Just her luck

Film - Christopher Bray on the tragic career of Kay Kendall, whose reputation was marred even before

''For of all sad words of tongue or pen,/The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" Stanley Holloway quotes those lines from John Greenleaf Whittier when discussing the bullion robbery he helps pull off in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), though he might have been talking about the career of one of his most regular co-stars. Kay Kendall was beautiful beyond belief - and blessed with the belief that beauty was an absurdity. Her premature death in 1959 robbed this country of the sprightliest movie comedienne it has ever produced.

Her upper lip was a ludicrously upholstered suspension bridge, her eyebrows circumflexes of irony, her nose a ski jump you could have loop-the-looped off (she had had it "bobbed" while still a teenager), all of which made Kendall a cartoonist's dream. Or would have, had she not so delighted in taking the wind out of her own sails. Haughty yet hyper, ladylike yet larrikin, stately yet strident, Kendall was a walking double-take. She had it in spades. True to form, the British cinema did all it could to bury her.

Certainly the Rank Organisation, which signed her up in 1944, some months be-fore her 18th birthday, had no idea what it had on its hands. Nobody since the early Katharine Hepburn could have given Cary Grant such a run for his money, so Rank saw to it that Kendall was cast opposite the likes of the wartime singing and comedy double act Flanagan and Allen, Sid Field and Tommy Trinder. The results were tragic, not just because her first pictures were examples of that British speciality, the laughless comedy, but because they marred a reputation that had yet to be made. "I think I'm just going to do away with myself," she confided at the time. "Rank have got me under a seven-year contract and they're not even using me." A has-been-cum-never-was, Kendall disappeared from view for the rest of the 1940s.

Now, however, she is back: the National Film Theatre is honouring her with a season. True, the season comprises only five pictures, but to work one's way through her entire oeuvre in the hope of glimp- sing Kendall cutting loose would be like waiting for Godot. Aside from Curtain Up (1953) - in which she gets the better of Robert Morley and Margaret Rutherford - all her best work is here.

To start with there is Genevieve (1953), a stinker, I know, but don't forget Ken-dall's trumpet solo halfway through. Henry Cornelius is such a cack-handed director that he spends most of the scene focusing on the terminally dull Kenneth More and what pass for his reactions to that solo. But sprinkled here and there are shots of Kendall - cheeks puffed, eyes crossed - at her most vital. To quote one of More's better lines of dialogue, she is "intoxicated by the exuberance of [her] own velocity". The exuberance rubbed off on the critics. Inexplicable though Genevieve's many rave reviews were, at least most of them had the sense to single Kendall out for special praise.

She responded characteristically - by making light of herself. "My feet are too big," she told a reporter, "my bosom is too small. I have huge hips and an enormous bottom. I can hardly breathe through this frightful nose. My hair looks like Danny Kaye in a wig. Altogether, I look like a female impersonator - or a rather angular horse." Rank responded equally characteristically by plucking her from Gene-vieve's crest of the wave and plonking her in the cinematic quicksand of The Square Ring, Meet Mr Lucifer and Fast and Loose (all made in 1953). On this dodgy ground, the angular horse began to bridle.

The studio tried to rein her back in by docking her pay and, when that didn't work (she was dating a certain Mr Sainsbury), by loaning her out. She went first to Shepperton, where she starred in The Constant Husband (1954) opposite Rex Harrison, whom she later married. From there she moved to MGM for George Cukor's galumphing Cole Porter show Les Girls (1957) and Vincente Minnelli's archaically proscenium-arched The Reluctant Debutante (1958, with Harrison again). For all their faults, these three pictures - all in the NFT season - show Kendall at her best. Even with her face covered in cold cream, she burns Gene Kelly off the screen in Les Girls. And, in Harrison, she had found someone brittle enough to point up her manic mutability. No on-screen couple ever bickered better. (Whether their off-screen marriage would have endured had leukaemia not taken her when she was just 33 is more debatable.)

Sadly, Kendall was born too late for 1930s screwball and she died too early for 1960s sex comedy. Worse, she never had the backing necessary for creating her own momentum. Had she been better managed, her gift for gawky clowning might have been recognised earlier. But the times were out of joint and Kendall out of luck. And as Berlioz once said: "The luck of having talent is not enough. One must also have a talent for luck."

The Kay Kendall season is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from 3-29 March

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