Nova Pilbeam Biography
(Early Years 1919-1936)
David O Selznick considered that Nova Pilbeam had the potential to be a star for the world market. He wanted to cast her as Mrs De Winter in "Rebecca". It didn't happen. Instead, Nova Pilbeam is a forgotten actress with an odd name, except for those who have seen her in a film.
Pilbeam was the daughter of RADA trained actor and theatrical business manager Arnold Pilbeam and his wife Margery Stopher Pilbeam. Contrary to several reference works which reverse her christian names, she was registered as Nova Margery following her birth on 15 November 1919.
She made her stage debut at five in a charity performance produced by her
father, and following theatrical training made her professional debut as soon as
the law allowed, when she was twelve. She played Marigold, the first character
to appear in "Toad of Toad Hall" at the Savoy theatre in December 1931. She
repeated the role the following Christmas.
Further stage roles followed and lead to her auditioning for Robert Stevenson at Gaumont British in 1934. She obtained the leading role in "Little Friend", the story of a marital break-up through a child's eyes.
When the film was released, Pilbeam was a sensation. Kinematograph Weekly
praised the "brilliant performance by the newly discovered English protegee"
Gaumont-British executives were impressed and signed her to a seven year
contract, promptly casting her in Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much". This
was an entirely different role as a sophistcated teenager who is kidnapped.
Again she shone. When Michael Balcon, head of Gaumont British, went to the USA
in September 1934 to publicise British films, he took two stars with him, Jack
Hulbert and Nova Pilbeam.
Although she was under contract, her studio had the common problem of not
knowing how to cast a teenager and consequently she did not appear in another
film until mid 1936. The film was "Tudor Rose" and was the jewel of her career.
Nova played the 16 year old English queen Jane Grey, the unwilling pawn of court
intrigue, who reigned for just nine days and was beheaded at the Tower of
London. Directed by Robert Stevenson, Pilbeam looked glorious in the sumptuous
Tudor costumes and was extremely touching in the role. She subsequently won the
Film Weekly medal for the best performance by a performer in a British Film.
Meanwhile on the stage she had begun 1936 as Peter Pan in the West End, appeared as Rosalind in "As you Like It" with the Oxford University Dramatic Society and co-starred in the West End as an extremely Nordic Bolivian in "The Lady of La Paz". Nova was in demand.