CATH postgraduate student, Sandra Frost is researching the career of Belinda Lee, a talented starlet and product of the Rank Charm School in the early 1950s.
Sandra would love to hear from anyone who can contribute knowledge or information on Lee’s life and career which began in British ‘B’ movies. Her marriage to Italian Count Orsini opened the gates to stardom in the Italian film industry and membership of the ‘La Dolce Vita’ set, but Lee died tragically early in a car crash in Hollywood, fifty years ago in March 1961.
By Sandra Frost:
I am a postgraduate researcher at the Cinema and Television History Research Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. My study focuses on Belinda Lee, an actress rarely spoken of today, whose career was shaped by 1950s stardom, celebrity and stereotyping.
Belinda Lee began training as an actress at the Tudor Arts Academy, Hindhead, Surrey (circa1947-52). From there she won two scholarships to RADA where she spent 18 months (1952/3). Holidays were spent at the Nottingham Playhouse and she appeared in several productions there. Her training at RADA was cut short when she was seen acting at Nottingham by Val Guest, film director with The Rank Organisation, who cast her in the Frankie Howerd comedy The Runaway Bus (1954), and this led to her being offered a 7yr contract with Rank. The photographer assigned to promoting her image was Cornel Lucas, the acclaimed Rank Stills Photographer and a few months later, on 5 June 1954, they were married, 10 days before her 19th birthday.
Although the famous ‘Charm School’ was no longer in existence, contract employees were trained similarly in the techniques of cinema acting and handling the public, they were also expected to behave themselves on and off set. Regarded as one of their most promising actresses, Belinda Lee was kept very busy. Her roles in comedy included The Belles of St Trinians (1954), Man of the Moment (1955) with Norman Wisdom, and a co-starring role in Who Done It? (1956) with Benny Hill. More dramatic roles, with star billing, included The Secret Place (1957) with Ronald Lewis, Miracle in Soho (1957) with John Gregson, and Dangerous Exile (1957) with Louis Jordan. Despite her rapid rise in popularity, she didn’t achieve the box office success she had hoped for.
In 1957, Rank released Lee to film ‘La Venere Di Cheronea’ in Italy. Her marriage had been suffering under the strain of her career and whilst in Rome she met Prince Filippo Orsini. From one of the oldest and noblest families, Orsini had been appointed Prince Assistant to the Pope, and was married. Nonetheless he had a reputation for being a ’playboy’ and may have been involved in the 1950s Via Veneto glitzy lifestyle, later known as ‘La Dolce Vita’. Their adulterous affair caused a scandal and once she had completed Nor the Moon by Night (1958) Rank terminated her contract and Lucas filed for divorce citing Orsini.
Belinda Lee moved to Italy to be with Orsini and to seek work in Europe. Though she was kept very busy many of the films were unsatisfying ‘sword and sandal’ and sexy racy tales. Two films of note though were Die Wahrheit Uber Rosemarie (1959) based on a recent murder case in Germany, and La Lunga Notte Del ’43 (1960) an Italian drama of Resistance against Germans in Ferrara. But, by 1961, the strong belief she had in her career had waned, her relationship with Orsini had ended, and she had a new partner, writer and film director Gualtiero Jacopetti.
Her life ended tragically when she was killed in a car accident on 13 March 1961, on the San Bernandino highway, California, just before her 26th birthday.
If anyone has memories that would build on my knowledge of the career and life of Belinda Lee, I would greatly appreciate hearing them.
Sandra can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on Saturday 2nd July 2011