Deborah, Pleasure in Hollywood

Motion Picture Magazine November 1957
Deborah and Tony 1957Certain legends die hard, and the legend of Deborah Kerr’s hopeless gentility is one of them. As a result, it is difficult to picture Miss Kerr, complete with halo of decorum, flinging a canoe paddle at director John Huston during the making of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Or embroidering heranger with Anglo-Saxon words reserved normally for the locker room.

It is equally hard to visualize The Duchess (as she has been called behind her back) brushing her teeth with a light Belgian wine in the steamy jungles of Africa, or shoving her date, white flannels and all, into London’s murky Thames River, because he called her “Red” and insisted on whistling at her.

The fact is, this is all woman—alive, spontaneous, genuine. As one movie columnist puts it: “Miss Kerr is more popular in this town than lower taxes, smogless weather and Miltown all rolled into one.”

The inimitable Zsa Zsa Gabor, a doll who rarely, if ever, recognizes the existence of other women, recently proclaimed: “Deborah Kerr is my dream woman, my favorite actress. If I wanted to be anybody other than Zsa Zsa, I’d like to be Deborah Kerr.”

A former suitor, when asked what he thought of her, said: “Being close to her would be like coming home again, or coming alive again.”

It seems strange, in the light of these rhapsodic tributes that when Deborah (she cringes when people call her Debbie) first came to Hollywood, she was sized up as “a dame who would not even know how to kiss a man.” Clark Gable himself shared this view.

When MGM told him that this “glacially aloof Britisher” might play his lady love in The Hucksters, the look of dumbfounded disbelief on his face was pitiful to behold. Nevertheless, a screen test was ordered.

The King, chivalrous to the bitter end, sent six dozen roses to Deborah’s dressing room with a note: “Good luck on your opening night from your leading man, Clark Gable.”

The script called for Deborah to make an exit from the elevator of a swank apartment building on Gable’s arm, and gracefully side-step a 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. Said he: “Leading man, hell! I’m her co-star!”

As for her first screen kiss with The King, Deborah’s smoky-green eyes gleam at the memory. “Both on and off the screen,” she relates, “I was supposed to be this very reserved girl, and the scene was to have double impact because I had to do most of the kissing. Everyone was certain that I wouldn’t know what to do. To complicate matters, my husband, whom I ordinarily can’t drag to a set, was there. Not to see me, but his old war buddy, Mr. Gable.”

“Well, I knew what to do, and I showed them! But all Tony said to Clark was, ‘Watch it man, watch it!’”

Ironically enough, six years were to go by before the Metro brass became convinced that Deborah had, perhaps, a little sex appeal after all. The revelation came after the brilliant first night performance on Broadway of Tea and Sympathy, in which Deborah starred. The very same executives who had been delighted to let her out of her contract with MGM decided they might have been a wee bit hasty in letting a lady of Miss Kerr’s obvious talents escape them.

They came around, hat more or less in hand, and said, in effect, would Deborah please come back? Miss Kerr, not without a gloat or two, made it clear that she was quite happy where she was, thank you.

“We were all in Sardi’s after that first glorious night,” says Deborah, “and our friends from Metro came to Sardi’s too. ‘Would you like us to buy this play as a movie for you?’ they asked. I’m afraid I was only human enough to say, “Thank you, but you’d probably give it to Lana Turner.’”

Normally, Deborah is a lass who shows no sweat or strain even under the most outrageous circumstances. “I know it’s dull,” she says, “but I don’t usually lose my temper. I’m cross in the morning until I have my tea. I groan and grumble and think I look a thousand years old. But it wears off by nine o’clock. The English are great grumblers, but they don’t really mean a word of it.”

Gentleman Bob Mitchum, her co-star in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, maintains that Deborah showed no temper that he could see: she got a bit edgy now and then, but no temper—absolutely no temper.

“Of course,” The Old Moose recalls, “there was the day the two of us were out in this life raft thing off Tobago, chasing the giant turtle that I had to catch to keep us alive. It was hot. The sea was rough, and we had been doing the same scene for what seemed days. Deborah was in that heavy woolen nun’s costume that she wore, paddling the raft, while I tried to keep up with the turtle. John Huston, the director, was following us in the camera boat, yelling, ‘Faster, Deborah! Paddle faster! You’re not working hard enough.’

“Suddenly the paddle in Deborah’s blistered, swollen hands snapped in two. She sat there for an instant, staring at John. Then she picked up the paddle and heaved it straight at him. ‘There, Mr. Huston,’ she said, ‘that will show you how blankety hard we’re working!’”

“But she wasn’t mad,” Mitch says, “just a little edgy.”

“In other words,” Mitch was asked, “you feel there’s really nothing bad you can say about Miss Kerr?”

“No,” said Mitchum, looking all his 6 feet 2, “and nobody else is saying anything bad about her, either.”

Hollywood, of course, was totally unaware that a star was being born in Helensburgh, Scotland, on September 30, 1921. Deborah’s Kerr-Trimmer, was a civil engineer who died when she was 14. Her father’s Scottish good looks came down to her, distilled to a gentle beauty.

Encouraged by an aunt, an ex-actress, Deborah began to study for the theater. She also took a whirl at ballet. But her figure 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.

Then one memorable day in 1940, Deborah was dining in a London restaurant when she was introduced to Gabriel Pascal, the famous producer. In his ripest Hungarian accent, Pascal acknowledged her existence with “Sweet lady, you have a spiritual face.”

By this time, plain living and plenty of walking had etherealized the dumpling Miss Kerr to that lithe spirit which Pascal found so enchanting. Pascal signed her to a personal contract, then loaned her out for a series of more-or-less successful British efforts. Of one of them,Vacation from Marriage, a critic said, “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 most mortals can ever hope to look.”

It was a nice little picture, but in the United States, a solid little flop. However it was Vacation, which brought Deborah to the attention of the MGM moguls and (after Pascal was paid a quarter of a million dollars for her contract) to Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Deborah had met Anthony Charles Bartley, son of a British knight, and an RAF fighter pilot who had bagged some 15 German planes in the Battle of Britain, during World War II. Tony cabled Deborah a proposal when she was on location in Ireland. With characteristic frankness and utter lack of coyness, Deborah wired back: “Yes. When?”

The wedding took place in London, November 28, 1945, in St. George’s Church.

Once married, however, Deborah found herself with a bit of adjusting to do. Handsome Tony had always been gregarious, and although Deborah was by then one of England’s most talked-of new stars, she rarely went to opening nights or took part in London’s social life. She and Tony had scarcely “shaken the rice out of their clothes,” as she says, when Tony blithely announced they were going to a party being given by an old girl friend of his.

“I don’t want to go,” said Deborah. “I hate parties.”

“Put on your new black dress,” said Tony.

“We could easily have had our first quarrel,” Deborah says now, “but I said to myself, ‘why make heavy weather of this’—and I went.”

In that one phrase, a homely family expression repeated so often through the years by her mother, is the theme of Deborah’s life. Even today, Deborah says, “I think most of us tend to exaggerate the problems that come our way in the ordinary wear and tear of life. It can’t be clear sailing all the time, and there’s no use crying every time a small cloud appears.”

The Bartleys first week in cloudless Hollywood was far from smooth sailing. It was, in fact, bumpy with surprises.

Invited to the home of writer-director Nunnally Johnson for what, they believed was to be an informal little cocktail affair, the Bartleys innocently walked in on time, not having yet learned how to be late. The first bit of Hollywood home life to meet their eyes was four waiters in white jackets carrying, to her station behind the roast beef, a half-naked girl. Says Deborah of that night: “We were terrified.”

Later, with a comfortable house near the Pacific Ocean, a washing machine, a refrigerator, and other electronic miracles, Deborah and Tony gained aplomb. She told a friend delightedly, “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.”

Deborah loves the house with its informal gardens, its century-old live oaks, its pool and cabanas, teahouse and outdoor barbecue. (It was on this barbecue that Deborah once splashed a fifth of vodka to speed up the fire for the steaks—and singed off her eyelashes and most of her front hair).

In time, the Bartleys also “acquired” two daughters: Melanie, 9, who has her mother’s red hair, freckles and coloring and her father’s eyes, and Francesca, or Frankie, 6, who is the image of Tony but has Deborah’s eyes. They are youngsters with exquisite manners, but they are also, as Deborah reports fondly, “regular little hambones.”

Of the two girls, Frankie is the more extroverted, Melanie a child with an unfettered imagination. She is also mad about horses.

The horse bit is even carried over into the Bartley’s home life. One evening, when the family was at dinner, Frankie came up with an observation. “Mother and Daddy were married twice,” she proclaimed. “Once when she had me, and once, Mel, when she had you.”

Melanie, ever the horsewoman, looked down at her sister with distain.

“Not had, stupid. Foaled.”

“Obviously, to my daughters,” Deborah says wryly, “I’m just a brood mare.”

Deborah herself has, in the words of good friend William Holden, “a salty sense of humor that surprises everyone. I am not going to say she is just like the girl next door. She’s far from it, thank God!”

On one occasion, when an interviewer told her that she was nothing like he expected, Deborah countered, “Never believe everything you read—or that you write. You should know that.”

When a persistent interrogator demanded Deborah’s opinions on such things as rock ‘n roll, the proper amount of cleavage for a glamour girl, and whether Miss Kerr liked Elvis Presley, Deborah looked the man over with a gleam in her eye.

“You want me to say I like Elvis Presley? Very well, I like Elvis Presley. But why, for goodness’ sake, doesn’t someone ever ask Elvis if he likes me?”

Then there was the international expert on bosoms, who thought he ought to have Miss Kerr’s opinions on the subject of adding to, or leaving well enough alone.

“Gracious,” said Deborah, “does any man want to be married to a pair of falsies? I’m not what anybody would call over-abundant, but never once did I consider wearing those … “appurtenances!”

Hollywood’s fondness for pinning fanciful labels to its stars, like The Bosom, The Body, The Face or The Tonsils, brought a characteristic Kerr retort. A studio press agent suggested she wear wide-brimmed hats all the time so he could inform the press she had to protect her flower-petal English skin from the California sun.

“Good heavens,” Deborah hooted, “and then be known as The Skin?”

Though Deborah likes to picture herself as “a rather tiresome English girl with no color,” she is, in actuality, an interviewer’s delight. Again, it is her curious form of personal magic, which makes writers assigned to do stories on her look forward to the meeting with intense anticipation. It is not that she is so especially quotable, but that everything she says seems to radiate from within her.

Her warmth, her grace and her willingness to accept anyone and anything at face value fascinates Hollywood. Producer Charles Brackett for whom Deborah starred in The King and I, put it succinctly: “Our own happiness is a prerequisite for making other people happy. Deborah makes everyone around her feel at peace because she is one of the few stars I know who is at peace with herself.”

She does not need a battery of press agents to put quips in her mouth. On one occasion when a visitor commented on the two dogs playing about her feet in her sitting room, Deborah explained that the dachshund, Ton Ton, was a new acquisition, while the terrier, Duffy, had been in the family several years. “Duffy, you know, is a great-grandson of Falla, the Roosevelt dog that had the run of the White House.”

“Naturally,” joked the visitor, “Duffy will vote Democratic?”

“Are you kidding?” Deborah, an ardent Republican, retorted, “he won’t be allowed to open his mouth!”

One of Deborah’s most devoted admirers is press agent Sonia Wolfson. Sonia’s favorite story about Deborah is more than cute—it sums up the Kerr approach to life.

“It was shortly after Deborah got back from Tobago and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” she recalls. “They had Deborah in the portrait gallery, doing an Easter layout. She was in her heavy nun’s costume, with a bouquet of lilies in her hand, sitting in front of a huge stained glass window. I came into the gallery, and found Deborah, patient, as always, while Frank Powolny, the portrait photographer, and his assistant were fussing with the strobe lights, which had suddenly conked out.

“I looked at Deborah, in her Sister Angela’s outfit, with the lilies and the stained glass window, sitting so calmly in the midst of the hub-bub. She must have sensed my question ‘Hello, Sonia,’ she said, gently, ‘we’re having a little trouble getting through to the Lord.’”

It was Stewart Granger, on location in Africa with Deborah for King Solomon’s Mines, who once asked her, “Why must you always have people like you?”

The question left Deborah a little shattered.

There is no doubt that Deborah does feel a powerful need to have people like her—and it is the one breach, if breach it is, in a virtually flawless façade.

Other faults she may have, but they are less faults than minor blemishes. They merely make her even more human.

“I admit I talk too much,” she says, “but I’m lucky because I have a husband who doesn’t mind. I’m lazy and I procrastinate, and at times, I’m quite extravagant about clothes. I move pieces of furniture around like mad, because then they feel more like my own furniture, but it also gives me ten months of stiff shoulders. And sometimes I can feel all the stubbornness of a Scot. I can be driven just so far. Then I stick both heels in and refuse to budge. But I don’t think I have any cardinal sins, not really.”

For an actress of her stature—she reputedly gets $150,000 a picture and could do six a year if she had the time—Deborah could sit back, accept the adulation that comes to her and never lift a finger. Other female stars have been known, for a whim, to order a set closed, kick their heels on the floor of their dressing rooms and scream because someone of too lowly a station dared to address them. A typical star affliction is myopia—nearsightedness that permits them to see only those people in their own salary brackets.

Not Deborah. She employs no gradations in the degree of her hellos. She does not reserve the “Big” or “King Size” for the Zanucks, the “Medium” for associate producers and the lower-budget directors, and the “Small,” “Very Small” or “Hmmmm” for underlings.

“Deborah,” says a director who knows her well, “seems constitutionally unable to be anything but charming to everyone she meets, no matter who they are. She appears to have a great dread of hurting anyone, as though she can’t bear to have a single human being leave her presence dispirited. I admit this is only one man’s opinion, and I could be wrong, but to me her lavish welcomes seem to stem from a curious need of her own to be constantly approved.”

Still another close friend reports, “I remember watching Deborah once, when she was in the commissary, lunching with Milt Krasner, the cameraman who photographed her so beautifully n An Affair to Remember. It was as though she were holding court: producers, directors, actors and just ordinary studio people came up, greeted her and went away, looking as though an Oscar had suddenly been bestowed on them. Each person was bathed in identical cordiality, whether he was the head of the studio, or the itinerant jewelry salesman who peddles trinkets to the script girls on the lot.

I wondered, at the time, whether her great need to be liked springs from a deep-seated insecurity.”

Deborah has admitted oddly enough, that for a long time she was terribly shy. “My big trouble was,” she said, “that I was afraid to give. I waited for the other person to take the initiative. Even now, I am shy in new places and with new people. When I stay at a hotel for the first time, I have to take a deep breath before I walk in. If a new waiter brings breakfast to my room, I hide out of sight and desperately hope he’ll leave the tray and go away. Why, I’ve no idea. I’ve always been that way. When I was a child and I was sent on an errand to a strange building, I would lie and say I had done the errand, but the truth was, I didn’t have the courage to enter the building.”

During a recent interview she said, bluntly, “I don’t like myself. I have always wanted to be other people—not any single other, but many others. I don’t care if nobody recognizes me on magazine covers.”

Sometimes, she cannot believe it is she whom the public admires. Not long a go in London, at the Actors’ Orphanage premiere of The Prince and the Showgirl, Deborah was there with Tony. She received such an ovation descending the stairs that she looked around, thinking Marilyn Monroe was behind her.

Most of Deborah’s life, an intimate friend revealed, is lived inwardly and in loneliness. Part of this stems from the fact that Tony is often away as much as six months out of the year, working on European film and TV commitments.

Probably part of the reason she fell in love with Bartley is that he has a breezy informality and a totally un-English lack of reserve. “He can give so much of himself,” Deborah says. I didn’t begin to lose my own shyness until I married Tony. He has a wonderful way of getting along with people. He can walk into a room as though he owned everything in it. And I admired him for it and tried to copy his attitude because I feel it’s important to be that way. Some people are born with charm, but I believe it can be developed with a desire to give of yourself.”

When she and Tony were first married, one of Tony’s ex-girls said, spitefully, “I give it two years.” The Bartleys have been married 12.

Tony, or The Daddy, as he is known around the Bartley ménage, thinks enough of his wife to see a picture of hers four times.

“It happened in New York, not long ago, he admits with an embarrassed grin. “Deborah was in Hollywood. I was in the East on CBS business and had just put Bob Mitchum on a plane for the Coast, when I got such a longing for Deborah that I decided to go off by muself and see Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison for the fourth time.”

Deborah is honest enough to say: “Living apart occasionally is good for people. More often than not, I am at one end of the world and Tony is at the other. But one must be realistic about marriage. It sounds cold-blooded, but it isn’t. Tony entered into marriage with me knowing that I would always be an actress. If he’d wanted a quiet homebody, he could have married the Vicar’s daughter.”

That she is not the Vicar’s daughter is obvious in An Affair to Remember. There is a scene on the trans-Atlantic liner where Deborah and Cary Grant first discover they are in love. Watching the filming was a group of studio executives, certainly no strangers to love scenes.

The action called for Cary Grant to come downstairs from an upper deck, while Deborah was going up. First you see their feet pausing, then the camera moving up to their hands on the rail as the two lovers come together, then the hands move away and you realize Deborah is reaching upward to embrace Grant. It was a scene of adult love, magical and beguiling, and Deborah played it with the poignancy of a remembered dream.

When director Leo McCarey called “Cut!” one of the visiting studio executives turned to his friends. “Well kids,” he said, with resignation, “we can now go home to our wretched wives.”

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