Sunday 16 June 2019

Obituary: Patricia Morison

Actress who broke free of Hollywood typecasting to star in the original production of Kiss Me, Kate

PASSION FOR DRAMA: Stage and screen star Patricia Morison
PASSION FOR DRAMA: Stage and screen star Patricia Morison newsdesk

Patricia Morison who died last Sunday aged 103, was an American actress who, after an unhappy start in Hollywood, triumphed as the shrewish Lilli Vanessi in the original 1948 production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate.

Despite her talent, striking good looks and a yard of dark hair - feted as the longest of any Hollywood actress - Patricia Morison had remained relatively unknown during her first 15 years in the industry, generally playing secondary characters or femmes fatales. On top of this, she had no formal musical training, which initially led the producers of Kiss Me, Kate to oppose her in the lead role.

When the offer eventually came, Patricia Morison demurred, having already signed a contract for a television detective series. Finally the show's producers struck a deal. She filmed all her scenes in the space of two weeks and went straight into theatrical rehearsals. "Nobody thought [the musical] would be a hit," she recalled. "I just thought if we get good personal reviews out of it we'd be lucky."

In the event, Kiss Me, Kate ran on Broadway for more than 1,000 performances and won five Tony awards, including the first ever for Best Musical.

Patricia Morison then joined the West End cast at the London Coliseum from 1951, with Bill Johnson taking over from Alfred Drake as Lilli Vanessi's arrogant and flamboyant co-star Fred. Having established her singing credentials with such full-throttle numbers as So In Love and I Hate Men, the most successful phase of Patricia Morison's career began. Film work was never a priority again.

She was born Eileen Patricia Morison in New York on March 19, 1915; her father, William Morison, was a playwright and actor who appeared in films under the name Norman Rainey. Her Irish mother Selena (Fraser) had worked for British intelligence during World War I.

After leaving Washington Irving High School, Patricia pursued an interest in art, and at 16 won a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. However, her passion for drama eventually won out, and she decided to return to New York and switch to acting.

Studying theatre at Manhattan's Neighbourhood Playhouse, she made her Broadway debut in 1933 with a walk-on part in a comedy, Growing Pains, which opened to mixed reviews and ran for just six weeks.

More successful was The Two Bouquets five years later, a British spoof of a Victorian operetta co-starring Patricia Morison's future leading man for Kiss Me, Kate, Alfred Drake. A talent scout from Paramount Pictures subsequently approached her with the offer of a contract. Drake protested, warning that "they won't know what to do with you" - but the lure of the silver screen proved too great, and Patricia Morison made her first film appearance the following year as a gangster's moll in the B-movie Persons in Hiding (1939).

There followed a string of mostly underwhelming second-tier films, mainly Westerns and thrillers such as Romance of the Rio Grande, with Cesar Romero; The Round Up, opposite Richard Dix; and One Night in Lisbon with Fred MacMurray (all in 1941). She was considered for the female lead in the Dashiell Hammett adaptation The Glass Key (1942), but rejected, she recalled, because she was too tall for the diminutive star, the 5ft 6in Alan Ladd; in the end the petite Veronica Lake was cast.

In 1942, Patricia Morison left Paramount and embarked on a tour with USO, the American equivalent of the British Ensa, the Entertainments National Service Association, entertaining US troops in England and Northern Ireland. This was her first experience as a singer, and would later stand her in good stead when she came to audition for Cole Porter. Back in Hollywood, she freelanced in supporting roles, working alongside Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Without Love and Deanna Durbin and Ralph Bellamy in Lady on a Train (both 1945).

In 1946, she made an elegant adversary to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill, and graduated to leading lady as Lady Marian in the Robin Hood adventure The Prince of Thieves in 1948. Yet her most interesting role of the period, in Kiss of Death (1947), ended up on the cutting room floor when censors deemed the character's rape and subsequent suicide too shocking.

The following year she sang for Cole Porter at his home in Brentwood. The understanding was that the role of Lilli Vanessi would go to Jarmila Novotna, then a star of the Metropolitan Opera, but Porter was sufficiently impressed to call Patricia Morison back for auditions in front of the producers, Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers.

The play's co-author, Bella Spewack, took Porter's side in the ensuing debate - and won. Kiss Me, Kate reached Broadway on December 30, 1948.

Following her run as Lilli Vanessi, Patricia Morison took over from Annamary Dickey as Anna Leonowens in The King and I, opposite Yul Brynner. The day they met, Brynner invited her back to his dressing room to discuss the show. She found him sitting naked in front of his mirror, having pigment applied to darken his skin for the character. Despite this rather unusual introduction she always regarded him as "a true professional" and "we ended up the best of friends".

She continued until the end of the Broadway run, on March 20, 1954, and then joined the national tour over the following year. It was a physically demanding role, the costume being constructed using hoops of bamboo and weighing more than 60lbs. "I wore a towel around my waist, then a corset, and then the dress," Patricia Morison recalled. "When I took the costume off, I would wring the towel out, it was so wet from perspiration."

She played the French novelist George Sand in Song Without End (1960), with Dirk Bogarde as Franz Liszt, and took a cameo role in the 1976 all-star extravaganza Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. The rest of her career was given over to theatre and occasional television roles. The 1958 American television adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate reunited her with Drake, though the screened version fell foul of censors. Too Darn Hot, the energetic opening number in act two, was considered too risque, and the final act had to be re-shot at the last minute after a stagehand blundered on to the set.

In 1964 Patricia Morison went on to lead a new television production, with Howard Keel and Millicent Martin, recorded for the launch of BBC Two. Her later television appearances included a guest role in Cheers in 1989.

Away from Broadway, her stage credits included Song of Norway (1963), Milk and Honey (1964) and The Sound of Music (1972). In 1978 she reprised her role in Kiss Me, Kate at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

In retirement, Patricia Morison took up painting and made occasional appearances at charity events. Though she was said to have been courted by a number of stars, among them Cesar Romero, Rudy Vallee and John Garfield, she never married.


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