Nova Pilbeam, an Early, and Brief, Star for Hitchcock, Dies at 95


Nova Pilbeam, an English actress who was best known for her roles in the Alfred Hitchcock thrillers “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Young and Innocent,” but who retired from motion pictures in the late 1940s, before she was 30, died on July 17 at her home in London. She was 95.

Her death was confirmed by a friend, Deborah van der Beek.

A delicate beauty who worked entirely in Britain, Ms. Pilbeam began her career as a child actress in the early ’30s.

She came to international attention in the original version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), in which she portrayed the kidnapped daughter of a man, played by Leslie Banks, who has stumbled onto an assassination plot. The film also starred Peter Lorre, in his first English-language screen role, as the villain.

“Even at that time,” Hitchcock said of Ms. Pilbeam in an interview quoted in British newspaper obituaries of her this week, “she had the intelligence of a fully grown woman. She had plenty of confidence and ideas of her own.”

Photo

Leslie Banks, left, and Nova Pilbeam in the spy thriller “’The Man Who Knew Too Much,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Credit
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hitchcock remade “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in Hollywood in 1956, with James Stewart and Doris Day as the parents of the kidnapping victim — now a boy — and Christopher Olsen as the child.

At about 17, Ms. Pilbeam landed one of her first significant adult roles as the heroine in “Young and Innocent” (1937), also titled “The Girl Was Young.” Her character, the daughter of a police officer, falls in love with a man (Derrick de Marney) falsely accused of murder, aiding his flight from justice and helping him track down the real culprit.

On the strength of her well-received work for Hitchcock, Ms. Pilbeam was considered for the role of the second Mrs. de Winter, the troubled young bride at the center of his 1940 thriller, “Rebecca,” based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel. The part ultimately went to Joan Fontaine.

Nova Margery Pilbeam was born in suburban London on Nov. 15, 1919; her given name was in honor of a grandmother who had come from Nova Scotia. Nova’s father, Arnold, was an actor and theater manager, and she began her professional stage career at 12.

She made her screen debut in 1934 in “Little Friend,” a critically lauded British film directed by Berthold Viertel and co-written by Christopher Isherwood, in which she played a girl observing the breakup of her parents’ marriage.

At 16, she played the title role in J. M. Barrie’s stage play “Peter Pan” at the London Palladium, to critical acclaim.

Ms. Pilbeam’s other films include “Nine Days a Queen” (1936; also titled “Tudor Rose”), in which she portrayed Lady Jane Grey opposite Cedric Hardwicke, and “Cheer Boys Cheer” (1939), a comedy about rival brewery owners that also starred Edmund Gwenn.

In 1939, at 19, Ms. Pilbeam married Penrose Tennyson, a great-grandson of the poet and an assistant director on her films with Hitchcock. A member of the Royal Naval Reserve who was in charge of film production for the British Admiralty, Lieutenant Tennyson was killed in a plane crash in 1941.

Ms. Pilbeam continued to act in British films into the 1940s; her last, “Devil’s Plot” (also titled “Counterblast”), appeared in 1948. During this period she also performed onstage with the Old Vic, in roles including Nina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and Belle in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”

Ms. Pilbeam married Alexander Whyte, a radio journalist, in 1950, and afterward chose to concentrate on domestic life.

Mr. Whyte died in 1972. Survivors include their daughter, Sara.



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