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They Sure Don't Make 'Em Like They Used to: A Tribute to Deborah Kerr

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The late Deborah Kerr, who died just three years ago and would have turned 89 this coming Thursday, was the kind of star and personality we rarely see anymore: a lady first and foremost, who, even playing women of dubious virtue, projected an innate sense of class, dignity, even nobility.

Born in Scotland to an officer who'd been gassed in the First War, like an astonishing number of professionals, her naturally shy nature was able to transform itself above the footlights and on the set to create an actress of unusual distinction and versatility.

Like most all UK actors of the day, her training was hard-won on the British stage, and that hurdle cleared, it was not long before she appeared in front of a camera- look for her in 1942's Major Barbara, starring the incomparable Wendy Hiller.

Starring roles in British productions ensued, followed by the siren call of Hollywood. Over her career, she was nominated six times for the Best Actress Oscar, but never won. In 1994, clearly ailing, she accepted an honorary Oscar, and her brief but eloquent acceptance speech spoke volumes about the special woman she was.

Though effortlessly elegant, by most accounts she was hardly always "proper", and actually chafed at this image. This attitude is reflected in a number of strong, daring role choices, as in Tea and Sympathy (1956), where Kerr plays a boarding school teacher's wife who becomes involved with a student.

Reputedly, when making John Huston's woefully underrated Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), leading man Robert Mitchum was initially concerned about his co-star's supposed primness, until he heard her hurling some well-chosen epithets after a bungled take. The tension broken, Mitchum collapsed in laughter, and two remained close friends up until his death (they would also work together three more times).

Her film work is her enduring gift to us, so without further ado, here are my top Deborah Kerr picks:

The Life and Death Of Colonel Blimp
(1945) -- The prodigious British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, dubbed "The Archers", released this, their first color feature, at the end of the Second World War. The film recalls the life of a career military officer, General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), whose postings and exploits mirror the fortunes of his country. Less war film than human drama, we flash back to Wynne-Candy's younger days, his relationships with three key women in his life (all played by Kerr), and a sorely tested friendship with a German officer (Anton Walbrook). The lengthy but rewarding "Blimp" is a warm, fond salute to a colonial British Empire on the wane, and the officers who served it. Livesey is splendid as the beloved central character, who ages forty years over the course of the film, and Walbrook equally fine as Wynne-Candy's German friend, whom he must oppose in wartime. But a poised young Deborah was never more luminous than in this early role. The esteemed Criterion Collection deserves credit for a gorgeous high-definition transfer of this masterpiece, which makes the old new again.

Black Narcissus
(1947) -- When young Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is asked to open a convent-hospital in a former brothel perched high above a small Indian village, she agrees, knowing that many hardships lie ahead. Once there, she's greeted by sardonic Englishman Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who takes great delight in ruffling Sister Clodagh's habit. But it's jealous, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who eventually succumbs to the dark allure of this exotic, windswept setting. Another success for the Powell-Pressburger team, "Narcissus" is an absorbing, finely acted British melodrama about the secular problems facing a new mother superior in an unfamiliar, potentially hostile environment. The directors even stirred controversy by developing a subtle yet palpable sexual tension between the angelic Kerr and the handsome Farrar. Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning Technicolor photography and Alfred Junge's hand-crafted art design give this film exceptional production values to boot. And Kathleen Byron's celebrated turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth climaxes in a suspenseful sequence that's hard to forget. (This title is now also out on blu-ray, thans again to the folks at Criterion.)

King Solomon's Mines
(1950) -- When a hunter disappears in wild, uncharted parts while searching for the fabled mines of King Solomon, rugged adventurer Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger) is hired by the man's wife, Elizabeth (Kerr), to lead an expedition to find him. Of course, both Elizabeth and her brother John (Richard Carlson) insist on accompanying the group into the jungle, and despite misgivings, Quartermain reluctantly agrees. Shot on location in Africa, and featuring a winning team in Granger and Kerr, "Mines" is a handsome, pounding adventure film with plenty of thrills and romance. Thanks to spectacular camerawork by Oscar winner Robert Surtees, the movie is indispensable purely on a visual level, but Granger and Kerr emit powerful screen chemistry too, which makes the epic journey- including snakes, spiders, lions, rhinos, and assorted African tribes-that much more exhilarating.

From Here To Eternity
(1953) -- Based on James Jones' epic novel, a tough marine sergeant (Burt Lancaster) begins a torrid affair with the wife of his commanding officer (Kerr), while a lowly private (Montgomery Clift) becomes a tragic victim of his own boxing prowess. All this happens right on Pearl Harbor, just as that naval outpost-and the United States itself- literally get bombed into World War II. "Eternity" virtually swept the 1953 Oscars - and no wonder. It remains a fascinating, multi-layered human drama set within the larger canvas of impending conflict. The all-star cast is uniformly excellent. In particular, Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning supporting turn as hot-headed, scrawny Maggio single-handedly revived his sagging career. And the torrid (for the time) beach scene with Lancaster and Kerr still qualifies as one of cinema's most indelible images. Also watch for that culminating Pearl Harbor attack sequence. A must-see.

The King and I
(1956) -- In the 1860's, the King of Siam (Yul Brynner) finds himself with many children to be educated and cared for, so he hires Anna (Kerr), an English governess, for the position. What he does not count on is her firm and independent approach to the job, which creates some colorful, even volatile interaction between lady and monarch. Over time, bonds of mutual respect and affection grow. Walter Lang's gorgeous production delivers a triumphant screen adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway play that turned Yul Brynner into a star. Sets and costumes are breathtaking, the story touching, and each song in the lilting score enchants. Deborah makes a perfect Anna (with help from Marni Nixon, who dubbed her singing voice), a woman strong enough to stand up to- and perhaps even love- a king. This title remains among the cream of family entertainment. It will sparkle eternally.

Separate Tables
(1958) -- This engrossing ensemble piece, adapted by Terrence Rattigan from his own play, portrays a group of mostly lonely, lost souls- including boastful war hero Major Pollock (David Niven), mousy spinster Sibyl (Kerr), her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper), and alcoholic American writer John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) - all staying at the same English sea-side inn. When Malcolm's former wife, faded beauty Anna (Rita Hayworth) appears unexpectedly, the group's collective secrets and dreary emotional baggage come tumbling out into the open. What in lesser hands could have been a mucky soap-fest becomes instead a subtle, sensitive film, thanks to director Delbert Mann's deft handling of Rattigan's Oscar-nominated script. The first-rate troupe of players also includes Wendy Hiller, who (along with Niven) won an Oscar for her performance as Pat Cooper, the innkeeper having an affair with Lancaster. "Tables" stands as poignant drama of the highest order.

The Sundowners
(1960) -- In this, Kerr's second outing with Robert Mitchum, drifting sheepherder Paddy Carmody (Mitchum) is content to roam the Australian countryside with wife Ida (Kerr) and son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). But Ida and Sean fantasize about buying a farmhouse and settling down, and convince Paddy to take a job as a sheep shearer so they can save up for a mortgage. Paddy is less than thrilled with this arrangement, and soon rebels against his new lifestyle. Filmed on location, this breezy Western from Down Under earned five Oscar nominations, and has weathered well over the years as a mini-epic about freedom and family bonds. Mitchum and Kerr square off nicely as hardworking but happily married roamers, and even manage to hold their Aussie accents in check most of the time. Peter Ustinov, playing a chipper ex-officer who comes to live with the Carmody family, provides some of the film's highest humor, especially in his flirtatious relationship with hotel owner Glynis Johns. Precisely what makes a man wander? "Sundowners", which also reunited Kerr with her "Eternity" director Fred Zinnemann, volunteers no easy answers, but it's still lots of fun to tag along.

The Innocents (1961) -- Based on Henry James's "The Turn of The Screw", this shudder-inducing spookfest centers on one Miss Giddens (Kerr), a governess in late nineteenth century England hired to care for two orphaned children in an old English rural estate. Once settled in, she experiences odd sightings and sensations which convince her that supernatural forces are communing with the children. Whether or not she can make anyone believe her, she must protect her charges at any cost. Expertly directed by Jack Clayton and shot by the legendary Freddie Francis, this seminal horror tale uses muffled sounds and fleeting glimpses to cast its spell of dread and mounting terror. Kerr is terrific in the lead, a woman who must determine whether she's being haunted or going mad, and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are eerily remote as the two possessed children. Also look for Michael Redgrave as the children's aloof uncle, who is just wise enough to stay away from the place. Fans of psychological horror should certainly pounce on "The Innocents".

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