A woman of her time, the soft-spoken, blue-eyed and fair-haired Edna Best enjoyed a movie career spanning four decades from the nineteen twenties through to the fifties. She became part of the fast developing film industry, firstly at home in the UK and then in Hollywood as well as a prominent career in radio, both peforming and producing.
Her versatility and natural abilities enabled Edna to adapt effectively between varied disciplines including dance and later in her career, radio production. It is reported that she won a silver swimming cup as Sussex lady swimming champion and even became involved in the 1930's with the endorsement of Art Deco ceramics made by the Pearl Pottery Burslem, Staffordshire. There was a clash of interests here with the renowed Art Deco ceramics producer Clarice Cliff.
An Edna Best Art Deco teapot for Lawleys of Regent Street with the Lawley's Edna Best Art Pottery base mark
The patterns were bold and colourful (probably influenced by the output of Clarice Cliff), but unlike others who were jumping on the 'Deco bandwagon', Edna's signature designs were of high quality and very tasteful and stylish. The ranges were produced exclusively for Lawley's of Regent Street in London.
Born Edna Clare Best in Hove in England on the 3rd March 1900 to Leonard William and Claire (Romaire) Best, Edna went on to study dramatic acting at The Guildhall School of Music under English actress, Miss Kate Rorke (professor of dramatic art). Edna Best's first professional stage appearance - at the age of seventeen - was at the Grand Theatre, Southampton where she played Ela Delahay in a production of Charley's Aunt on 15 December 1917 and then at the age of nineteen she achieved a personal triumph in Fair and Warmer.
In 1925 Edna acted alongside Tallulah Bankhead, playing the lead roles in a Noël Coward play called Fallen Angles. They played a couple of women who became more drunk as the paly progressed. Critics described Fallen Angles as 'degrading' and 'disgusting' and it was probably these comments that ensured the play a long run in various incarnations. After captivating Broadway audiences in the same year with her portrayal of unfaithful wife Pamela in These Charming People (Edna's first performance in America), she finally made her mark in 1926 in the stage production of The Constant Nymph, based on the 1924 novel written by Margaret Kennedy. In 1931 she appeared with Basil Rathbone in a production of Melo, which was adapted by Arthur Pollock from the French of Henri Bernstein.
Edna Best & Herbert Marshall as pictured on the cover of the 'There's Always Juliet' theatre programme
Edna married her first husband, actor Seymour Beard, with whom she had twin sons, but was later divorced. Other stage productions include Peter Pan, at the St. James’s Theatre in London’s King Street, which ran 1920-21 and then again in 1922 with Lyn Harding as Captain Hook as opposed to Henry Ainley in the earlier production. In 1921 Edna starred eponymously as Tilly Welwyn in the comedy Tilly of Bloomsbury and in 1922 appeared in Quarantine by F. Tennyson Jesses at Comedy Theatre in Panton Street, London. Around this time she also appeared in a production of Six Cylinder Love, though little is known this. 1923 saw her appear in A Couple of Down and Outs, a drama, written and directed by Walter Summers and in 1925 appearing as Fay Collen in a play called Spring Cleaning at St Martins Theatre in London.
Although her career focussed mostly on stage work she did however star in a number of movies, notably in the part of socialite sharp-shooting mother Jill Laurence in the Gaumont-British film The Man Who Knew Too Much, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Betty Laurence, her screen daughter was played by Nova Pilbeam, child star. She appeared also in Intermezzo in 1939 and in the 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson in which she played ‘Elizabeth Robinson’. Other Edna Best film credits include: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and The Late George Apley (both 1947). She was nominated for an ‘Emmy’ award in 1957 for her part in This Happy Breed which was written by Noël Coward. Incidently Edna had acted alongdide Coward in the 1917 stage production of Polly with a Past.
In 1928 Edna Best married fellow actor Herbert Marshall and ventured into Hollywood with her husband in the early part of the nineteen thirties. Edna had played alondside Herbert Marshall in stage productions of Brown Sugar, Morals, Come With Me, A Bill of Divorcement at the Lewisham Hippodrome, and the London productions of The High Road (during the run of which Edna and Herbert were married) and Paris Bound. In 1932 she acted in the premiere of Another language, a play by Rose Franken, at London's Lyric Theatre and in 1934 in an Ivor Novello play called Murder in Mayfair alongside Norvello himself and Fay Compton at Manchester's Opera House. In 1936 she appeared with Ralph Richardson in a play called Promise and later in the same year played Cinderella in pantomime at the Coliseum Theatre.
It appears that Edna was actively involved in charity work. There exists signed documentation that at 'The Great Fair' of 1930 (3rd to 6th December) she had elected to become a 'President of a Golden Circle' and had undertaken to raise a sum of not less than five pounds, the money being donated to the Child Welfare Association and the Liverpool Orphanage, based at St, Georges Hall, Liverpool.
Edna played Leonora Perrycoste alongside Herbert in the 1932 John van Druten play, There's Always Juliet and appeared in four movies in 1930, namely Beyond the Cities, Escape, Loose Ends and Sleeping Partners, which was her first 'talkie'. On June 19th 1931, Edna returned back to England, after she had caused disquiet for refusing to act in the Hollywood film 'The Phantom of Paris' to which she was engaged, so turning her back on Hollywood and her leading actor John Gilbert. In 1931 Herbert co-starred with Edna in films such as The Calendar and Michael and Mary and in 1932 The Faithful Hearts. Edna and Herbert had one daughter, also to become an actress, Sarah Marshall, born 25th May 1933. Later that year, in July, Edna and her husband revisited Hollywood, landing at New York aboard the Cunard liner, RMS Berengaria. Other films starring Edna Best during this stage of her career included The Key (1934) and in 1938 Prison Without Bars and South Riding. 1940 saw her appear in A Dispatch from Reuters and in 1948 in The Iron Curtain.
Edna stood only 5 feet five inches tall and her diminutive figure was matched by that of her assistant Evelyn (sister of actress Edna Hamel). Evelyn would quite often stand in for Edna Best at costume fittings.
In 1940 Edna and Herbert were divorced and - according to an article in the Los Angeles Times entertainemt section dated 2 June 1935, she married radio-TV producer, Nat Wolff 'five minutes later'. The same article also reported that Edna became homesick for her husband whilst about to commence work in Hollywood on a John Gilbert movie. She walked out and took the first train to New York. Edna Best and Nat Wolff settled in Beverly Hills, California and in August 1950 Edna became an American citizen.
It is possible that Edna met British romantic novelist Denise Robins in 1935, as there exists a hardback copy of the book 'Slave Woman', dedicated to Edna Best and dated Nov 1935. The edition is 'The Macaulay Company, New York 1935', so it is possible that the author was in New York (perhaps promoting her book) at this time and met up with Edna in social circles.
Edna continued with character acting but her work in radio was to take priority where she produced shows such as the highly popular series, Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and also Goodbye Mr. Chips performing alongside Laurence Olivier. Edna appeared in a number of broadcasts for the Lux Radio Theater, including A Tale of Two Cities in 1942, and in 1943, Libel and In Which We Serve. Edna became part of an initiative to pull in people with a drama background to work in radio production. In September 1943 she signed with Young & Rubicam to handle talent and learn production methods and was initially assigned Silver Theatre and Sherlock Holmes as assistant producer. In 1944, alongside Loretta Young, Edna appeared in a broadcast of NBC's Everything for the Boys in an episode entitled 'Blithe Spirit'. In 1950 Edna featured in an audition program of Halls of Ivy with radio veteran Gale Gordon, though ultimately the roles went to husband and wife actors Ronald Colman and Benita Hume.
In 1950 - furthering her acting career - she played the lead roll in the New York stage production of George Bernhard Shaw's play, Captain Brassbound's Conversion and in the same year acted along side Margaret Phillips, Basil Rathbone and John Dall in The Heiress by Augustus Goetz. Edna appeared in Jane and a little known about production of First Lady in 1952, and in 1954 she played overbearing actress Madame Alexandra in Mademoiselle Colombe. 1955 saw a production of Noël Coward's Quadrille, in which Edna played alongside Alfred Lunt at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, Broadway. Lunt won a Tony Award for best actor. Other notable stage appearances included The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan in 1946. This short play was accompanied by another Rattigan work entitled A Harlequinade, acted out by the same cast.
Edna's TV career started as early as 1938 when she appeared in Love from a Stranger, a play adapted from an Agatha Christie short story. The broadcast - due to limitations in technology at that time - could only be seen in London. The show was aired live on a Wednesday afternoon but sadly not recorded. Edna enjoyed a number of TV guest appearances in the USA, including in 1951 Pulitzer Prize Playhouse and Celanese Theatre, The Philco Television Playhouse (1952), Robert Montgomery Presents and The United States Steel Hour (both 1955), as well as Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1959. Also early in 1959 she played Lady Anne Pettigrew in a play called Berkeley Square by John L. Balderston.
On May 6th 1959, Edna was in hospital in New York after suffering a stroke. She was described as being in critical condition, reported in the Morning Call newspaper of the day.
On September 18th, 1974 Edna Best sadly passed away in Geneva, Switzerland, aged 74. She is recognised in the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ for her 'input to the motion picture industry' opposite 6124 Hollywood Boulevard, to the south side of the 6100 block.