What summer movie’s most likely to boost a girl’s name?
Probably “Girl Most Likely,” starring Kristen Wiig as Imogene, a failed playwright dealing with an ex-go-go dancer mother and other comically crazy relatives. At film festivals last fall, the movie was titled “Imogene.”
Imogene is probably a variation of Imogen, first found in Shakespeare’s play “Cymbeline,” in which evil Iachimo bets Imogen’s fiancé Posthumus that he can’t seduce her. He fails, but lies to convince Posthumus he’s succeeded.
A furious Posthumus plans to murder Imogen. She flees to the forest disguised as a boy. After various plot twists, Imogen’s innocence is revealed and she marries Posthumus.
Shakespeare based “Cymbeline” on Holinshed’s history of Britain. There the heroine is called Innogen, from Gaelic “inghean,” “maiden.” The shift to Imogen from Innogen was most likely just a printer’s error.
A later English author created Imogene. In 1796, Matthew Lewis published “The Monk.” A tale set in Spain full of murderous nuns and priests, witchcraft and poison, it was one of the most popular “gothic” novels that founded today’s horror genre.
In Lewis’s book, beautiful but doomed Antonia reads the poem “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine.”
Just before Alonzo leaves for the Crusades, Imogine promises she’ll wait faithfully for his return. But within a year, a wealthy baron proposes, and she accepts.
At Imogine’s wedding feast, the ghost of jilted Alonzo (who’s been killed in Palestine) arrives to carry her off to her doom. Both end up as ghouls drinking blood out of skulls.
Lewis’s poem is full of horrific detail. For example, when undead Alonzo opens his armor’s visor, “The worms, they crept in, and the worms they crept out/And sported his eyes and his temples about.”
This macabre poem soon was set to music. It was so popular that folk song collections often include it without realizing it’s from Lewis’s novel.
Lewis’s poem likely inspired playwright Charles Maturin when he wrote “Bertram,” a huge hit when it premiered in London in 1816. In the play, Count Aldobrand sends Imogine’s lover Bertram into exile, so he becomes a pirate. The count forces Imogine to marry him to save her father from prison.
Years later Bertram returns. Imogine declares she still loves him. He then murders the count. Imogine goes mad and dies from guilt. The play ends with Bertram’s suicide.
Many early reviews of Maturin’s play spelled the name “Imogene.” Italian composer Bellini used that spelling when turning “Bertram” into his opera “Il Pirata” (“The Pirate”) in 1827. Bellini’s tale is slightly less tragic — after the count’s death, the pirate is led off to execution, and Imogene, though proclaiming she wants to die, is still living when the curtain falls.
Many other Victorian writers named characters Imogene. Emma Southworth — the bestselling novelist of her generation, though forgotten today — featured an Imogene in 1851’s “Shannondale.” In Augusta Evans Wilson’s “St. Elmo,” which sold more than a million copies in 1866, a male character mocks romantic novels by claiming all the heroines are named “Imogene Arethusa Penelope Brown.”
Real girls soon were named after the literary characters. In the 1850 Census, there were 347 Imogenes. In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name records begin, Imogene ranked 505th. It peaked at 157th in 1927, when 1,494 Imogenes arrived.
Before movies became popular around 1915, everybody went to the opera, so “Il Pirata” was as important as novels in inspiring Imogenes. The most famous American Imogene, actress Imogene Coca, (1908-2001), most likely got the name that way; her father was the conductor at a Philadelphia opera house.
Coca was a Broadway singer, dancer and comedian years before television made her famous. Between 1950 and 1954, she starred with Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows,” a 90-minute live variety program that was a hit with viewers and critics. Television historians rank it among the 50 best series ever.
Though later series starring Coca never lasted more than a season, she was a frequent guest on other shows from sitcoms such as “Bewitched” to soaps such as “One Life to Live” to the private eye show “Moonlighting,” which won her an Emmy in 1988.
Coca’s fame as a rubber-faced comedian didn’t help the name. Imogene’s last year in the top 1,000 was 1955. Twelve or fewer Imogenes were born annually between 1974 and 2011.
Though American photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) is famous in artistic circles, Shakespeare’s original form was exceedingly rare until the late 1960s. It then became fashionable in England. Imogen’s been a top 50 name for girls in England since 2000. It’s now among the top 100 in Scotland and Australia.
A few American parents are noticing Imogen — perhaps because of the fame of English singer and songwriter Imogen Heap. In 2012, 111 American Imogens were born, the most ever — though the number would have to more than double to make the top 1,000.
Imogen’s new fashion may help revive Imogene. Twenty-eight Imogenes were named in 2012, the most since 1967.
Nickelodeon’s high school drama “Degrassi” introduced character Imogen Moreno in 2011. If “Girl Most Likely” is a hit, Imogen and Imogene could both boom next year. Given its British success, Imogen may be the now-rare name most likely to succeed with American parents the next few years.