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Gone on to eternity...

Deborah Kerr's obituary appeared in the newspaper today.

I read it and felt sad.

A generation of people---influential, culture-altering, gentle boundary breakers---are vanishing and their time is fading away, relegated to the past.

It creates in me a sense of urgency to capture them and their time before the chance is lost. I have a deep interest in doing this. It's not gone or lost if we still know it and remember it.

Just think about it for a minute. Deborah Kerr was 86 when she passed away. That means she was born in 1921.

In some ways, 1921 was much like 2007:

* The Boston Post exposed the swindle schemes of Charles Ponzi (namesake of the Ponzi Scheme)

* Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize.

* Politicians and politics were up to the usual posturing and scandal. Today it's Larry Craig, and in 1921 it was North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier, who was recalled based on a dispute about the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and State Mill and Elevator. Frazier held the dubious honor of sole governor ever recalled until Gray Davis (California).

* Racial tensions exploded in Tulsa in the infamous Greenwood Riot (where estimates of deaths ranged from 300 to 3000).

* Energy resources were on people's minds as the miners and mine owners fought the Coal Wars. We still rely on coal, and still hear news stories of the same sorts of disputes, and similar tragedies and losses of people in coal mines.

* Woodrow Wilson was leaving office and Warren Harding was assuming the office of President. Interestingly, I've seen a number of comparisons of Bush to Harding. Harding did end World War I, although as we saw a few years later, not well, and died in office.

But, in 1921, although automobiles were common, there wasn't yet a car in every garage. People didn't have computers, cell phones, the various technological gadgets, or even cures to things we simply think of as annoying illnesses or diseases nobody gets any more.

F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the essence of the 1920s with accomplished flair that made his works classics. His only child, Frances, was born in 1921.

There's a lot at base we have in common with that time, but there is also so much different. So much has changed since 1921. The people of that generation are the ones who can tell us all about it...and they should, and we should listen.

People born in 1921 saw a party era similar to the 80s, a depression era more intense but somewhat comparable to the 90s, three major and tragic wars, a complete shifting of global borders, and a massive shifting of cultural boundaries. Now that's a story.

Deborah Kerr herself is an interesting story.

According to CNN

Kerr (pronounced CARR) was the only daughter of Arthur Kerr-Trimmer, a civil engineer and architect who died when she was 14.

Born in Helensburgh, Scotland, she moved with her parents to England when she was 5, and she started to study dance in the Bristol school of her aunt, Phyllis Smale.

Kerr won a scholarship to continue studying at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School in London. A 17 she made her stage debut as a member of the corps de ballet in "Prometheus."

She soon switched to drama, however, and began playing small parts in repertory theater in London until it was shut down by the 1939 outbreak of World War II.


She continued making films in Britain during the war, including one -- "Colonel Blimp" -- in which she played three different women over a span of decades.

She was invited to Hollywood in 1946 to play in "The Hucksters" opposite Clark Gable.


Her best-actress nominations were for "Edward, My Son" (1949), "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "The King and I" (1956), "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957), "Separate Tables" (1958), and "The Sundowners" (1960).

Among her other movies is "An Affair to Remember" with Cary Grant.

Other notable roles were in "Beloved Infidel," "The Innocents" (an adaptation of the Henry James novella "Turn of the Screw"), "The Night of the Iguana" with Richard Burton and "The Arrangement" with Kirk Douglas.

After "The Arrangement" in 1968, she took what she called a "leave of absence" from acting, saying she felt she was "either too young or too old" for any role she was offered.


In 1945 Kerr married Anthony Charles Bartley, whom she had met as a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. They had two daughters and were divorced in 1959. A year later she married Peter Viertel, a novelist-screenwriter, with whom she lived on a large estate with two trout ponds in the Swiss Alpine resort of Klosters and in a villa in Marbella, Spain.

Kerr is survived by Viertel, two daughters and three grandchildren.

Deborah Kerr capitalized on the boundary breaking that happened for many people of her lifetime. Initially stuck in the more approved of "demure" acting roles, British-born Kerr used the movie classic From Here to Eternity to break out past that and show real women, with real lives and problems.

Based on the 1951 novel by James Jones about his experiences on Oahu with Company E of the 19th Infantry, From Here to Eternity launched Kerr's career to a new level. Her role as Karen Holmes, neglected wife of Captain Dana Holmes, grabbed us equally with horror (as she followed a selfish path to self-destruction) and pity (when we learned what drove her and realized, as she did, that her path had lead her to find love and honor amid ruins). It also lead to an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. After this movie, she played a broad range of interesting characters.

I recently watched From Here to Eternity again, and added it to my list of favorite classic films. One reason is because it shows us the complicated sides of people living in a different time, distant yet so similar, so relatable.

Farewell, Deborah, and thanks for the amazing acting in some incredible films.

From Here to Eternity featured the song Reenlistment Blues, a song that plays a large part (almost its own character) in the film. I have a YouTube version of Merle Travis singing the song in the army barracks. Later in the film, Clift's drunken character sings it in a pitiful and pivotol moment. Here's the song with a movie clip:

Edited add:

I just found a brief clip of Montgomery Clift doing the song, but only the first part, and only a link because the embed is disabled. If you are that curious, click here to see it.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
Also blogging at:
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Christine said…
i loved debrah kerr. LOVED her.

she will be missed by all of us.
Liv said…
She really was divine. btw, I love that CNN article that points out in the middle of such great stuff that she had two trout ponds. heh.
painted maypole said…
if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it
ewe are here said…
I saw this yesterday, too, and felt kind of sad. I always loved her movies. And my mother's all time favorite movie was an Affair to Remember starring Kerr and Cary Grant...
S said…
Deborah Kerr was a lovely actress.
Anonymous said…
I need to start collecting old movies. Women had such powerful prescence then. What the hell happened?
Lawyer Mama said…
I loved Deborah Kerr. She was a real woman. (As opposed to many of the celluloid starlets that exist these days.)
Kellan said…
Really interesting post. You are just way smarter than me - I'm gonna have to keep coming over here so that some of it might rub off on me. See ya.
Mimi Lenox said…
I'm so glad you wrote this. Wonderful talent lost to us. I loved especially in King and I.
A star forever.....

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