For her American film debut, Anna Lee was required to darken her naturally blonde hair by order of "Seven Sinners" (1941) star Marlene Dietrich, whose ego could handle no competition from the blue-eyed, surpassingly lovely British actress. While posing no threat to Hollywood's A-list leading ladies, Lee kept busy in the ensuing years, backing John Wayne in "The Flying Tigers" (1942) and Boris Karloff in "Bedlam" (1946) while proving a valuable addition to John Ford's stock company, beginning with the Academy Award-winning "How Green Was My Valley" (1944). Shifting to character parts in middle age and focusing on television work to allow time with her family, Lee contributed a string of wry cameo appearances to such features as "The Prize" (1962), "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964), and "The Sound of Music" (1965). Most often seen as the epitome of prudence and purity, she enjoyed playing the occasional bad girl - the perfidious wife of Warner Baxter's "Prison Warden" (1949), the benighted Lady Constance of "Jack the Giant Killer" (1962), and the distaff supervillain of "In Like Flint" (1967). At age 65, Lee began a long association with the ABC soap opera "General Hospital" (1963- ), playing matriarch Lila Quartermaine for 26 years, even after a 1982 automobile accident put her in a wheelchair for life. Lee's death in 2004 capped a 70-year career in film, bequeathing to movie lovers the legacy of an actress with the soul of a character player and the face of a movie star.
Anna Lee was born Joan Boniface Winnifrith on Jan. 2, 1913, in the village of Igtham in Kent, England. Descendant of a long line of clergymen, her middle name was given in tribute to the 8th Century Benedictine monk who propagated Christianity in the Frankish empire, was martyred in 752, and canonized as the Patron Saint of Germany. Lee's father, Bertram Winnifrith, was the rector of St. Peter's Church in Igtham and headmaster of the local boy's school. As a young girl, Lee spent her early childhood years at play in the surrounding forest and pulling books of poetry from the low shelves of her father's study. Encouraged by her father, an amateur singer, she developed an interest in acting and made her stage debut shortly after her 10th birthday as a female robot in a village production of A. E. Barber's "Mechanical Jane." The death of Lee's father from meningitis the following year forced her widowed mother to relocate Lee and her four siblings to nearby Rochester, where they took up residence in a 16th century mansion that Charles Dickens had used nearly a century earlier as a model for Miss Havisham's estate in his 1861 novel Great Expectations.
At the age of 11, Lee saw her first motion picture, walking alone to nearby Chatham and paying sixpence to glimpse Pola Negri in Ernst Lubitsch's "Forbidden Paradise" (1924). After obtaining her primary education at Granville House, run by the sister of godfather Arthur Conan Doyle, Lee took up the study of acting at the Royal Albert Hall's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art. When her teachers discovered that she had made pocket money by working as an extra in moving pictures, Lee was not invited back to the school. Instead, she continued playing bit parts in British quota films financed by such Hollywood studios as Paramount and Warner Brothers. Realizing her birth name was too long for a cinema marque, she adopted her stage name, deriving Anna from Asian actress Anna Mae Wong and Lee from U.S. Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After playing Louis Hayward's leading lady in "Chelsea Life" (1933), Lee was offered more prominent roles and eventually found herself branded in Britain as the Queen of the Quota Quickies.
In 1935, Lee was selected by Michael Balcon, director of production for the Gaumont British Picture Association, to star opposite comedian Jack Hulbert in the adventure "The Camels are Coming" (1934), shot on location in Egypt. Over the next four years, she appeared in a dozen films for Gaumont, playing a young woman enmeshed in a loveless engagement to an older man in "The Passing of the Third Floor Back" (1935), mad doctor Boris Karloff's daughter in "The Man Who Changed His Mind" (1936), and a plucky diamond miner who partners with white trader Cedric Hardwicke and deposed tribal chieftain Paul Robeson to oppose an evil witch doctor in "King Solomon's Mines" (1937), directed by her first husband, Robert Stevenson. When Stevenson was brought to the United States by producer David O. Selznick to remake Gustaf Molander's "Intermezzo" (1936) as an English language vehicle for Swedish import Ingrid Bergman, Lee followed, with the couple's 18-month-old daughter Venetia in tow. Though Stevenson never did direct a film for Selznick, Lee was unable to return to England after the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Germany in September 1939.
Finding work at Universal, Lee was cast in Tay Garnett's "Seven Sinners" (1940) as the virtuous opposite of Marlene Dietrich's fallen woman. Her ego unable to countenance competition from another blue-eyed blonde, Dietrich used her star cachet to compel Lee to darken her hair. Lee was paired with Ronald Colman for Lewis Milestone's "Life with Caroline" (1941), which earned her an RKO contract. On loan to 20th Century Fox, she was awarded a principal role in the "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), the first of seven films for John Ford. Republic Pictures' "Flying Tigers" (1942) featured Lee as an airbase nurse whose affair with a pilot makes life difficult for flight commander John Wayne. In Fritz Lang's "Hangman Also Die" (1943), Lee played the conflicted daughter of a Czech national who safeguards resistance member Brian Donlevy from the Gestapo. Lee appeared with Edward G. Robinson in the central vignette of Jean Duvivier's omnibus "Flesh and Fantasy" (1943) and in Douglas Sirk's historical melodrama "Summer Storm" (1943) she lost fiancé George Sanders to peasant Linda Darnell.
During the Second World War, Lee volunteered for work with the USO, entertaining American troops with Jack Benny in the Persian Gulf. Divorced from Stevenson in March 1944, she wed second husband George Stafford only three months later and was given away in marriage by friend Alfred Hitchcock. Back at RKO, Lee reteamed with Boris Karloff for "Bedlam" (1946), playing a social reformer held prisoner by corrupt asylum officials. Relegated to the small role as philanderer George Sanders' wife in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947), Lee was nonetheless able to command double her asking price, a fee that quadrupled when star Gene Tierney was sidelined by an injury. She was in long-suffering wife mode again for John Ford's "Fort Apache" (1948) but had more fun as the duplicitous bride of Warner Baxter's "Prison Warden" (1949), a Columbia B-picture directed by Seymour Friedman. Beginning in 1950, Lee began making appearances on such live television series as "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57), "Kraft Theatre" (ABC, 1947-1958), and "The Pepsi Cola Playhouse" (ABC, 1953-55).
Dividing her time between television work and family life, Lee continued to appear as a stock player for John Ford, popping up in small roles opposite Spencer Tracy in "The Last Hurrah" (1958) and John Wayne and William Holden in "The Horse Soldiers" (1959). Early into Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), Lee appeared as a stage coach passenger brutalized by villain Lee Marvin and she played the nosey neighbor of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Robert Aldrich's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962). While filming Nathan Juran's fantasy "Jack the Giant Killer" (1962), she endured uncomfortable contact lenses and being pecked at by a trained raven. Contributing uncredited bits to such MGM productions as "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962) and "The Prize" (1962) allowed Lee to reunite with old friends Lewis Milestone and Mark Robson, whom she had known in her days at RKO. One of Lee's most memorable later roles was as the Nazi-thwarting Sister Margaretta in Robert Wise's "The Sound of Music" (1965), while she held her own as a super-villain using a cosmetics conglomeration as a front for espionage in the James Bond spoof "In Like Flint" (1967), starring James Coburn.
With the dissolution in 1964 of her second marriage, Lee spent several years as a single mother before marrying poet and writer Robert Nathan in 1970. With homes in Cape Cod and Los Angeles, Lee kept busy in episodes of such popular weekly TV series as "Mannix" (CBS, 1967-1975), "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1963-1973) and "The Streets of San Francisco" (ABC, 1972-77), while playing Laura Delano, beloved cousin of future United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the ABC telefilms "Eleanor and Franklin" (1976) and "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years" (1977). In 1978, she began a two-decade association with the Emmy Award-winning ABC daytime drama "General Hospital" (1963- ), as socialite Lila Quartermaine. Two years into her tenure on the series, Lee was paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident yet continued in her role from a wheelchair for the rest of her tenure. That same year, she received the MBE from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
Despite the death of her third husband in 1985 and the untimely demise of her oldest son John in 1986, Lee continued to perform well into her eighties. In 1993, she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With her health failing, and the resulting delays in production of "General Hospital," Lee's character was written out of the series after 26 years, a decision that infuriated longtime fans. On May 14, 2004, Lee succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 91. Her autobiography, Anna Lee: Memoir of a Career on General Hospital and in Film was published posthumously in 2007.
by Richard Harland Smith