The Criterion Shelf: Starring Deborah Kerr

Bil Antoniou and Emma Badame delve into the films of one of Hollywood's classiest stars

“She played nuns and nannies, nice ladies and occasionally ladies who were not very nice. But always a lady.” So said Glenn Close when presenting the Honorary Oscar at the 1994 Academy Awards to Deborah Kerr, a Hollywood actress who had been nominated for Best Actress six times and never won (a record in that category). Kerr’s acceptance speech, one of her last public appearances, was one of the most heartfelt moments that the award show ever gave us, telling us that despite being so frightened, she felt she was “among friends” and proceeded to thank all the past colleagues who were part of her happy years working in the movies.

Born Deborah Jane Trimmer on September 30, 1921 in Glasgow, she was the daughter of a World War I pilot who lost his leg at the Battle of the Somme. Kerr was the first of two children (her brother Edmund became a journalist). The family moved to England when she was a child and there she received her education, eventually training as a ballet dancer at Sadler’s Wells before switching to drama school in Bristol.  Changing her last name for professional purposes (Kerr, “which rhymes with star” as per MGM’s early promotions, was an old family name on her father’s side), she appeared on the London stage as a teenager doing Shakespeare before making her film debut in Powell and Pressburger’s Blackout (aka Contraband) when she was 18. Her scenes in the film were cut but she co-starred the following year in Gabriel Pascal’s adaptation of Major Barbara, had her British leading lady breakthrough in Love on the Dole. (“Promising and pretty”, wrote one critic.) On stage, made her West End debut opposite Edith Evans in Heartbreak House in 1943: “She has the rare gift,” wrote critic Beverley Baxter, “of thinking her lines, not merely remembering them.”

That same year, she starred in Powell and Pressburger‘s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, beginning a relationship with Powell both professional (he directed one of her greatest performances, Black Narcissus) and personal, but the latter ended when she accepted the call of Hollywood and he chose to stay at home. Kerr’s first film with MGM, The Hucksters, was not destined to be a classic, but after leading roles in the megahits King Solomon’s Mines in 1950 and Quo Vadis in 1951, a star was born and, with the release of From Here to Eternity two years later, the Lovely Lady persona was shattered when she proved she could handle the role of a passionate and conflicted adulteress. Her other two most famous roles, The King and I and An Affair to Remember, were not long to follow in what turned out to be her defining decade, and which was just part of a magnificent career working with an incredible list of directors who still reside among the all-time greats: John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Edward Dmytryk, Vincente Minnelli, Otto Preminger, Elia Kazan and John Frankenheimer among many others.

Me and Miss Kerr taking in the Acropolis, Summer 2019.

One always wants to reside in the world that Kerr creates onscreen, with her common sense and warmth, and it’s true that she was always a lady (rarely playing lower than bourgeois), but lest Close’s description of her at the Oscars come across as reductive or classist, let it be known that Kerr breathed new life into the archetype and made it something complicated and interesting. Being a lady didn’t mean she was prim or fussy, there was as much fleshy passion as there was intelligence and as much no-nonsense wisdom as there was kindness. When she was told that Stewart Granger had revealed to anyone who would listen that the two of them had had a sexual affair that began when she propositioned him, her response was pithy and fearless: “What a gallant man he is!” Butter would melt in this woman’s mouth.

The work slowed down in the sixties but didn’t lose its quality, Kerr managed impressive roles in films like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Ronald Neame’s The Chalk Garden, then after her first ever nude scene in Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths and a throwaway appearance in Kazan’s The Arrangement, both in 1969, she didn’t appear in a feature film again until The Assam Garden in 1985, which would turn out to be her last theatrical release. Tired of fighting the stereotypes that aging actresses faced and turned off by the industry’s turn to graphic violence and sexuality in popular cinema, she returned to Europe, splitting her time between England and Spain and making the odd appearance in television movies and returning to the theatre. A good friend of mine, Lionel Goldstein, wrote the script of one of her last film appearances, Ann and Debbie, and thrilled me to no end when he assured me, a very dedicated fan of Miss Kerr’s, that she was every bit the gracious, classy and brilliant woman that one dreamed her to be (and don’t think I didn’t annoy him with questions for hours).

Deborah Kerr died in October of 2007 at the age of 86, after years of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. Her husband, screenwriter Peter Viertel, died three weeks later. This year, the centenary of her birth is commemorated by the Criterion Channel’s collection of some of her finest film roles. Not included in the collection but worth checking out are also her performances in Young Bess, Beloved Infidel, The Grass Is Greener (another collaboration with Cary Grant), the thriller The Naked Edge (which I like more than Eye of The Devil) and of course her appearance as a “Bond Girl” at the age of 46 in the 1967 Casino Royale spoof.

The films are listed in order of preference, and many thanks to fellow ThatShelf writer and fellow Kerr lover Emma Badame for contributing her thoughts. All reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted:

 

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)

Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece is also the first truly great performance from the magnificent Kerr, who performs the character’s conflicts under a barely batted eye as the tension mounts in this unforgettable adaptation of Rumer Godden’s controversial novel. An order of Protestant nuns are sent to an Indian village in the Himalayas to turn a former pleasure palace of the Raj into a convent, the ladies all brimming with cheer and confidence under the nervous leadership of their Sister Superior (Kerr). The air atop the mountain is clear and the view unending, provoking the women to get wistful about regrets of the past, including Kerr who thinks back to the unfulfilled love affair that preceded her taking her vows (and which the American Catholic Church ordered be excised from the release print). Things proceed on brittle footing until the one wild card, the sexually repressed Sister Ruth, turns the sacred place to bedlam. Jack Cardiff’s mesmerizing cinematography takes the artificial sets and matte painting backdrops and convinces you that have traveled into the mysteries of the east.

 

Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)

Otto Preminger finds a harsh, judgmental edge beneath the kind lady persona that Deborah Kerr usually portrayed, and she is fearless at fleshing it out in one of her most complex performances. The director also finds the layer of misery beneath the usually escapist portrayals of wealthy life in fifties movies in one of his most brilliant and subtle films, about a teenage girl played by Jean Seberg who thinks she’s happy about Kerr’s marrying her aging playboy father (David Niven) but balks when turning him into a grownup means that Kerr wants her to be more than her immature self at the same time. The zeal with which Seberg tries to break them up leads to a Careful What You Wish For lesson, but this film isn’t about moral punishment, it’s an intelligent examination of ambivalence in which each character is stuck in an eternal purgatory of their own making. Setting it against the gorgeous backdrop of the Cote d’Azur only makes the emotional element that much more poignant.

 

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (John Huston, 1957)

Emma Badame:  Although director John Huston couldn’t quite recapture the magic of The African Queen, this survivalist romance is a must-see classic largely due to its two lead performances. Kerr and co-star Robert Mitchum light up the screen as a Roman Catholic nun and a tough, jaded US Marine stranded on an enemy-occupied island in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Diametrically opposed from the get go, they’re forced to work together to survive and hide from Japanese forces. Their bond strengthens subtly and slowly, with the true depth of their emotional attachment surprising them both.  It may be a far cry, complexity-wise, from Kerr’s famous other nun-centric tale Black Narcissus, but it is still worth watching for newbies and completist fans alike.

 

The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960)

Deborah Kerr earned her sixth and final Oscar nomination for this richly enjoyable drama about a family of nomadic Australian ranchers who, as the title states, set up camp wherever the sun goes down. Kerr and Robert Mitchum are the couple who are succeeding well enough at this life, but when their son begins to express a desire for something more permanent, she also begins to look with longing at the white picket fences that their wagon drives by. The tension between husband and wife as he wishes to keep things status quo and she hopes for a change is the centre of a story that smoothly moves from one experience to the next, encompassing grand set pieces like a sheep-shearing contest while also including some heartbreaking small moments: Kerr standing on a station platform, staring at a clean, beautiful, and well-dressed woman she sees on a train, sums up just about everything we love and admire about this marvelous actress.

 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

One of the Archers’ finest works, this epic drama about the exploits of a King-and-Country army general, based on David Low’s satirical cartoon, was inspired by Pressburger’s desire to warn England that Hitler did not have a gentleman’s war to offer the honour-conscious nation. In the Boer War, Col. Candy (Roger Livesey) meets Prussian soldier Anton Walbrook (in his finest performance) in a duel and they become fast friends. In the Great War, they are reunited at armistice when Walbrook is taken prisoner. By World War II, they are old men who struggle to make sense of a world gone mad. Kerr plays the woman who steals Candy’s heart and then appears as two more characters who hold significance for him because of their resemblance to the one that got away. It’s one of the most beautiful and heartfelt films ever made about male friendship, but Kerr’s work adds the perfect touch in her convincing portrayal of a indelible but still warm and human ideal.

 

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

Emma Badame: Named by Martin Scorsese as one of the scariest movies of all time, this is a stylish gothic ghost story with atmosphere to spare and a stunning turn from Kerr. This adaptation of Henry James’ thriller “The Turn of the Screw” follows the story of a governess (Kerr) and the two Victorian orphans in her care as she begins to fear the estate is haunted and the children possessed by malevolent spirits. The script, adapted for the screen by William Archibald and Truman Capote (!), and direction from Clayton blurs the lines between legitimate otherworldly experiences and layered psychological explanations. Ambiguity is the name of the game here and as such, the film and its performances suggest but never explain. Kerr shades her performance with the perfect layers of repression, terror and tension—never losing sight of the myriad of meanings behind every scene and every moment. No film can truly capture James’ chilling prose but this early ‘60s chiller has come the closest.

 

The End of the Affair (Edward Dmytryk, 1955)

Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson fall in love and engage in a love affair despite her being married to civil servant Peter Cushing, but after Johnson nearly dies in a bombing during the blitz, she refuses to see him again and does not explain why. He assumes she is carrying on an affair with another man until he finds out the truth, and realizes that even when two people are deeply in love, they rarely give more than we take from our lovers. Kerr does some of her best work as a woman caught in a spiritual crisis, it’s rare to see a movie of the time focusing on a woman’s wrestling with her soul, and she’s more than up to the task of delivering the experience to her audience. It’s not as gloomy an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel as Neil Jordan’s unremarkable 1999 remake, though it can be said after watching both that the source material doesn’t lend itself to the stuff that makes for the best possible cinema.

 

The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)

Huston adds a great deal of incident to Tennessee Williams’ play, there’s half an hour of Richard Burton, as an alcoholic, defrocked priest, aggravating the ladies that he is leading on a guided tour through Mexico before they arrive at the rundown resort run by Ava Gardner, which is where the play begins. Into the mess of Burton’s self-destruction comes Kerr and her grandfather as impoverished artists offering their services as caricature artist (her) and poetic orator (him) in exchange for room and board. While Burton is being hounded by the self-righteous fury of Grayson Hall trying to keep him away from her charge, a lethal Lolita played by Sue Lyon (who had just played actual Lolita two years earlier), Kerr makes a connection with him and, as was often the case with her film roles, becomes something of a surrogate mother to his wandering soul. Not that her role is that simple, as there is a self-effacing humour to the way that she plays the character’s financial desperation that bolsters the no muss-no fuss attitude that her fans love of her the most. A film whose costumes won an Oscar and a film that has aged very well with the passing years.

 

I See a Dark Stranger (Frank Launder, 1946)

Released in the United States in 1947 as The Adventuress, this film and Black Narcissus were the star turns that led to Kerr’s signing with MGM and making her studio debut the same year. She plays an idealistic young Irish lass who has swallowed her father’s likely tall tales about serving in the Irish Revolution, following her principles to Dublin where she plans to join the IRA to fight the English. That doesn’t work out. Her father’s compatriots have grown more passive with age and prefer legislation over insurrection, so she is recruited instead by a Nazi spy since it still constitutes an anti-British effort. Taking a job in a Devon hotel, she helps with the saving of a war prisoner from British clutches before her recruiter sends her on a journey to the Isle of Man that she realizes involves sabotaging the plans for D-Day. Trevor Howard is the British officer with whom she falls in love in this delightful caper that Kerr carries with impeccable ease.

 

Vacation From Marriage (Alexander Korda, 1945)

Deborah Kerr enjoys wonderful chemistry with Robert Donat playing a barely married couple who are separated by the war. He ships off to serve in the Navy and she joins the Women’s Royal Navy Service. Three years later, after mild affairs with others (he with the exceptionally talented Ann Todd) and their eyes opened to a world beyond their drab flat and daily routine (he goes to work, she makes tea), they come back together convinced that they need to divorce for good. Visions of a bombed-out London (including some shots that look real) surround an Oscar-winning plot that avoids excessive melodrama or erotic romance in order to reassure a war-weary nation to give itself a break. Not an unforgettable film but a lovely, humane work.

 

An Affair To Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957)

Other than The King and I, this is likely Kerr’s most famous film, the ultimate in splashy Cinemascope romance, in which she and Cary Grant have a forbidden affair while on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. They don’t know if their connection is the result of their circumstances or something solid enough to make breaking up their current relationships worthwhile, so when they reach New York City they make plans to meet in six months on the top of the Empire State building and make their final decision then. Unfortunately, her peripheral vision fails her at a crucial moment and things don’t go as expected. The melodramatic heights that this movie hits are beyond ridiculous. McCarey’s original version (Love Affair from 1939) has more magical charm and is shorter without sacrificing its romantic effect. The indulgences of the bright cinematography and pristine settings are what could only exist during the misplaced optimism of the Eisenhower years, but Kerr always grounded her lovely gentility in a realistic intelligence that makes the central relationship work. You’ll need a tissue by the end even if you feel you see all its manipulations in advance.

 

Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941)

Emma Badame: This excellent adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 stage production captures the wit and wry satire of the original—and while it may seem a tad more stagy than modern audiences are used to, it’s a true masterclass in social class commentary. Filmed in London during the Blitz, and edited by the great David Lean, it sees Kerr make her big-screen debut as care-worker Jenny Hill. She proves incredibly memorable despite her lack of screen time and shares the bill with a laundry list of esteemed British thespians including Wendy Hiller (as the titular Barbara), Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Sybil Thorndike, Kathleen Harrison, and Stanley Holloway. It’s hard to think of a better group of co-stars to help kick-start a career. A captivating tale of idealistic rebellion against the establishment, and the disillusionment that follows, Major Barbara should be included in any list of classic British cinema, and not just as a starting point for Ms. Kerr.

 

Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson, 1966)

Kim Novak had almost finished shooting her scenes when an injury (or being fired, depending on who you ask) forced her to drop out of the project and Kerr was brought in to reshoot all of her scenes. She plays the wife of a French aristocrat (David Niven) who is called to his ancestral countryside estate when he gets news that the family’s income-providing vineyards have failed.  Kerr follows him out there with their small children in tow, and upon arrival witnesses strange pagan rituals that seem to be connected to the threatening presence of sibling groundskeepers David Hemmings and Sharon Tate (in her debut), who appear to have mystical powers. Director Thompson doesn’t apply enough eeriness to the cultish proceedings of this very juicy precursor to The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s shot with a great deal of style and provides a good time.

 

Tea And Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)

Kerr and John Kerr (no relation) recreate their stage performances in this compromised but still interesting examination of masculinity in crisis in the post-war boom. John Kerr is a college student whose gentle countenance (and love of sewing) marks him as a target among the other male students, who find comfort in expressing their gender in only the most brutal ways (including a hazing ritual that involves boys trying to rip each other’s clothes off for sport). The male Kerr’s father is distraught at his son’s unwillingness to be brutal, and he finds understanding solely in the wife of his dorm’s headmaster, with whom he eventually has an affair. The censors added a framing device condemning the extra-marital activity but otherwise it’s a combination of strange and sweet elements, some haven’t dated well and others, for any of us who grew up being criticized for not making the grade as real men, sadly are still relevant.

 

Edward, My Son (George Cukor, 1949)

Self-made millionaire Spencer Tracy works his way up from debt-strapped businessman to industrial tycoon, blinding himself to the negative effect his indulgent ways have on his spoiled son. Adapted from the play by Robert Morley and Noel Langley, the film retains the stagy settings and the gimmick of never actually showing the title character on screen, instead examining as Tracy bullies and badgers everyone in his path to make things as easy and free of consequence for his child. In doing so, he turns his devoted wife (Kerr) into an alcoholic and brings even worse upon Edward himself. Kerr is a minor character but earned her first Oscar nomination for her performance, giving a great deal of intelligence to a role that takes her well beyond her 27 years, and delivers some wonderfully ghoulish scenes by the time she reaches her devastating end. The film itself is a sluggish bore, made worse by Tracy’s casual American muttering manner sticking out uncomfortably in a cast of otherwise British actors.

 

The Hucksters (Jack Conway, 1947)

Kerr seems a bit intimidated in her American studio debut, but she brings plenty of poise, intelligence and class to her incidental role as the love interest in this sluggish adaptation of Frederic Wakeman, Sr.’s bestseller. However, there’s a frosty veneer on her that would take a few movies to melt. Clark Gable plays an ambitious advertising executive who falls in love with a widowed Manhattan socialite (Kerr) when he asks her to pose for a soap advertisement. She is turned off by his sexual overtures and his attempt to enjoy an affair at a sleazy seaside inn, but responds more favourably when he realizes that he wants something more respectable for the two of them. He gets involved with screwing over a low-level comedian and his good-natured agent for a radio show that the soap company is producing and his love for Kerr inspires an epiphany. The Capraesque message of morals over money is laughably sincere and, in the post-war economic boom laughably naïve as well, but director Conway doesn’t have Capra’s bright-eyed gumption and allows a dull story to drag.

 

The Prisoner of Zenda (Richard Thorpe, 1952)

This remake of the 1937 Ronald Colman classic doesn’t veer far from the original plot, in fact it’s made more or less from the same script, but has little of the verve of its predecessor. Stewart Granger lacks Colman’s caddish abandon as a British tourist who visits the fictional nation of Ruritania and shocks the locals with his striking resemblance to the nation’s king (also Granger), who is also a distant cousin. He puts the matter to good use when a plot is hatched by the king’s half-brother to take over the throne. Kerr plays the breathless princess who is set to marry the throne and is given little more to do than hold her poise in shockingly anachronistic costumes (it’s set in the late 19th century but the women are all wearing 1950s’ prom dresses). As an adventure it pales in comparison with the contemporary Scaramouche, but as a step in Kerr’s career it indicates the sort of thing she might have been stuck doing had From Here to Eternity not come along a year later.

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