Top Ten Deborah Kerr Films
Deborah Kerr: the perfect embodiment of the proper British lady. She often appeared onscreen as the archetypal English lady in the best sense of the word: full of charm, wit, and poise (although, in reality she originally hailed from Scotland; not England). But, her characters often harbor an undercurrent of passion beneath their elegant exteriors. There's a romance to Deborah Kerr that distinguishes her from other British leading ladies of the studio era. Despite her often prim and proper manner, she projects a fragility and a natural warmth that prevents her from ever appearing too cold or unapproachable.
A disciplined actor at heart, Kerr started her career within the British film industry before going on to even greater success in Hollywood. Although she never won an Oscar for any of her films, she was nominated no less than 6 times for Best Actress (and you'll see the majority of her nominated films represented on this list). Later in life, she was even honored by the Queen of England as a Dame Commander of the British Empire. So, if you'd like to learn more about the work of this flame-haired British beauty, please read on!
FYI: I chose the order of my Deborah Kerr top ten by considering each film's importance in Deborah’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Deborah Kerr film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “THE KING AND I” (1956) –
Based on the classic Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein (which is itself based on the book, Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon), The King and I stars Deborah in what easily became her most iconic and beloved role. The film tells the true story of Anna Leonowens (Deborah), an English widow hired by the King of Siam (played by an Oscar-winning Yul Brynner) as a private tutor for his many wives and children. But as soon as Anna and her young son, Louis, arrive in Siam, they discover that the King has already ignored one of Anna’s main terms of employment. Namely, that he would provide her with her own separate residence. Instead, the King intends for Anna and her son to live inside the main palace, an arrangement she is not entirely comfortable with. Over time, Anna and the headstrong King’s relationship becomes increasingly complex and the monarchy of Siam will never be the same. Originally, the role of Anna was to be played by the great stage actress Gertrude Lawrence, who had won a Tony for the role on Broadway. However, when Lawrence unexpectedly passed away from cancer, it was Yul Brynner who suggested that Deborah be cast instead. Although Marni Nixon provides Deborah’s singing voice for the film, the two women, actually, spent a great deal of time working in the recording booth in tandem, in order to create seamless transitions between Anna’s spoken dialogue and her songs. The actual filming of The King and I was an unexpectedly grueling one for Deborah. Many of her sumptuous dresses in this movie, actually, weighed between 30 and 40 pounds. The heavy costumes paired with the production’s hot lights resulted in Deborah losing 12 pounds over the course of filming (and prompted her to give herself the nickname “The Melting Miss Kerr”).
2. "BLACK NARCISSUS” (1947) –
Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, this atmospheric and sensual film stars Deborah as Sister Clodagh, the young Sister Superior of a group of British nuns who are sent to a remote location in the Himalayas to set up a school and hospital for the local people. But, being exposed to such an exotic and isolated environment may stir up more psychological and emotional turmoil than anyone has predicted. Made by the British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus was once described by Powell as the most erotic film they ever made and, indeed, passion seems to brew just below the surface of every scene. This underlying tension is heightened by the film’s striking Technicolor photography courtesy of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who used the paintings of Johannes Vermeer as his main inspiration. Although set in India, Black Narcissus was, actually, shot entirely in England. The movie’s Indian settings are created almost entirely by the use of breathtaking matte paintings.
3. “THE INNOCENTS” (1961) –
The perfect example of gothic psychological horror, The Innocents is, actually, an adaptation of Henry James’ classic novella The Turn of the Screw (the name, The Innocents, was taken from the 1950 stage version). Deborah stars as Miss Giddens, an inexperienced governess who is hired to look after two orphaned children in their isolated country manor home (known as Bly). The children’s uncle (and legal guardian) lives in the city and intends to be bothered as little by the children as humanly possible. At first, Miss Giddens enjoys getting to know the children, finding them both polite and well-behaved. But, as time goes on, she begins to question some of their behavior, finding them occasionally bizarre and disconcerting. She, also, becomes plagued by visions of mysterious figures and strange sounds echoing around the house. Is she just imagining things or is there something wicked lurking along the grounds of Bly? Much like the novel its based on, this eerie and ambiguous film is largely up for interpretation. Most of the film’s script was, actually, written by Truman Capote (around the same time he was researching his ground-breaking novel, In Cold Blood). To create the movie’s graphic light and dark effects, cinematographer Freddie Francis used both unusually bright lights and candles with extra wicks. In fact, the set was so bright that Deborah sometimes needed to wear sunglasses between takes. It all was worth it though, for even Deborah, herself, considered her performance as Miss Giddens to be the very best of her career.
4. “AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER” (1957) –
This beloved romantic film stars Deborah as Terry McKay, who is traveling home to New York by way of a luxurious European cruise. While on the ship, Terry happens to run into famous playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and although she initially spurn his advances, it’s not long before the two are completely smitten with one another. It would be the makings of a perfect love story, if not for a few tiny hiccups: Terry is in a serious relationship with another man and Nickie is (quite publicly) engaged to another woman. Although An Affair To Remember has become the most well known version, this movie is actually a remake of director Leo McCarey’s own 1939 film, Love Affair, making it one of the handful of cases in film history in which a director has been given the opportunity to (literally) remake their own film. Although this movie uses a great deal of the original Love Affair film script, Deborah and Grant, also, improvised many of their scenes together, giving the film an extra spark unique to this version. But, this quietly romantic film greatly owes its continued popularity to the movie Sleepless In Seattle, which chose to use An Affair To Remember as an ongoing theme and a prime example of perfect romance. After that film’s release, video sales for An Affair To Remember skyrocketed, giving the film a renewed popularity it has rightly enjoyed ever since.
5. “HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON” (1957) –
Set during World War II, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison once again features Deborah playing a nun stuck in an isolated environment. This time, she plays the role of Sister Angela, a nun who has, accidentally, become stranded on an island in the South Pacific. But, shortly after she arrives, Corporal Allison of the U.S. Marines (Robert Mitchum), also, finds his way to the island, having barely escaped a Japanese attack on the submarine he had been traveling in. At first, the prospect of being stuck on such a well-supplied island, actually, doesn’t seem too bad to the mismatched pair. They could conceivably live comfortably for years, if need be, until they could be rescued by Allied troops. However, things start to look much more grim when a Japanese ship finds its way to their tiny island. Based on the novel by Charles Shaw, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison marks the first time Deborah had an opportunity to work opposite Robert Mitchum. The two become very close during filming and remained good friends the rest of their lives. Both directed and co-written by the great John Huston, this surprisingly sweet movie was, actually, filmed on location in Trinidad and Tobago. But unfortunately for a movie requiring a large cast of Japanese soldiers, at the time, there were no people of Japanese descent living anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago at all. All of the Japanese speaking roles ended up being performed by 6 Japanese expatriates who had to be flown in from Brazil. All of the rest of the extras were of primarily Chinese descent and, therefore, did not know a word of Japanese. In fact, many of the extras had simply been grabbed from local laundrymats and restaurants in order to fill out the large cast.
6. “KING SOLOMON’S MINES” (1950) –
Set in the late 1800s, this version of King Solomon’s Mines is, actually, the 2nd film adaptation of Henry Rider Haggard’s classic novel. Stewart Granger stars as the legendary hunter Allan Quatermain, who has lately been making his living in Africa as a safari guide for English and American tourists. But when one of the local natives is killed during one of these safaris, Quatermain decides he has lost his taste for dealing with ignorant and disrespectful tourists. So, when Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah) and her brother, John, show up to enlist his help in finding her lost husband, he doesn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. He only agrees after they offer to pay him his full fee regardless of whether they, actually, finish the expedition or not. It turns out that Elizabeth’s husband disappeared while looking for a legendary mine in a mysterious and unexplored region of Africa. Using a copy of the map he had in his possession, the trio set out to follow his footsteps. But even with the vast experience of Quatermain to help them, the explorers have no way of preparing for the dangers they will face. Interestingly, Deborah’s character of Elizabeth, actually, does not appear in the original novel at all. She was added to the story in order to provide the film with a female lead, a decision that had, also, been made in the earlier 1937 adaptation and virtually every film version that has been made since. Filmed almost entirely on location in equatorial Africa (including Uganda, Rwanda, the Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, and Kenya), King Solomon’s Mines, actually, acts as an amazing mini travel guide to the wonders of the African continent and its people. All of the African characters in the film are played by actual African tribesmen, including, most notably, the Watusi tribe, marking this as the very first time the tribe had ever allowed themselves to be filmed. Staying in line with the African cultures featured so heavily throughout the film, King Solomon’s Mines does not use a traditional music score at all, instead relying entirely on African tribal chants and drums to set the film’s scenes.
7. “THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP” (1943) –
Partly inspired by the satirical Colonel Blimp comic strip by David Low, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tells the life story of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), a traditional British army officer who, by 1943, seems rather comical and old-fashioned to the young soldiers who serve beneath him on the Home Guard. The majority of the film is told in flashback, as we see how Clive went from the young impetuous soldier he started out as, to the blustering elder statesman he eventually became. Deborah appears throughout the film in three separate roles: as Edith, the woman that got away, and the two women Clive surrounds himself with later, who remind him of his long lost love. This very British film was written, produced, and directed by the British filming team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (whom Deborah would later work with again in Black Narcissus). A combined tribute and satire of Britain’s “old guard”, the film was written with the line “you don’t know what it’s like to be old” as its main concept. Originally, Laurence Olivier was set to play Clive, but when he couldn’t be released from his service in the British Royal Navy, Roger Livesey was cast instead. To his credit, Livesey gives an amazing performance as Clive, going from a young soldier to an old man completely seamlessly (to the point that you could, actually, convince yourself that they’re being played by two separate actors). Due to its reference to the Colonel Blimp caricature, as well as, its sympathetic portrayal of a German officer, the film was met with quite a bit of controversy when it was first released. Winston Churchill, in particular, even tried to stop the film’s production, worried that they were furthering the “Colonel Blimp stereotype”. Churchill, also, prevented the film from being exported to other countries for a couple of years, meaning that the film wasn’t even released in the US until 1945 and, even then, it was a heavily edited version. However, time has earned this film new respect (especially in Britain) and the unedited original cut is now readily available stateside.
8. “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY” (1953) –
An instant hit when it was first released, From Here To Eternity focuses on the trials and tribulations of three soldiers stationed on an army base in Hawaii in 1941. But, of course, these soldiers have no idea that their lives and problems will all lead up to one fateful day at Pearl Harbor. Filmed on location at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, the film features an incredible cast, including Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, and even George Reeves (TV's first Superman). Deborah plays the role of Karen Holmes, the long-suffering wife of Captain Dana Holmes, who begins a passionate affair with one of her husband’s subordinates, First Sergeant Milton Warden (played by Lancaster). Deborah, notably, played against type in this film and in fact, is nearly unrecognizable with her platinum blonde hair and American accent. In fact, From Here To Eternity marked a turning point in her career, challenging her established ladylike personae and opening the door for her to play a greater variety of roles. At the time, many thought that James Jones’ novel, From Here To Eternity, would be impossible to film due to its adult content and length, but were proven wrong when the film went on to win 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Frank Sinatra and Best Supporting Actress for Donna Reed. Shockingly, From Here To Eternity's most famous scene (the iconic shot of Karen and Warden kissing on the beach) was almost cut by the censors. But, (lucky for film history) Columbia Studios stuck by its guns and refused to get rid of it.
9. “QUO VADIS” (1951) –
Based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel, Quo Vadis tells of the fall of Nero and the early rise of Christianity. Robert Taylor stars as Marcus Vinicius, a Roman general who finds himself falling in love with a beautiful Christian girl named Lygia (Deborah), who has been raised as the adopted daughter of another respected Roman general ever since she was taken as a hostage of war as a small child. The more time Marcus spends with Lygia, the more he learns of her strange new religion. All the while, the emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) is becoming more and more unstable, making him increasingly dangerous. Quo Vadis is a sword-and-sandal epic on a grand scale. The film features no less than 110 speaking roles alone and still holds the record for the most costumes ever used in a single film with a grand total of 32,000. Its success has even been credited with saving MGM from bankruptcy. Music buffs should, also, pay close attention to the film’s unique score. Composer Miklos Rozsa chose to weave fragments from ancient Greek melodies throughout the film in order to create a kind of aural historical accuracy. Although Quo Vadis is full of grand performances, Peter Ustinov is particularly memorable as the villainous emperor Nero. Ustinov had, actually, been tapped to play Nero long before filming began, but producers, initially, had concerns that the 28-year-old would be too young for the role. Ustinov smartly responded to that claim by reminding them that Nero had died when he was only 31, meaning that if they waited too long, he would, actually, be too old for the part. They responded with a memo that Ustinov always kept and treasured: “Historical research has proved you correct”.
10. “THE SUNDOWNERS” (1960) –
Based on the book by Jon Cleary, The Sundowners not only reunited Deborah with her good friend Robert Mitchum, but also, her Quo Vadis co-star Peter Ustinov. Deborah and Mitchum star as Ida and Paddy Carmody, a married couple living in Australia with their son, Sean. Paddy works as a drover, which means that the family must live constantly on the move, without an actual home to call their own. Paddy enjoys the nomadic drover life, but Ida and Sean long to settle down somewhere in a house of their own. Paddy doesn’t take their desires very seriously, but Ida is determined to make her son’s wish come true and starts to lay out a plan to help them earn enough money for a down payment on Sean’s dream house. But, can Ida ever rein in her husband enough to allow that dream to come true? A kind of Australian pioneer film, The Sundowners offered an earthier role for Deborah and her usual elegant personae completely disappears within her performance as Ida. Originally, Gary Cooper was to play the part of Paddy, but failing health forced him to drop out. Mitchum, immediately, agreed to step in due to his close friendship with Deborah and even agreed to give her top billing (joking that they could even make a sign of him bowing to her, if they wanted). At director Fred Zimmemann’s insistence, all of the film’s exteriors were filmed on location in Australia, but the harsh weather of the Australian outback made filming a bit more difficult than usual. But, in the end, it was all worth it. For there is no replacing the unique vistas and atmosphere of the real Australia.
HONORABLE MENTION: “EDWARD, MY SON” (1949)
For my honorable mention this time around, I have chosen the film that earned Deborah her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. A British and American co-production, Edward, My Son stars Spencer Tracy as Arnold Boult, a Canadian expatriate living in London with his wife Evelyn (Deborah) and their newborn son, Edward. Arnold is so dedicated to the welfare of his only son, that it starts to border on obsession. He will do anything to ensure that Edward gets what’s best, no matter how big the sacrifice or how ruthless it might require him to be. But, Arnold’s blind devotion to his son may, actually, end up destroying everything he holds dear, including his precious Edward. Directed by George Cukor, this bitter and essentially tragic story was based on the play of the same name by Noel Langley and Robert Morley. The film, actually, follows very closely to the original play, with the only major difference being the change of Boult’s nationality from British to Canadian. Just like in the play, the titular Edward is never, actually, seen onscreen. However, his spirit haunts every scene, creating a perfect picture of the kind of man he eventually becomes. Going from the age of 19 to 65 throughout the course of the film, Deborah gives an absolutely stunning performance as Evelyn, the woman forced to watch helplessly as her husband slowly destroys their family.
And if you would like to learn more about the elegant Deborah Kerr, check out Deborah Kerr: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua.
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