Hollywood’s Elegant Redhead

By Richard G. Hubler – Coronet, 1958
A kind contribution by Lisa — Cuckoo4Kitties

ONE OF THE MORDANT tales Of Hollywood concerns the time that Deborah Kerr-Trimmer Bartley went to see a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer. He bustled his chair up to his desk, rubbed his hands and beamed.
“Miss Kerr,” he said, “I realize the studio has cast you in a series of no-good pictures-eight, if you count. By the law of averages, this time we should have a hit. Can we do anything for you before we start?”
“Yes,” said Miss Kerr bitterly, “give me my coat and get me out of here.”

The producer could have been no more astounded if a porcelain doll had jumped off the mantelpiece and stamped on his toes. Miss Kerr finished her death-scene in a historical turkey called Young Bess, marched off the set, fired her agent, had a good weep, and took an oath never again to be demure.
“My palace revolution worked out very well,” she says. “My next movie role was that dazzling part in From Here to Eternity.”

The trouble all started, as the charming Scots star with the tomato bisque hair explains, at the moment she arrived in the United States in 1947. “I gave the impression of being a lady, I suppose,” she says thoughtfully. “Nothing I could do afterward got that out of their heads. I came over to act but it turned out all I had to do was to be high-minded, long-suffering, white-gloved, and decorative.”

This caused her acute artistic pangs. “I was never demure in my personal life,” she says. “The question was, why should I be on the screen-especially in Hollywood?”

Her husband, Anthony Charles Bartley, a 15-kill Royal Air Force ace who had to have a special act of Congress in order to stay in this country with her, was no help. He would tell her comfortably: “After all, it’s your problem, dear, and we are quite comfy, aren’t we?”

Miss Kerr, like most redheads, has her own ideas about herself and the world and-all things equal-will finally have her way. She is able to judge her career with the alert nonchalance of a wren on a fence. “It’s hard to tell how much is me and how much the character,” she says. “But I do think I improvise my own personality right with the role”

In her $150,000 Mediterranean style home on the top of the Palisades-the cliffs of dirt and rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean west of Hollywood-wearing bright-blue slacks and shirt, she stretches out in a room of robust chartreuse decorated with monstrous orange gladioli. “I’ve lived in these colors all my life,” she says, glancing casually around her. “They go well, don’t they? I’ve just redecorated the whole thing.”

The 36-year-old actress-whose skin is so tender that five minutes in the sun can give her a second degree burn-has had numerous eulogies on her beauty. One hardheaded interviewer came away so bemused that he scribbled: “. . . in her coloring, hair, eyes, complexion, she is like a dazzling Scottish field of wildflowers, filmed in Technicolor.”

To this Miss Kerr retorts: “I’m really rather like a beautiful Jersey cow. I have the same pathetic droop to the corners of my eyes.”

Her ability seems to command similar agreement in professional quarters. Yul Brynner, working with her in one of her best, The King and I, declared: “She can act her part and still be herself, one of the most difficult of talents.”

Part of this devotion to Miss Kerr stems from her sense of humor. Seeing her in her heavy 20-foot skirt as the governess in The King and I, Brynner asked her what she did when she itched. “I hire two midgets,” she said.

Miss Kerr’s impression of herself is that she would be better as a character woman than a heroine. “I’d like to play messed-up women like drunks,” she declares, “but I can’t do things like, say, murderesses convincingly. If my eyes slanted up instead of down, yes, but they don’t and there you are.”

A veteran of 28 movies and three plays-including the resounding stage success Tea and Sympathy
Miss Kerr is skeptical about modern standards for acting. “To me,” she says, “an emotion analyzed is an emotion lost. I think it was Ellen Terry who said that in acting the mind should beat zero and the heart at 90.” She feels she appeals to people “because they sympathize with me.”

She has no particular formula for achieving her paradoxical effects of warmth and aloofness. “All I have is a naturally nasty habit of imitating people, and a good ear,” she says. “I like to daydream about my roles occasionally but I never live them. How could I?”

Her first considerable triumph in acting came at the age of nine when she and her brother-now a respectable businessman in England-duplicated the sounds of a local racetrack from behind a curtain during tea-time. “It was quite jolly and realistic,” says Miss Kerr. “We had terrible crashes and stiff-lipped announcements and so on. The whole family thought we were brilliant.”

She did not top this until 15, attending Northumberland House School in Bristol. There she convulsed her fellow-inmates by imitating one of the maids with a harelip. “It was very cruel,” says Miss Kerr complacently. “I merely asked if they wanted rice or tapioca pudding.”

Born September 30, 1921, in a little town of Helensburgh, Scotland, Miss Kerr has always planned to stupefy the public in one way or another. “I was one of those beastly little children with a Crushed English Upbringing,” she says. “Serious but not aware. I was never going to act, I was going to dance. I was clever at ballet and I was always appearing in school plays. I was crammed with pages and pages of poems and sagas and epics which I would recite at the drop of a hat.”

During this period, the visitors that came to the Kerr household dutifully observed the antics of this prodigy with the mahogany mop that made her seem topheavy. They invariably inquired of her father: “And what is little Deborah going to do when she grows up?”

To which her father, a civil engineer, as invariably replied: “I suppose she’ll go on the stage, dammit!” Arthur Kerr-Trimmer died when his daughter was 14. The family moved to Alford, Sussex, and Deborah began to study drama, as well as dancing, with an aunt, Phyllis Smale, who headed her own school.

The young Kerr – she dropped the – Trimmer as an unwieldy professional affix first appeared on the professional stage as a balletmime in a rendition of Columbine & Pierrot. She won a scholarship to the famous Sadler’s Wells ballet group, which reduced tuition considerably, and practiced for a year.

“I got to be a not-bad, not-good performer,” Miss Kerr states. “I worked very hard but I wasn’t dedicated. I didn’t care for that `Go back, dear, start again’ grind and I saw that a good many others were far more proficient technically. So I quit.”

She was 18 by the time she made her dramatic debut as the long-legged page to Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in the open-air theater in Regent’s Park. She started conning the local agencies for jobs – and got nowhere except to find out what places to lunch so as to be seen.

One day she was approached by an enormous, bearlike man with a thick Hungarian accent. He was the
late Gabriel Pascal, a London theatrical impresario, who was making the first George Bernard Shaw picture, Major Barbara. He ascertained that she was an actress and a week later she was called to his office.
Miss Kerr crept in uncertainly to be confronted with sprinting secretaries, rows of men smoking cigars, and telephones that kept jangling. Pascal surveyed her critically through a cloud of smoke.

“Your hair is very tarty, my sweet,” he said. “You must change it…”Yes,” she said. “You are too tall, take off your shoes, sweet,” he said. The five-foot-seven girl obeyed. “You are too fat,” he said. “But it is sweet puppy fat, you will soon get rid of it. Can you act something for me?”

Naturally, Miss Kerr was prepared. She rattled off a couple of scenes where she played a half-dozen parts. Pascal was bored. “Something perhaps more spiritual, my sweet?” he asked. Miss Kerr was baffled. “Say the Lord’s Prayer, sweet,” he requested.

For a Scotswoman who had never anticipated such an emergency, the recital was agony in the midst of the ringing phones, cigar-chewing men and chattering secretaries. She got through it and tried to flee. But her naivete had got her the part of , Jenny, the Salvation Army girl.

She appeared briefly in six films, then came a major part in one of the best and most underrated pictures ever made, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. In this Miss Kerr played three different women -“stern, homey, and tough. I had my 21st birthday on the set, too.” Since the film was long, it was butcherered by the exhibitors in the U.S. and Miss Kerr’s talents slipped by unrecognized. By this time she was getting into the swing of picture-making.

In January, 1945, she went on tour in her second play, Gaslight, entertaining troops. Her next movie, Black Narcissus, another genuinely artistic and enchanting flop at the box office, gave her considerable prestige. Her role was that of a nun in the high Himalayas. It led to an offer nearly as high from MGM and two other studios.

MGM came out winner, giving $300,000 (counting costs) for her contract and signing Miss Kerr at $3,000 a week-more than triple her wage at the time.

In Hollywood Miss Kerr was assigned one sweetness-and-light role after another. She has never known whether or not to be grateful to Louis B. Mayer for his dictate: “Miss Kerr’s name will rhyme with star and not with cur.”

Bartley sat it out with her. He had met her during one of her acting tours in World War II and indulged in the customary low-key courtship of a well-bred chap. He proposed by telegram just before he flew to the South Pacific and her wild acceptance caught him somewhere in the blue. He suggested that she go down and meet his mother and father, Sir and Lady Bartley.

Miss Kerr did so, expecting an ordeal, but found her prospective I father-in-law-an ex-high court judge of Calcutta-and his wife “sweet.” They got along famously. She and her DFC fiancé were married in November, 1945.

In the U.S. for three and a half years Bartley was unable to get a job because of a lack of the proper papers. He spent the interval imperturbably fending off wolves from his wife and finally became head of TV sales for the Columbia Broadcasting System.

When Miss Kerr was seen on the beach in a skimpy bathing suit being violently embraced by Burt Lancaster, everyone was shocked except Miss Kerr and the movie-going public. They were even more set back when she flew to New York to accept the major part in a play, Tea and Sympathy, of a sympathetic seductress (she performed the same part again at MGM). Roles in The End of the Affair, The Proud and Profane-where she became illegitimately pregnant-The King and I and An Affair to Remember followed hard after. She played the most spiritual role of her career that of a castaway nun resisting the advances of a combat-toughened Marine in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Her latest movie is Bonjour Tristesse, based on the sophisticated best-seller by Françoise Sagan, in which she co-stars with David Niven and Jean Seberg.

All this has served to deflate the legend of the lovely china doll that so irks Miss Kerr. She now feels she is ready to handle any chore.

As for her husband, she is fond of relating his approach to the problem of being the husband of Deborah Kerr-Trimmer Bartley. When a sweet young starlet asked him if it was difficult living with a temperamental actress, Bartley replied solemnly: “Not really. She’s charming, lovely, talented-and besides, she’s really loaded!”

The family worries center mostly on their two children, ten-year-old Melanie and six-year-old Francesca. “They’re going into the horse stage now” says their mother. “You know, galloping and cantering about and resenting brutal treatment” What does bemuse Miss Kerr is a colonial Americanism that keeps cropping up in her offspring. Snooping through Melanie’s diary last June 5 – Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday – Miss Kerr discovered that her daughter had written: “God bless Mommie’s queen!” To which Miss Kerr promptly appended: “And God bless your President Ike!”

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