Kathryn Grayson: Actress and singer described as 'the most beautiful woman in the history of movies'

Monday 22 February 2010 01:00

The singer and actress Kathryn Grayson was a resident soprano at MGM from 1940 until the early Fifties, her films including the acclaimed versions of Show Boat and Kiss Me, Kate. She was particularly favoured by producer Joe Pasternak, who had moved from Universal, where he had brilliantly handled the career of Deanna Durbin. Grayson's operatic background and training appealed to the producer, who liked to mix classics with popular songs in his musicals.

With her heart-shaped face, turned-up nose and ample bust, she portrayed a more mature persona than the young Durbin, and in 1946 Pasternak signed another soprano, Jane Powell, but the two were not rivals – while Powell's films had great appeal for teenagers and paired her romantically with adolescent males, Grayson's leading men included Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza and Howard Keel. Keel, a frequent co-star, described her as "the most beautiful woman in the history of movies".

Her 39in bust prompted her to decline the studio's requests for pin-up pictures, as she did not want to be known as an "operatic Jane Russell". Though it was considered that her voice would have been too thin for the operatic stage, she handled her songs on screen with likeable style, her twinkling eyes and cupid's bow lips engaging her audience as she sang such numbers as "Jealousy", "Be My Love", and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes".

Born Zelma Kathryn Hedrick in North Carolina in 1922 to an estate agent, she was raised in St Louis, where her music-loving family encouraged her to start singing lessons. Frances Marshall, a singer with the Chicago Light Opera, heard her sing and took over her tuition. When the Hedricks moved to Hollywood she continued her musical studies and began to work on radio; she was on an Eddie Cantor programme in 1940 when MGM talent scouts heard her and offered a contract. Though she still hoped for an operatic career, she accepted.

She married for the first time in 1940 to another contract player, John Shelton. Like many of MGM's young female stars she was given her first role in one of the Andy Hardy series, Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941), in which, in between helping teenager Andy sort out his troubles, she sang the mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor and Cole Porter's "I've Got My Eyes on You". She also had vocal opportunities in Frank Borzage's nostalgic saga of the old South, The Vanishing Virginian (1942) and she was pleasingly partnered by tenor John Carroll in an updating of the Broadway operetta, Rio Rita (1942).

Borzage directed her again in Seven Sweethearts (1942), in which, as the eldest of seven daughters, she is under pressure to find a beau because her siblings cannot wed until she does. Her success in the film convinced MGM that she was ready to play the romantic lead in a lavish musical, Thousands Cheer (1943), a wartime flag-waver with a host of guest stars including Judy Garland and Lena Horne.

Her leading man was Gene Kelly, and Grayson was next teamed with Kelly and Frank Sinatra in George Sidney's Anchors Aweigh (1945). Kelly and Sinatra were two sailors on leave who woo Grayson, playing a film extra whose ambition is to sing for conductor-pianist Jose Iturbi. All three stars were given prime moments to shine, and Grayson's songs included three that became associated with her: the seductive tango, "Jealousy", a vocal version of Tchaikovsky's "Waltz from Serenade in C Minor" entitled "From the Heart of a Lonely Poet", and a rapturously tender version of "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings", arguably her finest musical moment on screen. With Sinatra singing several Styne-Cahn numbers, and Kelly performing his celebrated dance with Tom and Jerry among other highlights, Anchors Aweigh was an enormous hit.

Grayson was top-billed in her next film, Henry Koster's Two Sisters from Boston (1945), a frothy account of two Boston-raised girls (Grayson and June Allyson) who move to turn-of-the-century New York. In the film, she was billed at the saloon as "High C Susie", but Grayson's high notes became the subject of controversy when it was revealed that in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), in the final number, "There's Beauty Everywhere", her high B flat was dubbed by Suzanne Corliss. The sequence was the film's worst, with set and song smothered by coloured bubbles. Said director Vincente Minnelli, "You can't direct bubbles!"

In the screen biography of composer Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By, Grayson sang the role of Magnolia in the film's opening pot-pourri of numbers from Show Boat. (She played Magnolia again when MGM filmed Show Boat in 1951.) She was partnered on "The Song is You", which was eventually cut, by the handsome young crooner, Johnny Johnston, and in 1947 they wed. Grayson's marriage to Shelton had ended after six separations, reconciliations and a miscarriage.

Her next film, It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), teamed her with Sinatra and Durante in an enjoyable musical in which, as in Anchors Aweigh, Sinatra pined for Grayson but lost her to another (in this case Peter Lawford). Her next film with Sinatra, The Kissing Bandit (1948), was a disaster that both stars preferred to forget.

Grayson then teamed with MGM's new discovery, operatic tenor Mario Lanza, in That Midnight Kiss (1949), in which she sang Verdi's "Caro Nome" from Rigoletto. Audiences responded well to the couple, who then co-starred in Toast of New Orleans (1950), in which they introduced "Be My Love", which became a best-seller for Lanza. Their on-screen harmony was not echoed off-stage, Grayson objecting to Lanza's lack of manners and vulgar language.

She was teamed with Howard Keel in George Sidney's Show Boat (1951), a vibrant version of the Kern-Hammer-stein masterpiece. Grayson and Keel sang the songs of Kern again in Lovely to Look At (1952), a remake of Roberta that both stars reputedly disliked making, though it is entertaining and contains some of their best work.

Her MGM contract at an end, Grayson moved to Warners for two films. The Desert Song (1953) was a listless remake of the operetta warhorse, and So This Is Love (1953) was an equally flat version of the life of opera star Grace Moore.

At MGM, producer Jack Cummings was preparing a screen version of Cole Porter's outstanding stage hit, Kiss Me, Kate, and Joe Pasternak pleaded with Deanna Durbin on Cummings' behalf to make a comeback in the star role. Durbin, married and living in France, declined, and MGM asked Grayson to return and star opposite Howard Keel.

Made in 1953 in 3-D, Kiss Me, Kate was a great success, but the great era for film musicals was ending. In 1955 she made her nightclub debut at the Sands in Las Vegas, then announced that she was retiring to be a full-time mother. Although Grayson had divorced Johnston in 1951, the pair had had a daughter, Patricia Kathryn (nicknamed Patty-Kate) in 1948. Though she never remarried, Grayson had several beaux in the '50s, including Robert Evans (later head of Paramount) and Howard Hughes, to whom she was briefly engaged.

Returning to performing, she accepted concert and night-club engagements, and played a season at the London Palladium to mixed reviews. She took occasional roles on television, singing on the shows of Perry Como, Dean Martin and Pat Boone, and in 1956 she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the drama, Shadow on the Heart.

In 1961 she made her stage debut in The Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta, and in 1962 she replaced Julie Andrews as Guinevere in Camelot on Broadway, touring the following year until she withdrew after collapsing due to "nervous exhaustion". In 1965 she was rushed to hospital after what was described as "an accidental overdose of barbiturates".

In 1968 she and Howard Keel formed a double act, performing in night clubs, making a successful tour of Australia and touring together in Man of La Mancha. In regional theatres, Grayson was able to realise her ambition to sing in opera, appearing in La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, La Traviata and Orpheus in the Underworld. She also displayed her emormous sense of humour in Michael Frayn's hilarious farce, Noises Off.

In the 1980s she appeared in several episodes of the television series Murder, She Wrote, with her chum from MGM days, Angela Lansbury. She turned down offers to write her memoirs, stating that she had tried, but refused to write a "kiss and tell" book. "I'm a Pollyanna," she said. "I had to stop writing because I was saying everyone was beautiful."

Tom Vallance

Zelma Kathryn Hedrick (Kathryn Grayson), singer and actress: born Winston Salem, North Carolina 9 February 1922; married 1940 John Shelton (divorced 1946), 1947 Johnny Johnston (divorced 1951; one daughter); died Los Angeles 17 February 2010.

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