”; by that standard, Steel was done. And he never came back.
He decided to relocate permanently to Italy. On one hand you could understand: he had fallen out with Rank, there were plenty of movies being made in Italy, money went further in that country. He would later admit that he was also too embarrassed to return to England due to the very public implosion of his marriage and decline in his career. In hindsight, however, it would be a disastrous decision.
Some imported stars benefited from being in European movies: Clint Eastwood, Steve Reeves, Lex Barker, Charles Bronson, etc. Most didn’t. Steel certainly didn’t. He was busy enough, appearing in Italian peplums and swashbucklers, German Westerns, French comedies, Eurospy thrillers, but none had much impact. The emasculation theme continued – in Tiger of the Seven Seas (1962), a colourful Italian swashbuckler, he is the male lead for pirate queen Gianna Maria Canale, who beats him in a sword duel and has to rescue him later. Which is surprisingly and enjoyably feminist but presumably helped further dint Steel’s already-fragile ego. Incidentally, the film indicates that the actor’s physical appearance was starting to disintegrate – he was still handsome with all his hair and no gut, but his face was appearing increasingly gaunt and tired.
Steel occasionally retuned to Britain to make movies such as A Matter of Choice (1963) and The Switch (1966), but the budgets were low and the work undistinguished. The 1960s were one of the most exciting decades in history for British film, theatre and TV work, but Steel missed all of it. In 1968, he said: “If I had my time again I would never have broken my contract with Rank, I would never have left [England] and I would never have married Ekberg.”
In fairness, all of Steel’s star contemporaries from the 1950s found the subsequent decade challenging. But most found a way to reinvent themselves: either through appearing in more artier film fare (Bogarde, Finch, Michael Craig), going Hollywood (Burton, Harvey), turning producer (Baker), specialising more on the stage (Nigel Patrick, Ian Carmichael) or television (Patrick McGoohan, Kenneth More). Not Steel. It is doubtful he would have remained a star even if he stayed in London, but he surely would have had far more opportunities.
Steel eventually moved back to England in the 1970s. He was still a handsome man with a profile, and if the British film industry was in the doldrums, the theatre and TV world was thriving. In hindsight, Steel would have been most comfortable cast as a regular character on a long running series where he played a man of authority – a silver fox doctor, for instance, or a chief inspector on a detective show. It didn’t happen. At first, work was reasonably consistent: he guest starred on episodes of Crossroads and Bergerac, toured in stage productions, played (clothed) parts in some soft core sexy movies like The Story of O (1975) and two Fiona Richmond films, and popped up in some movies full of other old-timey names like The Mirror Crack’d (1980) and The Monster Club (1981).
Over the years, work became less regular. “British TV doesn’t like people who have been movie stars,” he once sniffed, though that didn’t seem to hurt pretty much every single one of his contemporaries. Like his one-time co-star and fellow Rank contractee Roland Lewis, Steel wasn’t good with money or marriage and wound up living alone in a small flat, surviving off a pension. “He just decided that he would withdraw,” said his agent. “He found a place to live and simply went into hiding. In some ways, it was not unlike him; if he decided that things weren’t right, he would withdraw into himself and not contact anybody.” He died of lung cancer in 2001.
What lessons, if any, can be learned from the career of Anthony Steel? I would argue the following:
– if you’re good at something (eg. British war films) don’t stop making them;
– pride doesn’t matter as much as good roles;
– if you can’t handle your drink, don’t drink;
– don’t be too proud to turn to TV and stage;
– if you’re not a good actor and get jobs out of luck and looks more than anything else, be aware of it, and adjust your behaviour and career aspirations accordingly.
If any Anthony Steel fans are upset by some of what I’m written, I apologise – this wasn’t meant to be a bitch piece, it was an attempt at serious analysis of an actor who is normally treated as a punchline. His career as a movie star has always fascinated me, because it was such a comet. But looking back, it seems that he truly was a man blessed by luck to be the right actor in the right place at the right time… and blew it.