Deborah Kerr, Stardom, and Love on the Dole

Love on the Dole made both Wendy Hiller and Deborah Kerr into stars, one in the theatre, then in the cinema, the other almost immediately on screen. Deborah Kerr (1921-2007) was brought up on limited resources by her mother in the Scottish town of Helensburgh, after her father’s early death. From an early age she was interested in the theatre, singing, and dance, and in 1937 attended for slightly less than a year at a drama-school run by an aunt. (1) She then trained as a ballet-dancer at Sadler Wells in London. However, after a year she decided that she was better suited to theatre. From 1938, she played a number of small roles at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, which during the summer performed plays mainly by Shakespeare. John Gliddon, a well-known theatrical agent, was told by one of his ‘talent-scouts’ who had seen her at Regent’s Park in James Bridie’s play Tobias and the Angel (1930) that he should sign her up. He did so, giving her a five-year contract and then using his skills and contacts to get her invited to film casting-calls, but with only minor success. However, according to reports with varying details from several witnesses, she was cast for a part in the George Bernard Shaw film, Major Barbara, after the director Gabriel Pascal saw her at lunch at either the Mayfair hotel or the Savoy Grill and thought she would be perfect in the part of the Salvation Army soldier, Jenny Hill. Curiously, the female lead in the film was Wendy Hiller, who was joined by a starry cast which included Rex Harrison, Robert Newton, Robert Morley, Emlyn Williams, Sybil Thorndyke, Donald Caltrop, and Marie Lohr. Major Barbara was released in the US on the fourteenth of May 1941, and in London on the second of August.

These dates matter because Kerr was cast in one of the central roles in Love on the Dole before the release of Major Barbara, and that decision was partly influenced by her having no public screen persona. The film’s director, John Baxter, was clear from the beginning that he did not want actors who already had a star persona, an approach linked to his ambition to represent ordinary working people in a realist film. This view also accorded with the publicly stated wishes of Greenwood himself – the Star, among other papers, reported in May 1941 (before the film’s general release) that ‘The film chiefs wept … the film people wanted a happy ending and Greenwood would have none of it … there are no stars in this film, nothing is glossed over. It is spoken of as the British Grapes of Wrath and better.’ (2) Thus Baxter rejected the British film star and dancer Jessie Matthews as Sally, though she tried out for the part. Indeed, Baxter said that the test was good: ‘she would have played it beautifully’, but he had already made up his mind to have ‘an unknown in the lead’.

Jessie Matthews by Bassano Ltd., whole-plate glass negative, 3 September, 1928; NPG x 16521; copyright National Portrait Gallery and reproduced here with the Gallery’s kind permission under a Creative Commons licence.

The photograph above was taken some thirteen years earlier, but like many photographs of Matthews (including a number by Bassano Ltd), it is rather coyly posed, perhaps suggesting something of her star image problem for Baxter. He had concluded that ‘[it] was the sort of subject that would have been artistically unbalanced by big names. a star of her magnitude billed over the title, would have created the wrong sort of interest’. Baxter stated this conviction several times:

The question of casting was to my mind all-important. Contrary to the view expressed by distributors and some others, I felt star names should be avoided. The play was famous in itself, and I felt concerned that if I was to secure complete identification on the part of the audience with the character in the film, I must remove from their minds the picture of a particular star playing a certain part. (3)

Indeed, as far back as 1935, when the first attempt at filming Greenwood’s story was under discussion, ‘star identity’ was seen as an issue. Gracie Fields, the Lancashire film star, publicly expressed a wish, reported in the Manchester Guardian, to play Sally in the film version, but feared, correctly, that she would not be cast because it was a serious role: ‘it’s too political, they tell me … they want me to be amusing. and there is nothing to laugh at in the heroine of Love on the Dole – it is all too true that story, I can tell you.’ (2/3/1935, p. 12). Her fame and star persona precluded her from the part. (4)

The film by British National Films was completed under difficult conditions during the London Blitz at the Rock Studio, Elstree, between the 11th of November and the 21st of December (with some additional shooting in January 1941) (5). It was released on 30th June 1941 and was an immediate critical success with favourable reviews in national and regional newspapers. As for the play, many reviews saw the film as very much an ensemble piece, praising the whole cast, suggesting that Baxter had indeed avoided a ‘star vehicle’, though the film itself fairly quickly made his unknown actress into a star. (6) Here is the response of the Bradford Observer’s film critic (who seems very well-informed about the film’s history, including Baxter’s intentions in his casting choices):


For years Walter Greenwood has been turning down offers from studios, English and American, to make his Love on the Dole. He was afraid of what the star system would do to his realistic slice of life among the Lancashire unemployed. He sold at last on the understanding that he had more than an ‘author’s-eye view’ of the film in production, and the screen Love on the Dole, which comes to the Odeon vetted by Greenwood, acted by young unknowns or semi-unknowns, retains its sincerity and has the same direct and touching appeal as the play that toured England for years.


The play made Wendy Hiller. The film, cast entirely for suitability instead of box-office appeal, makes four names … [Deborah Kerr, Clifford Evans, Joyce Howard and Geoffrey Hibbert] (30/5/1941, p. 2). (7)

Though Deborah Kerr is named first, Molly Hobman concludes the article by saying she thinks Geoffrey Hibbert may have the greatest promise as a film actor. The Lancashire Evening Post similarly stressed the equal contribution of the whole cast, and said the audience in Lancashire in particular would well remember the world they portrayed:

Its sincerity and brilliant character acting will bring them [the audience] close to aspects of life which many of them know only too well. This ruthless indictment of social conditions is indeed a triumph for all concerned, and none of the artists need be singled out: they are all excellent (20/9/1941, p.2, ‘by the Film Critic’).

Other reviews did single out Deborah Kerr more markedly, as in the Liverpool Evening Express: ‘Deborah Kerr as Sally and Clifford Evans as Larry almost “light the way to heaven” by the sincerity and impressiveness with which they invest their roles’ (18/8/1941, p.3). James Agate in the Tatler thought Deborah Kerr had less depth in the film-role than Wendy Hiller in the play, but also said, if cynically, that the term star would soon be invoked:

Well, I pronounce the film to be as near the reality as the business of entertainment permits. Its chief faults are that Sally’s mother (Mary Merrall) is too lady-like, a little too near Mrs. Micawber, and that Sally herself is not hard enough. Part of the brilliance, accidental or otherwise, of Wendy Hiller’s performance in the stage-play lay in the subtle implication that, despite Wordsworthian nonsense with the Labour agitator in the leafy purlieus of Boggart Hole Clough, she was of the fibre to support with some equanimity a fate worse than death. And the moralists in the audience had the satisfaction of believing that in a fortnight or so her protector would discover that betrayed innocence had turned his life into a far from merry hell. Deborah Kerr suggests nothing of this, and her performance is not within a mile of Wendy Hiller’s. But it is a charming piece of work by a very pretty and promising beginner, so pretty and so promising that already there is the familiar yapping about a new star. (11/6/1941, p. 6).

Despite Agate’s wariness about bestowing star status too readily, the film certainly did make Deborah Kerr into a new star, though perhaps not as swiftly as the play made Wendy Hiller one. There is presumably no objective measure for having achieved stardom, but the Tatler & Bystander seems to recognise (despite its own slight reservation) that by September 1941, Kerr had in most people’s eyes reached that status. Underneath a photograph of Kerr by John Everard (who was also famous for his nudes at this time), the paper acknowledges her as a star, though asks if she will sustain her momentum:

What Is in Store for Deborah Kerr?

Deborah Kerr is just twenty and has already reached star level in British films. She is considered “a great discovery,” and has a big picture-making programme ahead of her … She got a big chance in the screen part in Love on the Dole which Wendy Hiller created on the stage … The next opportunity the public will have of judging how this attractive and talented girl is getting on, and whether the film studio’s ambitious claims for her are going to be justified, is in Hatter’ s Castle … the screen version, lately completed, of A. J. Cronin’s first best-seller (10/9/1941, p.5).

A recent BFI book by Sarah Street in their Film Stars series is devoted to an analysis of Deborah Kerr’s screen performances across her career, including of course in Love on the Dole. Not surprisingly she has a higher regard for Kerr’s performance in the film, seeing it as a worthy if early part of what she sums up in her conclusion as a life-long commitment to ‘consummate professionalism’ in her performances. (8) In Street’s interesting analysis, Kerr is immediately constructed by the camera work as a star:

The cinematography … (by James Wilson) singles out Kerr as the film’s star. The initial shot of her is indicative of this when in the first three minutes we see a close-up of her waking from sleep. The lighting is dark, but the shot provides a momentary glimpse of Kerr out of context: we haven’t seen her as Sally yet, and in repose she looks beautiful, still, angelic. When she wakes and rouses her brother, however, an almost opposite characterisation is visible. With quick movements and a Lancashire accent, Sally is revealed to be a vivacious young woman. It is an interesting way to introduce Kerr, as if the prospect of her stardom is being acknowledged before her acting of the part begins. (9)

This might seem to run counter to Baxter’s wish not to cast a star as Sally, but could equally be seen in tune with it: the character is not given star status by being played by a star, but is seen as inherently a star through her own vivacity and strength of character as an ordinary/extra-ordinary working-class woman. In fact, this sense of Sally as exceptional and standing out from her background is there in both the novel and the play. In the novel, Sally at her first appearance in this very waking scene is singled out (though by a distinctly physical-prioritising male gaze):

Sally withdrew her head from the thin coverings and yawned. Eighteen, a gorgeous creature, whose native beauty her shabbiness could not hide. Eyes dark, lustrous, haunting; abundant black hair, tumbling in waves; a full ripe, pouting mouth, and a low round bosom. A face and form such as any society dame would have given three-quarters of her fortune to possess. Sally wore it carelessly as though youth’s brief hour was eternal; as though there was no such thing as old age. She failed in her temper; but when roused, colour tinted her pallid cheeks, such as the wind whipped up when it blew from north or east (Penguin edition, p. 15).

The play even more explicitly sees her as both ordinary and extraordinary, a duality particularly stressed quite early in Act 1, when she and Larry talk alone after his political speech outside the Hardcastle house. Sally wants them to marry, but Larry has reservations not about their relationship, but about the conditions they live under. He makes the point that he is an ordinary worker like every other in Hanky Park, and just as vulnerable:

LARRY. We both want the same thing, only … unless we get it straight in our minds first of all, I’m no better than those other chaps. Forty-five bob a week. That’s all I get. And look at Marlowe’s – none of us know when we’re going to finish. Is it fair to you, Sal?

SALLY. Ah’m not a film-star, Larry. Ah can manage as others do.

LARRY. Aye, manage to keep alive. There’s something more in life than just that.

. . .

SALLY. Don’t think so much, lad. Think about us. Ah want you, and you want me. There’s nowt else to it (Cape edition, p.22).

Sally’s reply that she is not a film-star seems in some ways not quite directly motivated by Larry’s reflections on the precariousness of marriage during the Depression, and while on the surface she is simply saying that she expects only an ordinary life, in another way the reference is likely to suggest to the audience at least that Sally is a kind of exceptional woman, a star, in the surroundings of Hanky Park. Indeed, this is what it seems to suggest to Larry, who responds:

LARRY. Bless you, Sal! When I see you like that, with the red in your cheeks and your eyes lit up … you’re like a flower … A flower in Hanky Park. A rose growing on a rubbish heap. Hanky Park … we can’t get away from that (Cape edition, p.23). (10)

The camera work of James Wilson (in conjunction with Baxter’s direction) registers a similar sense of Sally’s physical beauty, but also of vitality and agency as she urges her reluctant brother Harry to get up and face the world they live in. (11) We see the outline of Sally dressing herself behind a curtain, and she emerges dressed in quite ordinary clothes of the period, a jumper and a skirt, but these are certainly modern in style. Though some posters of the film show Sally in the traditional multi-purpose shawl still worn both at work and at home by many Lancashire women at this period, she never in fact wears this item in the film itself – for an example see: . In the film there are scenes where younger and older women in the background do wear shawls, but this contrast points up Sally as having some membership of the contemporary world, rather than wholly belonging to a regional and economically cut-off culture separated from the consumer world which to greater or lesser degree most cinema goers were part of. In short, her ordinariness and her ability to stand out are asserted by costuming as well as photography.

In fact, there is a publicity photograph of Sally / Kerr wearing this jumper from a set of stills used by the US distributors of Love on the Dole, Four Continents Films Inc. The film was not released in the USA till 12 October, 1945, and this is perhaps not necessarily a photograph newly taken, but might be derived from British production stills from 1940. In many ways it does not look like the publicity photo of ‘a star’.

In Author’s Collection; scanned 28/3/2021

There is no attempt here to show Deborah Kerr endowed with ‘glamour’ – no fashionable dress, no carefully coiffured hair (though the hair is carefully lit). If she is to be read as a star, then her serious, open, facial expression must do most of the work. Again, this is the ordinary woman as star.

Street goes on to make the point that after Larry’s death and Sally’s agreement to live with Sam Grundy in return for his helping her father and her married brother Harry get jobs (though his corrupt influence), the camera views her less like a star:

The transformation of Sally into disillusion and pragmatism elicits no close-ups. Once she has moved in with Grundy, she returns to the family home dressed in an expensive-looking suit, a silver fox fur draped over her shoulder, wearing make-up and with visibly restyled hair. This is in complete contrast to her earlier appearance in a shapeless jumper and skirt, a dowdy raincoat, and for much of the time wearing a black beret covering dishevelled hair. But the shots of the new Sally do not present her as a glamorous film star. The loss of her idealism, spirit and vivacity is indicated by a harder, wordly person who has made a pragmatic and self-sacrificial personal choice, which people generally do not respect. The comparison with our first sight of her at the beginning of the film – tranquil, perfect, a star in the making – is striking. (12)

This acute analysis of the cinematography suggests that as the outer attributes of ‘glamour’ – the expensive clothes – come within Sally’s reach, so her true inner stardom, her vitality and agency, is lost (though I do not think the point about loss of respect is correct – Sally was generally perceived in play and film reviews as well as by Mrs Bull at least within the film, as having made an heroic self-sacrifice, within a society which denied her the opportunity for personal freedom). I argued in my book that Kerr is at this point showing attributes of the star:

It comes as no real surprise when, after accepting Sam Grundy’s offer, [Sally] returns to North Street wearing expensive clothes … made-up more in the manner of a star (an effect particularly highlighted by the close-up shortly after of her mother’s unmade-up, weary and weeping face. (13)

I think that Street’s argument refines this by looking at the camera shots through the whole scene (though there is that one close-up of Sally’s face) and showing a clash between different ways of signifying the ‘star’.

The film in fact rewrites through Deborah Kerr’s performance the idea of the female film star, and no doubt partly as part of Baxter’s championing of a British realist film about ordinary people against the Hollywood world of glamour and escapism. It was perhaps a tricky line to tread – Kerr had to retain certain star qualities, while not relying on the ‘props’ of a star persona and performance. A British newspaper report suggests that some Hollywood writers were very much persuaded by the film’s aesthetic. The People’s film critic Maurice Cowan reported their conviction in his Screen News column:

Love on The Dole

SECOND BOUQUET [from the USA] comes from a group of Hollywood writers. worried about American movies which so often escape into ‘the much too-contrived never-land of prettily enamelled fairy tales’. To prove their case. that make-up artistry cannot compensate for loss of reality, they screened Love on the Dole, a five-year old British National picture. Emphasising our courage, they pointed out the large demand in America for mature films (14/ 5/1946, p.4).

However, at least one viewer thought the balance of ordinary/extraordinary was not quite right. The Picturegoer and Film Weekly ran a ‘Readers’ Reviews’ column and one reader, ‘Miss Dorothy Stuckey, Holloway N7’, wrote a review of Love on the Dole which included her view that it was ‘not [Kerr’s] fault that she looked, shall I say, a little too beautiful for Hankey Park’ (2/8/1941, p.12). When Kerr went to work for MGM in Hollywood in late 1946, Louis B. Mayer certainly had no doubt that he had acquired a star, issuing his famous instruction: ‘her name will rhyme with star and not with cur’ (14).

Kerr did develop a ‘star persona’ as her distinguished film career went on, or rather one was attributed to her, often to her annoyance. Her biographer, Michaelangelo Capua, says:

‘The English Rose’, ‘The Ladylike’ – that’s how Deborah Kerr was branded by the columnists across her whole career. The Scottish actress once said, ‘That “lady” image gets my goat!’ … She projected a cool reserve and an aura of serene perfection which often hid passion and insecurity. These qualities often led her to be cast as nuns, widows, nurses, governesses and women who had suffered or chosen to sacrifice themselves to others (Location 15)

Some aspects of this description apply even to her early performance as Sally. Though she is playing a working-class woman instead of the ‘lady’ role which she clearly found stereotyping, there is the element of self-sacrifice. Over her career, Kerr played a considerable variety of roles, and indeed liked best to be cast somewhat against the grain of her reputed star persona. She said that the key to her desire to act was not being herself, which might apply also to not being her ‘star’ self: ‘I adore not being me. I’m not very good at being me – that’s why I adore acting so much’ (obituary by Patrick Newley, the Stage, 25/10/2007, p.53). Street argues that a central component in the development of Kerr’s career was an ability to draw on and modify her star persona:

[My] conclusion considers Kerr’s cultural significance and reputation. Why was she a star? What does her career contribute to our understanding of the varieties of stardom and film performance? Kerr’s career raises questions of adaptability for British stars, since she was able to make her mark in both British and Hollywood cinema. There were certainly shifts of emphasis during her career; she proved that British stars could work within other industrial models and not disappoint. Kerr also became aware of the dangers of getting locked into unrewarding and repetitive studio contract roles, and did her best to break out of this system, pursuing more experimental performances. (15)

Perhaps even in the early Love on the Dole, and before her own half-reluctant star persona was formed, Kerr, in tune with the dynamic created with Baxter and Wilson, performed in a way which both drew on and played against expectations of the conventional ‘star’.


Note 1. For this biographical material I have drawn on Michelangelo Capua’s useful and readable biography, Deborah Kerr: a Biography, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2010, which draws in turn on the earlier biography by Eric Braun: Deborah Kerr, London: St Martin’s Press, 1978, as well as on Braun himself. This material refers particularly to Capua’s book in a Kindle edition, locations 34 to199.

Note 2. From a brief article pasted into Greenwood’s Newspaper Clippings book (volume 1) at the Walter Greenwood Collection, University of Salford Archives (WGC/3/2, p. 34). The brief article was published on 7/5/1941. Clippings on the same page offer similar versions of the story – either Greenwood or the studio might have been the source.

Note 3. Capua, Deborah Kerr – A Biography, kindle edition, location 189, citing Matthew Thornton, Jessie Matthews, London: Hart-Davis and MacGibbon, 1974, p. 156, and drawing also on Braun’s conversations with Thornton, quoted in Deborah Kerr, p.55. The second quotation is from Geoff Brown (with Tony Aldgate), The Common Touch – the Films of John Baxter, London, National Film theatre Dossier, no.5, BFI, 1989. p. 79. Jessie Matthews was herself, like Gracie Fields, from a pretty poor background, which might have given her some empathy with the part of Sally. However, she also had a well-developed star persona which tended to be imported into any role she played. For an introduction to her career, see Jessie Matthews – Wikipedia .

Note 4. For more about Gracie Fields see Walter Greenwood and Gracie Fields – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole, and for the history of why the film was not made till 1941, see The Film of Love on the Dole (1941) – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole.

Note 5. For discussion of whether the play was essentially an ensemble piece, or whether Sally was likely to be identified as the lead, and therefore confer ‘star’ status on the actress playing the part see: Love on the Dole: the Actors (1934 – 1937) – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole .

Note 6. The Common Touch, p.76.

Note 7. The review predates the general release date, so Hobman must have attended the ‘Trade Show’ on 2 April 1941 – see the Kinematograph Weekly poster for this:

Note 8. Sarah Street, Deborah Kerr, BFI/ Bloomsbury, 2018, p.142 / location 1895.

Note 9. Street, Deborah Kerr, p.23/location 239.

Note 10. This speech in the play stems from a passage in the novel, but is slightly less immediately doom-laden than the original. The novel’s version has an industrial carpe diem motif which runs like this: ‘He still was young; so was Sally, gorgeously young! On this dunghill of Hanky Park a rose was blowing for him. It, like all else, would shed its bloom. Not yet, though! Its intoxicating fragrance filled his nostrils. Grasp it, grasp it before it is too late!’ (Chapter 3, ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’, p.152).

Note 11. James Wilson’s Wikipedia entry is rather short on narrative, but does record something of the range of films he worked on, some also with John Baxter as director. Sadly though, the list misses Love on the Dole, but as Street and Geoff Brown record, he certainly was the camera-man for the film.

Note 12. Street, Deborah Kerr, p.23/location 253.

Note 13. Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018, pp.163-4.

Note 14. Capua, Deborah Kerr – A Biography, location 509.

Note 15. Street, Deborah Kerr, p.13/location 116.