One fateful day in 1940, a would-be actress named Deborah Kerr (rhymes with star) was sitting in a London restaurant with an acquaintance of British Producer-Director Gabriel Pascal. When Pascal himself was introduced, he promptly chanted in his richest Magyar overtones: “Sweet lady, you have a spiritual face.”
That, as some Englishmen would say, tore it. For, as a result of that brief encounter, the bigwigs of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer are now immodestly slapping their own backs with the fervor of flagellant monks. They have acquired, little Miss Kerr, and they suspect that she might be the biggest thing that has happened to M-G-M since Greer Garson.
Somewhat more modestly, Miss Kerr will very soon be exposed to U.S. cinemaddicts. The exposure is a clever little British-made melodrama about Nazi spies in Ireland called The Adventuress (Eagle-Lion; English title: I See a Dark Stranger). Whatever the result of this more critical encounter, few who see her can miss the fact that Cinemactress Kerr carries The Adventuress as effortlessly as a hat box. Almost nobody at all will miss the fact that Cinemactress Kerr looks like everything Englishmen mean when they become lyrical about roses. Given this primary stuff that stars are made of, it is clear that Deborah is well on her way to becoming, as quickly as possible, the brightest and best movie star that the biggest and most proficient star factory in the world can make of her.
Dawning Luminary. The origins of this dawning luminary lay in biographical penumbra beyond the visual range of Hollywood scouts. She was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, Sept. 30, 1921. Her family was neither down-&-out nor well-to-do. Her Scottish father’s handsomeness was distilled, in her, to a gentle beauty. She still shows the benign effects of a limpid childhood and shines quietly with another unpurchasable endowment—an ineradicable gentility. Thanks to an ex-professional aunt in Bristol, Deborah, early in life, had several years’ stiff training as an actress. Later she took a whirl at ballet. But her well-padded, 5 ft.-7 in. frame was a bit bulky for ballet, and realizing, as she now says, that “this [indicating her face] was the only thing I had to work with,” she began hunting jobs on the stage.
She read children’s stories over the BBC. She took part in open-air Shakespeare productions in Regent’s Park, rising from walk-ons to lines like “Will you go hunt, milord?” There was one incandescent moment when Producer-Director Michael Powell noticed her in an agent’s office (he remembers her as “a plump little dumpling who was obviously going places”) and wrote a bit for her into Contraband. But the bit wound up on the cutting-room floor. So Deborah continued to live at a Y.W.C.A. on 35 shillings ($7) a week and spent most of her waking hours being turned out of producers’ offices. By the time Gabriel Pascal saw her, plain living and plenty of walking had etherealized the dumpling to that lithe spirit which Pascal singled out.
She Who Gets Slapped. And from the moment Pascal saw her, unknown Deborah Kerr was in. In a flash, he perceived that Miss Kerr was the ideal Salvation Army lass to be slapped around by Robert Newton in Major Barbara. It was not much of a part, but Deborah slapped so photogenically that within the next year she suffered modified mayhem in four more pictures, of which the most memorable was Love on the Dole. Then came Powell & Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp, the best of her films to date, and one of the two most fate-fraught in shaping her career.
Blimp’s big moments left Deborah emotionally starved, but in range of type it was a feast. She played three archetypes of English womanhood—a governess in Berlin circa 1900; a county-family debutante of the early 1920s; a merry Motor Corps girl of World War II. And she played them in color. Miss Kerr’s natural coloring would have reduced Renoir to a quivering jelly. It is so vivid that she faced the Technicolor cameras with little more than simple street makeup. She was dissolvingly lovely to look at; and she acted her modest roles with a quiet finish, shrewdness and grace which were already (she was then 21) unqualifiedly her own style. Ben Goetz of Metro British, as soon as he saw Blimp, determined to snatch Miss Kerr away from Pascal at once.
Luckily, Pascal was short of funds (since Major Barbara he had merely farmed Deborah out to other studios, in Selznick fashion). Goetz bought half of Pascal’s contract with Deborah and decided to use her opposite Robert Donat in Alexander Korda’s war film, Perfect Strangers (U.S. translation: Vacation from Marriage). In the first part of Vacation from Marriage Deborah played mousiness right down to the bottom of the mousehole, then, transfigured by the experience of war, she devoted the closing reels to looking a little more beautiful and vibrant than unmartial mortals can ever hope to look.
It was quite a pleasant little picture and, in the U.S., quite a solid little flop. Nevertheless, it was Vacation which landed Cinemactress Kerr on that planet-girdling conveyor belt which ends, implacably, in Hollywood.
Delayed Dogfight. A Hollywood screening of Blimp did not provoke Cinemagnate Louis B. (“L.B.”) Mayer and his paladins to a joyful dogfight for a full Kerr contract. It served, rather, as a come-on, by planting Miss Kerr so fruitfully in the M-G-M unconscious that when these unimpulsive executives assembled, some time later, to see Vacation from Marriage, they were most pleasantly disposed to watch her work again. Vacation from Marriage bored them to tears. But Deborah Kerr did not bore them a bit. In fact, L.B., without a moment’s hesitation, uttered the flat pronouncement: “That girl is a star.”
But scarcely had Metro’s massive procurement machinery begun to move than it stalled. L.B. was ready & willing; Miss Kerr was more than ready & willing. But Pascal had so thoroughly snarled up his half of the contract that it seemed impossible to untangle. The chief difficulty was that Pascal had guaranteed Deborah a certain sum after British taxes. To Hollywood the price seemed prohibitive. Poor Deborah languished as helplessly as the rich man with the needle’s-eye view of heaven. Then, suddenly, she became more like a bone at the vortex of a dogfight. MGM, Sam Goldwyn, Loew-Lewin, Hal Wallis and J. Arthur Rank were all trying to get at her. It was M-G-M which finally bought out Pascal, and gave her a new contract. For an unknown it was fairly fabulous—a document to raise loud whistles in front offices and low moans in dressing rooms; seven years at $3,000 a week, 52 weeks a year, no options; Miss Kerr to be starred or co-starred in all films.
How a Star Is Born. Miss Kerr was bought but she still had to be sold—to her employers. The obstetrics of star-bearing often seem to have as little apparent relation to the finished star as forceps have to a baby. How Miss Kerr came into her first Hollywood role is a fair sample.
M-G-M had paid $200,000 for the screen rights to Frederic Wakeman’s cross, best-selling novel about radio, The Hucksters; Mayer had thought it would be good for Gable. Gable claimed shudderingly that the hero’s flagrantly libertine outlook would ruin him forever as a great lover. The book’s big sales and a denatured script brought Gable around. Metro decided to create its own star (Metro can create a star overnight as surely as Hormel creates Spam). Why not Deborah Kerr? But the producer, Arthur Hornblow Jr., was still worried. The Hucksters, he pointed out, is budgeted at $2,500,000 and Gable is one of the most valuable properties in pictures; why risk a new girl? The High Council compromised. It scheduled Miss Kerr tentatively for the role, pending a screen test, and cabled her marching orders.
From that moment, she entered a strange, new, hermetic world, beguiling, hypnotic and gently self-destructive. Thenceforth she would be bombarded by the ultraviolet and infrared rays peculiar to Hollywood, and the anthropophagous attentions most peculiar of all to MGM. She might imagine M-G-M saying, like the doctor in James Thurber’s cartoon: You’re not my patient, Miss Kerr, you’re my meat.
Solicitude is nine-tenths of stellar possession, and MGM’s solicitude began with the choice of transatlantic passage. As an R.A.F. pilot, Deborah’s husband, Anthony C. Bartley, had shot down 15 confirmed planes. But in her new studio’s opinion, it was inadvisable to risk flying flesh & blood that is worth many times its weight in gold. So Deborah and Tony crossed on the Queen Elizabeth.
The studio formalities were a human test before the screen test. Deborah and Tony arrived shortly before noon. The first order of business was meeting Benny Thau, padishah of new talent and liaison officer between Mt. Olympus and sea level. Benny was most cordial. Casually Gable strolled in. One by one, Benny flicked the switch to all the members of the High Council—Eddie Mannix, Sam Katz, Howard Strickling, Arthur Hornblow. One by one they filed in to look over their corporate purchase. They were charmed by this lovely girl. They recognized her at once as a lady. They thought that she handled herself well. In fact, they were more convinced than ever that she was perfect for Kay, The Hucksters’ heroine. Said Deborah later: “It was like being anesthetized. I was cross-eyed looking at everybody.”
Then the big moment arrived. L.B. himself would give them audience. In fact, he had arranged a little intime luncheon in the fourth floor executive dining room, next to the gymnasium and steam room. The hard, magnificent old man was graciously interested in Tony’s war record. He was even more interested, if less conversational about Miss Kerr. But the demitasses were hardly drained before things began to hum at the studio. Deborah knew that she had passed Test No. 1.
“On the Team.” She was taken down to Publicity and introduced to Melvina Pumphrey (Mel is very good with new girls). It would be Mel’s job to help Miss Kerr “adjust” to a new way of life. Mel would be her immediate contact with the public and press. She would instruct Deborah in what to say and what not to say. She would be present at every interview and would report to the studio on what had been said. Deborah and Tony were reminded, in velvet tones, that they were “on the team” now and were expected to “play ball.”
Meanwhile, Producer Hornblow was furiously at work. He called in Irene (Irene is a superb couturiére) and discussed Deborah’s wardrobe. Within a week he wanted to shoot the scene in which The Hucksters’ hero makes a pass at The Hucksters’ heroine, and he wanted a dress for it right away. While Irene rushed to obey, Deborah was rushed to Make-up and Hairdressing. Make-up did everything to Deborah Kerr’s face that the most ingenious cosmetic artists in the world can do. In the end, it decided that it was impossible to do anything for her that nature had not done already. Hornblow agreed (Jack Dawn really knows his stuff). Deborah’s face photographs beautifully with nothing but a base, lipstick, eyebrow pencil and a minimum of highlighting. Then Hornblow and Director Jack Conway studied the hairdressing tests very carefully (L.B. believes in trying everything on film), expressing their feelings in low hieroglyphic grunts.
Somehow Deborah also had to squeeze in two sittings in the portrait gallery (the national magazines would be clamoring for pictures). Then there was the housing problem. The studio took care of that. By the greatest good fortune, Screenwriter Casey Robinson (noblesse oblige) had made his Pacific Palisades house available, a charming English-type cottage spang in the middle of an orange grove. This was a great load off Deborah’s and Tony’s mind (L.B. believes that a good star is a happy star).
That Well-Bred Strain. A week after Deborah’s arrival, Hornblow was ready to shoot the crucial test. Gable, Deborah was told, had agreed to make it with her. An old set was found and redressed. Gable sent flowers. Hornblow sent flowers. The cameras rolled. Gable made his pass and his proposition. Kerr gently but firmly rebuffed him.
Hornblow was elated. That well-bred strain certainly came through. Gable was swept off his feet (Clark recognizes talent when he sees it). Next day Hornblow cut the test. It looked wonderful. The High Council declared it had never seen a better one. By orders from on high, the rest of the studio was allowed to see it, too. Louella Parsons noted in her column that they “all but cheered.” Deborah was officially announced for the part.
Until then, Miss Kerr had been on trial. But at 2 o’clock one afternoon, she was called in unexpectedly, and by 3 she was in front of the cameras. This time it was no test; it was for keeps. Gable had managed to materialize six dozen red roses. He sent them to her dressing room with a note: “Good luck on your opening night from your leading man, Clark Gable.”
The script called for Miss Kerr to make an exit from the elevator of a swank Manhattan apartment building on Gable’s arm, and gracefully to sidestep a mild verbal pass. Gable’s palms were sweating, as they always do before a scene. Deborah, a paragon of self-composure, sailed through without a slip. Cried Gable: “My leading lady, hell! I’m her co-star!” Said Deborah: “I always wondered what it would be like. You come 6,000 miles and then suddenly—bang! crash! wallop!—you’ve done it. It’s like having a tooth out.”
Hornblow was completely won over. Studio executives began shyly to confess that from the beginning they had suspected that Deborah had the makings of a great star. But the credit really belonged to L.B. The scuttlebutt in the fourth floor steam room was thicker than the steam: never had there been a girl better suited to the studio’s peculiar requirements. That flowerlike beauty would thrive in a hothouse atmosphere. Between sessions on the massage table, it was noted that, while she could act like Ingrid Bergman, she was really a kind of converted Greer Garson, womanly enough to show up nicely in those womanly roles which have always proved so soothing to Metro audiences.
All that remained was for people to see The Hucksters, and Deborah would be a star, and quite possibly a major star, overnight. L.B. had bet close to $3,000,000 on that, and L.B. would not have that kind of money to throw around if L.B. had been wrong very often. Down from Olympus rang the declaration: the day after the picture is released, Deborah Kerr will be a big star.
In the Milky Way. And how about Deborah? It is hard to tell about Deborah. During her first few days in the U.S., before the cosmic rays had peppered her very deeply or the great steel rollers had swept over her, she was an excited, self-confident, ambitious girl, not snobbish, or arty, very ready with humor and irony, keenly determined not to be standardized, or forced into dull or silly roles. But by now she has probably realized more clearly that very few things are really up to her. She can simply use her beauty and her talent as honestly as possible under the circumstances. But the circumstances are wholly in the keeping of other people. Metro is giving her her prodigious chance; Metro pays her salary; she is “on the team.” “All I can do,” she says, “is put my faith in my employers.”
Whatever comes of it, she has managed to charm the town, and this includes her employers. Her warmth, her grace and her willingness to accept anyone and anything at face value fascinates Hollywood. So does her husband, who, as a war ace and a son of a knight,* is by no means dismissible as Mr. Deborah Kerr. And they in turn are fascinated. In England, they had been in a land of privation. In their small house in Pacific Palisades, there is a Bendix washing machine, a Westinghouse refrigerator and a gas pipe in the fireplace which makes kindling unnecessary. Says Deborah: “We lean out a window and squeeze a lemon in our drinks. If that isn’t the height of debauchery, I don’t know what is.”
In time Miss Kerr may “adjust” even to Hollywood’s spectacular social life. She and her husband had scarcely been in town a week when they were asked over to Nunnally Johnson’s. Under the impression that this was to be an informal little cocktail spread, they innocently walked in on time (they have not yet learned how to be late). The first bit of Hollywood home life to meet their eye was four men in white coats carrying, to her station behind the roast beef, a half-naked mermaid. Says Deborah: “We were terrified.”
* His North-of-Ireland father, the barrister Sir Charles Bartley, was knighted (1942) after able service in India.