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Robert Osborne on Deborah Kerr
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Remind Me

Robert Osborne on Deborah Kerr

Bette Davis is known to have driven the Warner Bros. to distraction at times, and Rita Hayworth gave her employer Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures a fair share of gray hair. Not Deborah Kerr. You can't find a major actress known for being more cooperative than our beautiful Star of the Month for April. The only problem Ms. Kerr ever gave her bosses at MGM was her name. When she signed a long-term contract with the company in the mid-1940s, no one knew how that last name should be pronounced-like "car"? Or "cur"? That was quickly settled-she preferred "car." But how were they going to teach the public to pronounce it correctly in those days before television talk shows were around to quickly spread the word on anything and everything. Ms. Kerr was already too well-known to change the spelling to, say, "Karr."

The American public didn't yet know her but the Brits certainly did, thanks to some outstanding movies she'd made in her native England such as director Michael Powell's dazzling Black Narcissu and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (both of which we'll be showing on April 13). Meanwhile, MGM was planning to introduce her to worldwide audiences in a big way by costarring her with the number one male star in the movies, Clark Gable. It was only that "car"/"cur" factor which gave everyone pause. It was then that MGM's well-oiled publicity department came to the rescue. Gable's previous picture, 1945's Adventure had been turned into a box-office bonanza with the help of a catchy ad phrase, "Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him." In one swoop, those six words pasted on billboards from Seattle to Savannah let everyone know that not only had Gable returned from World War II duty but he was also in a new movie with MGM's most popular female star, Greer Garson. "Simple," said the publicity chief Howard Strickling. "We'll do it again," and they did. To promote the film with Clark and Deborah six more words were put together in a catch phrase which let the public know, pronto, that Gable had a new film and new costar, and how her name is pronounced. Again, billboards went up every place they could legally be pasted, this time shouting "Gable's new star is Deborah Kerr," noting in parenthesis that "Kerr rhymes with star." It did the trick beautifully, and from that time forward, everyone seemed to know Deborah Kerr's name and how to say it.

Everyone also realized, very quickly, what a treasure she was. As the years ticked by, MGM treated her well with choice assignments in Technicolored blockbusters such as 1950's King Solomon's Mines, 1951's Quo Vadis? and 1952's The Prisoner of Zenda; there were also meaty dramatic roles in films like 1949's Edward, My Son that started her on a path to an eventual six Academy Award® nominations. Later, when she began freelancing, there were more juicy assignments in films that run the gamut from the dramatic From Here to Eternity in 1953 to the musical gem The King and I in 1956 to Tennessee Williams's steamy The Night of the Iguana in 1964, all of which we'll be showing on Thursdays throughout the month. We are screening 19 of her movies in all, including that Gable film which quickly taught everyone that "Kerr rhymes with star." Now if someone would just come up with a catch phrase to let people know it's Martin "Score-SEZ-ee," not "Score-SAY-zee," Edward "Da-MITT-trick," not "Da-ME-trick" and Rita "Mor-WREN-oh" not "Mor-REEN-o," we could all be on the same page as those who belong to those names.

by Robert Osborne