Kay Kendall: Britain's lost bombshell

Kay Kendall never got the films she deserved and died cruelly young. Ahead of a BFI season, Rhoda Koenig tells her story
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The Independent Culture

As they say about crime victims, Kay Kendall was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In her case, the crime was a waste of talent. One of the most delightful of British actresses, Kendall is known as much for her early death, at 33, as for her vivacity and charm. But so few of her films gave her a chance to shine. A natural screwball heroine, Kendall was born too late for the Thirties comedies in which she would have been the equal of the scatty but scintillating Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert, and too soon for the naughtiness and absurdity of the Sixties. Instead, she made most of her films for the cheap and cheerless Rank organisation, and became famous only to arrive in Hollywood in time for the prudish, leaden Fifties.

Kendall was beautiful and funny. She was a true comedian, unafraid to compromise her ladylike appearance with pratfalls, pop eyes, and comic drunk scenes. Kendall could get away with such antics without looking vulgar: her screen persona was that of the elegant eccentric, with swooping, purring voice and her delicate, turned-up nose. The pronunciation, however, was created by a speech teacher. Kendall, born in 1926, was the daughter of a Yorkshire comic dancer whose mother was a well-known music-hall singer.

Her personality was bred in the bone - she seems to have been much the same fun-loving type off-screen, though far more uninhibited. Wildly generous and extravagant, she played practical jokes, carried on in a shrieking, highly theatrical manner, and liked to create a resounding silence by exclaiming "Oh, shit!" or worse in the kind of restaurants that required full evening dress. None of this bohemian behaviour deterred a long string of titled, wealthy, and often concurrent lovers, among them a Swedish prince and one she called her "little butcher boy", James Sainsbury.

At 12, Kendall, with the help of plenty of slap and attitude, looked far older. She got a job as a chorus girl and eventually became one of the students in the Rank charm-school. After a few bit parts, she was given, at 19, a leading role, a promotion that nearly finished her off. Rank had decided that what glamour-starved England needed in 1946 was a musical about the family problems of an old trouper (Sid Field) full of music-hall songs delivered by such sex-bombs as Two-Ton Tessie O'Shea. London Town became famous only for the money it lost, and Kendall returned to a series of dismal movies, each, as could be seen just from the titles (Happy Go Lovely, Lady Godiva Rides Again), worse than the last.

What finally rescued her, in 1953, was an odd little comedy. Genevieve showed off Kendall's rare talent for being both funny and sexy - and, even rarer, both at once, so much so that the Catholic Times warned readers that her presence in the film gave it "unsavoury... smut". Not even a trace of the savoury kind, however, is apparent today in one of the most likeable films ever made. As two couples drive from London to Brighton and back in vintage cars, Kendall's couture outfit suffers from wind, mud and the advances of Kenneth More, whom she astounds by demonstrating that she really can play the trumpet.

But, still under contract to Rank, Kendall was a prisoner of its mediocre-at-best writers and directors, who, after her hit as a naughty, lively girl, put her in The Square Ring, a drama with ponderous dialogue, pincushion-shaped costumes, and a wig that, she said, made her look like "Danny Kaye in drag".

Loaned to MGM, she stole Les Girls (1957), an enjoyable musical, if not as clever or sexy as it pretends to be, from Gene Kelly and her two female co-stars. Her dizzy charm was perfect for the role, whether she was swinging grandly from a chandelier or hoofing joyously with Kelly in Cole Porter's "You're Just Too, Too". But then it was back to white gloves and genteel misunderstandings.

At this point, however, Kendall was not concentrating on her career so much as on Rex Harrison, who had left his wife for her. Wanting to marry him so badly that she even nagged him about it in public, Kendall seemed oblivious to the fact that her behaviour - lots of plate-smashing, followed by torrid making up - was not a good audition for a wife role. The affair would probably have run its course had not Harrison, in January 1957, been called in by Kendall's doctor. What followed was a bizarre romantic drama with a plot that owed more to three-handkerchief movies than to medical ethics. Kendall, said the doctor, had leukaemia. Did she, he asked, have a family? The stunned Harrison said she did not, or none she cared about - a remark for which Kendall's loving sister, Kim, never forgave him. Then, said the doctor, he must marry her, care for her, and keep her illness a secret for the two years she had left. This he did. (He also let Terence Rattigan make the story into a play, In Praise of Love, and starred in it.)

But, while Harrison threw all his acting skill into reassuring Kendall that her dizzy spells and need for blood transfusions were the result of anaemia, his nervous tension and need for supporting players led him to confide in too many others. Kendall's closest friend, Dirk Bogarde, who knew the truth, was sure that she knew it also, but even as she lay dying she denied that she was seriously ill, perhaps to convince herself, perhaps to spare Harrison's feelings as he believed he was sparing hers. As sad as Kendall's end was, it now also seems dated and distasteful, from a period that regarded women as weak and truth as vulgar.

In Kendall's last years, the Fifties were having the stuffing kicked out of them, but too late for Kendall to join in the fun. As Harrison's second wife in The Reluctant Debutante (1958), Kendall plays second fiddle to her stepdaughter, Sandra Dee, and flaps about hysterically at the idea that Dee might spend five minutes alone with an unsuitable boy. The movie was a bellwether of films to come, in which the young, the rebellious and the ordinary took the spotlight. Her own anarchic high spirits restrained so long, Kendall was now too old and too posh for the youthquake on screen, if attuned to its spirit in real life.

The author of the play on which the film was based, William Douglas-Home, was visiting Harrison, who had left his wife to live with Kendall, when the phone rang. Harrison called for her to answer the phone, even though she was in the bath. Wearing only a towel, she took the call, waved merrily to Douglas-Home, whom she had never met, and returned to the tub. The towel was on her head.

Perhaps our greatest loss is that Kendall's most sympathetic role of all was never filmed. Only in a British touring company did she play Elvira in Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward's comedy about a ghost who has a high old time making trouble for her former husband and his second wife. Reproached for her mischief, she merely shrugs. "Why shouldn't I have fun?" she says. "I died young, didn't I?"

The Kay Kendall season runs from 3 to 29 March at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020-7928 3232)

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