Three Times the Charm: Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Fittingly, the Dual Roles Blogathon kicks off today, on what would have been actress Deborah Kerr’s 95th birthday, as well as director Michael Powell’s 111th birthday. Together they made two highly acclaimed British films, including one which saw Kerr playing a triad of women, all of who leave a strong mark on the protagonist in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Deborah Kerr as Edith Hunter, perhaps the most influential figure in General Clive Candy’s life.

The film chronicles the life of General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) from 1902 to 1942, who barely survives three wars and the changes they bring to his world. His life is further shaped by his lifelong friendship with German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) and relations with young women of three consecutive generations — socially committed governess Edith Hunter, sweet-souled war nurse Barbara Wynne, and modern-thinking army driver Angela “Johnny” Cannon (all played by Deborah Kerr).

Deborah Kerr as Barbara Wynne, the moment Candy first laid eyes on her.

While the strong-minded women Deborah Kerr plays all cross paths with General Clive Candy at different points in his life, they themselves never cross paths with each other, so the actress didn’t appear alongside herself in any scenes. Aside from the style of hair and clothes, Kerr virtually looks and sounds the same as each woman, as they’re purposely meant to resemble each other, or more specifically Edith Hunter.

Candy meets Edith first, and though he gives his blessing to her and Theo to marry, he realizes later that he was actually in love with her and that she was essentially his ideal woman. He does find love later with the good-natured Barbara, who of course has a striking likeness to the one that got away. As the years pass, both Edith and Barbara pass on too, while Candy and Theo live on in old age. But while the two men grow old, the image of the women they loved stays forever young in the form of Angela, a woman of a generation far from their own yet who yields full support for them as their way of life changes.

Though Candy is the film’s main character, in many ways, Kerr’s respective characters are the film’s true centerpiece as its heart and soul. As critic Molly Haskell stated in an essay on the film, “Kerr is there to express Powell’s ideal but also to challenge romantic idealization.” Edith, Barbara, and Angela do indeed challenge romantic ideals, as well as the role of a woman at the turn of the 20th century, showing Candy that they don’t necessarily belong in the home and that they can also fight the good fight as he can.

Deborah Kerr as Angela “Johnny” Cannon, handpicked by Candy to be his personal army driver.

Along with playing the central object of affection via three women, Deborah Kerr also played that role off-screen with the film’s co-director Michael Powell. At the time of filming, the two were reportedly engaged to be married. In Powell’s autobiography A Life in the Movies, he said this about their love affair: “I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.” In the course of making The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Powell also said the following: “I learnt from Anton what an artist is. I learnt from Roger what a man is. I learnt from Deborah what love is.” The romance between them didn’t last as Kerr pursued a career in Hollywood, though it was her work with Powell that brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers.

Kerr’s first foray into the movie business was on the set of the 1940 film Contraband, directed by Powell. Though her small scene ended up getting cut from the film, she impressed the director, and a few years later he, along with his co-director Emeric Pressburger, cast her in her first major film role, which incidentally saw her playing three different characters. She was only 20 years old when she made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and even celebrated her 21st birthday on the set of the film (while Powell celebrated his 37th on the same day). A few years after the 1943 film, she worked with the British director team one last time for Black Narcissus, which ended up becoming a big hit not only in the U.K. but also in the U.S. After that, Kerr was well on her way to Hollywood stardom. And just a short couple of years later, she earned her first of her eventual six Oscar nominations and became a major star.

Though there aren’t any distinctive physical differences between Edith, Barbara, and Angela, Kerr is able to embody each of them as their own individual person, showing that there’s much more to each of them than meets the eye. Her triple duty as the incarnation of the ideal woman is one of her most brilliant performances, and she easily charms the audience as she does the men in the film.

I wrote this entry as a part of the Dual Roles Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the actors who took on multiple roles for one movie. Click the banner below to read more great posts!

8 thoughts on “Three Times the Charm: Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

  1. How funny that Kerr and Powell were not only born the same day, but it happens to be today! This is a movie that I’ve wanted to see for a long time, because I’ve heard such good things about it and I love Powell and Pressburger and Kerr. After reading this, I want to see it more than ever, especially to see how Kerr creates three distinct characters. Great post!

  2. Wow, she was only twenty! I did not realize she was so young, but she’s magnificent in the role(s). This film is such a special film, isn’t it? Incarnation is a good word for it – as you say, she doesn’t look physically different, but she does play three separate women, yet with something similar in all them. Lovely review!

    So very glad you could join in the Dual Role Blogathon!

    • I didn’t realize she was that young either because she looks rather mature, but I guess that’s just credited to her acting abilities and portraying the three women in an authentic manner.

      Thanks for coming up with such a fun idea for a blogathon, and of course for co-hosting it! 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Dual Roles Blogathon: Day 1 Recap | Christina Wehner

  4. There are so many things to admire about this film: the script, the filmography, and the casting, especially Deborah Kerr. She is charming, just as you said, in each role; if I had to choose a favourite, I would choose the spunky Angela during WWII.

    Kerr brings something different to each character so we can easily believe they’re different people. And she’s up against some heavyweights in this film, but she comes across as a real pro.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for bringing Ms Kerr with you!

    • Angela would have to be my favorite of the three too! Though they are all lovely in their own ways, so it’s easy to see why Candy was drawn to each of them.

      Thanks again for co-hosting this fun blogathon!

  5. This was an excellent choice for the blogathon, and it was fitting for the occasion, seeing as it was Deborah Kerr’s birthday. I have always loved this movie.

    Oh by the way, have you decided whether or not you want to participate in the Agnes Moorehead Blogathon? I think you said you were thinking about it. Let me know. Here is the link for it below.

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