He's a good actor to discuss because he is like few others. He was a bit of a reluctant movie star. Kerr (as in car) only made 11 theatrical movies (he tied with my friend Grace Kelly). Of those, however, two were cameo roles, without credit. He made a number of television movies and lots of guest shots in popular series of the day. He made two very famous movies and because of them (one in particular), he will remain in the public eye of those who will always follow such films.
I suspect he didn't like making movies very much. Maybe the waiting around bothered him. Perhaps it was the ugly business side of the business. Who knows. Nothing in depth, to my knowledge, has ever been written about him. He always seemed ill-at-ease, not comfortable in his own skin. For a few years I wondered if that was because of a role or if it was real life. I suspected the latter and one day I had it confirmed. I was sipping my favorite Orange Julius on an outdoor swivel stool across from the Village and Bruin theaters in Westwood Village (an always trendy L.A. suburb), when he and a few other men were engaged in conversation while waiting for the light to change. I could tell by observing him that he was not a comfortable person. I've never known why and I've always wanted to.
Perhaps he just fell into the business because of a certain pedigree. He was the son of two mainly Broadway actors, Geoffrey Kerr and June Walker. He could have been one of those who it was just assumed would go into the family business and his heart was never in it. I did hear once that he had a pretty bad temper and maybe he displayed it to too many of the wrong people and his career simply dried up.
He appeared in Broadway in Tea and Sympathy, as the teenage student Tom Lee who takes a shine to his headmaster's wife who returns his attentions. The problem is that Tom is also uncomfortable in his own skin. In this case he is fighting with his sexuality and while the boys call him a sissy, the headmaster's wife lovingly supports him to be what he wants to be.
When the rights to the film were bought by MGM and his costar from the play, the non-related Deborah Kerr was signed to recreate her role, John was signed as well. Kerr and Kerr... most unusual. The only problem with the film version is the same problem all lifestyle stories suffered in those days... the censors, the Catholic church and the perceived need to shelter the public from most anything that was too honest. Tea and Sympathy would be a stronger film if it were made today and I think this is exactly the type of film that should be remade. Nonetheless it was a good film and John Kerr was part of the reason for that. It was, however, not the first film he made.
That honor goes to The Cobweb. It sported a wonderful cast with Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and Susan Strasberg, also making her film debut. It was a not-very-good film about a mental institution which stressed that the caretakers are as wacky as the ones being cared for. It had three stars I was fairly wacky about in Grahame, Widmark and Bacall and they commanded my attendance. So what a surprise it was to discover a new actor who, in turn, put my attention on some of my other discoveries in those days. I sureinthehell owe John Kerr a posting on this blog for that if for nothing else.
Next up was Gaby, a tepid remake of the Vivien Leigh-Robert Taylor film, Waterloo Bridge. Young mostly untried Kerr and Leslie Caron, newly away from musicals, were no match for the likes of Leigh and Taylor. And while the film is mostly panned, I liked it. Hmmm, I wonder why.
Then came Tea and Sympathy, a film I was not allowed to see due to needing an adult in attendance. My parents would not have allowed it either. I always had problems with my mother allowing me to see adultish films and while I could usually wear her down, not this time. She apparently knew its theme and decided that since I was not out throwing the football around as much as she would have liked, I would not be allowed to see this one. Wonder if it gave me ideas? Wonder if it was like a recruitment film? So what's an enterprising, young, curious boy to do? I got my grandmother to take me. I suspect it all went right over her spit-curled head.
Then there was The Vintage. MGM was grooming Leslie Caron for the big time and the same could be said for Pier Angeli. So they paired her with Kerr, the boy of the moment, who played a hot-headed Italian on the run from the law. It went nowhere.
Then came the big one, South Pacific. He must have been the boy of the moment to snag the choice role of Lt. Joe Cable in what would be a huge roadshow production. Even more unusual was that he couldn't sing. One couldn't help but fall for Joe Cable, particularly as he was singing bare-chested to Liat, a local Polynesian girl whom he loves but decides not to marry because of her race.
Kerr couldn't sing and France Nuyen, in her film debut, could neither speak nor understand English. And yet they certainly pulled it off for Younger Than Springtime.
As long as there are devices to show South Pacific, John Kerr will have immortality.
Why this striking appearance was not more shrewdly followed up with important films, I will never know. He made two so-so films with Anne Francis, Girl of the Night and The Crowded Sky. Then he made The Pit and the Pendulum with Vincent Price, right at the beginning of his horror film career. It was not too bad although I noticed, perhaps for the first time, that he was not that good of an actor.
After 1961's Seven Women from Hell, a war film with Kerr far from the top in the cast, it was pretty much over for him in theatrical films. How would you like a title like that on your resumé? Whatever... it was goodbye films, hello television.
It wasn't long before those of us who sought out such information heard that he had become a lawyer. He had already been that for a few years when I saw him in Westwood. I said under my breath well hello John Kerr.
I now say goodbye John Kerr, goodbye Lt. Cable, so long Tom Lee. We had a brief thing for awhile. You were essential in my upbringing. Good on you.
|With Nuyen at reunion a few years ago|