Thursday, September 29, 2011

Deborah Kerr: Both the Ideal and the Flesh-and-Blood Woman

The following is my contribution to The Darling Deborah Blogathon at Waitin' On A Sunny Day.

The title of this piece is taken from a quote by film director Michael Powell.  When asked about Miss Kerr, with whom the great auteur was then having an affair with, he said, "I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for."  And this is exactly the type of woman that the lovely Miss Kerr plays in the Powell/Pressburger classic, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

In this beautifully structured 1943 British-made film (not only one of Powell/Pressburger's best, but in this critic's not-so-humble opinion, one of the greatest films of all-time) Kerr takes on triple duty as three incarnations of the same ideal beauty, taken form of flesh-and-blood.  We first meet Kerr when the film flashes back to 1902.  She is Edith, an English teacher working in Berlin during the Boer War.  Kerr's Edith, ends up getting caught up in a silly international affair, and in doing so becomes close to two men, an English and a German officer.  The English officer, the (somewhat) titular Colonel (his name is actually Clive Candy, later Clive Wynne-Candy), is played by Roger Livesey, and the German by Anton Walbrook, a regular rep player with Powell/Pressburger (henceforth known by their dual nickname, The Archers).  Now even though she is not the title character, it is Kerr who is the heart and soul (if that doesn't sound too cheesy) of the film.  With obvious desire emanating from both of these men, it is she - and later, seeming personifications of she - that will come to enrapture these men, Livesey's Col. Candy especially, throughout the course of their history.  Edith will go on to marry her German suitor while Candy will head back home to fight another day.  

We then jump to the First World War, and to Candy's meeting a young nurse named Barbara Wynne.  This becomes Kerr's second role in the film.  With an obvious striking resemblance to Edith (of course), Candy realizes what he had lost when he let Edith go back in 1902, and he finds himself immediately in love with the young nurse.  This ideal woman made flesh-and-blood once again, she becomes the shining light in this stubborn foolish man's life - a light that this  lonely character so desperately needs.  The two are married and given the home life Candy has been missing all these war torn years and eventually the film jumps ahead to the modern day world of WWII.  We find that Barbara has died of an undisclosed illness sometime before the start of the war, but this by no means ends Kerr's performance in the motion picture.  The actress now takes on the role of Angela "Johnny" Cannon, a young officer who works as Candy's driver.  Of course Johnny's resemblance to both Edith and Barbara is quite stunning (duh) and once more, though now it is more a fatherly love than anything else, this ideal woman has been made flesh-and-blood.  Kerr, with these three roles, is Powell's answer to that ever-so-elusive ideal woman.  The actress becomes the very personification of true love - and it is no wonder considering the auburn-haired beauty, so full of grace and desire and passion, could easily be mistaken for that very same thing offscreen as well.

Kerr would of course go on to play many more great roles (her most famous probably being From Here to Eternity where she famously rolled around in the surf with Burt Lancaster, and The King and I), including another for The Archers as a nun in Black Narcissus, and receive six Academy Award nominations (never winning though!?) but it is her triple play in Colonel Blimp that I believe the Scottish-born actress was at both her sexiest (though she does fill that part quite nicely in many other films, including as a nun of all things) and her most ideal woman state of mind.  With these three roles, Kerr was able to, through no act of her own, other than being that so-often aforementioned ideal woman made flesh-and-blood, control the lives of the film's male leads.  A brilliant movie indeed (as I said, one of the greatest of all-time) but also a bravura turn from Kerr, only 22 at the time, who manages to personify these three different characters, and make each one a different person, while also giving each  one part of the others.  Powell would eventually end the affair when Kerr made it clear she would rather go to Hollywood than stay in the UK, but thankfully he was able to get these roles out of her while he still could. 


Sophie said...

I completely agree that TLADOCB is one of the greatest films of all time. I'm always astounded by the subtlety with which she so beautifully characterises each of the three women. I think people often don't appreciate more subtle performances like many of Deborah's, purely because they're not as bold and noticeable.

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon! I really enjoyed reading your post :)

Kevyn Knox said...

Thank you for letting me be part of your blogathon. And keep up the good work you do at your site. It is always great to see younger fans of classic film.

Natalie said...

Life Goal #3: Learn to write as well as Kevyn Knox. Haha. ;) I think I'm going to try to find this movie...

Kevyn Knox said...

No one can write that well. Just kidding. I know many people personally that can, but thanx for the compliment.

You will not be disappointed when you find and watch it. Gorgeous film.