Film Studies: Kay Kendall, the lost heroine of screwball comedy

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'In the history of British cinema few actors are as familiar, yet seem so distant, as Kay Kendall." So begins the National Film Theatre's introduction to a short season of films with Ms Kendall. Except that I wonder about the "familiar". When I raised the topic at this paper, my excellent youngish editor admitted he wasn't quite sure who she was. And for film buffs this steady meeting with ignorance grows nearly every day. Going to a lecture at a college in Michigan recently, I had a student driver who didn't know who Jack Nicholson was. And then the very same night, giving out the Oscar for Best Picture, Jack himself said "Crash?", as if keeping up to date was becoming a bigger problem than he'd ever guessed.

All right - Kay Kendall, who was she? And why should we pay attention? She was born Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy in Withernsea in 1926. Withernsea is beyond Hull - and I know that that can sound like a contradiction in terms, because Hull was once regarded as the last outpost of Larkinian civilization before the North Sea came crashing down on a helpless shore. But Withernsea is on that bleak membrane, 15 or so miles east of Hull. In 1926, it might have raised a wild, beach-combing girl. Not in this case: Kay Kendall grew up tall. Indifferent to the unhelpful state of being an outcast, not just a great beauty, but one of the most sophisticated looking women you had ever seen. She seemed made in Belgravia.

In fact, she came from a line of theatricals - her grandmother was the great Marie Kendall, and there is every sign that this Kay was so possessed of inner smarts that no parents saw much need for education. She was tall enough for the Palladium chorus line when she was 13 (isn't that a subject for a movie?) and at the age of 17 she co-starred with Sid Field in London Town. Field then was a monarch of the music halls, and Kendall was plainly begging for opportunity. But London Town was a disaster.

The mystery of her life is that in the years after 1945 - an adventurous era in British film - she managed to go unnoticed by Michael Powell, Carol Reed and David Lean. In fact, Kendall dropped off the screen altogether and only returned in small parts in Dassin's Night and the City and Lady Godiva Rides Again.

But then, for 1953, she got a part in this funny, old-fashioned film, Genevieve. It may be that Genevieve is unknown today, but it was a huge hit in its time with its story about old-car enthusiasts (old crocks, they were called) in the annual London to Brighton race. John Gregson was one of the men, and he was married to nice Dinah Sheridan. The other driver was Kenneth More, who turned up with this tall, languid and gloriously daffy girlfriend, as if he had found her in screwball comedy. Kay Kendall was the joker in the film, not least in the dance-hall scene where she joins the band and plays a very hot trumpet (probably synched by someone such as Eddie Calvert).

Suddenly Kendall was in, at the age of 27. She had six years left. She was in Doctor in the House and then she played opposite Rex Harrison in The Constant Husband. Harrison was more or less married to Lilli Palmer, but he was always more or less married to someone else. An affair began, and they would be married in 1957. Whether that helped Kay Kendall or not is hard to tell: Harrison was not the easiest man to be with. Still, she did Simon and Laura with Peter Finch (directed by Muriel Box), and then she went off to Hollywood to be the lady love of Robert Taylor's Quentin Durward, as in The Adventures of... Only an absent-minded Harrison could have encouraged that.

By then the actress was ill with leukemia, and apparently Harrison took it upon himself to keep the news from her. It's another kind of movie, maybe. Kendall was in Les Girls (for George Cukor) and she and Harrison had an all-too-easy hit in Vincente Minnelli's movie of The Reluctant Debutante. Her last film was Once More With Feeling, where she steals the picture from Yul Brynner, who plays her conductor husband. That was the saddest thing about Kay Kendall - she was left to steal pictures in a world where talented and fond men might have made entire movies for her and her comic timing. She was very sexy but she made fun of sex. She was upper-class, yet itching to be a tramp. If only she had known Preston Sturges - they might have saved each other and kept the flame of screwball burning for another 10 years.