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20 April 2008

Hazel Court - A Personal Tribute

Hazel Court - Horror Queen available from Tom

Bruce Sachs pays a personal tribute to the actress Hazel Court, star of Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein and

The Man Who Could Cheat Death, who died on 14 April, aged 82.


When I had asked Hazel Court some years ago to write her autobiography, I never expected the one she finally delivered. Her book totally reflects her character – intuitive, nostalgic, artistic and caring. The book includes trees, animals, politicians, painting, sculpture and cricket, as well as many tales of life as a film actress. The book makes you laugh, cry and totally fall in love with this amazing woman. It is no ordinary autobiography. A few days ago, Hazel was in LA with her daughter, Sally. She wasn’t feeling very well, but I emailed her the proofs of the book, with a promise that she’d have one in her hand in a week’s time. She spent the last days of her life studying every page. She loved it. “The most important thing I’ve done in my life”, she told me. Hazel’s opinion on the finished book was the only one that mattered to me.
    Hazel returned home to her cabin near Lake Tahoe on April 14 2008, but felt distinctly unwell. She phoned for an ambulance. She was talking to the ambulance staff in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, when her heart arrested. The paramedics got her going again, and got her into the hospital. But, she arrested again and they couldn’t get her back. Hazel Court was gone.


Hazel was born in Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, England on February 10, 1926. Her father was the professional cricketer, GW Court, and Hazel often wore his cricket medal from Durham CCC around her neck. The film director Anthony Asquith accidentally came across a photo of Hazel when she was 16 and immediately asked to meet her. Hazel travelled down to London with her mother, and ended up being cast in a very minor role in Champagne Charlie

. But she was well and truly spotted, and the rest is history.  
    Her early British films showed a great flair for both comedy and drama. But what Hazel liked best was dressing up – wearing beautiful clothes that a young girl could only dream of. While she made films for a number of studios, it was Rank that really promoted her. She was photographed in dozens of pin-up shots (many by John Jay, who would go on to be Hammer’s first stills photographer). Hazel opened stores, kicked off at professional football matches and modelled the latest fashions. She was on the covers of every leading British magazine (including a photo shoot with the royal photographer) and was becoming a household name. She mixed with the most famous names in Britain. Restaurants hushed when she entered (never having to make a reservation, of course). Hazel toured on the stage with her husband, Dermot Walsh (they also did a film together). In 1956, Hazel was offered the role opposite the relatively unknown Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in Hammer’s

The Curse of Frankenstein. She was supposed to be the box-office draw, since the rest of the cast were nowhere near as well known as she was. No one expected this film to be the success it was. It catapulted Hazel from British fame to international fame. Hazel only ever made one more Hammer film – The Man who Could Cheat Death. Did she or didn’t she ever film a completely topless scene for this film? She did, and the proof is in her book! Many other film roles followed, and even an American CBS TV series – Dick and the Duchess, which was filmed in England. Dick and the Duchess was a huge success in the States, and Hazel found herself in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. Alfred Hitchcock beckoned.

In the US, and working for Hitchcock’s hugely popular TV series, Hazel met Don Taylor, who Hitchcock had taken under his wing. This famous American actor wanted to be director, and he found himself directing Hazel. The attraction was instant and powerful. Don Taylor had an impressive acting history – he gave Elizabeth Taylor her first ever screen kiss in Father of the Bride. He shared top credits with his friend William Holden in Stalag 17. And of course, we will never forget his appearance as Robin Hood for Hammer Films! [ in The Men of Sherwood Forest

].
    Don became Hazel’s second husband, and Hazel moved to Santa Monica, and into a house she fell in love with. Her home had been where Bing Crosby recorded his first ever record.

But the professional highlight of Hazel’s career turned out to be the three films she made with Roger Corman – The Raven, Premature Burial and Masque of the Red Death

. Co-starring with the likes of Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, Peter Lorrie, Jack Nicholson and Vincent Price, these films are critically evaluated to be her best – especially Masque, which is a masterpiece. Hazel became extremely close friends with Vincent Price, who discovered Hazel’s talent for painting and sculpture, and actively promoted her artistic work. It wasn’t long before Hazel became a respected and sought after artist.  
    Hazel did more TV work with Don, and before long, she was a staple of the American TV screen. Her appearances in

Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, Mission Impossible, Rawhide, Dr Kildare, Mannix, MacMillan and Wife, The Wild Wild West and many more top programmes now made her a household name on BOTH sides of the Atlantic. But it all stopped suddenly with the birth of her son, Jonathan.

A break from making movies allowed Hazel to enhance her reputation as an artist. She spent numerous summers sculpting in Italy – she had a thing about Italian marble, and her work sold well to both private collectors and public institutions. Her interest in art knew no bounds, as I found out wandering around grassy fields in Yorkshire admiring Henry Moore sculptures, or exploring the galleries of St. Ives with her in beloved Cornwall.
    But travel too was on the agenda for this part of Hazel’s life, as she often accompanied Don on location with his films. She saw a lot of the world, but I was most envious of the time she lived on the Via Appia in Rome, not far from Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
    Hazel was devoted to her fans, answering hundreds of letters each month – a task that took more and more of her time in recent years, due to some problems with one of her eyes. She was keen to attend conventions because she loved talking to her many fans. Nothing was ever too much trouble. Returning home recently from a Bonanza convention, Hazel was stopped by the State Police. She made the mistake of getting out of her car, at which point, the trooper pointed a gun at her, threw her over the hood of the car and cuffed her! Her wrist was injured in the fracas. So, not everyone was a fan. This was a far cry when she actually ran down a police officer in London. Recognising who she was, the officer told her that she could run him down any time she wanted.

When Hazel had been asked to work with Corman, Don advised her against it. “You’ve already done 2 Hammer films – any more will ruin your career – you’ll be typecast!” Hazel often laughed about this, years later, telling Don that it was she and not him that had loads of fan mail and invitations to conventions. Unlike some stars, she did not diminish her appearance in horror films. It is true that these films constituted only a very small part of her professional output, but it is what she was famous for and she really did love these films. Years ago, the American press dubbed Vincent Price and her as “The King and Queen of Horror”. The label stuck to both of them. When she was working on her autobiography, Hazel and I discussed often what it should be called. Hazel was never in doubt – Horror Queen! I was not so sure, but she was highly intuitive and very clever. It had to be Hazel Court – Horror Queen, because that’s how people knew her. OK, I gave in. But her readers will be in for a big surprise when they read the book and discover what a multi-talented, enterprising woman Hazel was. And now that I have got used to the title, I really like it.

Hazel’s last years were spent working on her book and donating her time to the local College at Tahoe. She taught the young students there about art and they adored her. She told me once that she wrote her book for them; because she wanted them know what her life had been like. A piece of her sculpture now graces the college. Another on is on prominent display in the library of Penn State University – Don’s alma mater.
    And she was in love with hills near Tahoe in which she lived. The spirit of the Native American is still there in those hills. She had animal friends. Only last week, she sent me a photo of a quail that frequented her garden. A couple of years ago a bear was rampaging through people’s homes and gardens. Locals wanted the bear destroyed. But Hazel was his champion. She had the bear air-lifted somewhere else, out of harm’s way. Her latest bear friend she named Chocolate, and there’s a picture of him in her book.
    The last time I actually saw Hazel was 2 years ago. We went to Cornwall, her spiritual home. It was April, but in Cornwall it was summer. Flowers were out, birds were singing and the sky and sea were a crystal clear blue. It was almost as if Cornwall was welcoming her. She took me to where she filmed Doctor Blood’s Coffin years before. She has also filmed Carnival there. And it was in Cornwall where she filmed her last ever big screen appearance – a cameo in Omen III – look for her in the hunt scene.

Now Hazel is gone and the internet forums are singing her praise with people’s memories of meeting her at this convention or that. She was adored. For those of us closest to her, this is going to take some getting used to. Her presence in our lives was consistent, dependable and caring. Where there once was Hazel is now a huge hole, and nothing will ever fill it. There is no consoling her children. I miss her desperately. But I find comfort in what she wrote in her autobiography:

Someone you love deeply is gone at the moment of death, yes. But very slowly, they drift back to you. It’s true, it’s a drifting. Then they stay with you ever afterwards.


Bruce Sachs


 

It would be very much appreciated if all of Hazel’s friends would send a donation to Hazel’s favourite charity, The Bear League.  Hazel was a very active supporter and was very personally involved with saving bears.  Cheques can be sent in any currency to:
 

Ann Bryant
The BEAR League
P.O. Box 393
Homewood, CA 96141

Please ensure that your donation is clearly marked “In Memory of Hazel Court” and include your address.  Hazel’s daughter Sally will write to you in due course with her grateful thanks.



 

Hazel Court - Horror Queen is available now from www.tomahawkpress.com

Hazel Court - Horror Queen
An Autobiography
ISBN 10: 0-9531926-8-7
ISBN 13: 978-0-9531926-8-7

RRP: £12.99 Paperback 152pp + 8pp Colour Section



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