Kay Kendall

Many film actors spend a career looking for a defining moment; a screen performance so pitch-perfect that their name is indelibly stamped on the public consciousness and stardom is assured. Kay Kendall had such a moment, but in one of British cinema’s most parochial films. Her vivacious Rosalie Peters in Genevieve (d. Henry Cornelius, 1953) secured her future as a star, but now unfairly summarises the extent of her fame.

The second daughter of a theatrical couple, Kendall – also the granddaughter of music hall legend Marie Kendall – lived show business all her life. From her mid teens she worked as an extra for Ealing Studios but soon graduated to bigger bit parts. At seventeen she landed a major role in the ambitious musical London Town (d. Wesley Ruggles, 1946), a film best known for its massive box office failure. Kendall, never a great dancer or singer, gave up the business in embarrassment.

In 1950, with a newly bobbed nose, she started the grind back to the top, playing small but safe supporting roles, often as beautiful arm-pieces. A series of high-profile personal relationships helped push her name further up the bill, but her talent kept her in work. After It Started in Paradise (d. Compton Bennett, 1952) she secured a Rank contract and a year later she was offered her most famous role.

The success of Genevieve allowed her greater choice in the kind of roles she wanted to take, but other than a brilliant cameo in Doctor in the House (d. Ralph Thomas, 1954) they were thin on the ground. Nevertheless, given a comedic slant, she would always deliver. She outshone her female rivals in the inconsistent The Constant Husband (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1954) and outsmarted her vain husband during a glorious battle of the sexes in the overlooked Simon and Laura (d. Muriel Box, 1955). These roles offered a glimpse of her potential as an international star and Hollywood became interested.

Around the same time, a routine blood test (she was a lifelong anaemic) revealed that she had leukaemia but this didn’t stop her working.  Chaplinconsidered her for A King in New York (1957) but her eventual break came with George Cukor’s Les Girls (US, 1957). Although billed below Gene Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor, she stole the film and pushed her name into American households, even appearing as herself on The Phil Silvers Show. Starring roles in more American films followed, but by the summer of 1959 she was seriously ill. It remains unclear whether Kendall discovered the cause of her death. Allegedly, her husband Rex Harrison – whom she met on the set of The Constant Husband – never told her that she was dying. Her family was certainly shocked when she died in September 1959.

Their loss was universal. Kendall left a legacy of smart comedies and an onscreen persona that cheekily subverted the staid sexual politics of her day. In her best moments, her timing, delivery and elegant beauty evoked the traits of 1930s screwball heroines. Kendall’s talent was to update these traits into a version of 1950s womanhood at once classic and modern, thoroughly appealing and always memorable.

Dylan Cave Screenonline

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