Beyond the Walk of Fame: A Monument for Madeleine Carroll

I don’t quite understand the concept; nor do I approve of such an abuse of the medium. The radio alarm clock, I mean. It accosts me with tunes and blather when I am least able or inclined to listen appreciatively. I much prefer being turned on by the radio rather than being roused by it to the point of turning it off or wishing it dead and getting on with the conscious side of life. This morning, however, BBC Radio 2—our daybreaker of choice—managed both to surprise and delight me with the following less-than-timely newsitem. Twenty years after her death, British-born Hollywood actress Madeleine Carroll (whose life and career are documented in this website maintained by her cousin) returns to the place of her birth as the English town of West Bromwich unveils a monument erected in her honor.

Film stars are perhaps least deserving of monuments—not merely because their off-screen antics rarely warrant praise, but because the celluloid on which their contributions to humanity are preserved are fitting enough testimonies to their achievements. Unless, that is, the achievements lie beyond those captured on film. In Carroll’s case, this translates into a return to Britain to serve as a Red Cross nurse during the Second World War.

The star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Secret Agent put her film career on hold following the death of her sister during the London blitz in October 1940. Just days prior to this personal loss she had already signalled her intentions by contributing to a Canadian Red Cross Emergency Appeal, which aired on 29 September.

Subsequent parts in American radio dramas echoed her new career. In the late 1930s, Carroll had starred in frothy comedies and sensational melodramas produced by the Campbell Playhouse and the Lux Radio Theater; during the war, by comparison, she was most often heard in propaganda plays written for and produced by the aforementioned Cavalcade of America. On 5 October 1942, for instance, she played an army nurse in “I Was Married on Bataan,” scripted by reluctant radio playwright Arthur Miller. Two weeks later, on 19 October, she portrayed a pioneering female doctor in “That They Might Live”; and on 30 November 1942, she played the title character in “Sister Kenny.”

Unlike so many of her glamorous colleagues, Carroll truly inhabited these roles. It is her humanitarian work that is being remembered today.

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