Sunday, February 23, 2014

Deborah Kerr Portrait in "Colonel Blimp"

I will never forget the first time I saw Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I guess I should say the three times I saw her in that film because, of course, she plays three separate female characters who dominate, or at least fascinate, the life of the titular Colonel, John Candy (Roger Livesey). Colonel Blimp was the first of "the Archers'" films that I had ever seen, on recommendation from a good friend of mine. I, of course, loved the film, and later watched a number of Powell and Presserburg's incredible cinematic masterpieces. But, probably because Colonel Blimp was the first of their films that I saw, it served as the benchmark and constant comparison of their work. After all, it has all the aspects that I (among many others) view as the hallmarks of their work: an impressive British cast, lush cinematography, an original story, and some fairly moving and provocative themes.
Before I return to the lovely Miss Kerr, I want to talk about the film in general. One of the reasons that I love Powell and Presserburg's films so much is because of the artistic effort that they obviously put into their productions. The films, besides having wonderful plots, are visually stunning (and I'm talking across the board here). But Colonel Blimp is wonderful on a more historic note. It was released in 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, and deals largely with nationalistic themes or, at least, what is behind nationalistic themes. The main character, John Candy, is a high-ranking, long-serving British military man, the epitome of the established Empire. If you are wondering where the "Blimp" comes in, it is based on a cartoon series of the same name by David Low, which satired the elderly British military class, personified by the bumbling Colonel Blimp in his Turkish Bath.
The fantastic tapestry title sequence
Candy meets Edith for the first time in Berlin
While (to return to the film), Candy is no bumbling fool, the beginning and the end of the film ends with direct homages to the film's cartoon inspiration. But, even if Candy isn't a fool, it doesn't make him a genius. The film, which centers on the British military life between the Boer War and the Second World War, is all about some Brit's inability to adapt their mentalities and strategies to modern warfare against a modern agent of evil, the Nazis. Candy's great moment of recognition comes when he finally realizes that the "old ways" can no longer continue and he proudly salutes a young Home Guard regiment, representing the "New Order." Of course, this feeling was not felt by everyone in Britain and, in fact, Churchill (who was perceived by the Archers as a believer in the "Old Order") wanted the film removed from theaters. The Life and Death part of the title, therefore, suggests the periods of vibrancy and death of mentalities.
The three faces of Deborah: Edith
Barbara
Johnnie
Still, Colonel Blimp is, of course, about the titular Colonel. Besides, its sweeping historic overtures, it also centers on his infatuation with a young woman, Edith (Kerr), he first meets in Berlin towards the end of the 19th century. Edith becomes his ideal and his succeeding relationships with other women are shaped by his view of Edith. In fact, Kerr plays Candy's eventual wife, Barbara, and later his driver during WWII, Johnnie. I don't know whether it is established, but I always wonder whether only Candy sees Barbara and Johnnie as physically similar to Edith or whether they actually have a remarkable resemblance. I think that it is the latter because of action that goes on later in the film, but, regardless, the fact that the one ideal woman shapes his life is a major part of the film. Interestingly enough, at the time Powell was having an affair with Deborah Kerr, so most certainly, the idea of her ideal beauty must have resonated with him!

Because he loves a woman, I'm sure you won't be surprised that his love shows itself in... what else but a portrait! Barbara, his wife, eventually dies tragically young, and Candy hangs it in his den, of sorts, with all his "stuff" from his Big Game expeditions. It can be assumed that Candy sits in his room and simply reflects on the woman who was the love of his life (and I'm leaving it up to you to decide whether that's Edith or Barbara). This is Art of Film 101: the painting of the dead love reminds the lover of his deceased. She continues to shape his life, even beyond the grave. The painting is the reminder of the presence of the ghosts of Edith and of Barbara. In one way, it also represents Candy's obsessive love for Edith, a love which shapes his future interactions with other women. After all, Candy selects Johnnie as his driver simply because she physically reminds him of an old flame. Because Candy is not a tragic hero, there is not tragic undertones of his continued relationship with his wife, it serves merely a superficial reminder. This painting reminds me ever-so-slightly of the Carlotta portrait in Vertigo, excluding of course, the tragic elements of dark mystery.
(detail)
It is a lovely portrait, graceful and very evocative of the society portraits of the '20s and '30s. While it is not the most remarkable likeness of Deborah Kerr ever, it is still a very pretty portrait of her. I have to be honest, while Edith may have had the most character out of the Kerr/Blimp girls, I certainly thought that Barbara was the most lovely and graceful (the most Miss Deborah) and therefore, I'm very glad she got the portrait. Her character just makes a better sitter. Unfortunately, I do know who painted it. I do know that W. Percy Day (the matte artist for Black Narcissus among other films) also worked for Colonel Blimp. He was an established fine artist, but I honestly do not think that he painted the portrait. It simply does not look like his style. It is very possible that one of his assistants in his art department painted over a photograph or painted the picture themselves. Either way, it is certainly very graceful, very lovely... so, very Deborah Kerr. Of note, the portrait also appears in The League of Gentlemen (also  starring Livesey) almost 20 years later.

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