- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

This is the centennial year for an extraordinary number of people who enjoyed memorable movie careers. A flurry in the British sector can be celebrated in March with actors Rex Harrison and Michael Redgrave and director David Lean. Turner Classic Movies has booked an evening of remembrance of Mr. Harrison on Wednesday, the anniversary of his birth in 1908.

Starting at 8 p.m., the cable channel will present five of his pictures released between 1945 and 1964. The most familiar is the 10 p.m. selection: the Academy Award-winning version of “My Fair Lady.” Lavishly directed by George Cukor, it won Mr. Harrison the 1964 best-actor Oscar for the role of his career as elocutionary know-it-all Professor Henry Higgins.

Viewers might find it rewarding to stretch this late-night booking into a wee-hours double bill. The feature at 1 a.m. is “The Reluctant Debutante,” a romantic comedy of 1958 that was consistently lighter on its cinematic feet. Set in London but shot in Paris, this 50th-anniversary trifle was directed by Vincente Minnelli, the logical choice for “My Fair Lady” in a perfectly ordered world.

This juxtaposition also may reawaken my impression that Mr. Harrison at 50 would have been a more satisfying Higgins than Mr. Harrison at 56. A few years earlier might have found him a sleeker camera subject as well as a peerlessly knowing performer.

Mr. Harrison’s leading lady in “Debutante” was one of the fleeting treasures of the period: the captivating comic actress Kay Kendall, also the third Mrs. Harrison. (She was destined to die of leukemia a year later at the age of 32.) The Minnelli film alludes to a bygone social gala, an annual debutante ball in which the young women were greeted by the queen. Mr. Harrison and Miss Kendall were responsible for Sandra Dee, who had yet to be swept away by Bobby Darin.

The TCM selections commence with a starring vehicle that has slipped out of circulation for more than a generation: “The Rake’s Progress,” released in the United Kingdom in 1945. It became “The Notorious Gentleman” when imported to the United States a year later. I’ve never seen it, but my curiosity has simmered for years. James Agee was so badly rubbed the wrong way by “Gentleman” that he set out on a prolonged sarcastic rumination about its protagonist, a playboy of wartime vintage impersonated by Mr. Harrison.

In 1945 “The Rake’s Progress” and “Blithe Spirit” returned Mr. Harrison to movie marquees after four years of service in the Royal Air Force. The war had been ill-timed for his film career, short-circuiting a contract offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, among other possibilities.

Mr. Harrison went into military service just at the point when he had made a dashing breakthrough as the lead in Carol Reed’s espionage comedy-thriller “Night Train to Munich,” the first movie that confirmed his aptitude for both charm and dominance.

The TCM tribute would be enhanced by that title as well as one of the movies of the late 1930s that reflects Mr. Harrison’s stage-to-screen prowess as a light comedian. I recently blundered upon a playful and witty example: “Storm in a Teacup,” a British screwball comedy of 1936 that matched him and Vivien Leigh as romantic leads. Among other highlights, Mr. Harrison gets to defend himself during an uproarious trial sequence after brushing aside counsel imposed against his will. “Teacup” can be found on an inexpensive DVD that includes three other of Miss Leigh’s movies of the period, including a second with Mr. Harrison as her consort, “St. Martin’s Lane” (also known as “Sidewalks of London”).

The Turner evening lacks any examples of Rex Harrison as an emerging film star. It also could use one or more of the 20th Century-Fox movies of the late 1940s in which Hollywood briefly contemplated him as the next alternative to Ronald Colman, Robert Donat or David Niven: “Anna and the King of Siam,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “The Foxes of Harrow” or “Unfaithfully Yours.” Because the Fox inventory is outside the Turner resources, the groping programmers reach back for a crime thriller of 1951, “The Long Dark Hall,” and a caper comedy of 1962, “The Happy Thieves,” both regarded as expendable by the subject himself.

“The Rake’s Progress” and “The Long Dark Hall” are two of the movies in which Mr. Harrison appeared with his second wife, Lilli Palmer. She was a contract player at Warner Bros. while he was with Fox in the late 1940s. She remained loyal through his scandalous affair with Hollywood bombshell Carole Landis, a liaison that surfaced gruesomely after Miss Landis’ suicide in 1948. In an unfortunate fluke of timing, Mr. Harrison’s role as the absurdly jealous husband of “Unfaithfully Yours,” a flamboyant orchestra conductor who fantasizes murdering wife Linda Darnell, appeared soon after this calamity. Its initial box-office failure is sometimes ascribed to the coincidence.

Mr. Harrison’s six marriages (including one to another actress, Rachel Roberts) matched the tally of at least one of his characters, Henry VIII (in the original Broadway production of “Anne of the Thousand Days”) and modestly rivaled another, the King of Siam.

In his autobiography, Mr. Harrison recalled declining the opportunity to reprise his movie role in “The King and I.” He was approached by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II but thought himself an implausible candidate for a costume musical. He felt a similar reluctance about “My Fair Lady” until he was talked into the idea that his songs did not have to be sung, strictly speaking.

Despite its theatrical popularity during the war, Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” didn’t do wonders for Rex Harrison as a postwar movie. It seemed a pre-sold natural but wasn’t a decisive favorite with film audiences in England or America. An abiding comic triumph for Margaret Rutherford as the screwball medium, Madame Arcati, the film leaves Mr. Harrison somewhat underused. He does get a wonderful, ever-relevant rejoinder when Kay Hammond as the ghostly Elvira, his intrusive late wife, complains about not having seen a movie for seven years. “Let me be the first to congratulate you,” Mr. Harrison replies.


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