Saturday, July 15, 2006

James Dean and the Girl from Cwmgwrach

In 1953 method actors James Dean and Rod Steiger starred in a US television programme called The Evil Within alongside Margaret Phillips from Cwmgwrach.

Because of James Dean's presence (he played a lab technician) the episode has subsequently acquired cult status but it is Phillips who steals the show. As Steiger's drugged-up wife, in this updated Jekyll and Hyde story, she demonstrates the full range of her thespian abilities.

The Welsh-speaker got her big acting break on Broadway in 1948 when Tennessee Williams cast her in the lead role of his drama Summer and Smoke. Critics were lukewarm about the play itself but enthusiastic about Phillips' performance. Further appearances on Broadway were followed by a move into television, including a part as Regan in a small screen version of King Lear (1953) in which Orson Welles hammed it up in the title role.

Oddly, Phillips never took her talent to Hollywood, preferring instead the theatrical life of the East coast. One of the few films she did appear in was A Life of her Own (1950) with Lana Turner and Ray Milland. I'm guessing Ms Turner didn't star in many films alongside TWO people from the Neath area!

Phillips' successful stage and TV career was a long way from her life in the small mining village of Cwmgwrach. As a child she acted in plays at Neath County School and won prizes for recitations in both English and Welsh at local eisteddfodau and Urdd competitions. She also participated in concerts at her local place of worship, the Siloh Independent Church.

It was the intervention of WW2 while on a visit to New York that set her on the road to stardom. Instead of returning to Cwmgwrach as planned her fearful mother made the 16 year old stay in America. She finished her high school education in the Bronx and then enrolled at the Woodstock Summer Theatre. The rest is history.

Margaret Phillips died of cancer in New York in 1984. She lived in Manhattan.