Claude Rains was married six times. The first five marriages ended in divorce; the last — his only truly happy marriage — ended with her death on the last day of 1964. His first wife was a brilliant comic actress named Isabel Jeans. She called him “Clid”; he called her “Izzy.” Izzy led Clid a merry dance: Rains was jealous by nature, and she gave him plenty of reasons to be jealous. She apparently was constitutionally incapable of fidelity. They separated three times and were finally divorced when she became pregnant with Gilbert (Gilley) Wakefield’s bastard; she miscarried. After the divorce was final, Jeans married Wakefield (who was, incidentally, the son of the Bishop of Birmingham). But it was said that she continued to pine for Rains for the rest of her life.
It’s beyond me why she didn’t have a bigger career in pictures. As Great Aunt Alicia in “Gigi,” she gives one of the funniest and most accomplished comic performances ever put on film. Alan Jay Lerner’s translation of Colette’s original scene is remarkable for its accuracy and fluency. It reads as well in English as in French. But the material is greatly helped by Jeans’ magisterial performance. Lerner and Loewe didn’t write a song for her character, but Jeans’ speaking voice is so musical, it hardly matters. Every line of dialogue she speaks is delightfully melodious. Her intonation is surprising, startling and hilarious. Listen to what she does with the line: “A topaz? Among my jewels? Are you mad?” She’s peerless. She has at least as many notes in her voice as that other great English character actress of the 20th century, Edith Evans. She’s as antic as Dame Edith, but she’s also classically beautiful.
Jeans is also wonderful in the Boulting Brothers’ black comedy “Heavens Above!” from 1963. She’s surrounded by very funny people: Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Ian Carmichael, Miles Malleson . . . and she dominates every scene she’s in, much as her ex-husband was wont to do. She’s grand and imperious, but she’s a completely different woman from Aunt Alicia. Jeans plays her with great sympathy and distinction.
I can’t help thinking that the quarrels she had with Rains must have been wonderful to listen to: to hear those two extraordinary voices saying terrible things to each other with extraordinary finesse . . . !