The first time I met Deborah at her home in Marbella I was with Juan Cobos, Miguel Marías, Juan Tébar and Torres-Dulce. When I had to say goodbye to the scottish girl with eyes as blue as Costa Azul, I felt the impulse to kiss her. “May I?” – I asked. Deborah smiled and let me go ahead. I gave her two kissed on the cheeks in the Spanish way. Her cheeks were warm, same temperature than the air on that June morning. And I had the feeling that I had kissed her before, many years ago, in a transatlantic ship by the Villefranche-Sur-Mer bay.
Our second meeting was different. We kissed as we met, no need to ask anymore, while Peter was trying to fix a light bulb on the garden. It was slowly getting dark and the sky was in a light shade of purple. It was the first day of August and it was hot. But Princess Flavia’s cheeks were fresh and smelled of biznaga – a certain kind of jazmin that only grows in Málaga*.
José Luís Garci: Ready. Your first film was “Major Barbara“. How did the debut go?
DK: Well, I actually started on the radio, reading children stories in Bristol. They thought I had a pretty voice.
JLG. That’s true.
DK: Thank you. Then came the theater. I had studied ballet in Sadler’s Wells in 1937 and a year later – surprisingly – they called me to make a collaboration on “Prometheus“. Later, some friends from Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre offered me some small parts. Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer’s Night Dream… but my film debut was not Major Barbara. My first film was Michael Powell’s Contraband. A spy film int he line of those that Hitchcock had done at the time. The protagonists were Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. But Michael cut my scene out. it wasn’t my fault, it was not that I was a disaster – or at least that is what he told me – but because it interfered with the rhythm of the movie. So my true beginnings int he movies, as you can see, were not that successful.
JLG: In his memoirs (A Life in Movies), Powell recalls a wonderful young girl who sold cigarrets in a night club. She had long beautiful legs and loving eyes and she was in a lovely sequence with Conrad Veidt that didn’t make it to the final cut. And he also mentions that he never forgave himself for not keeping those film strips with the gorgeous redhead. How was shooting with Conrad Veidt?
DK: The truth is a barely remember that, he was tall, elegant, serious, very self confident, very professional and he was quite nice to me.
JLG: Who directed Major Barbara? Because there are books which name at least three directors.
DK: I signed the contract with Gabriel Pascal who was quite famous at the time.
JLG: Another Hungarian. The British film industry had many of them at the time. Pascal, Korda, Pressburger…
DK: That’s true. Gabby Pascal had won the affection of George Bernard Shaw and he left him practically all of his works to be made into film. As I was saying, I signed for a year with Pascal. And the film was directed by him, at least the scenes I was in. David Lean, who was a prestigious editor at the time, was an assistant of Pascal and also was Harold French. Perhaps they were very close assistants and Pascal relied on them for camera angles and other technical choices but the director was Pascal, he was the one taking the decisions. The film had a wonderful cast: Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison, Robert Newton, Emlyn Williams, Robert Morley…
JLG: … and you.
DK: And me. It was an original story by Bernard Shaw and he came quite often to the set. The film came out a little crazy. Do you know it?
DK: We all acted a little crazy in it and some compared it to a Marx brothers one. I think it was good and it was successful. And for me, being the first time I saw myself on the big screen I didn’t find it too odd. I have good memories about it. Harrison was wonderful and Wendy Hiller splendid as she always was.
JLG: Love on the Dole (1941) was your second film.
DK: John Baxter was the director. he was very meticulous. He looked after the actors, the sets, the costumes, but all at the same time so he was often overwhelmed. he helped me enormously and the results were a lot better than everyone was expecting. The film had a small budget. It had nothing to do with the films being made in England at the time. It was a humble story, an honest melodrama. Quite sincere. well, that’s what I thought of it, I ought to watch it again now.
JLG: Tell me something about Penn of Pennsylvania (1942)
DK: I guess they liked me on Love on the Dole and the reviews were kind with me in the USA, they started calling me for projects over there. The first one was this one, also called Courageous Mr. Penn. It’s the story of a Quaker family that’s forced to leave England and move to the US. For those who had read the book, and they were many cause it had gained some prestige a few years back, the film was not as direct and as honest as the original story was. It was directed by Lance Comfort who also directed Hatter’s Castle, the film I did after this one. Another film based in a novel.
JLG: A book from Cronin who was one of the best seller authors then.
DK: Yes. A drama set at the turn of the 19th century. The story of a megalomaniac and mad hat maker who ruins his wife and daughter’s lives. That was the first time I worked with James Mason who was an excellent actor and man. Also with Bobby Newton who was a fantastic crazy guy. He was sensational. My scenes with him are the ones I liked the most. I had very good reviews. After that I did “The Avengers (1942)” with a script by Terence Rattigan about some Norwegian rebels who destroy a submarine. A story about Resistance and Sacrifice. I played “the girl”.
JLG: Directed by Harold French.
DK: Exactly. he had just jumped into directing. I think it was about that time that David Lean did too.
JLG: Yes he did. And so we make it to “Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”. An extraordinary film that is now a cult movie for critics, cinefiles and some of the nest American directors.
DK: Absolutely. Scorsese, Coppola, Brian de Palma… Scorsese in particular, in one of those who has fought for this film to have it considered among the great ones and to acknowledge (Michael) Powell and (Emeric) Pressburger talent.well, what to say about it? It was one of those films you can say were “special”, but truly special. I remember I was at the studio’s bar one afternoon and Powell came to me. He greeted me and sat by my side. he congratulated me for my up going career: “I always knew you’d be a star” – he said. And, believe it or not, that is what he had actually said to my agent: “In two year time, Deborah is going to be a star”. My agent always said the Powell could see the future. Anyway, he came to me and told me quite excitedly the new film they were preparing and offered me the main part. Well, the three parts, cause as you know, I played three different women in that film. He said he’d talk to his partner Emeric cause they had some kind of problems with it and he would get back to me. The problem they had was that they had casted Wendy Hiller but she had just got pregnant by her husband Ronald Gow, the author, and production could not be delayed. He talked to Emeric and I signed with them. My only disadvantage at the time was that I was only twenty years old. Can you imagine that being a disadvantage nowadays? They all said I was too young for the part but Emeric always stood by me.
JLG: The main character, Clive Candy, was layed by Roger Livesy but was initially written for Laurence Olivier, wasn’t it?
DK: Yes. But the department of War opposed to the making of the film and did not allow Larry to do it. Larry was with the Air Force at the time. The government thought the film would be demoralizing for the troops, but it wasn’t after all. I’d even say that this grumpy image of the old soldiers was quite entertaining for the young soldiers. Michael directed it and Emeric wrote it. They both produced it together. Pressburger never gave his opinion on anything technical on the set. He corrected the dialogues, added new pieces and spoke to Michael’s ear quite often but he never said anything out loud on the setting or the actors performance. They had agreed to sign the films together because they worked really well together and they were convinced that the film belonged equally to both of them. The films were born from ideas from the two of them. Michael was the director and he had the last call on the editing and the final product but Emeric’s talent as a writer and producer was exceptional and Powell’s final call did not diminish Presburger’s implication on the film. They made an excellent team who gave us some everlasting jewels.
JLG: years later Powell did a film all by himself called Peeping Tom (1959). Do you know it?
DK: yes. And it was very Powell-like! (Laughs)
JLG: Please continue with Colonel Blimp.
DK: It was an unforgettable experience. Every crew and cast member, from the director to the actors and the last of the technicians gave its thousand percent to it. And there was this mood that everyone gets when you are sure that you are doing something good, something different. Later on the film had some problems and it had to be cut, it was attacked by the view it gave of the German soldier, Anton, whom I secretly loved as one of my characters. You must remember there was a war going on and exposing a German officer with good eyes was, if not a lot, a little suspicious.
JLG: Churchill hated it, didn’t he?
DK: That’s what I heard.
JLG: It’s seen with much different eyes nowadays. Must also say that the scene in which you are sitting in front of the fireplace with Livesy and he falls asleep and starts snoring is a delight. It is also one of the scenes in which you are the most beautiful.
DK: Michael improvised that scene. It was my farewell to the character of Roger’s wife, I died after that. Just as Michael said “Cut!” we discovered that William Wyler and Alexander Korda were on the set watching. They were moved by it and came to hug us. Wyler was already a legend, as Korda was.
JLG: When we see that scene today I can’t help but feel it’s a big declaration of love. Were you and Michael already involved by then?
DK. No we weren’t. But I think it started right after it.
JLG: In his memoirs, Powell says something really beautiful. He says one afternoon after the job was done for the day, everybody was leaving the set. You were saying goodbye to everybody and walked to your dressing room. And when you were opening the door, you turned your head and saw him looking at you. “At that time – he says – I fell in love”.
DK: I read that on the book. I think it’s quite exact.
JLG: Did Colonel Blimp finally establish you as the young star of British films?
DK: Not really, because it had many problems. Even now, being a cult movie of some sort, it’s still quite different in its narrative style and controversial on the subject. After Blimp i went back to theatre. I did Hearbreak House, by Bernard Shaw and I toured France, Belgium and Holland with Gaslight. Those were performances for the troops. They loved them, they followed the story without a blink.
JLG: In 1945 you sign with Korda to do Perfect Staragers (Vacation from Marriage).
DK: Yes, it was an excellent story by Clemence Dane for which he won an Academy Award. A gray office clerk, played by an excellent Robert Donat, and his unattractive wife go to war in separate ways and returned completely changed. They both have had sentimental affairs that have enriched their lives. We had a luxury cast. aside Donat, there was Glynis Johns, Ann Todd… Working with Korda, one of the most fascinating personalities I have ever met, was an extra award for me. Korda was a magnificent director, a brilliant creator, sensitive, a very generous man, full of glamour, smart and, above all that, the great renewer of British cinema. The first on to believe it could be international, the first one to consider Hollywood an equal. I loved Alex..
… To be continued.
*Málaga: The Spanish province where Marbella is.