Kay Kendall Death Anniversary: Celebrating the Legacy of a Remarkable and Tragically Departed Funny Actress
In September, the 60th anniversary of the death of the great funny actress Kay Kendall came and went without much fuss. It hurt me. Kendall was like a fresh breeze. Kendall was like the British version of Carole Lombard. She was beautiful, sophisticated, and good at acting in serious roles, but she could also be a slapstick goofball when the situation called for it. And just like Lombard, who was only 33 when she died in a plane crash in 1942, Kendall died young of myeloid leukemia at the age of 32.
The New York Times obituary said, “Miss Kendall was that rare thing on stage and screen: a beautiful clown.” “A great comedienne and a statuesque, classic beauty are so rarely found together that producers, along with Miss Kendall’s hard way to the top, tended to think that her qualities were mutually exclusive.”
In fact, Kendall, who was often self-deprecating and nervous, said that she looked like a “female impersonator” with her long, skinny legs after her best movie, LES GIRLS, came out in 1957. I’m 5 feet 9 inches tall. I eat like a horse, and I got too big to dance ballet because of it. I was 10 feet 6 inches tall when I stood on my toes, and my feet fell off.”
Kendall had an effect on the people she knew and worked with, like Mitzi Gaynor, who was in LES GIRLS with her. In 2018, I did a Q&A with Gaynor at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for the 60th anniversary of SOUTH PACIFIC. I asked her about Kendall. She started gushing about how great Kendall was, but when she thought about her, she got teary-eyed, so I quickly turned back to the Rodgers and Hammerstein show.
And I remember that when I brought up Kendall, who he had directed in her last movie, ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING, Stanley Donen, who was usually a bit rude, got very excited. (’60).
As a teenager, Kendall was in revues and variety shows. In 1946, she got her first big movie part in the expensive flop LONDON TOWN, which was one of the most expensive movies ever made in Britain. A person in charge of movies told her, “You’re ugly, and you don’t have any talent.” You’re too big, and you don’t look good in pictures. To find a good man to marry, settle down, and raise a good family.”
She finally got the right part in the classic comedy GENEVIEVE, which came out in England in 1953 and won a lot of awards. The comedy was about two young couples who go on a yearly rally from London to Brighton in old cars. The main stars were John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan, and Kenneth More and Kendall played minor roles.
Kendall stole the whole movie as Rosalind Peters, More’s high-fashion model girlfriend who has a St. Bernard named Susie with her. Kendall’s performance is still as fresh and funny as it was 66 years ago, especially when a drunk Rosalind plays the trumpet at a bar.
The movie THE CONSTANT HUSBAND, which she did with Rex Harrison and came out in 1955, changed her life for good. And there was, of course, a scandal. Harrison was married to Lili Palmer at the time, but he was known as a dangerous womanizer. In fact, Carole Landis killed herself after Harrison had an affair with her in the late 1940s. But they got married in 1957, not long after Kendall’s doctor told Harrison that she only had two years to live. Harrison chose not to tell her she was dying and told her she had anemia instead. Kendall’s own prognosis was never told to her, which was usual in the 1950s for people with illnesses that were likely to kill them. Harrison told a few of her friends, but she didn’t tell her family.
Kendall went to Hollywood to help make the Cole Porter musical LES GIRLS, which starred Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, and Taina Elg and was directed by George Cukor. Kendall got a Golden Globe for her hilarious role as the British performer who is being sued for libel by another chorus girl. Then, in 1958, Vincente Minnelli put Kendall and Harrison in THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE, a fun, silly movie that they both played in. Even though some real-life partners don’t work well together on screen, Kendall and Harrison did. Not only do they have a lot of energy, but Harrison also seems to step back and let his wife shine.
In The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall, a biography written by Eve Golden and Kim Kendall, Minnelli’s wife Lee wrote that Kendall and Harrison “were great together. He cherished her. When he looked at her, you could see that his eyes lit up. They were a great balance for each other; they fed off each other.” She also said, “When Kay walked into a room, everyone laughed within five minutes. Even if you were feeling a little down, you talked to Kay, and by the time you left, you were flying, you were up in the air.”
In 1958, Kendall was “finding it harder to play innocent about her physical condition,” according to the book. Kay was not an idiot, and no one can be that sick for that long without realizing something is wrong.” Even her good friend Dirk Bogarde, who knew she was sick, heard from her. “Diggy, I’m afraid I’m going to die. They won’t tell me what terrible disease I have. I believe I have cancer.” Bogarde did what he said he would do for Harrison, and he tried to make fun of her fears.
Frail, she filmed ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING! with Yul Brynner. She collapsed while filming and was hospitalized with a lung infection and anemia, Harrison said. Kendall finished filming after recovering. After vacationing with Harrison, she returned to London and died in a clinic a week later.
Harrison never mentioned leukemia on her deathbed. In her memoir, Kendall asked Harrison, “Mousey, you would tell me if I was dying?” He said, “Don’t be stupid, of course, I would. You’re alive.” She lapsed into a coma. Kay sighed, “’ I love you very much, darling’ with her last breath,” according to the press.
Feeling again! opened in February 1960. Kendall’s farewell disappointed New York Times’s, Bosley Crowther. “Poor Miss Kendall (who has since died) works hard to be disagreeable, but to no avail. She screeches, fluffs her feathers, throws things, and damages TVs, but just gets feverish. She’s delicate and sad without it. It’s unfortunate her last photo is so vacuous.
Kendall’s insane genius nearly 60 years after the film’s release makes you wonder what she would have done had she lived.