Dame Anna Neagle was a theatrical and cinematic institution in England, and one of the most popular screen actresses of the mid-20th century. As the wife of producer/director Herbert Wilcox, she was also personally close to the centers of power in 1930s British cinema. Born Florence Marjorie Robertson at Forest Gate (near London) in 1904 to a merchant navy captain and his wife, Neagle took up dancing as a child. As early as age 13, she was getting offers of professional engagements, and made her formal debut when she was 20 as a member of the chorus in two 1925 Charlot revues. She moved up the pecking order of theaters and productions, emerging in London in the work of producer Charles B. Cochran as a Cochran Young Lady, and graduated from dancer to actress in 1929. Using the name Anna Neagle (the surname from her mother's family), she played opposite Jack Buchanan in Stand Up and Sing, which ended up running a then huge 604 performances.
Photographing extremely well, Neagle was a natural for the screen, and following two minor film appearances early in the sound era, she won the lead in Goodnight Vienna (1932), produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox. After her starring role in The Flag Lieutenant that same year, directed by (and starring) Henry Edwards, she worked exclusively under Wilcox's direction in film for the remainder of her career. It was a winning and happy partnership, yielding an enviable string of popular dramas -- both contemporary (Bitter Sweet) and period (Nell Gwyn) -- that endeared Neagle to British filmgoers throughout the 1930s and '40s. She also proved her stagecraft in 1934, when she took on the roles of Rosalind in As You Like It and Olivia in Twelfth Night; working under director Robert Atkins, she earned critical accolades in both productions, despite the fact that she had never before done any Shakespeare. Neagle's career during the '30s was concentrated on the screen, however, and she moved from success to success, reaching the pinnacle of her film career portraying Queen Victoria in a pair of historical epics. The first of these, Victoria the Great (1937), shot in color, enjoyed an unprecedented run of nearly a year in London, and, along with its companion film, Sixty Glorious Years (a reference to Victoria's reign that, as it turned out, very nearly could have applied equally well to Neagle's own career), proved unusually popular in America, as well. At the same time that those movies were spreading an image of Neagle (under heavy makeup to portray her character's aging) as the renowned British queen, she was delighting audiences in London with her portrayal of the title role in Peter Pan.