Continuing with Spanish magazine Nickelodeón interview at length with Deborah in her home in Marbella.
José Luís Garci. Marbella – August 1st, 1995
Jose Luis Garci: Black Narcissus (1947) is the last film you do in England before going to Hollywood. Did MGM grant you that time?
Deborah Kerr: Yes, and as soon as that shooting was done, in the summer of 1946, I went back to California to make «The Hucksters» with Clark Gable. I should have gone earlier but I really wanted to do Black Narcissus and things could be arranged. Ben Goetz, the manager of the British MGM offices dealt with Louis B. Mayer so I could stay and shoot in Pinewood.
JLG: I understand MGM asked for a great deal of money so you could do that.
DK: They did but Powell managed to lower the amount quite a lot.
JLG: Yes, from 20.000 pounds to 16.000 pounds, which was an exorbitant amount of money at the time.
DK: I don’t know… I guess it was what unknown American actresses were making at the time. It was also ten times more than what I was making at the time. But, as I told you, Powell and Pressburger made Metro see that the British film industry was not comparable to the American.
JLG: Black Narcissus is a masterpiece to my eyes. With that outstanding beauty, its sensuality and its erotic undertone so ahead of its time…
DK: And we shoot it all inside a set in Pinewood.
JLG: It seems impossible. You can see the Himalaya so clearly… No wonder Jack Cardiff won the Academy Award for it.
DK: And it’s even more impressive when you think that those were some really early steps in color films. And how about Hein Heckroth’s work?
JLG: Heckroth! He was a master. I think he was the best artistic director in movie history. It wasn’t just the sets, it was the whole of it. he gave the film a texture, a feeling… his work was astounding in «An American in Paris». He was so… oh, please, do go on, I am sorry I interrupted you again.
DK: I like that you show such passion for Black Narcissus. I share that. I haven’t seen it in a very long time. It was the story of a nun’s community who built a school and hospital in a lost village in the Himalayas. I believe the place they were building it had once been a palace dedicated to love, wasn’t it?
JLG: Yes, it was a place known as «The Palace of Women» and the air still smelt of narcissus. It was also a story about the rather sexual love two nuns felt for a man, the British delegate in the area. The script was a somewhat free adaptation of a novel by Rumer Goden.
DK: The cast was extraordinary. I played Sister Clodagh, the superior. But, you know what? When I first read the script I told Michael that the best part was Sister Ruth’s. He said: «Are you insane? Sister Clodagh is the main lead. Sister Ruth is just a great part». But I was right. And now, when you watch the film, you realise that it’s sister Ruth who holds up the weight of the whole story. The somewhat nervous and over excited sister Ruth whom Kathleen Byron played incredibly wonderful.
JLG: Yes, she was magnificent.
DK: No, she was more than magnificent.
JLG: Ok, I’ll give you that. But you were amazing in it too. The whole cast was, Flora Robson, David Farrar and Jean Simmons included. And I am not the only one to believe that, it is said that when the heads of MGM saw the film they congratulate each other cause they said they had hired a jewel more valuable than what they had bargained for!
DK: And do you remember Sabú as the young General?
JLG: Indeed. Also a wonderful performance.
DK: Well, but Kathleen Byron, her Ruth, was something out of this world. And it’s only fair that I mention it. The scene where she feels rejected by Farrar is of such power, such sincerity.
JLG: With Farrar so ambiguous, with that expression in a Gary Cooper style, with that violet gleam in his eyes. He was fantastic.
DK: Oh yes, he had violet eyes! Same as Liz Taylor.
JLG: I can’t recall any other actor with eyes that color. There were some problems with censorship in the States. Especially concerning your character, weren’t they?
DK: Yes. HTey cut all the flashbacks, all the scenes when my character remembered the love affair she had had before taking the habit. Those were very delicate and sensitive scenes, there were some much richer sexuality undertones throughout the rest of the film but those were the scenes they decided to cut. It was a shame.
JLG: Now one can see the whole film and, as you say, those scenes do not have the same humid turbulence the rest of the film has.
DK: Black Narcissus was of great influence in other films but also in the plastic arts, design, architecture…
JLG: Next stop: Hollywood.
DK: Right. To Michael’s great despair. He asked me to marry him and break the contract. He was of the opinion that we should make our own films in our own country, that Hollywood couldn’t offer a really great opportunity.
JLG: Which wasn’t entirely true cause this other redhead they took, Greer Garson, was very nicely treated. Including the Oscar for «Mrs Miniver».
DK: Michael hated Hollywood. he said they didn’t value the arts in there. He refused ever offer he received from Hollywood and he even told me he simply didn’t want to become Mr. Kerr.
JLG: It worked out for Hitchcock. Or David Niven. And yourself, of course.
DK: I always thought it was some kind of adventure with a chance of success. I didn’t have much to lose. If it didn’t work out, I could always come back. My relationship with Metro was a good one too. Not only had they allowed me to do Black Narcissus but also I See a Dark Stranger and The Adventuress while I was under contract with them. I had no complaints.
JLG: I have yet to see that one. But our colleague, Miguel Marías has and he liked it very much. You were given the New York Critic’s Award ex aequo for that one and Black Narcissus, right?
DK: Yes. It was the story of a young Irish girl who hates the English and travels to London as a German spy but then falls in love with a British officer. The best part of that film was Trevor Jones and the sarcastic humor in most of the situations. I don’t know why but most people didn’t really understand that kind of humor. The film also had a documentary aspect that was quite interesting. And I felt really comfortable in the part.
JLG: How was that early Hollywood?
DK: I think we should start explaining that there have been several Hollywoods. Mine, the one I remember, well, my first impression of it was of a peaceful sunny clean place, with no contamination and big blue skies. My life there was never glamorous. I didn’t go to Metro as a sexbomb but as an unknown young actress. I have never liked much going out to the fancy sites. Naturally, when I HAD to go, I did go. Openings, parties, that kind of thing.
I have this anecdote though, on my very first night there, before i even recovered from the jet lag, David Niven picked me up to attend a party at writer’s Nunnally Johnson’s home. He was also a producer and he had already written «The Grapes of Wrath» and «The Woman in the Window». He was a very prestigious man. Anyway, as soon as we crossed his door, we were lead to the swimming pool area, where the other guests were drinking and talking. There were also ten blond beautiful girls who happened to be nude from the waist up and wore some kind of blue fabric fins. Nunnally had just finished shooting «Mr Peabody and the Mermaids» and he thought that having half of Hollywood at his place, that would make great publicity. Needless to say, I remember anyone was hardly capable of look any other way than the mermaids… and their breasts, of course.
JLG: I imagine so.
DK: Working in Hollywood is quite hard. If you are not shooting you feel frustrated, but if you shoot one film after another, which is what I did, you end up exhausted. You should realise we worked six days a week back then. You’d wake up at 5 am and go straight from home to the studio. Metro was in Culver city and it was almost an hour drive. I was living in a beautiful house in Pacific Palisades. Mind you, there already were traffic jams on freeways. At eight you had your make up on, the hair was done, you were dressed and had been offered coffee quite a few times and ready to shoot. You went back home at seven or eight, sometimes as late as ten. The only think you really felt for was a long bath and get into bed with your script.
When I wasn’t shooting, or some Saturday evenings, I would go have dinner at Romanoff or Brown Derby on Rodeo Drive. There were also Ciro’s, Mocambo or Trocadero in Sunset Boulevard which was then called the Strip. Those were the hot places to go but I enjoyed quiet better. I liked going swimming at Malibu or dining at some friend’s home. I especially enjoyed spending time with the British colony over there, which was rather full. Ronald Colman, Niven, Aubrey Smith, who was an adorable character, you know, people in my trade. In any way, Hollywood was a very nice and comfortable place to go shopping or just go for a walk. It had good beaches and interesting people. The whole town, though, breathed the cinema. The industry was quite powerful. I think in those years – the end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s – were the best years of Hollywood. Better event han the 30s. Some truly wonderful films were made.
JLG: Tell me about The Hucksters.
DK: It was directed by Jack Conway who had been a pioneer. And there was Gable. I loved Gable since I was quite young. I couldn’t believe it. There was I saying my lines to no other man but The King. Besides Gable there were Sidney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou, KeenanWynn, Edward Arnold and a new girl called Ava Gardner – one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. I remember I wrote a letter to Michael telling him that the brunette with the New Orleans accent would steal the film. Greenstreet was great as the owner of a soap company. And Gable, well, Gable was something else. He didn’t need to be a great actor – which he was – because he had something else that was far more important than acting well, bad or regular. He had magnetism,a bewitching personality. He came in and the scene changed.It was the same with Cooper. They belonged to another category. They were Stars. Real Stars. Thrilling people with a sight much different from he rest of the mortals. Ava was also unique. She moved like a leopard. But Gable made us feel in a cloud.
JLG: Which differences did you find between Hollywood’s way to make films and the films in England?
DK: All the shootings are the same anywhere int he world. Metro was undoubtedly a very powerful company, maybe the most powerful, and it all worked perfectly, there was no mistake in the engineering of the production machine. But the shooting, is always the same. The director chooses the setting, sets the cameras, sets the lights and then comes a brief rehearsal and then you shoot.
JLG: «If Winter Comes» (1948) is your second American film.
DK: It was by Victor Saville, an English director that I already knew, although not too well. He had made a lot of films in England in the 30s. He felt he was more of a producer than a director. And, funny enough, his biggest hits were as a producer and not a director: «The Citadel» (1938) and «Goodbye Mr. Chips» (1939)… He was also considered a producer more than a director in Hollywood. Having produced Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde for Metro granted him some prestige.
As a director, Saville was very careful about the sets and the lightning. He was a very cultivated man, maybe it’s better to say he was a sophisticated man. But he lacked a little charm to direct.
JLG: And we arrive to your first Academy nomination, «Edward, my Son»…
… To be continued.
(There are still about 20 pages to go. I might die before I finish translating this!!!)