Maurice Braddell: from William Joyce to Andy Warhol.
In a February 1937 issue of ‘Action’ reviewing the recently released film ‘Beloved Enemy’ there was a suggestion that the star, actress Merle Oberon, was Jewish. This was followed in the next week’s issue by a retraction. The correction was almost certainly due to the intervention of Maurice Braddell, a member and speaker of British Union, who had starred with Merle in the 1932 film ‘Men of Tomorrow’ directed by Zoltan Korda. Oberon was in fact Anglo-Indian: something that would have been a distinct disadvantage to her career due to attitudes prevailing in Hollywood at the time.
In her 1983 biography, ‘Princess Merle’ by Charles Higham, the author reveals how it was decided to create an elaborate fantasy version of her pedigree and that ‘after 50 years the actor Maurice Braddell still recalls how her publicist roared with laughter as he fabricated Merle’s origins as coming from the Australian island of Tasmania – the most remote part of the world he could imagine.’ The biography goes on to report that ‘Merle was very fond of her leading man in ‘Men of Tomorrow’, Maurice Braddell’, and their friendship lasted a lifetime.
Maurice Braddell had joined the British Union early in May 1933 and eventually became the Movement’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Streatham. He was also the founding member of the British Actors’ Guild: a forerunner to the actors’ trade union Equity. Maurice, who was described by his niece in a 1983 issue of New Yorker magazine as ‘fantastically good-looking, really bewitching’, was one of the few actors who successfully made the leap from silent films to talking pictures.
‘Things to Come’.
His silent movies included ‘Dawn’ (1928), ‘Not Quite a Lady’ (1928), ‘Master and Man’ (1929) and ‘Latin Quarter’ (1929). Following the transition to sound he starred in ‘School for Scandal’ (1930), ‘Her Reputation’ (1931) and ‘Men of Tomorrow’ (1932). But his best known film today is without doubt the 1936 H. G. Wells icon classic ‘Things to Come’ in which Maurice played alongside Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwick and Margaretta Scott.
This landmark film in motion picture history captured the imagination of a whole generation with its depiction of what modern warfare would bring to Britain and the world. Maurice played the white-coated Doctor Harding and the film opens with Braddell and Massey discussing the likelihood of war on Christmas Day 1940. The war begins that very evening and the film depicts dramatic scenes of what air raids would mean for the civilian population. It is only many decades later that Massey re-appears as an aviator for a new One World civilisation called ‘Wings Over the World’. War is outlawed and enforced by the use of peace gas. Just as unlikely to modern day viewers is the base for this new peaceful world civilisation: Basra in Iraq!
In later life, Maurice used to tell the story of the part his friend Merle Oberon played when the real war came. In July 1941 the RAF fighter ace Richard Hillary, who had been badly disfigured when his Spitfire was shot down in flames over the North Sea, went to the U.S. on a public relations exercise designed to make American public opinion more favourable to entering the war against Germany. The subliminal message was to be: ‘See what sacrifices the British are making in the war against the Nazis – shouldn’t you be fighting alongside us?’
However when the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax, saw the horrific nature of his facial injuries he told Hillary frankly that ‘All American mothers who see you will say “Heavens, this may be my son next”’ and the PR exercise was immediately scrapped. The RAF ace was devastated by Halifax’s bluntness and this added to his problem of low sexual self-esteem caused by plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe’s inability to restore the pilot’s former youthful good looks.
Merle Oberon met Hillary in New York and realising Hillary’s angst took him to a hideaway apartment at the Ritz Towers Hotel. When they re-emerged two weeks later Merle had gone some way to restoring his self-confidence and repeated the therapy in England when they met there a year later. She was devastated when she heard of Hillary’s death in an air crash in January 1943 due to his inability to control the aircraft with his claw-like hands.
From Communist sympathiser to Blackshirt.
Maurice Lee Braddell was born at the turn of the century in Ealing and was the son of Thomas Braddell, reportedly a talented actor himself in his younger days who later became the Attorney General of the Federated Malay States. Along with his brother Roland he studied Law and Roland is known to have later defended John Holliman, a senior officer of British Union and film extra, accused of assault.
However, Maurice soon had other ideas and before long turned his back on Law and decided to enter the world of acting. He went to Russia where he met the Soviet film director Eisenstein and briefly sympathised with Communism. He also visited the United States in the course of his early film career – when back in Britain he was sent to the Scilly Isles to get a good suntan for his next film appearance!
Maurice’s first film was of course silent and he played opposite Joan Morgan, famously the last star of the British silent cinema, in ‘A Window in Piccadilly’ shot during 1928. Apart from being an actress, scriptwriter and authoress Joan was later also a member of the British Union of Fascists and a regular contributor to ‘Action’. One of her hard-hitting articles was ‘Who has ruined British films?’ which appeared in the 23 January 1937 issue. She died aged 99 in 2004 but eight years before her death I wrote to her asking about her memories of Maurice Braddell.
Joan Morgan replied on her distinctive notepaper carrying a graphic image of Joan of Arc engulfed in flames confirming that he played opposite her in her last starring film and that he was very good looking. He had evidently stayed with her at Henley-on-Thames for a few days but she did not see him much again after that. He had ‘married an older woman, a rich one.’ Joan continued that ‘the Maurice I knew was essentially a light person, rather witty.’ She expressed surprise that ‘he developed as he so obviously seems to have done’ but made no mention of their shared allegiance to British Union. As they were both frequently mentioned in ‘Action’ at the time they must have known of their common political loyalty.
Prospective Parliamentary Candidate.
It was announced in ‘Action’ in March 1937 that Maurice Braddell had been selected as the British Union’s parliamentary candidate for Streatham in south London for the General Election that was expected to take place no later than 1940. He is described as having been educated at Charterhouse School and Oxford University and had worked in the United States, Germany, Russia and France. He was Vice President of the Film Actors’ Guild and Vice President of the Cinque Ports Aero Club. Furthermore, he had studied Sociology for 12 years but in what capacity was not mentioned.
Shortly afterwards he was introduced to the electorate of Streatham by Oswald Mosley at a full capacity meeting at Streatham Baths Hall. As the holder of a Speaker’s Warrant, Maurice then began a series of outdoor public meetings to capitalise on the successful Leader meeting – and to prepare for British Union’s assault on a British Parliament long bankrupt of ideas and devoid of men and women with the character and motivation to solve the nation’s social, political and economic ills.
However, Maurice Braddell’s rising profile in the world of politics and films had been noted by certain people in the film industry (and no doubt some outside) whose vested interests did not favour fascism – and certainly did not subscribe to the democratic principle that every man and woman was entitled to their political beliefs so long as they adhered to the law of the land.
William Joyce reveals all.
It appears that Maurice and William Joyce, the Director of Propaganda of British Union, were well acquainted as in the latter’s book ‘Twilight Over England’, published in Berlin in 1940, Joyce tells of the pressure put on Maurice to withdraw from the Movement. He wrote: ‘A young actor of my acquaintance, Maurice Braddell, took an interest in politics…he was a National Socialist. It was made clear to him that unless he renounced this interest and its accompanying activity, he need expect no more contracts for either stage or screen.’
Maurice may well have consulted Mosley on this issue and the Leader’s advice was always the same: ‘You must put the ability to work and support yourself before anything else and we know you will still be with us in spirit.’ Later Maurice was called as a witness in the libel action brought by Lord Camrose against ‘Action’ and was asked why he withdrew from British Union. Clearly he could not reveal the real reason but instead claimed that as the National Government had adopted many of Mosley’s policies, such as rearmament, he did not consider his further membership necessary. The rest of his evidence seems remarkably sympathetic to Mosley and shows where his true sympathies still lay.
However, despite submitting to the threat to his livelihood no further film or stage parts followed. It is known that for a while he read the news for Pathe Movietone: the weekly newsreel that appeared at cinemas. He also continued his work as a playwright and screenwriter; his most successful work was ‘It’s you I want’ that had a long run in London’s West End and on New York’s Broadway.
‘If I couldn’t fly the damn things I’d shoot them down!’
Maurice had tried to enlist with the Army in 1918 during the Great War but the day before he was due to report he received a telegram telling him: ‘Don’t come! War over!’ In 1939 at the very start of the Second World War Maurice volunteered for the Royal Air Force but despite holding a pilot’s licence and having extensive flying experience he was told that at almost forty he was too old. So instead he joined an Anti-Aircraft Unit explaining years later that ‘If I couldn’t fly the damn things I’d shoot them down!’
After a few years he was invalided out of the Royal Artillery Regiment due to an injury received in the course of active duty. But Maurice was not idle for long: he joined ENSA and spent the rest of the War entertaining British troops in Africa and the Middle East. When peace returned, Maurice still found that acting was still a closed profession for him but as luck would have it a new career beckoned. One day Maurice was visiting the National Gallery in London when he fell into conversation with Sebastian Isepp. It was to be a most fortuitous meeting.
Isepp was an Austrian picture restorer who had enabled many artistic masterpieces to leave Nazi Germany by disguising them with a different subject painted in coloured resins that could easily be removed once they had arrived at their destination. By the time Maurice met him Isepp was a leading expert in the art of picture restoration and he offered the ‘resting’ actor the chance to learn the trade. After studying under Sebastian Isepp for a year, Maurice began to practice in the U.K. on his own and gained many important commissions and a considerable reputation in the process.
Andy Warhol re-launches Maurice’s acting career
In 1958 Maurice moved to New York where he opened an art restoration workshop on East Sixth Street. Unbeknown to him the world was just about to experience a cultural shift based on experimentation and ‘anything goes’ and Maurice was to have a modest part to play in it.
In the 1960s Maurice was adopted by some local teenagers who hung out on the next block and called themselves The Thunderbirds. They viewed him as some kind of English eccentric with an ‘Imperial accent’ way of speaking and soon discovered that Maurice was always good for a cold beer and a few dollars if they would run errands or do some sweeping up. One of the gang told Andy Warhol’s Director, Paul Morrissey, about their bizarre friend and he decided to take a look at Maurice.
After a gap of thirty years Maurice Braddell was back in films playing the artist in Andy Warhol’s 1968 production of ‘Flesh’. Instead of Joan Morgan, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey, Maurice found himself starring alongside Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and John Christian. Morrissey also used Maurice in his experimental feature film ‘Sleep Walk’ which, as it contained no dialogue, must have made Maurice think he was back in the age of silent films. The next Andy Warhol production Maurice Braddell appeared in was ‘Women in Revolt’ filmed in 1972 starring Candy Darling, Penny Arcade and ‘three cross-gender superstars’. This was a satire on womens’ libbers in which Maurice played Candy’s father.
The now elderly actor and art restorer spent another ten years in New York but by the early 1980s his money was running out and he was beginning to encounter health problems. His estranged wife Jean had died in the 1970s but he still had relatives in the U.K. with whom he had fallen out of favour. Fortunately, a reconciliation took place and Maurice moved back to England to live with his nephew Patrick and favourite grandnephew Sasha. Just before he left the U.S. a 15-page ‘Profile of Maurice Braddell’ appeared in the January 13th 1983 issue of the prestigious New Yorker magazine. In the interview with James Lardner he mentions his association with Mosley’s Blackshirts.
Maurice Braddell died at Ashford in Kent in his ninetieth year. During a colourful life he had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Noel Coward, Merle Oberon, Oswald Mosley, Alexander Korda, Sergei Eisenstein, Sybil Thorndike, Joan Morgan, Fred Astaire, William Joyce, Andy Warhol – and acted as bodyguard to Edward Prince of Wales during his late night visits to Gertrude Lawrence.
Late in life with the help of Warhol he also had the last laugh on whoever told him: ‘Young man, you’ll never work in this business again!’
Jeffrey Hillary Wallder
Sources: The Straits Times, Action, The New Yorker, ‘The Fascists in Britain’ by Colin Cross, ‘Princess Merle’ by Charles Higham (1983 edition).