- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

The late movie historian David Shipman began his assessment of Deborah Kerr in the compilation “The Great Stars” with an astute observation from the actress herself: “The camera always seems to find an innate gentility in me.” Professionally, it wasn’t necessarily an advantage to be typed as a fundamentally sane and civilized, albeit uncommonly attractive, red-haired Englishwoman.

In point of fact, Miss Kerr, the subject of a retrospective series scheduled for Thursday evenings this month on Turner Classic Movies, is a Scot, born in Helensburgh in 1921 and schooled in both dance and drama in Bristol before she emerged as a promising newcomer to English films in the early 1940s. She combined something radiant with something touching from the outset when cast as Jenny Hill, the heroine’s Salvation Army protegee in the movie version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.”

Miss Kerr’s self-deprecating sense of humor — rarely showcased during a career that threatened to squander her beauty and sensibility on decorous costume roles during the early 1950s — is reflected in a vintage quip: “I am really rather like a beautiful Jersey cow; I have the same pathetic droop to the corners of my eyes.”

A gross exaggeration, but indicative of a playful tendency that usually was obscured. It was allowed outrageously entertaining license on one memorable occasion, in a movie that proved famously misbegotten: “Casino Royale,” the overblown 1967 James Bond spoof.

John Huston, one of five directors, cast Miss Kerr, then a voluptuous 45, as a raucous French spy named Mimi who aims to vamp David Niven’s aging 007 in the opening reel by posing as a Scottish widow with an exceedingly thick accent and an insatiable appetite for sexual “comfort.” Humbled by Bond’s virtue, she is last seen trekking toward a purported convent to make amends — an inside joke, because Miss Kerr had won renown as Irish nuns in far-flung locales, the Himalayas and the South Pacific, respectively, in “Black Narcissus” and “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.”

The Jersey cow resemblance seemed to elude admirers. Indeed, there was far more justice in flattering accounts of Miss Kerr as a transplant to Hollywood. One of the most flattering was a Time cover story written by James Agee and collected in the recent Library of America volume devoted to his “film writing and selected journalism.”

Preoccupied with MGM’s efforts to start the actress’s Hollywood career opposite Clark Gable in “The Hucksters” circa 1947, Mr. Agee remarked that Miss Kerr “looks like everything Englishmen mean when they become lyrical about roses.” A page later, he invoked a French artist while celebrating her impact as a Technicolor camera subject: “Miss Kerr’s natural coloring would have reduced Renoir to a quivering jelly.”

The Turner series rediscovers three pictures from Miss Kerr’s English phase this Thursday with back-to-back showings of “Black Narcissus,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and “Vacation From Marriage.” (For those who can last till morning, “The Hucksters” will be shown at 4:30 a.m. Friday.)

“Blimp” and “Narcissus,” which date respectively from 1943 and 1946, placed Technicolor at the disposal of director Michael Powell for the first time. Coincidentally, they confirmed Deborah Kerr as one of the redheads best qualified to glorify the process.

She had a more decisive acting vehicle in the black-and-white film “Vacation From Marriage.” The most satisfying movie ever directed by producer Alexander Korda, it cast Miss Kerr and Robert Donat (a splendid temperamental match) as a dowdy, sickly lower-middle-class couple transformed by two years of separation and invigorating service while in the Royal Navy during World War II.

Miss Kerr was entrusted with three look-alike roles in “Colonel Blimp,” but two of her characters met premature deaths off-screen. In “Vacation,” she finessed the happier assignment of beginning as a mousy whiner and concluding as a resourceful, confident woman persuaded she can make larger demands on life, marriage and herself.

It was always suspected that MGM acquired Deborah Kerr as (1) insurance in case Greer Garson got difficult or (2) protection against another studio wanting a rival to Miss Garson. Curiously, both actresses turned up as token Roman wives in MGM’s 1953 production of “Julius Caesar.” They also were Academy Award finalists of 1960, when Miss Garson was nominated for “Sunrise at Campobello” and Miss Kerr should have won for “The Sundowners.” That was the year when Elizabeth Taylor became a fluke winner for “Butterfield 8” because she had been at death’s door in real life.

Being respected but also overlooked became a recurrent element in Miss Kerr’s career. She was nominated as best actress six times but never won. In no hurary, the academy got around to an honorary Oscar in 1993. For some reason, the TCM series omits three of the pictures that brought her nominations: “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” “Separate Tables” and “The Sundowners,” in which she embodied perhaps the single most admirable and believable normal woman in the history of the screen: Ida Car- mody, the strong-minded wife of an Australian drover played by Robert Mitchum, who proved her best leading man. Overlooking possibilities as systematically as MGM used to do, the TCM retrospective also omits “The Innocents,” which didn’t bring Miss Kerr a nomination in 1961 but should have.

Perhaps it had become too embarrassing to contemplate Miss Kerr as a near-perennial also-ran in the best-actress category. I have another kind of problem with her best roles: I get impatient when she isn’t the camera subject.

SERIES: “Deborah Kerr”

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Thursday evenings in April, beginning at 8 p.m. This coming Thursday: “Black Narcissus,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “Vacation From Marriage,” “Count Your Blessings,” “The Hucksters.” April 20: “The King and I,” “Young Bess,” “Julius Caesar,” “Quo Vadis,” “Dream Wife.” April 27: “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “King Solomon’s Mines,” “The Journey,” “Eye of the Devil.”

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