Edith Madeleine Carroll (26 February 1906 – 2 October 1987) was an English actress, popular both there and in America in the 1930s and 1940s. At the peak of her success she was the highest paid actress in the world, earning a then staggering $250,000 in 1938.
Immortalized as the first of director Alfred Hitchcock's icy blonde heroines in The 39 Steps, she is also remembered for abandoning her acting career after the death of her sister Marguerite in the London Blitz to devote herself to helping wounded servicemen and children displaced and maimed by the war.
Carroll was born at 32 Herbert Street (now number 44) in West Bromwich, Staffordshire. She graduated from the University of Birmingham, with a B.A. degree. She once taught in a girls' public school.
Carroll made her stage debut with a touring company in The Lash. Widely recognised as one of the most beautiful women in films (she won a film beauty competition to start herself off in the business), Carroll's aristocratic blonde allure and sophisticated style were first glimpsed by film audiences in The Guns of Loos in 1928. Rapidly rising to stardom in Britain, she graced such popular films of the early 1930s as Young Woodley, Atlantic, The School for Scandal and I Was a Spy. She played the title role in the play Little Catherine. Abruptly, she announced plans to retire from films to devote herself to a private life with her husband, the first of four.
Carroll attracted the attention of Alfred Hitchcock and in 1935 starred as one of the director's earliest prototypical cool, glib, intelligent blondes in The 39 Steps. Based on the espionage novel by John Buchan, the film became a sensation and with it so did Carroll. Cited by the New York Times for a performance that was "charming and skillful", Carroll became very much in demand. Director Hitchcock later maintained he worked very hard with her to bring out the vivacious and sexy qualities she possessed offscreen, but which sometimes vanished when cameras rolled. Of Hitchcock heroines as exemplified by Carroll film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated.
The director wanted to re-team Carroll with her 39 Steps co-star Robert Donat the following year in Secret Agent, a spy thriller based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham. However, Donat's recurring health problems intervening, resulting in a Carroll-John Gielgud pairing.
Poised for international stardom, Carroll was the first British beauty to be offered a major American film contract. She accepted a lucrative deal with Paramount Pictures and was cast oppositeGary Cooper in the adventure The General Died at Dawn and Ronald Colman in the 1937 box-office success The Prisoner of Zenda. She appeared in a musical On the Avenue (1937) oppositeDick Powell, but other efforts, including One Night in Lisbon (1941), and My Favorite Blonde (1942) with Bob Hope, were less noteworthy. She made her final film for director Otto Preminger, The Fan, adapted from Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, in 1949.
For her contribution to the film industry, Madeleine Carroll has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6707 Hollywood Blvd. A commemorative monument and plaques were unveiled in her birthplace, West Bromwich, to mark the centenary of her birth. Her story is one of rare courage and dedication when at the height of her success she gave up her acting career during World War II to work in the line of fire on troop trains for the Red Cross in Italy after her sister was killed by a German air raid – for which she was awarded the American Medal of Freedom. She was also awarded the Legion of Honour by France for her tireless work in fostering relations postwar amity between France and the United States.
Red Cross workers assembled at the IP, Avenue C and 7th Street, Camp Patrick Henry, left to right, front row, are Edna Elizabeth Dick of Williamsburg, Kentucky;Mrs. Madeleine Carroll Hamilton; Marcia Hinrichs, Alexandria, Virginia.
After her only sister Marguerite was killed in World War II's London Blitz, Carroll made a radical shift from acting to working in field hospitals as a Red Cross nurse. Having become a naturalised U.S. citizen in 1943, she served at the American Army Air Force's 61st Station Hospital in Foggia, Italy in 1944, where wounded airmen flying out of area air bases were hospitalised.
During the war Carroll also donated her chateau outside Paris to more than 150 orphans, arranging for groups of young people in California to knit clothing for them. In a RKO-Pathe News bulletin she was filmed at the chateau with children and staff wearing the donated clothes thanking those who contributed. She was awarded the Legion d'Honneur for her efforts by France.
After the war, Carroll stayed in Europe where she conducted a radio program fostering French-American friendship and helped in the rehabilitation of concentration camp victims, during which she met her future third husband, French Producer Henri Lavorel. In late 1946 she went briefly to Switzerland to film a minor British soap opera “High Fury” (aka “White Cradle Inn”).
Upon her return to Paris she and Lavorel formed a production company and made several two-reel documentaries to “promote better understanding among the peoples of the world”; one, “Childrens’ Republic”, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in a small orphanage in the town of Sevres, just southwest of Paris, it focused attention on the devastation of children’s lives in Europe caused by war. Strongly shown in Canada, it became a prime source of funds for the manufacture of artificial limbs for wounded children.
Carroll died on 2 October 1987 from pancreatic cancer in Marbella, Spain agd 81. Initially interred in Fuengirola, Málaga, she was reburied in 1998 in the cemetery of Sant Antoni de Calonge in Catalonia.