The Deborah Kerr Blogathon — Tea and Sympathy (1956)

Sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day (or month, or year) to do everything  that you set out to do. For instance, towards the end of September I had intended to throw in a follow-up to part one of my classic film autograph collection that I posted all the way back in July. I’ve been so delighted to receive such positive feedback about that post ever since, and I have so many more autographs than just those that I can’t wait to share with you all very soon! However, it’ll have to be an October goal because not only was I tapped to rank my top ten favorite screwball comedies this month, I also signed up to celebrate a fantastic birthday today, that of the talented Deborah Kerr! Many thanks to Maddy Loves Her Classic Films, who gave me the chance to dive deeper into the work of someone who I may not have explored otherwise, and a very happy birthday to Deborah on what would have been her 96th birthday!


Before I begin, I have to be honest with you all and with myself: I’m not really a Deborah Kerr fanatic. I’ve seen a few of her pictures, like From Here to Eternity (1953), An Affair to Remember (1957), and The Night of the Iguana (1964), but her performances always left something to be desired as far as warmth and attainability were concerned. I’m always on the defense when others call Grace Kelly a “cold goddess”, just as I’m sure many fans who adore Deborah Kerr will do the same when I state my belief that she’s the one who deserves the moniker. Still, for years now I’ve been determined to find a Deborah Kerr performance that I thoroughly enjoy, and I went into this blogathon with a positive outlook and an open mind, believing that Tea and Sympathy (1956) could be the film to change my perspective. This belief was especially due to the addition of John Kerr (of no relation to Deborah), who grew on me after I discovered him as Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific (1958) last month as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series.

Deborah Kerr shown in a scene from Tea and Sympathy (1956). Isn’t that Technicolor glorious?

Tea and Sympathy (1956) introduces us to Tom Lee (John Kerr), a shy and thoughtful 17-year-old who attends Chilton College, a prestigious academy which his father attended before him, as did many of the current students’ ancestors. Tom’s peers are interested in what are considered “masculine” endeavors like sports, roughhousing, and accosting women, but Tom isn’t like the rest. Due to an absent mother and father, his maid raised him and taught him how to sew and garden, and his dream is to become a folk singer. He spends most of his time alone listening to records, and even his hair and mannerisms separate him from the rest of the boys. Needless to say, these hobbies quickly make him the social pariah of the group, and the only person to express any form of kindness and understanding is Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), wife of Bill Reynolds (Leif Erikson), the sports coach and headmaster of the home that the two of them, Tom, and many other students share. At first Laura is a silent observer to the bullying that Tom endures, but as she gets to know him, she becomes more and more involved in his plight. This soon drives a wedge between her and her husband, who becomes jealous of how inseparable Laura and Tom are. He feels the same way about Tom that the other boys do and resents Laura’s attempts to help him, feeling that the headmasters’ wives should only offer “tea and sympathy” and not get too involved in the students’ affairs.

**File Photos**
Birthday girl Deborah Kerr shown on the set of Tea and Sympathy (1956) along with costar John Kerr and screenwriter Robert Anderson.

The film is based on a play of the same name, which opened on this day in 1953 on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and ran for 712 performances. It also starred Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, and Leif Erikson, who all reprise their roles for the film version. At some point during its run, the lead roles were taken over by Joan Fontaine and Anthony Perkins, and even Ingrid Bergman starred onstage as Laura Reynolds in the French adaptation. Despite its success, nearly everyone doubted that the sensitive subject matter depicted in the play could possibly be translated to the screen. MGM saw a great deal of potential in the work, however, and struggled for years with the Catholic National Legion of Decency and the Production Code Office in order to find a way to hint at, without explicitly including, the play’s themes of homosexuality, adultery and prostitution. At one point, MGM even considered having an independent production company outside of the studio system produce Tea and Sympathy (1956). Instead the studio pushed the challenge onto Robert Anderson, who penned the original stage production, offering him $100,000 for the rights to his play while promising $300,000 more if he offered a script that passed the production code.

Deborah and John Kerr in a scene from Tea and Sympathy (1956).

While quite a few things are changed in the film version, including the addition of an epilogue in which Laura reveals to Tom that she was ashamed of her actions, Deborah Kerr was pleased with the finished product. She stated that the screenplay “contains all the best elements of the play. After all, the play was about the persecution of a minority, wasn’t it? That still remains the theme of the film,” and also applauded Robert Anderson for overcoming the obstacles presented to him at the start of production, remarking that he had done “a fine job”. I can’t help but agree for the most part. I was drawn into watching this film of Deborah’s in particular because the plot really intrigued me, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the dazzling Technicolor and the sensitive and moving performances given by both John and Deborah Kerr. It was slow moving, but certainly worth watching for Deborah’s birthday! While I still wouldn’t rank Ms. Kerr among my favorite actresses (and as much as I hate to say it, I’m sure I would have preferred Joan Fontaine and Tony Perkins in the film version), this is undboutedly my favorite picture that I’ve seen her in thus far. I’m vowing to continue to discover her work, and I definitely won’t be writing her off anytime soon!


12 thoughts on “The Deborah Kerr Blogathon — Tea and Sympathy (1956)

  1. This a lovely article, Samantha. I really like how despite your reservations, you looked at the film in a positive way and found things to compliment. I adore both Deborah and John Kerr in this, and I think they had lovely chemistry, which you’ve really conveyed here. I’m also intrigued by Joan Fontaine and Anthony Perkins playing the same characters.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you very much! Considering how much I adore classic movies and classic movie stars, it’s really difficult for me to find any that I outright dislike. I always give an actor every opportunity to impress me, and I’ll watch even more of Deborah’s films before I pass judgement.

      Joan and Tony would have been perfect! I read that bit of trivia about them playing the original roles, then forgot it as I watched the film. As I was watching John Kerr’s performance I thought to myself, “You know who would have been great in this part? Tony Perkins.” Then as I was writing this entry, I remembered again and laughed!

      Thanks again for reading and enjoying! ☺


  2. Hi Samantha. Lovely and honest review. I get why you might feel that way about Deborah. I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed her performance in this, despite not really being a fan. I recommend Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, in which she radiates warmth and sweetness. The King And I and The Sundowners are two other films you might enjoy.

    Thanks for joining us with this review of Tea and Sympathy. I still need to see this one, and am even more eager to check it out now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Maddy! I was delighted to give this a try, just as I am your recommendations! Apparently I own Marriage on the Rocks so I’ll likely be watching that along with your picks. I think I watched The King and I as a child, but I DEFINITELY need a refresher on it!

      You definitely should check it out! I think any fan of Deborah’s would enjoy it even more than I did! Thank YOU for hosting, and hopefully my review of The Seventh Veil will be even kinder because I already love James Mason! ☺

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s on my to watch list! Hope you enjoy watching her in more films.

        Ah, the magnificent James Mason. 🙂 Looking forward to reading your thoughts on his performance in that film.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. It truly is an accomplishment worth applauding in bringing Tea and Sympathy to the screen at that time. I hadn’t realized that the original stage stars were given the chance to recreate their roles in the film. I am impressed with that as well.

    PS: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Perfect Strangers should move up to the top of your “checking out more Deborah Kerr when I get the time list.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I saw the details about what was left in and out of the screenplay, I was amazed that it was still made at all. I thought their reprisals were very cool too!

      This is going to be a very long list by the end of the blogathon, I think! 😉 But of course I’ll note that suggestion!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Loved your review! BTW, if you still find Kerr too cold, I recommend you to watch The End of the Affair … Kerr’s gives a heartfelt, fierce performance as a troubled married woman. 🙂


  5. Your hesitation in liking Deborah Kerr reminds me of my disapproval of Jane Wyman which lasted for years. I always disliked her mousy wimpy whispering characters and in all of her major films ( Johnny Belinda, Stage Fright, Miracle in the Rain, All That Heaven Allows ) she plays this kind of woman…so naturally, when I kept watching her big films she annoyed me – until I discovered her early films and realized that she was a spunky gal! Very much like Doris Day with a BIG personality. It was only in her later films that she changed face. So that brings me to Deborah Kerr …..Explore her early films. Black Narcissus is fantastic, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Hucksters are great to begin with. Then work your way to The Sundowners ( she’s a strong Aussie mother in that film ), The Chalk Garden ( a suspected murderess ), and Heaven Knows Mr. Allison ( another nun ), and then give her another review. I’m sure you’ll fall in love with her by that time! Robert Mitchum and Kerr made four films together and they were a great team. She really projects a lot of warmth when you get to love her, and you’ll be wishing she was the lead in many films where other actresses fail to capture the character right. Ahem….and on a side note, I really enjoyed your review of this often overlooked film!


  6. I’m really glad you didn’t write her off – I admit she is one of my all time favorites so I am slightly biased, but I find her just the opposite of cold!

    I don’t recommend “Marriage on the Rocks” – it is a silly movie and she only did it as a favor to her old pal Sinatra. It’s not great.

    I do, however, highly recommend “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” and “The Sundowners” – they are wonderful movies, and she is wonderful in them- Very warm, subtle and touching. She is also really lovely in “The Hucksters”, her first Hollywood picture.

    I’m glad you are keeping an open mind! 🙂


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