A look back at the career of British actress Deborah Kerr, with vintage television interviews and classic archive clips telling how she became one of Hollywood's biggest stars.
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"Deborah Kerr - the surname rhymes with star."
That's what the legendary producer Louis B. Mayer said of her.
And he was right.
Kerr would refer to herself as just a shy,
nervous girl from Scotland but if that was the case,
in the 1940s, '50s and '60s,
she was also one of cinema's great British success stories.
She starred in films like The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp,
An Affair To Remember and most famously,
From Here To Eternity,
with the iconic beach scene and famous kiss...
..and the much-loved musical, the King And I,
which we find her talking about here in 1956,
the year of the film's release.
She was talking on the BBC programme Picture Parade.
We were just talking about Majorca because in a few days' time,
that's where Miss Deborah Kerr is taking a holiday.
-A well-earned rest, isn't it?
-Yes, it is.
I've never stopped for the last three years
and I think I really have earned it. I deserve a rest.
Three years you mentioned, that takes us back to 1953.
And that's the year you won your Academy Award nomination
-for Best Actress.
-Yes. That was for From Here To Eternity.
I remember that with some affection, that part.
You played Karen Holmes, a smouldering, passionate,
-Oh! Yes. Well, she was.
What about this new film?
What part are you playing in that? I haven't seen it.
The King and I, you mean? Well, I play a schoolteacher in that.
-Now, isn't that something of a reversal of form for you?
It really isn't.
I suppose in theory it sounds as if it would be
but I would like to state most emphatically
that Mrs Anna is not a stuffy, dull, prissy woman.
-What sort of a woman is she, then?
-She's a very wonderful, witty, warm,
humorous, courageous woman. And that sounds good, doesn't it?
That's what I call answering the question!
And what is this part for you? It's a big part, obviously.
You said elsewhere that it is one of the greats in your career.
Yes, I think that sort of now and again,
or once, perhaps, in one's lifetime as an actress,
one gets a really wonderful part
that sort of fulfils every facet of one's talent.
And I always remember Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind.
I think that kind of a part comes to an actress once, perhaps.
If you're awfully lucky, twice.
And I really feel that Mrs Anna is my Gone With The Wind,
-if you know what I mean. It's...
-This is your Scarlett O'Hara.
Yes, my Scarlett O'Hara. She is so...
So lovely and, of course, being able to include it with music as well
is another facet that, you know, doesn't often happen.
That knocks on the head, for a start,
the idea that she is going to be a rather musty, dusty schoolmarm.
-Yes, not at all.
-And you're working in this film with Yul Brynner.
He played his part on Broadway for... How long was it?
He played it for four years in all.
I think he's about two-and-a-half to three years on Broadway
-and a year-and-a-half on the road.
And so I'm longing for everybody to see him in it
because I think his personality is going to burst upon us
-with the power of an atom bomb.
-He obviously knows what it's all about.
Did you find it difficult to step into a production with a man
who has played it for so long?
A man who has notions about how the part should be played?
-How did you feel?
-No. It wasn't difficult.
It could have been, that's true, I think,
with someone who had, you know, known it and played it.
He played it with six Mrs Annas, you know, during its run
and it could have been quite difficult if he wanted to be
but he was really wonderful,
not only to me that the entire company because most of them...
Some of them had been in the original production that some of them weren't.
And I was one of them.
And he really gave his all,
all his knowledge of not only my part
but everybody's part.
And that way, all the values that they had discovered in four years
of playing, all the mistakes that they had made
and thrown out, he was able to give me, you see, in three weeks.
This is something of a novelty, isn't it?
-A musical in which you can actually act?
I think that King And I is outstanding from that point of view.
I can almost think of no other show where it is really a play with music.
It really can't be called a musical as such.
And the drama of it is every bit as good
as the music of it and so that's why it is such an unusual show.
The man who wrote the lyrics of the songs, Hammerstein,
is also responsible for the book,
-in other words the dialogue that you speak.
-Yes, that's right.
And this man is a poet.
I'm sure anybody who knows any of his songs will realise that.
And he has written the book and written it like a play.
I mean, his lines are full of meaning
and the songs really stem out of the situation.
-There's no sort of song cue, you know.
-They're not just stuck there.
Mrs Anna suddenly expresses herself through the medium of song
-instead of a long speech.
-About the songs in the show.
Which are the ones you most enjoy?
Oh, that's difficult! They are all so lovely.
But I think my two favourites are Getting To Know You,
-which is quite enchanting.
-That is Mrs Anna's song.
It's her song, really.
And then the one between her and the King, Shall We Dance.
Which ends in that wonderful polka all around the ballroom.
Speaking of dances, that is one of the dance sequences,
and there are several of them.
-They are brilliant, I understand.
-Yes. I think the most exciting...
Of course, Yul and I think that the polka is the most exciting
but one of the highlights of it
will be the dance sequence of Uncle Tom's Cabin,
the Siamese version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
It is called Small House Of Uncle Thomas and it's quite enchanting.
It is a little...
I suppose you could call it a little drama,
-again, in the medium of a dance.
-This is a play that Mrs Anna,
who is after all the teacher of the children, has taught them.
She's read them Uncle Tom's Cabin, you see.
So they make it into a little performance with dancing
and very dramatic... You know, lovely symbolism.
They've never seen snow and they are thrilled when she describes
snow as water freezing on its way down from the sky.
So they include this in the little dance sequence
and they have these beautiful snow things that come down from the sky.
You know, it's very beautifully done.
I understand the children are great scene stealers as well.
-Oh, dear, yes.
-In between seeing the play on Broadway
and appearing in the film, you yourself were in a Broadway success.
Yes, I was. I was in a very wonderful play called Tea And Sympathy.
-Another different role.
I suppose a little bit more of Mrs Anna in my character
in Tea And Sympathy than Karen Holmes but it was a...
-It's a very wonderful part for an actress.
-And you've also filmed that.
I had just finished that before I came home.
The year of our next interview is 1972.
Four years previously, Deborah had decided to quit Hollywood,
fed up with the movie industry that in her eyes was increasingly
focusing on the worst parts of human life.
Her passion now was theatre and here she is appearing alongside the
celebrated stage actress Dame Edith Evans on the Parkinson programme
in a discussion that starts with how Hollywood first typecast her
as a classic English rose.
When you went to the States, of course, and you got lumbered
with this rather prim, prissy kind of image, didn't you?
-I suppose so.
-You did for a while...
What interests me was how on earth Hollywood thought that image
was marketable in their terms.
Because, you know, it was all cheesecake
and the rest of the stuff.
Yes, I think probably it was a slight reaction to that.
You know, it was just after the war and all the sort of cheesecake things
and I think they just went overboard with trying not to change me.
-And in trying not to change me, it sort of backfired in a way.
Did you get bored by it, by being stuck with this?
-Yes, well, I've never been bored acting.
Even if it's not been a very good...
You know, not terribly exciting part or terribly exciting movie,
-I've always absolutely adored it. I just love being somebody else.
Did you ever get the urge to sort of...
To put it crudely, burst out of your corsets, you know?
Well, I wore plenty of corsets in those parts.
Well, yes. I mean, I've always been too hesitant, I think,
to kind of kick over the traces, I think the phrase is.
But I've always been a great believer that sort of things happen, you know?
It's no good forcing the issue, forcing the pace.
Suddenly the moment comes, the opportunity is there.
You know, suddenly there it is for you to make the break.
This is sort of saying that things are preordained, in a way.
I suppose so. I don't know whether I mean that.
I think it's kind of like having an instinct for when is the moment to...
to make the fuss or not.
To get out of the trap or not, you know. If I...
I didn't feel it was a trap, really.
I was having a very good time and I played one very good part
in Edward, My Son.
Which was when I got my first Academy Award nomination.
And that was only three years after I went to Hollywood
-so it wasn't too bad.
-No. How did they...
How did they sort of process you?
What did they make you do or what didn't they have you do?
-They wouldn't let you pose in a bathing costume, I presume.
Not me! No, not at that time. Gracious, no.
No, I was thoroughly ladylike and wearing tiaras and serving tea...
-With a tiara on.
-With a tiara on.
-We all do here, yes.
I know, everyone in England does that.
At that time and still, you know, that sort of feeling that
-if you were English, you must be a duchess.
You were talking there, I thought that was an interesting point
about this sort of sense of destiny,
this sort of preordained thing and knowing when to push for it.
You, in fact, pushed hard in one year, didn't you?
You did two things. You did a stage thing with Tea And Sympathy...
-..in which you broke right out of the pattern.
-And then you did...
-From Here To Eternity.
-Actually, it was sort of really the other way round.
Because doing From Here To Eternity really kind of broke the mould,
if you know what I mean.
And the curious thing was that's what did it.
Because I then immediately reverted to doing...
I mean, Laura in Tea And Sympathy was a complete tea-pouring lady
but because of that one movie,
you know, everyone thought, "Oh! Who's this?"
-They had no idea that one could act!
But what sort of intrigues me
is how you got the part in From Here To Eternity
because if you're looking round at someone to play the part
that you played in that, you know, sort of sex-starved woman.
-You wouldn't have thought of me.
-You wouldn't have thought of you.
-So how did you get it?
-Well... That too is sort of a rather...
Not too long a story, don't get worried.
I'm not worried at all! I've got all night.
Oh, good! LAUGHTER
I like the way you said that.
I thought it was a pretty good reading!
-You were going to tell me...
Well, I'd done all these movies that were, you know, as you said,
a little ladylike and I felt, "Oh, I've got to find something."
And I had just...at the time I had changed agents
and I went to a very marvellous man who is dead now
called Bert Allenberg and within two weeks of my being what's known
as under his banner, he called me up one day and he said,
"You know they're going to make From Here To Eternity at Columbia?"
And I said yes. He said, "Have you read it?"
I said, "Of course!" He said, "How about playing the part of Karen?"
I said, "Oh, come on! They're never going to think of me for that!"
And he said, "Well, I can try."
So I waited all day for him to phone me in the evening
because he had gone to see Harry Cohn,
this frightening monster of Columbia.
And the phone rang in the evening.
I picked it up and it was Bert. And he said... I said, "Well? What?"
He said, "You're right. They kicked me out of the office."
I said, "I told him not to go in there and make me a fool..."
But he was a very clever man.
All he did was go in there, make the suggestion and leave.
And Harry Cohn screamed,
"You've got to be crazy! Blah, blah, blah, blah!"
The germ had been sown in his mind and the next day, it worked.
He called in his producer, he called in Fred Zinneman,
who was the director, and said,
"That crazy Allenberg has got a suggestion for who to play Karen.
And they both kind of went like that and said, "Well, of course!"
And that's literally how that happened.
And there is one sequence in that film which I'm going to show now.
-Oh, no! Not that one!
-Oh, yes indeed. The famous one.
Which really broke the mould.
And it is one of the most famous scenes in that
and many other movies, I suppose.
It's the beach scene. Let's have a look at it now.
I never knew it could be like this.
Nobody ever kissed me the way you do.
Not even one? Out of all the men you've been kissed by?
SHE GIGGLES Now, that would take some figuring.
-How many men do you think there have been?
-I wouldn't know.
-Can't you give me a rough estimate?
-Not without an adding machine.
-Do you have your adding machine with you?
-I forgot to bring it.
Then I guess you won't find out, will you?
-Did you... You've got goose pimples, have you?
-It's a long time since I've seen it.
-It all looks so comfortable on the screen.
Did you realise at the time you were doing that particular scene
that it was going to be such a crucial one, in a way? Because...
I only say crucial because a lot of people would say that one scene is
one of the landmarks in cinema because the whole permissive sex
-movement in movies started from there.
I suppose it did in a way because now when one sees it,
it just looks so absolutely...
I mean... More... I mean, too normal, you know, practically.
It's funny, isn't it, to think of really how startling that scene was.
-I mean, people were... As you know, it was...
I look at it now and I can't believe it.
Did people's attitude toward you in Hollywood
change after making that film?
I mean, the gossip columnists and people like that?
Well, you know...
Everybody... Everybody loves a success, don't they?
And lots of people who you've never seen before in your life,
you're suddenly their best friend.
And always when... You know...
But I don't think, as far as gossip columns are concerned,
I've never had very much...
You know, I was never very much affected by it, even on that.
I think twice it said I was out in a nightclub with Frank Sinatra
or something, which was totally untrue, as most of those things are.
But I wasn't really... Didn't seem to...
I didn't change much.
Are there people that you watch in film acting
who you can learn from?
Or is it more a matter of simple technique there?
-Of camera technique?
-Oh, no. There's a lot of...
There have been some, and are some, marvellous actors in the cinema.
-You've starred with a few of them, haven't you?
I mean, someone like Spencer Tracy, who is a marvellous actor
and just to watch him was, for me, wonderful.
And in a completely different vein, of course,
but simply brilliant at his particular work, Cary Grant.
-Fantastic timing. Comedy timing was absolutely...
I've never been able to do it as well, but wonderful.
What is it about certain people, certain actors,
that makes them translate better to screen than others?
What makes somebody a better screen actor than somebody else,
given that they are both equal actors?
-I think this is true, isn't it?
Well, of course it's a funny animal, that camera, isn't it?
It sort of sees right into people
and you can be acting that you're not that kind of person but you are.
-It sees through you.
And I think probably the people who have...
The people who are completely sort of direct in their thinking
towards that animal, they come across very well.
I don't think there are any rules but, I mean, you can't "act" act,
-if you know what I mean, on the screen. You must be.
-I mean... I think must be, even if you're acting anyway.
You know, I agree with you. I just go on and I AM, you know.
People said to me when I first went on film and said to me,
"You can't tell lies on the screen, you know."
I said, "I don't tell lies on the stage."
-So it's just true to me, it has to be true.
-It has to be true.
-It has to be the truth you are speaking.
-It has to be true.
-And if you are not speaking the truth, then it shows.
And there are certain people you see who...
That's why you say, "They're not awfully good.
"They're not a good actor."
It's because they can't be true in what they are saying
-and it comes off, it comes through on that screen like mad.
In 1986, Deborah was back discussing her career in a documentary
narrated by Christopher Frayling called Not Just An English Rose.
Once again, we find her reflecting on the films Tea And Sympathy
and The King And I, but we start with the story of another
of her most popular movies, King Solomon's Mines.
I said, "Oh, Dory, there's a story I would just love to do
"and that's The African Queen."
And he said, "Belongs to Warner Brothers.
"But we do have an African subject."
Cos I had previously said, "I wouldn't mind going to Africa.
"I would love to go to Africa."
And then he said, "Belongs to Warner Brothers.
"But we've got King Solomon's Mines
"and if you don't mind going to Africa..."
'There I was, on my way to Africa.'
'I didn't get bitten to pieces by mosquitoes
'but poor Stewart Granger, his back was covered with mosquito bites.'
-How did he react to the location himself?
-Well, I mean, he...
You know, Jimmy's a grumbler so everything was always wrong,
even if it wasn't!
-There was an animal, a large animal.
-No. There. Outside.
What is it?
-Nothing. She's been dreaming again.
-It was not a dream.
'I remember one day he wasn't shooting
'and what he wanted to do was go off and, can you believe it,'
shoot a buffalo!
Because I think they are such wonderful creatures, you know. But...
And he came back absolutely scared stiff.
You could tell.
There was a line of white on his mouth from sheer fear.
It's not much fun having a buffalo come at you.
'It was a great experience. It was rough, it was hot, it was tiring.
'There were flies, there were discomforts beyond belief.'
Although I had a real bath in my tent,
with a pipe that led to an old huge oil drum
which was filled with water
and a boy who lit a fire underneath it every evening
so that I would have hot water for my bath.
'It was sort of such an adventure.
'At Murchison Falls, that we had to climb'
300 feet in those temperatures every day,
up to the top where, of course,
it was the one year they hadn't had much rain and, of course,
'the falls were supposed to be much heavier and bigger.
'But as it was, there she takes her bath.
'Meanwhile, having cut off all her glorious long, red hair
'and descending with a Toni home permanent!
'Not a hair out of place.'
'That was always a laughing matter for me.'
WATERFALL ROARS Oh, I cut it!
-I cut it.
-Ah! Good idea.
After severing her contract with MGM,
she headed for the Broadway stage with the controversial
Tea And Sympathy, a play which dealt in a fairly cautious way
with the themes of gayness and adultery.
Its huge success did for her on the stage what From Here To Eternity
had done on film.
But the film version of Tea And Sympathy
ran into censorship problems.
At that time you could not use the word "homosexual",
nor could you imply that a person was.
I mean, it was absolutely taboo.
So, of course, this weakened the film version
because instead of the boy, who was by no means a homosexual,
he was just a very sensitive boy who like playing the guitar,
but he was seen with a teacher who was known to be.
And so, as his father says to him,
"My boy, you are known by the company you keep."
And so this obsesses him
and he's pathetic, going to the village tart,
you know, to try to prove himself a man
and ending up in sort of disgust and horror.
And it was such a pity that strength was not in the cinema version.
Despite having done From Here To Eternity
and despite having done Tea And Sympathy,
that image of gentility still stuck in everybody's mind.
Why is that, do you think? You couldn't shake it off.
It puzzles me and every time I'm asked,
"Doesn't your ladylike reputation irritate you?"
And I said, "It irritates me how many times I'm asked that!
"I can tell you!"
So there, you've irritated me now!
But it's a very curious thing, I suppose.
Either it's a mixture of first impressions
and something innate in me
that I'm perhaps not even aware of myself that, as I said before,
comes through on that camera and you can't do anything about that.
You can't change it.
You can, as I hope I did in From Here To Eternity,
make people forget the English rose for a couple of hours.
The governess Mrs Anna in the King And I,
a much sought-after part following its success on Broadway,
gave Deborah Kerr her first chance in a musical opposite Yul Brynner,
who had made the show his very own after playing in it for four years.
I never battled with him
but he did have pretty fixed ideas on the way things should be done
and in due respect to him,
he was taken notice of by the director.
And an enormous amount of the success of that musical is due to Yul.
Like this. No?
MUSIC: "Shall We Dance" by Rodgers & Hammerstein
'I don't often go to see rushes because they make me shy of myself
'but I did go because I wanted to see...
'..what magic there was in that skirt and those hoops
'as we did the dance in Shall We Dance.
'It really was quite stunning.
'Say it, as I do, myself!'
'Some of the songs in the King And I were really too difficult.'
I was still on the road with Tea And Sympathy and everywhere I went I was
taking singing lessons and hoping I would be able to do the whole thing.
Well, no. It's not enough time, you know.
You've got to have started when you were four and I certainly hadn't.
But I had enough to be able to do some of the lead-ins
and then we found this wonderful singer, Marni Nixon,
who had the great talent to make her voice sound like other people.
And we recorded together in a booth.
Then Ken Darby, who was the sound head magician
at 20th Century Fox in those days,
he mixed the voices so perfectly
that it really is awfully hard to know when it's not me.
But I did sing... I did sing Whistle A Happy Tune.
And you actually became a sort of top 10 recording artist.
With a little help from my dear friend, yes.
The unit at work setting up for shooting
and the heavy equipment is put into position.
Huston and Morris survey the stretch of beach
they've chosen to film the sequence in which Bob,
as US Marine Corporal Allison, and Sister Angela hunt turtles for food.
Powerful arcs add to the heat as Deborah's make-up is fixed.
A light meter check and the clapper boy signals a take.
The story of Heaven Knows, Mr Allison -
nun meets Marine on a desert island -
that could easily have been really tacky in perhaps lesser hands
than John Huston's.
Yes, it could have been quite a tasteless situation
but John had already directed African Queen,
in which the situation was slightly similar.
Only, of course, it wasn't a nun
but it was a slightly similar situation.
'Then Robert Mitchum turning in the performance he did,
'which was so wonderful. Such a marvellous actor.
'And I had never met him before. We met on the island of Tobago
'and I wondered if he was going to be...
'You know, live up to his reputation of...'
-Live down to his reputation.
-'Live down to his reputation, yes!'
You like it?
Oh, it's beautiful, Mr Allison.
The teeth are a little wide apart, maybe,
but it was the best I could do with only a knife.
-You really like it, ma'am?
But, you see, we don't use combs.
-Our hair is worn very short.
From the day we take our vows.
'I discovered not only a great friend
'but an extraordinary actor who has done some wonderful things.'
A musician, a poet, an extremely well-informed person,
great sense of humour.
Quite unprintable at times! Oh, Mitchum!
'I remember a reporter coming to interview him.
'He said, "Tell me, how do you like working with John Huston?"
And Mitchum said, "Well...
"..he's taller than Mervyn LeRoy." And that was all the poor man got!
In fact, Huston had a pretty wild sense of humour,
was reputed to have had.
Wasn't there an incident involving you in a swamp?
Oh, my goodness! That awful swamp!
It was disgusting. It was horrible.
And John said, "Go out there in the middle, honey."
And so I said, "What? Through all this?"
He said, "Out in the middle, honey."
So I waded through all this stuff and there were leeches all over
the bottom of my robe and the stench was unbelievable.
And all I had to do was run through the swamp
and then collapse at the end of it.
Which meant I was covered in alligator excretions
from head to foot and when the shot was over, John said,
"Fine. Cut. Have we got that? We don't need to do that again?"
And I went up to him
and he was in his gleaming white pants and white shirt
and I flung my arms around his neck and pressed my body against him
and all this filth went all over his jacket and his shirt and his slacks!
And he didn't think it was funny at all.
The Sundowners, another popular success,
took her on location to the Australian desert,
where she played the long-suffering wife of sheep driver Robert Mitchum.
The film resulted in her sixth Academy Award nomination.
I loved the movie. I should have won that year.
I should have!
Here's your half-crown back.
Now then, you get on back home to America
and there is no fountain here for you to throw it in.
I shall treasure it always.
And then from the outback to a converted West End comedy,
-in a sense, The Grass Is Greener.
'Converted West End comedy is right!
'With Osterley Park, a beautiful home, thrown in,
'which you couldn't have on the stage.
'But that was... That was great fun to make because, again,
'my old sparring partner Robert Mitchum'
and again, my old sparring partner Cary Grant,
who I had made Affair To Remember with
and made quite a few people weep, I hope.
But we had a lot of fun doing it. It was a charming piece.
Don't be frightened. We are all friends here.
Victor, can't you do something?
Darling, you've got the wrong end of the stick.
-He's only going to clean them.
-What's the matter with your arm?
-What's been happening here?
-Charles and I had a duel.
-I missed him.
In 1984, the Cannes film Festival formally recognised her
contribution to the art of film,
The first British star to be honoured in this way for 12 years.
Shortly after this, she was tempted back the cinema by the part
of an elderly widow struggling to preserve
her late husband's Assam Garden.
It was a joy working on that movie. I adored it.
-I wanted it to go on forever.
-Hard work in the garden, it looked.
Oh, my God! The garden and the weather and the rain
and the mud and the hosepipes and the ruddy bananas and the...
Good for the bananas.
Oh, Lordy! The steps!
I've gone and left the steps out.
Of all the British actresses that have worked in cinema,
you're the one who has really lasted. What's your secret?
I have no secret!
I've had an awful lot of luck. I've had immense luck.
And I've probably...
Cos I haven't taken that dubious thing called being a star,
I haven't taken it too seriously.
I just wanted to be good at what I'm doing.
Debra Kerr died in 2007 in Suffolk, aged 86.
In her lifetime, being good at what she was doing
earned her numerous film honours - a CBE, a BAFTA special award
and six Best Actress Oscar nominations -
the most times an actress has been nominated in that category
without ever winning.
In 1994, the Academy put things right,
awarding her an honorary Oscar.
The citation that came with it captured her perfectly,
calling her, as it did,
"An artist of impeccable grace and beauty whose motion picture career
"has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance."
A look back at the career of British actress Deborah Kerr, with vintage television interviews and classic archive clips telling how she left Britain in the 1940s and became one of Hollywood's biggest stars.