Sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day (or month, or year) to do everything that you set out to do. For instance, towards the end of September I had intended to throw in a follow-up to part one of my classic film autograph collection that I posted all the way back in July. I’ve been so delighted to receive such positive feedback about that post ever since, and I have so many more autographs than just those that I can’t wait to share with you all very soon! However, it’ll have to be an October goal because not only was I tapped to rank my top ten favorite screwball comedies this month, I also signed up to celebrate a fantastic birthday today, that of the talented Deborah Kerr! Many thanks to Maddy Loves Her Classic Films, who gave me the chance to dive deeper into the work of someone who I may not have explored otherwise, and a very happy birthday to Deborah on what would have been her 96th birthday!
Before I begin, I have to be honest with you all and with myself: I’m not really a Deborah Kerr fanatic. I’ve seen a few of her pictures, like From Here to Eternity (1953), An Affair to Remember (1957), and The Night of the Iguana (1964), but her performances always left something to be desired as far as warmth and attainability were concerned. I’m always on the defense when others call Grace Kelly a “cold goddess”, just as I’m sure many fans who adore Deborah Kerr will do the same when I state my belief that she’s the one who deserves the moniker. Still, for years now I’ve been determined to find a Deborah Kerr performance that I thoroughly enjoy, and I went into this blogathon with a positive outlook and an open mind, believing that Tea and Sympathy (1956) could be the film to change my perspective. This belief was especially due to the addition of John Kerr (of no relation to Deborah), who grew on me after I discovered him as Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific (1958) last month as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series.
Tea and Sympathy (1956) introduces us to Tom Lee (John Kerr), a shy and thoughtful 17-year-old who attends Chilton College, a prestigious academy which his father attended before him, as did many of the current students’ ancestors. Tom’s peers are interested in what are considered “masculine” endeavors like sports, roughhousing, and accosting women, but Tom isn’t like the rest. Due to an absent mother and father, his maid raised him and taught him how to sew and garden, and his dream is to become a folk singer. He spends most of his time alone listening to records, and even his hair and mannerisms separate him from the rest of the boys. Needless to say, these hobbies quickly make him the social pariah of the group, and the only person to express any form of kindness and understanding is Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), wife of Bill Reynolds (Leif Erikson), the sports coach and headmaster of the home that the two of them, Tom, and many other students share. At first Laura is a silent observer to the bullying that Tom endures, but as she gets to know him, she becomes more and more involved in his plight. This soon drives a wedge between her and her husband, who becomes jealous of how inseparable Laura and Tom are. He feels the same way about Tom that the other boys do and resents Laura’s attempts to help him, feeling that the headmasters’ wives should only offer “tea and sympathy” and not get too involved in the students’ affairs.
The film is based on a play of the same name, which opened on this day in 1953 on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and ran for 712 performances. It also starred Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, and Leif Erikson, who all reprise their roles for the film version. At some point during its run, the lead roles were taken over by Joan Fontaine and Anthony Perkins, and even Ingrid Bergman starred onstage as Laura Reynolds in the French adaptation. Despite its success, nearly everyone doubted that the sensitive subject matter depicted in the play could possibly be translated to the screen. MGM saw a great deal of potential in the work, however, and struggled for years with the Catholic National Legion of Decency and the Production Code Office in order to find a way to hint at, without explicitly including, the play’s themes of homosexuality, adultery and prostitution. At one point, MGM even considered having an independent production company outside of the studio system produce Tea and Sympathy (1956). Instead the studio pushed the challenge onto Robert Anderson, who penned the original stage production, offering him $100,000 for the rights to his play while promising $300,000 more if he offered a script that passed the production code.
While quite a few things are changed in the film version, including the addition of an epilogue in which Laura reveals to Tom that she was ashamed of her actions, Deborah Kerr was pleased with the finished product. She stated that the screenplay “contains all the best elements of the play. After all, the play was about the persecution of a minority, wasn’t it? That still remains the theme of the film,” and also applauded Robert Anderson for overcoming the obstacles presented to him at the start of production, remarking that he had done “a fine job”. I can’t help but agree for the most part. I was drawn into watching this film of Deborah’s in particular because the plot really intrigued me, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the dazzling Technicolor and the sensitive and moving performances given by both John and Deborah Kerr. It was slow moving, but certainly worth watching for Deborah’s birthday! While I still wouldn’t rank Ms. Kerr among my favorite actresses (and as much as I hate to say it, I’m sure I would have preferred Joan Fontaine and Tony Perkins in the film version), this is undboutedly my favorite picture that I’ve seen her in thus far. I’m vowing to continue to discover her work, and I definitely won’t be writing her off anytime soon!