On what would have been her 85th birthday, ROBERT LEEMING looks back at the short, glittering, but almost forgotten career of a rising 1950s British movie star.
Bubbly and silly in a dignified and staid era, the vivacious Kay Kendall is a somewhat forgotten star in the long archive of British cinema’s personalities.
A tragically early death for many an iconic performer has tended, oddly, to secure their immortality, but Kendall’s premature departure in 1959 cut short a budding and promising career before it really had time to take root in British cultural consciousness.
In the month in which she would have celebrated her 85th birthday, the time is ripe to re-examine a woman who some critics have dubbed “Britain’s greatest female comic actress”.
Kay’s career almost never took off the ground. Her first leading role was in the 1946 musical-comedy, London Town, one of the most expensive turkeys in UK movie history.
Yet Kendall, a Yorkshire-born one-time chorus girl, had something original to offer. Her pristine glamour was twinned, unusually, with a streak of pure English eccentricity.
Rejecting the sedate and serious image actresses before her had adopted, she offered instead sass and a scatty charm.
Unafraid of showing emotion on her face, or of playing a joke to the extreme, Kay managed the almost impossible trick of being beautiful and funny at the same time.
After a series of underwhelming Rank Organization pictures she was saved by Genevieve in 1953, a charming if slightly parochial comedy which sees Kay, Kenneth More, John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan trundling across southern England in the London to Brighton car rally.
Kendall arguably steals the film with a riotous five minute trumpet solo, five minutes of harmless fun for which she is probably best remembered.
‘Impertinent and rakish’
Being broke or being bored were both common occurrences in her life, prompting Kay to flit about London erratically from one chaotic flat to another.
This kind of lifestyle was not something that a debonair character such as Rex Harrison was used to coming into contact with, but when they met, on the set of The Constant Husband in 1955, he fell head over heels – and before long, so did she.
“She was very easy, full of fun, beautifully inconsequential, flirtatious, impertinent and rakish,” Harrison wrote of their first encounter – “full of fun” being a description which certainly couldn’t be applied in equal measure to to him.
Harrison was twenty years her senior and married to Lilli Palmer at the time.
His relationship with Kay opened up an entire new world for him, as she dragged hand-in-hand across London to cafes and nightclubs and bookshops he wouldn’t have looked at twice in the past.
Kay was never afraid to knock the often pompous Harrison down a few pegs in public either.
In December 1954, Rank put Kay’s contract on hold.
She had long since tired of the empty parts the company had been offering her and had found much more satisfaction on the stage, playing Elvira to great acclaim in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
She left for America in 1956 when Harrison scored his career triumph playing Professor Henry Higgins in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady.
Although her brash personality did not appeal to the New York society circles she found herself in, the American media could not get enough and MGM came calling, offering her the lead in Les Girls with Mitzi Gaynor and Gene Kelly - an excellent role she would ultimately win a Golden Globe for.
“She is a comedienne who can be funny in the mere tilting of an eyebrow.” wrote one critic. “She is a constant pleasure and surprise.”
Secret death sentence
It was by chance that, before the new season of My Fair Lady opened, the producers suggested Harrison get a health check-up.
Feeling under the weather for some time, Kay decided to join him. Her blood tests caused concern – and she was asked to return for more.
After spending a blissful Christmas gadding about New York with thoughts of Hollywood and potential marriage on her mind, Harrison returned to his doctor to be told Kay had been diagnosed with myelocytic leukemia and could expect to live just another two years.
Harrison, deep down, still loved Lilli Palmer, hence the delayed divorce; his first reaction was to fly Lilli to New York.
They met in private, with the doctor, and came to the conclusion, without Kay’s knowledge or participation, that she should never be told of her illness.
Harrison would write that he dealt with the situation with a gallant resignation, regretfully accepting the doctor’s advice that he marry Kay and nurse her to the end.
Lilli Palmer recalls Harrison sobbing in the taxi, and wailing, “I can’t do it, she needs a strong person, and when it’s all over, what will I be left with? I’ll be alone.”
Between bouts of ill health Kay managed to make another two films: The Reluctant Debutante in 1958, which also stars Harrison, and Once More with Feeling!
This comedy with Yul Brynner would be her final film. She struggled to complete a day’s work and only just managed just to complete her scenes before retreating to a London clinic, where she would succumb on September 6 1959.
Whether Kay ever really knew the true extent of her illness is open to debate. She was far too intelligent not to question her constant weakness and need for blood transfusions, but if she didn’t buy Harrison’s cover story that she was suffering from anaemia, then she certainly never told him.
Some have said that she did know, but wanted to save Harrison’s feelings. Either way the whole affair was a sad article of its time.
Subversion and charity
Her legacy is slender, certainly, but its effect is not inconsequential.
Kay Kendall’s career set the tone for the change in the way women would appear on the screen from the 1960’s onward, and she began the subversion of the sexless British stars which had gone before her.
Her name lives on today in the form of the Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund, which awards grants for leukaemia research.
Her grave can be found in the pretty yard of Hampstead Parish Church, with the final line on her memorial stone reading: ‘Deeply loved wife of Rex’.