For someone who didn’t make that many movies and who walked away from her film career over 50 years ago, Kathryn Grayson’s star status has withstood the test of time—at least to MGM movie fanatics like me and Kendall. Grayson died yesterday in Los Angeles, just a week after her 88th birthday. We know a good friend of hers and I always thought that we’d eventually get to meet the actress. Kendall and I did see her honored at a film festival tribute in August 1997. I remember the date because it happened to be the day that Princess Diana was killed in Paris.
It’s hard to forget Kathryn Grayson in our house. Besides her films blaring on our ever-present Turner Classic Movies, her young face looms large in what is now Charlie’s room. Like many stars who had recently signed on with MGM, the studio tried her out in an Andy Hardy movie before letting her do anything else. Kathryn is lovely in “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary,” made in 1941, and I have not one but two original posters of this film hanging on our walls. Since he got home from the hospital, Charlie has been transfixed by Kathryn’s heart-shaped face on his wall. He’ll be sad to hear that she’s left us.
Kathryn Grayson was sought out by Louis B. Mayer as MGM’s answer to the operatic warblings of Deanna Durbin (whom MGM had dropped before she became a superstar for Universal). Her screen test, at age 16, was the longest and most expensive test shot at the studio, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Grayson hated it, but Mayer was sure he had the next Durbin on his hands.
Following her romp with Mickey Rooney and company, Kathryn made a series of very popular musicals. They weren’t always heavy on plot, but I loved them all—from “Anchors Aweigh” and “Thousands Cheer” to “Two Sisters from Boston” and “Till the Clouds Roll By.” I was less a fan of her films with temperamental opera star Mario Lanza. The good-natured Grayson later admitted that she couldn’t stand Lanza whose ego was apparently as big as his ever-widening girth.
Grayson starred as Magnolia in the wonderful 1951 version of “Show Boat” with Howard Keel and Ava Gardner, and her biggest success was probably “Kiss Me, Kate” in 1953, where she showed her sassy side. Again starring opposite Howard Keel (what a great pair), Kathryn played difficult actress Lilli Vanessi in the modern sequences, and feisty Katherine in the musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew” that the actors are putting on. Grayson was at her peak in this film. How odd, then, that a bad experience making her next film (the abysmal “Vagabond King”) made her walk away from movies for good. The film was supposed to team her up again with Mario Lanza but when he failed to show up, the studio brought in opera singer Oreste Kirkop, who couldn’t speak a word of English. Kirkop’s speaking voice had to be dubbed. He never made another film.
Kathryn Grayson’s amazing soprano was an acquired taste. I also think she was one of the most beautiful women at MGM although her delicate features seemed to pale next to drop-dead beauties like Ava Gardner. Let’s take a look at young Kathryn being filmed singing a waltz in “Anchors Aweigh.” Be careful you’re not sitting too close to any glass during those crazy high notes!
After leaving films, Grayson’s career continued in theatre, and she often appeared in productions with her co-star and friend, Howard Keel. Her death yesterday was very peaceful. Today her longtime secretary said “She just went to bed and didn’t wake up.” Not a bad way to go. I hope Kathryn and Howard Keel are up there somewhere singing up a storm.