Fought over, snatched away by Hollywood, dumped into Gable's arms . . . the serenely beautiful Deborah Kerr wasn't even ruffled
Lady from London
Fought over, snatched away by Hollywood, dumped into Gable's arms . . . the serenely beautiful Deborah Kerr wasn't even ruffled
WELL, it seems that Louis B. Mayer saw a British movie called "Vacation From Marriage" and cabled his London office to sign its star, Deborah Kerr, to an MGM contract. The message did not include the words, "spare no expense," but the inference was there.
Miss Kerr was at that moment the hottest thing in England, theatrically speaking, due to the aforementioned picture, another titled “Colonel Blimp,” and a third which Arthur Rank was about to release, “l See a Dark Stranger” (in the U. S,, “The Adventuress”). Besides these she had played a fragile Salvation Army lass in Gabriel Pascal’s screen version of “Major Barbara,” and a few other things. Mayer, no dope, knew a good bet when he saw one.
The London contingent got to work at once on what Hollywood terms “negotiations.” The result was a contract guaranteeing Miss Kerr a life of luxury if she lived to enjoy it, further cabling back and forth across the ocean, and a general handshaking behind the scenes. Every other studio in California had been trying to sign the lady, the MGM-ites told t hemselves. Only they had her on the dotted line.
Miss Kerr and her husband, ex-RAF Squadron Leader Tony Bartley, were thereupon led to a ship, and toted across the sea. Next came a train, more plush than any she or her spouse had ever seen. And, after what to English eyes seemed an eternity of crossing the same country, there was a reception committee at Pasadena, consist ing of a small but representative group of movie moguls, who shook Miss Kerr’s right flipper briefly, smiled even more briefly, and shoved her into a black limousine.
Finally came the office of the big boss himself. And as the minions approached this sanctuary, Deborah and Tony noticed that their voices faltered, their steps became less firm, and a general air of adolescence overtook them. She found herself in the same state, to her surprise, but put it down to the fact that she had just been told that Clark Gable as well as Mr. Mayer would receive her, there being some talk that she would play opposite the gentleman in “The Hucksters.”
Mr. Gable was perhaps the only actor in the world who could make Miss Kerr feel like a schoolgirl, for in her teens she had become so enamored of him that she had pasted his likeness into her Latin pony. So, by the time they reached the door of the office itself, she was a pretty impressed wench. This was the Grade A salaam, she was telling herself. This was the way Hollywood did it when they really rolled out the carpet. She hoped she wouldn’t come up with something silly and destroy the magnificence of the moment.
The door was opened and two men rose. Deborah stepped into the room, trying to be dignified yet charming. Her husband followed closely on her heels.
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“Miss Kerr—Mr. Mayer,” someone said. “And Mr. Gable.”
Deborah acknowledged the first introduction and turned softening eyes toward her erstwhile idol.
But he wasn’t, looking at her. He was gazing in astonishment at the man behind her.
“Tony!” he finally yelped. “What the devil are you doing here?”
And, while Deborah gaped, her husband merely smiled and replied that he’d just come along for the ride.
As she groped for a chair, it developed that Tony and Clark had been bosom pub companions in London during the war. Mr. Bartley had never deemed the information sufficiently important to tell her.
That was Deborah’s first major shock in Hollywood. Others followed thick and fast. Perhaps the greatest was that of making a test opposite Gable four short days later.
The four days had been filled with conferences, sessions with make-up and hairdressing people, wardrobe discussions and fittings. The object was to discover whether or not Miss Kerr was worthy of the supreme glory of working opposite Mr. G. in his most gilt-edged postwar film. “The Hucksters” was to present The Clark The Public Loves. Perhaps—just perhaps —it would also present The Brightest Star of England In Her First American Movie.
Deborah moved somewhat numbly through the pretest manoeuvres. At last she was given the script of the scene to be shot and went home to learn her lines. The next morning, feeling somewhat like Anne Boleyn on her way to the block, she repaired to the set. To her intense joy she found that Mr. Gable, too, was not exactly singing springtime airs that morning; that he, even after years of such things, is still among the nervous.
So it was, “After you, Mr. Gable” . , , and, “Oh, no, after you, Miss Kerr!”
“We ended by holding each other up,” she adds, “and got through very nicely."
The fact that it was a love clinch might have helped.
Well, as you no doubt know, everyone from Mr. Mayer down saw the test and agreed that, terrified or not, the two teamed beautifully. The script was thereupon hastily changed to make the “Hucksters’ ” heroine the English widow of an American flier and the picture was made. We’ve seen some of it. It ain’t bad. Ain’t bad at all. 1
And now Miss Kerr is not only the hottest thing in England but equally warm in this country, iter a girl of 24 this is not tin,
Deborah Kerr is undeniably a good actress. She amply demonstrated that in “Colonel Blimp,” in which she
played not one but three vividly different parts. In rapid succession she became a Boer War belle in Berlin, then a Great War nurse, finally a gay, flippant and entirely lovable transport driver in World War II. The transformation she performed in “Vacation From Marriage” was equally awesome. At first you were shocked at even a British producer daring to present such a complete drip as his heroine, but the sniffling, mousy creature of the opening sequences became transported before your sceptical eyes to as pretty, perky and independent a Wren as ever joined the Navy to see life.
That English Calm
“Polish,” “shrewdness” and “grace” are the sort of words people use to describe Miss Kerr’s acting talents, but on top of all this the girl has a strange trick all her own which even she can’t explain. She seldom looks the same twice when they focus a camera on her —an intriguing quality, but one which understandably dismays and baffles the movie shooters.
This is particularly evident in stills. When MGM had her sit for some portraits in its gallery, for instance, the results were compared to likenesses of Olivia de Havilland, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, and, of all people, Shirley Temple. Some shots made her seem in her late 30’s, others 18. Even when her hair and clothes remained constant, she herself was five other women.
Having met her, we ourselves would say that if she reminds us of anybody it is Maureen O’Hara. Her features are not the same, true, but her coloring is, her hair being tawny red, her eyes greyblue, and her skin almost dead-white. Without being maudlin about it, we would add that she is extremely lovely looking, on or off screen, and that she is one of the longest gals we ever saw.
She’s actually about five-seven, but she seems taller. Leading ladies are supposed to be petite—or were until Bergman broke the ice. And Deborah goes on to fracture other axioms of show business as well.
She’s a lady: that’s contrary to the painted-hussy legend. She’s such a lady that, even in the midst of testing with Gable, she was self-controlled and no one knew how frightened she was. She puts this down to her English upbringing which, she says, emphasized calm. The quality also comes in handy now for personal appearances.
But, while being perfectly capable of sipping her tea without slurping, she is also a very funny woman. She takes the whooping and hollering of Hollywood with several grains of salt, and has now come to the point of considering her chore with Gable as just a chore. She has yet to realize that her exalted position entitles her to a blast of trumpets and a flurry of publicity men whenever she moves a muscle, and she came alone to be interviewed by us. She thrust a long, lean hand at us and tucked her long, lean legs under her on a couch, and told us about herself with very little of the usual buildup.
It seems she was bora in Scotland, but moved to Sussex at a tender age.
The Scotch part of her life is particularly noteworthy because it was there that she saw her first play.
When her civil engineer father died Deborah was put into a girls’ boarding school. She hated it. When you lock up a hundred young fillies for three or four months at a time, says Deborah, they get “pretty beastly.” Among other things the “beastliness” included stuffing Deborah’s desk with mud and leaves, and squeezing the paint out of the tubes in her paintbox.
“I was quite spotty as a child,” she explains, dismally. “They ragged me about my spots until I wanted to kill them.”
At last she was transported from this dreary atmosphere to her idea of heaven, a dramatic school run by her aunt. Deborah became A Student of The Drama-—with capitals all over the place.
“I played lots of men’s parts, naturally,” she says now. “We always had difficulty getting boys and I was taller than any of the girls. So I was the one with the flowing mustaches.”
After she graduated from her aunt’s, she got a part with the Oxford Repertory theatre in a Victorian operetta.
“I did the soubrette in ‘Two Bouquets’ at Oxford,” she declares. “It was my only venture into musical comedy and I must admit I was nothing short of sensational. I sang. I danced a cancan. I even canoodled in the gazebo with Edward, the hero.
“A gazebo? Well, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s a kind of summerhouse.”
Oxford led to London, and the Regent’s Park open air theatre. When it rained the audience raced the actors to an indoor auditorium.
“I played bits, of course. My lines usually consisted of a stirring, ‘Will you go to hunt, milord?’ or something like that. But I was Pericles’ personal page in ‘Pericles, Prince Of Tyre’ in a fetching yellow uniform, and was the envy of every other girl in the cast. Pericles was simply beautiful !
“I always had a frightfully intense look on my face, no matter how small the part. I took myself terribly seriously in those days.”
She continued to be serious when the theatre closed, 48 hours before Britain went to war, and she went home to Sussex. She was serious when she decided that, hostilities or no, she was An Actress and that London was the only place to prove it. And she was almost superhumanly serious when she was introduced to a man named Gabriel Pascal one day at lunch.
Now she mimics Pascal so superbly that it is profoundly hoped the gentleman never hears her at it. A friend brought him to her table.
“And who is this svveeet young girrrrl with the spiritual face?” Pascal asked, adding immediately, “VY do you wear your hair like that? You look horrible!”
Deborah sat in shocked silence as someone told Pascal her name.
“And are you in the theatre?”
He smiled—magnificently, the way producers do smile.
“I vill sent for you in a veekl” He did send for her—in two weeks. Pascal tested her for “Major Barbara.” She was signed, joyously leaped into the production, unhappily leaped out again several months later with the firm conviction that she would never allow herself to make another movie, that all picture people were mad, insensitive boors—and was, of course, at once signed for further films. For one thing, she was permitted to gambol with an accent—and she’s a fiend for accents.
She can assume not only the burr of her native Scotland but any other speech with merry abandon when the occasion demands it. Thus, she happily chatted Yorkshire for “Ix>ve on the Dole,” blissfully became Norwegian for “The Day Will Dawn,” and took Irish to her heart with such glee before, during, and after “The Adventuress” that her friends begged her to stop.
As for her work generally, she explains her early success by the statement.
“I had a lot of luck and I started young.”
She claims that she loathes doing the ingenues which are generally her lot because of her youth.
“I’ll be better when I’m 35,” she says, obviously considering that then she will be stumbling around with a cane. “I’ll be a good actress when I can do Lancashire chars and old henwomen and things like that.”
These days Deborah is going through the first stages of Americanitis. She
was prepared to undergo this country, if necessary. She w'as not prepared to think that the United States and all its works were wonderful.
She is continually astounded at what she can buy in the Beverly Hills shops sans coupons, though her Scotch thrift J has kept her from going completely i hog-wild. And both she and the housekeeper she brought with her from England are still gasping at the house MGM managed to find for her. It belongs to writer - producer Casey Robinson and his wife, ballerina Tamara Toumanova, and it is not only replete with every known domestic gadget but stands in the middle of a four-acre avocado grove. Deborah had never tasted an avocado until she met up with these and was delightedly sinking her fangs into them two or three times a day until some kind sou! informed her what they would do to her figure. Now she sorrowfully admits that perhaps her career is more important.
She’s a nice gal, as you may be gathering. As we said, she breaks the rules and still manages to be a star. Her last words to us, for instance, caused the golden walls of MGM to tremble.
“If you didn’t get enough material,” she said, holding out her hand again, “just call me up and we’ll have tea.”
Movie stars don’t do that. If you talk to them at all it is only after you have gone through channels for a week.
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