Remembering Deborah Kerr

One of my all-time favorite actresses, Deborah Kerr, has died. She was 86.

Sometime in my early teens I became a film buff when I discovered classic film on TV. Late nights and Saturday afternoons were spent watching the greats: Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, The Marx Brothers, Ingrid Bergman, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Deborah Kerr. I wish I could remember the first movie I saw that turned me on to classic film, but alas I can’t. I do have fond memories of particular films that made a lasting impression (Gaslight, with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and The Letter, with Bette Davis quickly come to mind.)

Deborah Kerr was an early favorite of mine. The King and I, An Affair to Remember and The Chalk Garden each stand out in my memory, but the film that made the biggest impression–and the Kerr performance I’ve probably seen more often than any other–was Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. To this day, if I catch this film on cable at any point, I’ll put down the remote and watch to the end.

As often happens when a famous star or director dies, there will be a run on Kerr’s films at video stores and Netflix will find it hard to keep From Here to Eternity in stock for a while. So, I thought I’d share some of my favorite Deborah Kerr films.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)  A Marine (Robert Mitchum) and a novice nun (Kerr) are stranded on a remote Pacific island during WWII. These two strangers eek out an existence until the Japanese invade their island, forcing them to hide in a cave. This two-person drama is equal parts exciting war story and engrossing character study (he’s a man of action, she’s a woman of faith) anchored by exceptional performances. (Kerr won an Academy Award nomination.) Directed by John Huston. Now available on DVD in all its wide-screen glory.

The Chalk Garden (1964)  I’m sure as a teen when I first watched this film it was because Hayley Mills is in it, but it was Kerr’s performance that riveted me from the start. She plays Miss Madrigal, a woman with a scandalous past who’s hired as governess to Laurel (Mills), a teenage girl with a smart mouth and a penchant for lighting fires. As Madrigal recognizes herself in the troubled Laurel, the girl suspects she knows Madrigal’s secret, and a psychological game of cat-and-mouse begins. Yes, it’s a bit over-the-top (a little Hayley can go a long way) but Kerr keeps it real and keeps the audience guessing.

The Innocents (1961)  A creepy classic. Kerr stars as a governess (again) to a couple of strange, troubled children in this adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Alone in a shadowy old mansion, Kerr begins to suspect the children are possessed by the ominous spirits of two lovers who once lived in the house. Beautifully suited to black and white cinematography, truly frightening images make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Keep this one in mind for Halloween.

The King and I (1956)  In my opinion, the best of the lavish, big screen musicals from the era of lavish, big screen musicals. Okay, so Kerr’s singing is dubbed. She still defines this character and more than stands up to the star-making performance of Yul Brynner as the king. Kerr’s “Mrs. Anna” is absolutely wonderful, adjusting to life in a very foreign country, teaching her young pupils, and standing up to the pig-headed monarch. Everything looks amazing, the sets, the costumes, Kerr’s flaming red hair and huge hoop skirts. Treat yourself if you haven’t seen it and I dare you not to get teary-eyed at the end.

Vacation from Marriage (aka Perfect Strangers) (1945)  See my review here.

Added to my own Netflix queue are a few high profile Kerr classics I’ve never seen (including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and others I’d like to see again (Separate Tables, Black Narcissus and of course, From Here to Eternity.)

One thought on “Remembering Deborah Kerr

  1. Earlier films that are fabulous include “I See A Dark Stranger” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” Another lovely film with Mitchum is “The Sundowner.” “I See A Dark Stranger” is a must for early work from Ms. Kerr. What a very fine actress! Truly a gift with the whole history of the craft.

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