“Whistle a Happy [Birthday]”

Heaven Knows why we assume half a century to be a period spanning From Here to Eternity and think that anyone active or prominent back in the late 1950s must have long since departed. It might be the lack of respect Western cultures have for maturity that renders our elders invisible. No doubt, it is our own fear of old age that makes us close our mind’s eye to the kind of changes over which we have less control than we would like to believe. It is awkward to begin a birthday tribute with such a confession; but, truth be told, I was unaware that Deborah Kerr is still in a position to celebrate this anniversary. In the case of Ms. Kerr’s (previously featured here), birthdays were not always a joyful occasion. “I’m thinking of my birthday in Tobago, in the British West Indies” the actress once recalled for the readers of The New Film Show Annual:

We were on location there for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.  John Huston, our director, knowing it was my birthday, decided to give me a party the day before, as it was a day off for the company. It was a wonderful party.  Next day I thought, “There will be a cable from Tony [Bartley, Kerr’s husband],” but by lunch time nothing had arrived from England where he was on business.  I was feeling very neglected, but cheered up a bit when I found Mr. Huston had given orders for the whole unit to have lunch with me at the Blue Haven Hotel instead of on the set.  After a while the company, led by Bob Mitchum, sang ‘Happy Birthday.’  A guitar was heard—it was “Skipper” playing it; he is the famous Calypso singer of the Islands and had been brought from Tobago especially for the occasion.  He started to sing about my husband and children. “Skipper” for some reason transposed [daughter] Francesca’s name to “Manchester” which brought a good laugh from us all.  I was still feeling dispirited behind the show of gaiety I was putting up, when a waiter appeared carrying a gaily decorated tray, while he intoned “with love from Mr. Bartley.”  Now I was all smiles—real ones—and I know everyone felt relieved that I was not forgotten on my birthday.

Bartley later joined Kerr on location, on a day when she was playing a scene in a swamp and, “covered with mud,” was sure she “looked like Dracula’s wife.” Now, Kerr never got to play the bride of the bloodthirsty count; but, aside from appearing in films like The King and I, An Affair to Remember, or Separate Table (a stage production of which I discussed here), Kerr did get to star on Suspense and play the heroines of 19th-century fiction in adaptations of Persuasion and Jane Eyre.

On 17 December 1950, she was cast in a telescoped production of The Women, which was soundstaged on 17 December 1950 for Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show (the premiere of which I celebrated here). Kerr plays Mary Haines (portrayed by Norma Shearer in the 1939 film adaptation) opposite Dorothy McGuire (as Peggy) and Ms. Bankhead (as Sylvia).

I am going to catch up with Ms. Kerr by watching Major Barbara (1941), the film that started her career in pictures; it was shown somewhat prematurely last Friday on Britain’s Channel 5. In her article for The New Film Show, Kerr (or an appointed amanuensis) expressed her gratitude for having been given the chance to play “the little Salvation Army girl,” a role that led to “bigger and better parts.” As said girl, Shaw’s Jenny, would have put it: “Oh dear! How blessed, how glorious it all [was]!”

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