Zeffie Tilbury appeared in more than 70 films, came from a famous theatrical family and had a long stage career before making her film debut at the age of 54. So I’ve been surprised to see how hard it is to find much information about this grand old lady of film and theatre. Admittedly, many of her movie parts were small and uncredited – but she also played a number of major roles.
The first time I really noticed her was in Desire (1936), directed by Frank Borzage and starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. Tilbury, who was then in her 70s, plays an elderly conwoman going under the name Aunt Olga, and urging on Dietrich’s character to press ahead with her efforts to con Cooper. She makes a memorable entrance, heading for the booze and admitting in her aristocratic English voice that she is just out of jail. There aren’t many actors who can hold their own with Dietrich on camera, let alone steal a scene, but I’d say Tilbury manages to do it on this occasion.
I’ve been planning to review a few Dickens films to mark his bicentenary, and am now beginning at the end of his career – though I do plan to write about adaptations of some of the earlier novels too! I will be discussing the whole plot of Drood in this review, including the ending of the 1935 film and also of the most recent BBC adaptation. As a lifelong Dickens fan, I like all his novels and have read them all many times over the years. But his last, dark masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, holds a special fascination for me, as for many other readers – from its stunning dream opening in the opium den through to its abrupt breaking off when the author died. The book’s real power lies not in the endless controversy over how it would have ended, but in the tortured double character of John Jasper, lay precentor of the cathedral by day and drug addict by night. (I’ve read an article somewhere pointing out the similarity between Jasper and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which had already been adapted for the screen twice when Hollywood turned its attention to Dickens’ novel.)