Thursday, August 9, 2012

Kay Kendall in LES GIRLS (1957)

Kay Kendall -- like Judy Holliday and Madeline Kahn -- was a comic actress who lit up the screen and left us way too soon.
Lovely, lanky, elegant and eccentric, the British actress had a sexy pussycat of a face.  She had that quality Richard Avedon might have photographed for the cover of Harper's Bazaar.  Today, with that talent and those looks, she'd have definitely made the cover of Vanity Fair.  She was a beauty.  She once worked with an Oscar-winning feminist filmmaker.

 I first learned of her when I was a youngster.  My mother loved Kay Kendall.  When she made a point to sit down and watch Kendall one night when her only MGM musical aired on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies, I had a hunch this was something special.  I asked Mom to describe what Kay Kendall was like.  Mom replied that she was "...sort of like a Rosalind Russell."  Spot on, as a Brit might comment.  If Auntie Mame had been redone, Kay Kendall would've been the perfect choice to follow in Rosalind Russell's pumps and proclaim, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"  Mom became a Kendall fan when she saw the 1953 British film, Genevieve.  That was a comedy about an antique car rally competition.  Genevieve is the name of one of the cars.  In one scene, friends go to a posh nightclub.  Kendall's ladylike character gets a tad tipsy, leaves the table and politely interrupts the boys in the band.  She then proceeds to give out with a hot number on a trumpet.  Like Roz Russell, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert, Kay Kendall had the screwball comedy gift.
If a young female acting student asked me to recommend a movie that showcased Kay Kendall's charisma and unique skills, I'd recommend the movie Mom watched that Saturday night:  Cole Porter's Les Girls.  This colorful and clever 1957 film is the first musical comedy directed by George Cukor.  Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg are Les Girls, a talented musical troupe on tour in Paris with their lovable taskmaster of a director/choreographer, Barry Nichols.  This features the last original film score written by Cole Porter and marked the last MGM musical made by the famed actor playing Barry Nichols --  dancer/director/choreographer and real-life taskmaster Gene Kelly.
If you're a fan of fashion reality shows like Project Runway, you too should see this film.  These showgirls give you fabulous runway fashions in the fabulous title number.  Each girl gets to shine in this movie yet Kendall just about steals the picture.  She had the poise, grace and sophistication to be a guest at a high society ball yet she also had the delicious sass of a burlesque queen.  Cukor utilized those qualities in Les Girls.
When I saw this movie, I understood exactly how Mom felt.  There was just something fun and fascinating about Kay Kendall.  She was so fresh and original.
At the heart of this musical comedy is one question:  "What is Truth"?  Did one of the three friends have an affair with the boss?  Did all three fall in love with Barry?  Did one try to commit suicide when the boss broke her heart?  We'll see the backstage story.  We'll see it more than once.  That's the cleverness of this script.
The story opens with tabloids, rich and famous people and a scandalous court case.   England's Lady Wren (Kay Kendall) was the showgirl who absolutely adored cocktails.  Since the act broke up, she married well and got published.  In a tell-all book memoir, she wrote that one of the girls tried to end it all when a love affair with Barry Nichols didn't work out.  The former roommate/former friend, who also married well, takes legal action.  It's the stuff that many of today's reality and entertainment news shows are made of.  Lady Wren goes to court to defend her best-selling book and her reputation.
Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) was an international sensation.  Like in that film, we see the same story from different viewpoints.  Cukor did this previously and inventively in The Marrying Kind, his 1952 film with an original screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.  Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray star is a married couple on the brink of divorce.  In the judge's chamber, they're urged to consider reconciliation.  The wise judge asks how they met.  We hear the wife's version, the husband interjects with his version -- and this is all voiced over a flashback of what actually happened.  There's her version, his version...and the truth.  Here, we flashback to the days of Les Girls.  The American (Mitzi as Joy) and the Brit (Kay as Sybil) watch Barry audition a French dancer.  Did Barry fall for AngĂ©le?
Or did he really have an affair with Sybil -- and did a sad Sybil try to end it all?
Each actress has an invidual number with Gene Kelly.  Taina Elg introduces a tasty new Cole Porter love song in a romantic rowboat scene, Mitzi Gaynor gets the best dance number of her movie career in a Jack Cole-choreographed send-up of Marlon Brando's The Wild One with Gene in Brando biker attire, and Kendall (dubbed) joins Kelly for a spontaneous vaudeville type song 'n' dance number called "You're Just Too Too!"  And don't worry.  There's a happy MGM ending to Lady Sybil Wren's courtroom drama.
This isn't a 4-star classic MGM musical like Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate and the Vincente Minnelli directed Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon, Gigi and An American in Paris.  But, in a way, it's one of most entertaining Vincente Minnelli MGM musicals that Vincente Minnelli didn't direct.  Cukor,  who started directing films in 1930, reinvented himself as an artist when he creatively used new technology of widescreen and art design to direct his first musical drama.  He guided Judy Garland and James Mason to well-deserved Best Actress and Best Actor Oscar nominations for his acclaimed 1954 remake of A Star Is Born.  Cukor should've been a contender for Best Director.  That story included showtunes, self-loathing and suicide in the ascent to Hollywood stardom.  His A Star Is Born is masterful.  He takes the production elements he used for the first time while making A Star Is Born and applies them to Les Girls, a musical comedy.  Later, Cukor would win his Best Director Academy Award for the box office champ, big screen version of a Broadway musical comedy hit. 1964's My Fair Lady starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.  It would be Best Picture.  Harrison, recreating his Broadway role, would win for Best Actor.

Kay Kendall made only two more movies after her deluxe turn in 1957's Les Girls.  One co-starred her husband, actor Rex Harrison.  She died of leukemia in 1959 at age 32.

Before Hollywood tapped her talents, one of Kay Kendall's British comedies was a 1955 film called Simon and Laura.  About the early days of BBC broadcasts, it was several decades ahead of the reality TV craze.  A bickering married couple rejuvenates its showbiz popularity and income by switching over to a reality format, if you will, and letting viewers into their "unscripted" family life on live television.
The viewers believe Simon & Laura are in a state of domestic bliss.  Of course, mayhem will break out.  Especially during the Christmas broadcast.  Kendall's co-star in this satire of the BBC was future Network Academy Award winner, Peter Finch.  Here's some Women in Film history for you:  Simon and Laura was directed by Muriel Box.
Muriel Box was a British screenwriter in the 1940s.  She wrote frequently with her first husband, Sydney Box.  They won Oscars for the Best Original Screenplay of 1946 -- The Seventh Veil.  The psychological thriller about a woman needing to break free of dark controlling forces that block her personal freedom starred James Mason and Ann Todd.

In the 1950s, Muriel Box continued to write screenplays.  She also shattered the glass ceiling in 1949 and climbed into the male-dominated club of British film directors.  Apparently, she didn't get the same kind of respect in Britain that Ida Lupino got in 1950s Hollywood for being a breakthrough movie director.  Nonetheless, Muriel Box directed some major British and Hollywood film talents -- Sir Ralph Richardson, Richard Attenborough, Glynis Johns, Thora Hird, Laurence Harvey, Shelley Winters, Van Johnson and Julie Harris.  Muriel continued to write and direct into the 1960s.
The last film Muriel Box directed was a 1964 comedy based on a hit play of the same name.  Diane Cilento was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the ribald comedy, Tom Jones, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1963.  She followed that by playing the object of love and desire in the film version of Rattle of a Simple Man.
This comedy was about a soccer fan cheering his team on during a match in London.  He meets a woman who may introduce him to another sport.  You see, this simple man happens to be...a 40 year old virgin.  Does that plot line sound familiar?  Keep in mind this was the 1960s.  Nearly 40 years before Steve Carell became a middle-aged virgin.
Muriel Box had an Academy Award when she directed Kay Kendall in Simon and Laura.  Does that technically make her, instead of Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman director to have won an Oscar?  True...Bigelow won for directing The Hurt Locker, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2009.  Ms. Box won hers for Best Original Screenplay of 1946.  What do you think?  I think Kay Kendall and Muriel Box are two women in film worth remembering.


  1. Lovely comments on the divine Kay Kendall - I loved her too ever since I saw Les Girls as a kid. She is also marvellous in that 1955 MGM costume drama QUENTIN DURWARD with Robert Taylor and she fits into this medieval world nicely - Minnelli's THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE is also essential, she is wonderful in it as Sylvia Broadbent, with husband Rex, just watch how she wears that feather boa and that great Balmain wardrobe in this amusing comedy with great interiors. She is sadly frail looking in her last, ONCE MORE WITH FEELING in 1959 (it was released in 1960 after her death), but luckily for us she got to work with Cukor, Minnelli and Donen who knew how to showcase stylish women. GENEVIEVE is still enjoyable and so is SIMON AND LAURA, pure 1950s. There is another from that time THE CONSTANT HUSBAND, her first pairing with Rex.

  2. PS there is a lot on Kay at my own blog .....

  3. Then I must read your blog posts on Kay Kendall. Thanks for alerting me to it. VERY cool!


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