Did the Baroness Shirley Williams Almost Get the Lead in National Velvet?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Shirley Williams almost got the lead in National Velvet!

Shirley Williams is The Baroness Williams of Crosby, PC, a title bestowed upon her for her long life of political service.

She is most known for her split from the Labour Party in the early 1980s to form the Social Democratic Party, along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers.

For years, though, a story has made the rounds that Williams’ long, storied career in politics might have been de-railed at a young age had she gotten a movie role that she was up for – the lead role in National Velvet!

National Velvet was a very popular novel by Enid Bagnold that came out in 1935.

The book is about a young girl who wins the Grand National steeplechase with her beloved horse.

The novel was adapted into a film in 1944, and 1943 was spent on a nation-wide talent search for the young girl who would play the lead. The search had to be reserved to American girls, because of a British law not allowing women under the age of 18 to travel abroad to work for profit without a special license. And only girls 14 and older could obtain said license. So for this film, where the lead was an 11-year-old girl, it would not work.

However, Shirley Williams (then Shirley Catlin), the 13-year-old daughter of noted author Vera Brittain, had been evacuated to the United States in 1940 because of World War II. So she would be eligible (as she was already over here). And for years, as noted above, the story has gone that Shirley barely lost out to the ultimate lead of the picture, 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.

People love “What If..?” stories, and few have more potency as this one, as not only would Williams’ political career likely have been de-railed, but so, too, would Taylor’s film career!

So is it true?

As it were, though, Shirley was never really in the running for the role. It is true that film critics of each area of the country were asked to suggest a little girl from their area. And Catlin, living in Minnesota, WAS the suggestion of her area. However, she never got past the initial interview stage and was not brought to the United States.

When no one could be found from the search, young Elizabeth Taylor was suggested, and she was the ultimate pick – beginning her star-studded career as a lead in films.

The legend is…


Thanks to Alexander Walker’s Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor, for the information (which he got from Williams herself).

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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