Kerr, Deborah

Kerr, Deborah
Sep. 30, 1921-Oct. 16, 2007
British actress


Before the British actress Deborah Kerr was called to the United States to co-star in The Hucksters (1947), she had made ten films in Great Britain, more than half of which have also been released in America. Her reputation is based mainly upon the "sensitivity and versatility" she displayed in Major Barbara, Vacation From Marriage, Love on the Dole, Colonel Blimp, and The Adventuress. The second picture in which Miss Kerr is to appear for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the first having been The Hucksters) is If Winter Comes. The praise she has received from critics was climaxed in December 1947 by her choice by the New York Film Critics as the best screen actress of 1947.

Deborah Kerr's full name is Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer. Born in Helensburgh, Scotland, on September 30, 1921, she is the only daughter of Arthur Kerr-Trimmer, a civil engineer and architect. After his death, when the girl was still a child, she, her mother, and younger brother moved to Sussex. She was reared in Somersetshire, however, and later attended the Northumberland House School in Bristol until 1936, at which time she left school to study for a career on the stage. Her aunt, Phyllis Smale, was directress of the Studio of Dramatic Art in Bristol, and it was there that Miss Kerr also learned to dance. The girl later spent one year at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, in London, before deciding to concentrate upon dramatic lessons.

By April 1939, when she had reached the age of eighteen, she was playing walk-on parts with the Open Air Theatre Company in Regent's Park, a repertory group. When World War II ended the repertory group's activities, she returned home. It was during this period that Miss Kerr read children's stories over the British Broadcasting Company network.

After meeting producer-director Michael Powell in her agent's office, Miss Kerr was offered a part in Contraband. The "plump little dumpling who was obviously going places" (Powell's description of her) was cast as a hat-check girl, given two lines to speak. The part was cut from the script, and Miss Kerr's was, for the moment, "the face on the cutting-room floor." She returned to the stage for a season with the Oxford Repertory Company: she lost her "plumpness," for this, like many other repertory companies, "combined incredibly hard work with invaluable experience." (Another source attributes her loss of weight also to the British wartime rations.) When she some time later met the producer Gabriel Pascal, he found her "spiritual," and cast her in the role of Jenny, a Salvation Army worker in Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (1940), and newspaper critics, both in the United States and England, had some kind things to say of her acting. Her next vehicle was Love on the Dole (1941), which was released in America several years after it was made. The actress drew praise from the critics for her characterization of a tragic figure, particularly for her "fine restraint" in the role.

In 1942 Miss Kerr appeared in four films, Penn of Pennsylvania, Hatter's Castle, The Day Will Dawn, and The Avengers (the last was also seen in the United States), before she was seen in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Colonel Blimp, as it was called in the United States, traced the career of cartoonist David Low's caricature of a Tory, in which Miss Kerr played roles of three women who come into his life in three different generations (1900, 1918, and 1943). "She is an actress of unusual charm, a charm that is both physical and intellectual," wrote New Movies magazine, "and it is astonishing how she manages to make the three parts distinctly separate as characterizations." As Colonel Blimp attained the stature of a "classic," Miss Kerr was seen by a greater audience in its revivals. Thus, in 1945, when Vacation from Marriage-filmed in England as Perfect Strangers (1944)-was shown in the United States, Miss Kerr was not a stranger to the theatergoing public. (The Motion Picture Herald, through its Fame Poll, had predicted in 1942 that she was a "star of tomorrow.")

Vacation From Marriage, directed by Alexander Korda, was called a "simple and touching fable" of a middle-class couple who are roused from a colorless existence by World War II. "As a Wren, the wife loses her perennial sniffles, her dowdy hairdo and attire, acquires an admirer and the temperate habits of lipstick, gin, and dancing." The Christian Science Monitor wrote that Miss Kerr and Robert Donat, who played the husband role, "convey unobtrusively the gradual alteration in the two chief characters and their astonishment at the changes they find in each other." (Miss Kerr had previously appeared opposite Donat and Edith Evans in a London stage revival of Shaw's Heartbreak House in 1943.)

As the leading character in The Adventuress, which was filmed in England with the title I See a Dark Stranger (1945), Miss Kerr had a role which critics agreed she "handled superbly." "She makes the Irish girl such a delight to the ear, so pleasing to the eye, and so real to the mind that there is nothing left to do but throw up the critical portfolio and devotedly murmur, 'Hurrah,'" wrote Archer Winsten of the New York Post.

When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to screen Frederick Wakeman's best-selling novel The Hucksters, the problem of filling the role of Kay Dorrance was solved by bringing Miss Kerr to Hollywood for the part. Ben Goetz, of MGM's British affiliate, had acquired half of Pascal's contract with the actress after she had appeared in Vacation From Marriage. MGM later bought Pascal's remaining share of the contract at a figure reported by Variety to be two hundred thousand dollars. The new contract which the studio signed with Miss Kerr, it was stated by Time, was to run for seven years at three thousand dollars a week for fifty-two weeks, with no options, and with the guarantee that Miss Kerr star or co-star in all of her productions. Cast opposite Clark Gable in The Hucksters, Miss Kerr was described as "an altogether attractive heroine," although another reviewer wrote, "Less becomingly photographed than she was in English movies, Miss Kerr still makes an appealing heroine." Of the role itself Eileen Creelman observed in the New York Sun: "She has not much of an acting part in this. She has only to look and seem ladylike and likeable, not an easy combination for some of our stars." On the basis of her succees in The Hucksters Miss Kerr was signed to a seven-year no-option contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; her starting salary will be three thousand dollars a week and will gradually be advanced to seven thousand for the last two years of her contract. Another tribute to her performance in The Hucksters was her selection as the best actress of 1947 by the New York Film Critics.

Before leaving for the United States to make The Hucksters, Miss Kerr had appeared in the British film Black Narcissus, based on the novel by Rumer Godden. This was released in the United States in August 1947, a month after the American-made film. It provoked discussion because of its theme, "a curiously fascinating psychological study of the physical and spiritual tribulations that overwhelm five Prottestant missionary nuns in the remote fastness of the Himalayas." (The National Legion of Decency criticized it as "an affront to religion and religious life.") In the picture Miss Kerr plays the part of Sister Clodagh, the too-confident young Sister Superior who finally achieves spiritual humility. The New York Times found her portrayal "excellent," and the New York Sun thought she fitted into the role "perfectly." On the other hand, Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune wrote: "At times she brings enough appeal to the role to make one care what happens to her in her conflict … but she quite fails to hold the work together." Variety held the middle ground by observing: "Miss Kerr gets only occasional opportunities to reveal her talents. Largely she is keyed to one tone…. Yet if she does nothing to enhance her reputation, she maintains it." Cue's summary was: "Excellently acted … beautifully photographed."

Asked by a Time interviewer how she felt about being brought to the American film capital, Miss Kerr replied: "I always wondered what it would be like. You come six thousand miles and then suddenly-bang! crash! wallop!-you've done it. It's like having a tooth out." She elaborated upon this in her own article in the New York World-Telegram (Erskine Johnson had invited her to take over his column for the August 9, 1947, issue): "Hollywood is a place … where I hope to spend a great deal of time in the future. I expect to make frequent trips to England because that, after all, is where my roots are. …But I am a part of the movies, and I like the fact that life in Hollywood revolves about the movies." Louis Berg in This Week noted a change which had come over Miss Kerr since her arrival in the American motion picture center: "She is a person with firm convictions about her own art, and excellent judgment about it. But in Hollywood she has been … docile to a fault, has submitted to the ministrations of costumers, make-up artists, beauty experts, and the like. Her friends," continued Berg, "are a little worried about this since her main charm, they insist, lies in the chameleonlike character of her beauty, her sudden transformations from plainness to ravishing beauty," as in Vacation From Marriage. (In the CBS Radio Theatre version of the film, Miss Kerr conveyed that change with her voice alone.)

In 1945 while touring France, Holland, and Belgium in Gaslight, Deborah Kerr attended a party in Brussels at which she met a Royal Air Forces squadron leader, Anthony Charles Bartley, son of Sir Charles and Lady Bartley. They were married in St. George's Church in Hanover Square on November 28, 1945, in one of London's first elaborate weddings after the war. They have a daughter, Melanie Jane. In 1947 the Bartleys bought a home of Georgian architecture in Hollywood, where Miss Kerr keeps her Bristol glass and antique furniture; she also collects antique jewelry. The actress has a fair complexion, red-gold hair, and blue-green eyes, is five feet seven inches tall and weighs 124 pounds. Gardening, surf-swimming, tennis, dancing, and walking are her favorite relaxations.

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