Nell Gwyn on Screen: the Frock Flicks Guide

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Nell Gwyn (AKA Gwynn or Gwynne) (1650-1687) was one of the first English actresses — in other words, one of the first actors to be a woman. She had the proverbial rags to riches story: she began as an orange girl (selling oranges at the theater), became a comedic actress and a star, and eventually mistress to King Charles II. The couple had two children. She’s become a folk heroine, and as such has made it to the screen a number of times. I have a particular affinity for Nell, both because she’s a fellow redhead, and who doesn’t love the idea of the bawdy girl gone upscale?

Portrait of Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) by Peter Lely, c. 1675, National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) by Peter Lely, c. 1675,
National Portrait Gallery.

Let’s take a look at the major representations of Nell Gwyn on screen:

 

English Nell (1900)

Who played her? Marie Tempest, an English actress.

What’s it about? Filmed scene from a play, which was in turn based on a novel.

English Nell (1900)

Now THAT is a Gainsborough hat!

 

Nell Gwynne (1911)

AKA Sweet Nell of Old Drury

Who played her? Nellie Stewart, an Australian actress (this was an Australian production).

What’s it about? Another based on a play, about Nell and Charles II. The film is now lost.

Nell Gwynne (1911)

Such Mary Pickford hair! The rags are a nice touch.

 

Mistress Nell (1915)

Who played her? Mary Pickford, probably the most popular actress of the silent era.

What’s it about? The relationship between Nell and Charles II.

Mistress Nell (1915)

“I’m Mary Pickford, I commit to my trademark hairstyle!”

Mistress Nell (1915)

Is she trying to get the other lady to kiss her? Pointing out a blemish?

Mistress Nell (1915)

Daw! True wuv!

 

Nell Gwyn (1926)

Who played her? Dorothy Gish, sister of Lillian and major star of the silent era.

What’s it about? Nell and Charles, naturally, this time based on a 1926 novel.

Nell Gwyn (1926)

I love this on multiple levels: the robe de style-type dress. The delicate yet “I have no idea how to work long skirts” skirt lifting. THAT HAT!!

Nell Gwyn (1926)

This just screams Regency to me, not 17th century!

Nell Gwyn (1926)

Okay that hat, and the better hair, are making me feel a little more Nell Gwyn-ish about this.

Nell Gwyn (1926)

SO gorgeous, SO fuck-all-to-do-with-the-17th-century!

Nell Gwyn (1926)

Possible bitch fight alert! Is that maybe Barbara Villiers on the right?

 

Love, Life, & Laughter (1934)

Who played her? Gracie Fields, English actress and singer.

What’s it about? A comedy in which Nell falls in love with the “Prince of Granau.”

Love, Life & Laughter (1934)

The proverbial orange girl AND the proverbial whore-with-a-heart-of-gold laugh!

 

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Who played her? Anna Neagle, English actress who would later play Queen Victoria.

What’s it about? Nell and Chuck, baby!

Nell Gwyn (1934)

“You may have a faux-17th century corset [with tabs!] but *I* have totally 1930s hair, so nyeah!”

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Little Orphan Nell?

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Yet again, saved by a hat!

Nell Gwyn (1934)

I personally hate cameos, and that’s a BIG cameo.

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Who could resist such a Historical Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Criss-cross lacing and a huge pewter tankard — it’s ye oldey times!

 

Hudson’s Bay (1941)

Who played her? Virginia Field, an actress who was semi-successful in film but more successful on Broadway.

What’s it about? Fictionalized story about a Canadian explorer who convinces Charles II to fund an expedition of conquest.

Hudson's Bay (1941)

Just a sweet lil’ miss…

Hudson's Bay (1941)

Who loves her some sparkle!

Hudson's Bay (1941)

Nell’s costume from the film, at auction more recently. Girl loves her some gold lamé!

 

Cardboard Cavalier (1949)

Who played her? Margaret Lockwood, English actress who starred in many of the 1940s Gainsborough Studios costume movies (including the lead in the 1945 version of The Wicked Lady).

What’s it about? Comedy about a tradesman who, along with Nell, becomes enmeshed in the English Civil War (on the Royalist side).

Cardboard Cavalier (1949)

There’s the proverbial oranges again!

Cardboard Cavalier (1949)

That hair and makeup is SO 1940s, but at least they gave her a beauty patch…

Cardboard Cavalier (1949)

Okay, so I have hat envy… (although the plastic pearls are making me twitch).

 

Let’s Make Up (1954)

AKA Lilacs in the Spring

Who played her? Anna Neagle, who played Nell in the 1934 film (above).

What’s it about? A modern-day actress must choose between two lovers. She has extended dream sequences in which she is Nell Gwyn and then Queen Victoria.

Let's Make Up (1954)

I LOVE THE GRUMPY PUPPY!! LOOKIT HIS LITTLE CHICKEN LEGS!!

 

The Wicked Lady (1983)

Apparently Teresa Codling played Nell in what must be a bit part in the film, because I have no memory of her being a character and I can’t find any images! It is, however, a great film if you like the late 17th century and a hilarious film if you like cheese, so I recommend it.

 

England, My England (1995)

Who played her? Lucy Speed, an English actress known for soap EastEnders, and who had small parts in Shakespeare in Love and Impromptu.

What’s it about? The life of composer Henry Purcell, with Simon Callow as Charles II, seen through the eyes of a 1960s playwright.

England, My England (1995)

Red hair and a rack — looks about right!

 

The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)

AKA Charles II: The Power & the Passion or The Last King

Who played her? Emma Pierson, English actress who was also in Little Dorrit (2008) and Suffragist comedy Up the Women (2013-15).

What’s it about? Four-part miniseries about Charles II, focusing on his various mistresses, including Nell. Rufus Sewell plays Chuck, Rupert Graves is the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory is Barbara Villiers…

Is it any good? YES, YES, YES.

The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)

Love the spaniel hair and the heart-shaped beauty patch!

The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)

Weird angle photo is weird.

The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)

Okay, so I like the neckline, the lace, and the stripes, even if the whole thing screams “faux”!

The Last King: The Power and the Passion of Charles II (2003)

Seriously not-bad hair!

 

Stage Beauty (2004)

Who played her? Zoë Tapper, English actress who has also been in Mr. SelfridgeCheerful Weather for the WeddingDesperate RomanticsAffinity, and A Harlot’s Progress.

What’s it about? A female dresser who becomes the first actress once the ban on women actors is lifted, and the male actor who became a star for playing female roles. Charles II and Nell are smaller characters.

Is it any good? YES, YES, YES.

Stage Beauty (2004)

SERIOUS spaniel hair — yes!

Stage Beauty (2004)

So the hat is shitty, they got the cut of the dress right!

Stage Beauty (2004)

Who doesn’t love some cross-dressing?

Stage Beauty (2004)

I’m pretty sure she’s naked behind that shield…

Stage Beauty (2004)

Hanging with Rupert Everett (Charles) and Tom Wilkinson!

Stage Beauty (2004)

Again, THE HAIR. WE LOVES IT.

Stage Beauty (2004)

PUPPEH!

What’s your favorite representation of Nell Gwyn on screen?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

13 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Stage Beauty & The Last King. Rufus Sewell and Rupert Everett. Needs one say more.

    Reply
  2. Bea

    Is it just me, or do Emma Pierson and Karen Gillan look like they were separated at birth?

    Reply
  3. specsandsuiting

    Stage Beauty is my forever favorite Nell. It’s the shout of “bitch” that really did it. I want that as a ringtone.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Ha! I can’t remember which production included the “Yes I’m a whore, but at least I’m an ENGLISH whore!” but I loved that!

      Reply
      • MoHub

        Legendary Nell Gwynn story.

        She was presenting her son to his father—the King—and when told to call the boy forward, said, “Come here, you little bastard!” When the King asked her why she called the child that, she told him that in truth, she didn’t know what to call him—hint, hint—and immediately secured a title for her son.

        Reply
      • specsandsuiting

        The anecdote from history is actually even better. She was supposedly surrounded by an anti-catholic mob and said “I’m the Protestant whore” to calm them. Apocryphal? Probably. Awesome? Definitely.

        Reply
  4. Janet Nickerson

    My husband & I saw the Dorothy Gish film at the art museum New Haven years ago as part of a exhibition on late 17th century art. In that film, Nell was less a mistress and more of a court jester. We also saw the stage version of ‘Stage Beauty’ and HATED it. The actress portraying Nell was more ;like Liza Doolittle before she learned to speak well. We skipped the film. BTW, the huge hat in the first picture is based on one of Nell’s roles, in which she wore a huge hat to lampoon someone (can’t remember if it was a rival actress or political figure, though).

    Reply
    • specsandsuiting

      I saw Compleat Female Stage Beauty on stage, and I was thoroughly disappointed by the actress playing Nell. It was all the more disappointing because I enjoyed the movie version. The Nell I saw on stage had an awful accent (possibly intentional) and was portrayed as a bit dim, which took the teeth out of some of her more delightful lines.

      Reply
  5. Rebecca Maiten

    Stage Beauty is one of my all-time favorite movies, so that is definitely my favorite Nell. It’s the reason I fell in love with the 17th c, too.

    Reply
  6. Du Barry

    Personally I think The Last King is the best interpretation for the King Charles story, but I think Zoë Tapper is the better version.

    Reply

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