Nobody Whistles at a Lady (1949)

December 1949

By Maxine Block


“Good women are so dull,” said Deborah Kerr. “I can’t imagine who’d be intereste in me”.

One person who was interested turned up at that very moment. Our interview, which was being held in an MGM office, was interrupted by the studio’s copy chief, who sad that ever since he’d seen Edward, My Son, he’d wanted to meet her. Deborah. although a bit flabbergasted, was charming to him.

studio personnel are notoriously unromantic about film stars, and this middle aged, white-haired, hard-bitten ex newspaperman admitted that there were only three stars he’d admired enough to want to meet. To him they were the greatest actresses of our time – Greta Garbo, Helen Hayes and Deborah Kerr.

deborah Kerr deserves that compliment. L.B. Mayer, a notably impulsive man with a dollar, brought the British import over hereon a fabulous contract which raised loud whistles from the top brass in MGM’s front offices nd despairing low moans in stars’ dressing rooms. For that contract specified seven year’s work at $3,000 a week for fifty-two weeks each year. And no nonsense about options, either. At the time, four other studios were bidding madly for Miss Kerr’s American services.

The Scottish lass with the soft English accent must have something. Plenty.

If you saw her magnificent Academy Award caliber acting in Edward, My Son, you’ll understand what all the shouting was about. For deborah’s deeply emotional portrayal of a woman slowly disintegrating through the years toward her alcoholic death caused critics of acting to throw their hats in the air and yell “Bravo!”.

“Deborah, you surprise us,” I told the lovely star with the blue-green eyes and red-gold hair. “You were so feminine, so fragile n The Hucksters. How then could you transform yourself into the drunken ol crone of Edward, My Son? In your British-made Colonel Blimp you played three women of different generations; in Black Narcissus you portrayed an unhappy nun in the remote fastness of the Himalayas; in The Adventuress, an Irish girl complete with a thick brogue; in vacation from Marriage, a dowdy wife wrapped in a shawl and suffering from perennial sniffles. Wherever did you learn to portray such a variety of women?”

“By using my eyes”, Deborah declared. “an actress must be enormously observant. When I enter a room, for instance, I notice what people in the room are wearing. I observe how they sit, stand, talk. I am not a nosey busybody – all these things are grist to an actress’ mill. People are my perennial study. Everything I observe I put away deep within my memory, and whenever I need it I reach and drag it out of my subconscious.

“All actors have a bit of ham in them… And they love playing old people. Because you have so much to work with – the quavering voice, the stiff gait, the special way of sitting down, of peering out of old eyes.”

As Deborah talks, her own enormous eyes mirror her understanding, her gaiety, her quicksilver animation. she never appears to sit still. She admitted that she is deathly afraid of being typed, of having to portray dull or namby-pamby characters.

“I must get my teeth into a character,” she explained. “I’m not a beauty. My figure doesn’t elicit wolf whistles. Frankly, I’d rather be emotional on the screen that merely ornamental, anyway. But I like light comedy too. And in my next film, which is Please, believe Me, I play a wacky English girl, a real character”.

In her few short years of acting Deborah Kerr has come  along way. the daughter of a Scottish architect, she was born on the banks of Loch Lomond in a tiny village, Helensburgh. Her aunt ran  dramatic school in Bristol, and stage-struck Deborah could hardly wait to take the low road there to study ballet and dramatics. Small bits in open-air stock companies and radio followed.

And then she met Hungarian-born producer Gabriel pascal. “Recide sommsing to me”, he asked her. she gave him the Lord’s Prayer. Gabriel blew his horn and Deborah was on her way up. In seven short years she skyrocketed from a drab London YWCA room and about $7.00 a week to her present $3,000 every Friday. (The Man with the Whiskers relieves her of half of that sum, though.)

In spite of the fact that she had achieved a good bit of fame in England it’s understandable that when she came to Hollywood in 1947 she felt some trepidation at being swallowed up in the whirlpool of movie publicity.

“I told my first interviewer,” she recalled laughing, “that I wouldn’t pose for pictures showing my suspenders. Very gently he informed me that in Hollywod suspenders suspend trousers. What I meant, he said, were garters!”.

Luckily for Deborah, she had no cheescake photographs to make. But she has discovered cheescake and lemmon pie as favorite desserts. And hot dogs too have their charms. “But I do deplore”, she says, “the American custom of eating sweet, treacly marmalade instead of the really bitter orange variety”.

Deborah, her handsome, former RAF hero husband, Anthony Charles Bartley, and their adorable baby, melanie Jane, all live happily n a large, roomy Riviera-style house in Pacific Palisades hard by the ocean front.

The baby was only five months old when Tony and Deborah took her to England where Edward, My Son was being filmed. “It was a real expedition,” Deborah said. “We took the baby’s nurse, cases of milk, special formula, baby food, a “pram” and stack and stacks of trunks. It was alsmost like the migration of a small circus”, she laughed.

“How do you like Hollywood?” I asked. “I love it, but I am the despair of the publicity department,” Deborah replied sadly. “Week after week goes by and nothing sensational ever happens to me. I am an enthusiastic gardener, but what can you make, newswise, out of that?

“I love the ladylike housewifely accomplishments like arranging flowers, playing the piano, collecting Bristol glass and antique furniture. Yet, that’s just the role I hate to play on the screen.As I said before, good women are so deadly dull, dramatically speaking. Maybe I ought to keep my Mrs. Miniver home life a secret to the studio so that they don’t start casting me to type. I love taking long walks along the beach with Tony, playing tennis, going swimming and dancing. But most of all I love taking care of little Melanie ont he nurse’s day off.

“One thing though, I won’t do. And that’s drive a car here, though I drove in England. People don’t drive so madly over there.

“I don’t ever want to stop acting – not even for six months! I’m such a ham that I can’t bear the thought of ever giving it up. If you’re an actress, I think you must keep on acting, until you drop. I’ll take time out to have more babies – but I want to be acting when I am a grandmother!”

That, Deborah, doesn’t surprise  us at all!

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