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Submitted by Heather Flannery,
grandaughter of Belle Chrystall's cousin.

Belle Chrystall
Actress whose performance in The Edge of the World was fêted 50 years after she retired

The director Michael Powell thought long and hard about the female lead in The Edge of the World, his drama about the struggle for survival on a remote Scottish island. He narrowed it down to the unknown Irish actress Joyce Redman - "straight from the bogs of Mayo" - and Belle Chrystall, an established British star. No one knew it at the time, but Powell's choice of Chrystall was to ensure that one of her films would still find an audience more than half a century after her retirement, by which time the likes of Youthful Folly and Key to Harmony meant nothing to anyone other than British film historians.

Chrystall was born in Fleetwood [See note], Lancashire, in 1910, or at least she said she was. She apparently destroyed her birth certificate [See note], so no one could be sure if the date was correct (at a time when actresses routinely lopped a few years off their age) or whether Belle Chrystall was her real name. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and studied law at King's College London [See note], although her heart was always set on acting.

Despite parental disapproval, she enrolled at RADA in 1927 (which would have made her 17 and hardly leaves room for an abortive legal education [See note]). The dark-haired, fresh-faced actress initially found work in the theatre, but her ambitions lay in films, which had been revolutionised with the arrival of the talkies. She secured a supporting role in the Gainsborough farce A Warm Corner (1930), produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Victor Saville.

Balcon and Saville then cast Chrystall as the lead in Hindle Wakes (1931), the third adaptation of a Stanley Houghton play about life in a Lancashire mill town, with Chrystall as a young woman who has a fling with the son of her father's employer, but declines to marry him. That same year she appeared in another Lancashire melodrama, Hobson's Choice, as one of the daughters of the despotic bootmaker, here played by James Harcourt. The film has subsequently been eclipsed by David Lean's 1953 version with Charles Laughton and John Mills.

She started in The Frightened Lady, an adaptation of an Edgar Wallace play with Chrystall as a guest at a stately home where one of the occupants is a murderer; Balcon and Saville's Friday the Thirteenth, an intriguing drama that follows 24 hours in the lives of a disparate group of characters who are all destined to travel on a bus that crashes; and The Scotland Yard Mystery, in which she becomes alarmed by the unexpected deaths of a number of patients after visits to her doctor-fiancé

The thriller The Girl in the Flat and the romantic dramas Youthful Folly and Key to Harmony did little to further her career, which was in danger of stalling when she was hired for The Edge of the World. Crystall plays Ruth Manson, one of the residents of a Scottish island where life is a continual battle against the elements and there is fierce debate over whether the islanders should leave. Ruth becomes romantically involved with another islander, played by Niall MacGinnis, despite a bitter feud between their fathers, played by Finlay Currie and John Laurie.

The film was inspired by the evacuation of St. Kilda, where Powell had hoped to film. Refused permission, he headed for Foula. Although only 16 miles from the mainland of Shetland, there was no airstrip and only a few dozen residents scattered around windswept crofts. Cast and crew spent four months there and captured the raw beauty of the place on film.

The Edge of the World was one of Powell's first features as writer and director, made shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Its reputation has grown enormously over the years; in 1978 Powell returned to Foula with members of the cast and crew to film a new introduction and epilogue, though Chrystall declined to accompany them, "preferring to leave her 1936 image the way it was", according to Powell's autobiography. [She told Heather "she nearly died the first time" so didn't want to go back]

Martin Scorsese and John Travolta have been among those who have championed the film in recent times.

Over the next few years Chrystall went on to appear in another half-dozen films - Yellow Sands, Follow Your Star, Breakers Ahead, Anything to Declare? and Poison Pen - a dark rural melodrama of repression, murder and suicide, with Robert Newton as her husband, driven mad by suspicions of an affair, and Flora Robson as the vicar's seemingly respectable spinster sister. The House of the Arrow (1940), another whodunnit, adapted from a novel by A.E.W. Mason, was Chrystall's final film.

She appeared in a number of radio plays, undertook modelling assignments and was briefly the face of Lux soap, but she formally announced her retirement when she married in 1946. "I adored my career on screen and the adulation it brought me, but it was no substitute for marriage and a family," she later remarked.

She was predeceased by her husband and her daughter.

Belle Chrystall, actress, was born on April 25, 1910. She died on June 7, 2003, aged 93.

Letters to the newspapers after Belle's death:

Humphrey Wynn writes: Your obituary of Belle Chrystall (July 24) does scant justice to her charm and beautiful diction as a radio actress in the late 1920s and 1930s. In those "wireless" days she graced many a broadcast play; she had a euphonious name, but - in that era before Radio Times had become a magazine of celebrities - we could only guess what she looked like. Now, thanks to the photograph you published, we know she looked as lovely as she sounded; and she was selfless indeed to give up her successful career in favour of marriage and a family.

Richard Carter writes: As Belle Chrystall's son-in-law, may I comment on the question of her age and name. I have, from Belle's papers, a copy of her birth certificate. This confirms what the family has always known, that she was indeed named Belle, and Belle was her only given name. Chrystall was her father's family name and originated, I believe, in the Aberdeen area. She was born at Fulwood, near Preston, on April 25, 1910.

There was also some confusion about her education. It was Belle's daughter Chrystall, my wife, who was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College and who studied Law at King's College London. Belle stopped work mainly to ensure that she was able to devote herself to her daughter. It was a great pity that she did not find a way to combine family and work as she was truly gifted and able, even in later years, to make the written word live through her reading.

Heather notes:

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