Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Courtneidge, Cicely (1893-1980)


Main image of Courtneidge, Cicely (1893-1980)

For many observers, the appeal and endurance of Cicely Courtneidge were summed up by the word 'Vitality', a song from her 1951 stage show 'Gay's the Word'. An accomplished all-round performer, her success was down to the traditional requirements of talent and hard work. Her film work gave her ample opportunity to develop her impersonations and she assembled a range of characterisations, from soldiers to buck-toothed spinsters. Her solid, rather matronly form belied her agility as a dancer but the rendition of comic songs was her forte. Every syllable was enounced so precisely that, even when engaged in a particularly vigorous dance routine, not a joke escaped the audience.

The daughter of a theatrical impresario, she set her sights on a career as a dramatic actress at a young age. She had to fight to convince her father of her vocation but he eventually gave her a part in the fantastical musical 'The Arcadians' in 1909, beginning a stage career of almost seventy years. Being the boss's daughter, Courtneidge had to work hard to overcome accusations of nepotism and her path to success was not untroubled.

In 1913 she was cast against a young Cambridge graduate called Jack Hulbert in the show 'The Pearl Girl'. Although she was initially disdainful of his lack of experience, there was a spark between them and they were soon engaged, tying the knot in 1916. Courtneidge's career floundered during the First World War and, in order to stay in the theatre, she worked up a music hall act, which became an instant success. Her routine featured a musical number in which she dressed as a soldier, and cross dressing was to become a mainstay of her repertoire, modelled on the work of variety star Vesta Tilley.

By the end of the war, Courtneidge had established herself as a talented comedian and she and her husband began working as a team, with Hulbert producing and writing star vehicles for himself and his wife. They had a run of successes throughout the 1920s until poor financial management left them heavily in debt. At this point the British film industry came to the rescue and Courtneidge's comic persona reached a new audience on the screen.

She had appeared on film in 1930, performing a breathtakingly bizarre comedy number in the revue Elstree Calling (d. Adrian Brunel et al), but her first starring role was in The Ghost Train (d. Walter Forde, 1931). Her screen success won her second place in a 1933 audience poll organised by Sidney Bernstein to find Britain's favourite star, the top spot being won by the legendary Gracie Fields.

Later in life, both she and Fields were invested Dame Commanders of the British Empire but, unlike Fields, Courtneidge has not remained in the public consciousness. In fact by 1937 her popularity was already waning and she dropped to no. 31 in the Bernstein poll of that year. She also failed to attain the success across the Atlantic which Fields enjoyed and had brief and unhappy associations with both Hollywood and Broadway.

During the 1930s, Courtneidge appeared in eleven features, sometimes alongside Jack Hulbert but also sharing the screen with Max Miller, Tom Walls and Edward Everett Horton. Her enduring marriage to Hulbert was a defining aspect of her fame and their devotion to each other was well-known, earning a mention in an episode of the television sitcom Dad's Army ('Ring Dem Bells', tx. 5/9/1975).

Courtneidge's film career tailed off in the late 1930s and she and Hulbert returned to the stage, continuing to have success with revue-style shows. The couple continued working in the theatre into the 1970s, through necessity as well as love, as their financial fortunes had not greatly improved since their earlier bankruptcy. In the 1960s, she left behind musical comedy and concentrated on straight theatre, as well as making occasional and varied screen appearances, from playing a lesbian in the bleak realist drama The L-Shaped Room (d. Bryan Forbes, 1962) to landing the role of Reg Varney's mother in the first series of On the Buses (ITV, tx. 28/2 - 12/4/1969).

Josephine Botting

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Jack's the Boy (1932)Jack's the Boy (1932)

Comedy about an incompetent who joins the police force to prove his worth

Thumbnail image of L-Shaped Room, The (1962)L-Shaped Room, The (1962)

Leslie Caron plays a pregnant Frenchwoman who starts an affair

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Musical Comedy in the 1930sMusical Comedy in the 1930s

A closer look at the golden age of British musical comedy

Thumbnail image of Performance in 1930s filmPerformance in 1930s film

How the coming of sound affected British screen acting

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Hulbert, Jack (1892-1978)Hulbert, Jack (1892-1978)

Actor, Director, Writer