Kendall, Kay

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Nationality: British. Born: Justine Kendall McCarthy in Yorkshire, England, 21 May 1927. Education: Attended convent school. Family: Married the actor Rex Harrison, 1957. Career: 1939—stage debut, then with sister Kim Kendall, in a touring variety act; 1944—film debut in Fiddlers Three; 1946–49—on stage in plays and revues; 1957—American film debut in Les Girls. Died: Of leukemia, 6 September 1959.

Films as Actress:


Champagne Charlie (Cavalcanti); Fiddlers Three (Watt); Dreaming (Baxter)


Waltz Time (Stein) (as Lady-in-waiting)


Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal); London Town (Ruggles) (as Patsy); Spring Song (Tully)


Night and the City (Dassin); Dance Hall (Crichton) (as Doreen)


Lady Godiva Rides Again (Launder) (as Sylvie)


Wings of Danger (Dead on Course) (Fisher) (as Alexia); Curtain Up (Smart) (as Sandra); It Started in Paradise (Bennett) (as Lady Caroline)


Mantrap (Fisher) (as Vera); Street of Shadows (Vernon) (as Barbara); Genevieve (Cornelius) (as Rosalind); The Square Ring (Dearden) (as Eve Lewis); Meet Mr. Lucifer (Pelissier) (as Lonely Hearts Singer)


Fast and Loose (Parry) (as Carol); Doctor in the House (Thomas) (as Isobel)


The Constant Husband (Gilliat) (as Monica); Simon and Laura (Box) (as Laura); The Adventures of Quentin Durward (Thorpe) (as Isabelle)


Abdulla the Great (Abdullah's Harem) (Ratoff) (as Ronnie)


Les Girls (Cukor) (as Lady Wren)


The Reluctant Debutante (Minnelli) (as Sheila Broadbent)


Once More, with Feeling (Donen) (as Dolly Fabian)


On KENDALL: articles—

Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, London, 1972.

Lloyd, A., "Funny Girls and Funny Ladies: Kay Kendall," in Films and Filming (London), November 1983.

Film Dope (Nottingham), September 1984.

Golden, Eve, "Kay Kendall: Too Little, Too Late," in Classic Images (Muscatine), March 1995.

* * *

When Kay Kendall died at the age of 32, she had made a couple of dozen films, nearly all of them mediocre or worse, and none using more than a fraction of her talents. That she can still, 30 years later, be remembered with affection and regret, shows how far she was capable of transcending her material.

Startlingly tall (at 12, she qualified for the chorus line at the London Palladium), beautiful, and never more graceful than when she was acting helplessly drunk, Kendall brought to comedy a sharp intelligence and a sense of spirited self-mockery. Her ability to be at once sexy and funny—and all the sexier because she was funny—led several critics to compare her to Carole Lombard. But it also puzzled the studios, who never knew quite what to do with her. By the time they found out, it was too late.

Early in her career, she got what looked like her big break. At 19, with only a few negligible bit parts to her credit, she landed the female lead in one of the then most expensive British pictures ever made. This, unfortunately, was London Town, a direly inept musical with which Rank misguidedly hoped to storm the American market. That it flopped was no fault of Kendall's, but her career was blighted: no films for four years, and then back to the bit parts—mostly socialites and gangsters' molls.

Not until Genevieve, which she and Kenneth More stole from the nominal leads, John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan, were Kendall's idiosyncratic talents revealed. Her performance as More's fashion-model girlfriend, progressing through hauteur, disbelief and fury to final resignation in the face of rampant male lunacy, was witty and appealingly bemused, culminating in the tour de force of her drunken trumpet solo. Here, for all the evident lack of experience, was one of the great screen comediennes in the making.

Rank, disconcerted, pushed her into some unsuitable dross. She fought back with spirit, holding out for better roles, and matters improved slightly: Simon and Laura, with Peter Finch, and The Constant Husband, with Rex Harrison (whom she married), at least verged on sophistication, though hardly stretched her in either case. Kendall made no secret of her dissatisfaction with the material on offer. "If you're a film actress in Britain," she told the press, "you spend your life smuggling your physical equipment through the Customs."

By now, Hollywood had taken notice. Quentin Durward required little of her except to look elegant in period costume, but there followed her two best films since Genevieve. Not that either of them was that good. Les Girls found its promising team of George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Gene Kelly all a long way below their best. Kendall, as the scattiest of a trio of hoofers, walked off with the picture, and did the same for The Reluctant Debutante, a routine West End comedy, with another off-form director (Minnelli this time). Her vitality and sparkle made both films seem far better than they actually were.

She had contracted leukemia, and made one last movie. Once More, with Feeling, a feeble comedy with Yul Brynner, was released after her death by way of inadequate memorial. But the sense of waste—at her early death, at her misuse by imperceptive producers—cannot finally overshadow the memory of her lithe, volatile presence, all too briefly illuminating the screen.

—Philip Kemp