Monday, December 3, 2007


A Brief Romp through TECHNICOLOR

by Nick Zegarac

Even if you know nothing of the organization, you know its name. Technicolor is synonymous with the movies; as readily recognizable as any trademark of the 20th century. The brainchild of an ambitious inventor, Technicolor has been at the forefront of technological growth in the media arts ever since its conception – always a little bit ahead of its time and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence.

With so much activity over the last ninety years it’s easy to forget that as a company Technicolor was hardly the ‘industry standard’ from the word ‘go.’ Buttressed by skepticism, ever-changing technologies and a revolving management during its later years, Technicolor often stood at the edge of a great double edged precipice; an empire forever on the verge of dissolution or the next great technological advancement.


In truth, there was little that was ‘glorious’ about either the company or its’ founder’s formative years. Technicolor’s guiding light was born Herbert Thomas Kalmus on November, 9, 1881 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Orphaned at age 11, Kalmus was removed from school at the tender age of 16. He took a job in a carpet store in Boston where his frugality afforded him a princely savings of $500 that he parlayed into a college education at Massachusetts Institute for Technology (M.I.T.) – the only school that would accept him as a student. He would eventually graduate with a Bachelors of Science.

While a senior in college, Kalmus met and married Natalie Dunfee – a union more troublesome with each passing year. With fellow student, Daniel Frost Comstock, Kalmus and his wife toured Europe on a fellowship. He received his doctorate from the University of Zurich; then spent several years as an assistant and professor. But it was his sideline interest that came to dominate his life and career.

Technicolor’s creation came almost by accident. Kalmus and Comstock had formed a partnership with W. Burton Wesscott to provide industrial and scientific research and development services. In 1912, Boston lawyer, William H. Coolidge approached Kalmus with the Vanoscope; a primitive projector that Coolidge claimed would remove the ‘flicker’ from motion pictures. Unfortunately for Coolidge, tests conducted by the firm proved the opposite. But Kalmus had another idea. Intrigued by the movies potential, he began work on a new type of camera – one that would be able to photograph motion pictures in color.

Reportedly, the name ‘Technicolor’ was inspired by a derivative of the word ‘technique.’ Yet, technical problems with creating color film images were only part of the challenge facing Kalmus. Experimentation cost money and required vast facilities – neither luxury afforded his fledgling firm. However, the new enterprise was blessed with an infusion of brilliant minds through Comstock’s association with M.I.T. graduates; Leonard Troland, Joseph Arthur Ball and Eastman Weaver – whose contributions launched Technicolor’s first foray - ‘Process Number One’ inside the firm’s first manufacturing facility – a railway box car.

‘Number One’ made simultaneous exposures of red and green negatives with a prism, but required the rather cumbersome use of a specially designed projector with two apertures; one red, one green to reproduce the image on screen. The chief difficulty with this process was that rarely did its red and green apertures align in perfect registration – hence the image was far from sharp and steady.
But by 1916, Kalmus was enthusiastic enough about ‘Number One’ to make a color feature; The Gulf Between. It was an early and disastrous endeavor shot in Florida and it cost Technicolor a then staggering $6,000 per week to shoot. Despite its flaws, Kalmus quickly acquired more work space and set about developing ‘Process Number Two’ in 1918 – a complicated gelatin relief base that photographed two sets of film negative from a single lens. By 1920, Kalmus could be proud of this advancement, even if Coolidge’s initial $400,000 investment had yet to see a penny’s worth of profit in return.

Kalmus, however, had grander ideas on his horizon. With more financial aid – this time, from attorney William Travers Jerome and a pair of ad executives; A.W. Erickson and Harrison K. McCann (who, in turn approached a litany of their own clients to foot more of the bill), Kalmus secured Technicolor’s future; one that garnered interest, but not a single dollar of investment from movie magnets Marcus Loew, Nicholas and Joseph Schenck. Under the latter, Kalmus secured the rights to produce The Toll of the Sea (1922; an American Madame Butterfly, starring Anna May Wong and eventually released through the Metro Film Company).

Originally intended as a two reeler, the film photographed by Ray Rennahan was deemed ‘too good to cut’, and emerged as a five reel feature that grossed $250,000 in its initial release – a qualified success, though not without incurred difficulties. First, the amount of lighting required to properly expose Technicolor’s camera negative during principle photography necessitated banks of searing hot klieg lights hung from the rafters at a great additional expense to production costs.
Second, Technicolor’s ‘bonding process’ cupped (or puckered) during projection, necessitating constant realignment. Third, Technicolor had neither the production facilities nor the manpower to produce ‘rush prints’ making it very uneconomical and not at all timely in its post production.

Despite these obvious setbacks, Kalmus conferred the concept of a ‘package’ deal with each and every producer who desired to test market his process. The advertisement of ‘Color by Technicolor’ on a film marquee meant that Kalmus’ company handled all stages of the laboratory work. Every film shot in Technicolor was assigned a trained cameraman from Technicolor who worked in conjunction with the assigned studio’s director, cinematographer, designers, make-up and wardrobe people as a technical consultant.

Afterward, Technicolor’s laboratories assumed full responsibility for the delicate processing of film negatives, as well as working with the director on preparation of raw footage into a final cut from which Technicolor then struck its general release prints. No part of the production phase was therefore left to chance.

Kalmus’ personal seal on Technicolor’s commitment during every phase of principle photography paid off. Film pioneer Jesse Lasky agreed to shoot Wanderer of the Wasteland (1923) in Technicolor. Kalmus moved his facilities from the box car to an established permanent office at 1006 North Cole Avenue. Again, the film’s content proved not as important as the advertised novelty of seeing color itself. However, more and more, Kalmus was determined that a major star should appear in Technicolor.

Star power would add legitimacy to the process – make it acceptable and marketable, not only to audiences but also to the moguls who, for the most part, remained skeptical of Technicolor’s staying power within the industry. The star – the first to slip from monochromatic bonds into blazing Technicolor - was one of Hollywood’s biggest: Douglas Fairbanks. Billed as a million dollar epic, The Black Pirate (1925) spent months shooting test footage of Fairbanks at a staggering cost of $125,000.

Though never entirely satisfied with the way he appeared in color, Fairbanks eventually completed the film. It’s New York premiere was a solid success – even garnering rave reviews from the critics - but the old specter of ‘cupping’ marred many general release viewings elsewhere across the country where Technicolor technicians were not on hand to immediately correct the problem.

As a result, Lasky and Fairbanks confided to Kalmus that no further movies would be produced in Technicolor. Worse, Kalmus had to back out of MGM’s proposition to shoot Rose Marie (1927) in color after he confided to studio head L.B. Mayer that Technicolor would be unable to meet the film’s May 1 general release date. It seemed that the novelty and all of Kalmus’ early hard work had been for not. Technicolor was the proverbial late house guest that had worn out its welcome.


Kalmus launched into ‘Process Number Three’ in 1927 with renewed interest from Nicholas Schenck and a series of short subjects for MGM that garnered much praise from the critics. Even so, studios continued to shy away from Technicolor for a full length features until 1928’s The Viking blazed onto the screen at a staggering $325,000 – a fee reimbursed by MGM’s wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who purchased the independent production outright for release under MGM’s banner.

Overnight, it seemed the craze for color had caught on. MGM contracted Kalmus for color sequences in two of its biggest projects to date: The Broadway Melody (1929) and The Desert Song (1929). Both films’ successes caught the attention of producer Jack L. Warner, who had seen his own profits rise that same year with the launch of ‘the talkies’ and had determined wisely that added profits could be made with the inclusion of sound and Technicolor. The net result for Kalmus was a flurry of requisites and ten months solid booking for work.


By 1930, Technicolor was bursting forth with regularity inside movie houses across the country. The Vagabond King, King of Jazz, Song of the West and Whoopee all made excellent use of Process Number Three. However, with increasing regularity, Technicolor was also being exploited by producers eager to capitalize on the novelty but without the substance of plot to back their stories up.

The limitations of two-strip color not withstanding (it could not photograph an effective blue or attractive green), Technicolor was fast becoming a gag in its chosen medium – something superficial to lure the paying customer in when everything else about the product spelled ‘clunker.’

As a result, after a few short months of critical success, Technicolor experienced yet another downward spiral in its profits. Contracts were canceled and color photography acquired a negative connotation that continued to impact the company’s bottom line well into the middle of the decade. However, a minor reprieve was on the horizon.

To date, no animated cartoons had been produced in color – the general consensus being that cartoons were cheaply made and already popular as is. But Kalmus was not about to let general consensus interfere with his own progress. Armed with some test footage of his new and improved three-strip process - barely patented and unable to meet the demand, if any should arise from this latest development - Kalmus approached Walt Disney to use Technicolor for his popular Silly Symphonies cartoon series.

It was the beginning of an artistic friendship – one that so impressed Disney, that for several years thereafter he held exclusivity on the Technicolor process for his animated short subjects. His first cartoon in Technicolor – Flowers and Trees (1932) won the Oscar for best Short Subject, as it garnered another statuette for Technicolor’s latest achievement. Still, Kalmus found it difficult to peddle color to major studios for live action films. The chief concern was cost. How much for color as opposed to black and white?
Pioneer, a company founded by maverick Merian C. Cooper and millionaire Jock Whitney, showed the first signs of legitimate interest in Technicolor for a feature film. On May 11, 1933, Whitney bought a block of stock in the company and agreed to 8 movies in color. The first, La Cucaracha (1934) did little to garner respect for the new three strip process.

The news of Whitney’s investment spread throughout Hollywood, garnering curious interest in Technicolor. 20th Century-Fox toyed with adding color to the end sequence of The House of Rothchild, but shot their ending twice – once in Technicolor and once more in black and white just in case public reaction to the addition of color proved negative. So too did Samuel Goldwyn license Technicolor briefly for one lavishly produced ‘ice cream’ production number in his otherwise all B&W movie; Kid Millions.

Though the powers that be at Fox and Goldwyn were delighted when the color footage in both their films was well received by the critics, further contracts with Technicolor were not forthcoming. Then, came Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp (1934) – a full length movie based on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and a colossally expensive production for RKO Pathe. Unfortunately for all concerned, Becky Sharp was unfairly judged as inferior entertainment on several levels, despite several critics citing Technicolor’s vast improvements.

Conversely, a minor film - Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) became the Technicolor’s first profitable release. Still, the critics were unconvinced that color had played a part in the film’s overall success. Rather, shrewd casting and plotting had culminated with Technicolor to produce marketable entertainment for the masses. This assessment seemed to stick, especially after the general release of The Dancing Pirate – another colossal color flop for Pioneer. It was the last in a series. Fed up with his independent film making, Jock Whitney dissolved Pioneer and went into the business with fellow producer David O. Selznick instead.

Worse, - and despite the success of Selznick’s original version of A Star is Born (1936), Technicolor’s reputation within the industry was met by a growing refusal from established stars like Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert to even consider appearing in color. Their artistic sensibilities were beyond reproach and if Gable didn’t need color, who did? Bette Davis trumped them all – publicly calling Warner Brothers’ foray into Technicolor “tripe!”

Then, in 1938, producer Pandro S. Berman agreed to break the color stalemate by inserting a dream sequence into the Astaire/Rogers musical Carefree at RKO. Tests were made and a production number devised. But, by the time Berman was ready to shoot the sequence RKO was on the verge of financial ruin. The studio couldn’t risk an expensive flop. Hence, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would have to wait eleven years to appear together in Technicolor – at MGM in The Barkleys of Broadway.

‘In Glorious Technicolor’

“Now that we have fast film…I am sure that color is going to be more flattering than ever to women.”Ernest Haller
The first major watershed in Technicolor’s history proved to be a film that no one in Hollywood had faith in – except Walt Disney. For years, Disney had wanted to produce a feature length animated movie. Many in the industry considered Disney’s dream not merely a dangerous gamble, but utterly foolhardy.
The general consensus then was that no one would sit through a two hour ‘cartoon.’ Undaunted, Disney borrowed against his own life insurance to finish his dream project; Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937). Heralded as a masterpiece, and easily recouping its production costs, ‘Disney’s folly’ (as the film had come to be known) revolutionized public and critical perceptions about animation. It also generated praise for Technicolor.

One year later, two of Technicolor’s finest examples to date had their theatrical premieres. The first, Warner Bros. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) was a glorious spectacle debuting resident heartthrob, Errol Flynn in his first color feature. The second offering – though not as widely remembered today – had more direct significance where Technicolor was concerned. Director William Wellman’s Men With Wings (1938) was an ambitious movie about the early days of flight. It was also Wellman’s third consecutive movie shot in Technicolor.

During production on his first color movie, A Star is Born (1936), the outspoken director had complained loudly about the cumbersome nature of Technicolor cameras. But with his latest release, Wellman had nothing but glowing praises to sing. “I’ll talk for hours about color,” Wellman admitted, “There’s nothing like it...Color gives depth, perspective, reality. It’s wonderful. But I’ll try to be calm.”

Indeed, Technicolor’s reputation within the industry was on the artistic mends. Major studio moguls that had once denounced color as mere gimmick were now eager to employ the process for their prestige pictures. Ironically, of all the studios that had dared dabble with color early on Hollywood’s most well appointed dream factory, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had yet to embrace the plunge.

Comfortable with their proficiency in monochromatic movie making MGM had finally decided on Technicolor for the latest Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald musical; Sweethearts (1938). They also began negotiations on what would ultimately become one of the most beautifully photographed color films of all time: The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Technically, Oz is not a feature length color movie; its bookend Kansas sequences photographed in sepia. However, the other major screen achievement of that year – David O. Selznick’s Gone With The Wind was. GWTW was a watershed for Technicolor. It also proved to be a colossal headache for Selznick. During the shoot, Natalie Kalmus’ constant intervention as Technicolor’s foremost color consultant managed to ruffle Selznick’s artistic feathers on more than one occasion.

To be certain, Natalie Kalmus’ involvement on most color films to date had been a major drawback for the organization. Difficult, opinionated and able to usurp any art director’s creative authority in order to dictate her own esthetics on the use of various colors and textures incorporated into set design, Natalie Kalmus became a dreaded part of the process in shooting movies in color.
Though she had secretly divorced her husband in 1921, Natalie continued to occupy his life for the next twenty years, a tenure that coincided with her hallowed place within the Technicolor organization as its chief color consultant. Indeed, for the next decade, Natalie would receive sole credit on virtually all movies shot in color. However, on GWTW a deal was eventually brokered between Technicolor and Selznick whereby Natalie would no longer be involved or even welcome on the set. She would indeed receive credit on GWTW as its’ color consultant, but her daily presence would be felt no more.

Technicolor goes to work

It is perhaps a minor overstatement that WWII affected Technicolor’s overall popularity. Yet, there is little to deny that the war years were a showcase for some of the most lavishly produced and stunningly photographed offerings yet to incorporate the new process. Coinciding with the sudden rise and demand for pin-up girls, Technicolor made a showcase of radiant, sumptuous new beauties coming into their own during the early to mid 1940s.

Betty Grable in particular benefited from 20th Century-Fox’s garish use of Technicolor in one glossy musical offering after the next. The flaming red locks of Maureen O’Hara and Rita Hayworth were admiringly photographed in paper-thin Technicolor extravaganzas. With dubiously monikers like ‘Queen of Technicolor’ and ‘Technicolor Tessie,’ stars like Lucille Ball achieved a form of popularity directly linked to their appearances in Technicolor. Even, Universal’s minor sensation, Maria Montez, proved momentarily monumental in color by Technicolor.

In 1941, under the technological aegis of Dr. Leonard Troland, Technicolor debuted its’ Monopack single film process. A mere three years later, Monopack became the standard for all color photography, outsourcing the three-strip process that had been the norm. Perhaps nowhere in Hollywood was this new Monopack more widely embraced and exploited than at 20th Century-Fox.

The studio had set a standard for achieving artistry through color with Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand (1941) a legacy that would endure throughout the war years, as Fox produced many films with award-winning color photography including The Black Swan (1942), Wilson (1944), Leave Her To Heaven (1945) and Forever Amber (1946) – the latter utilizing a special lamp that produced a hard streak of light to create single shadows and advance the mood of color photography for dramatic effect.

But without a doubt, the most impressive example of Technicolor to date came not from Hollywood, but from Britain with the release of Jack Cardiff’s Black Narcissus (1948) – a moody, stark and surreally beautiful drama made at Elstree Studios. The trend toward British imports making a splash in North America continued with The Red Shoes (1948) – a brilliantly conceived fantasy/melodrama that elevated the popularity of ballet dancing on film.
In spite of these glowing contributions to color and Technicolor’s diligence in producing high quality prints for all the major studios, the company became the subject of an anti-trust suit filed by the U.S. Government in 1948 that charged Technicolor had a monopoly. True, Kalmus had never been one to bow to studio pressure for ‘rush jobs’ in making his prints – preferring quality over quantity as his company policy.
Also, Technicolor film stock was specifically designed for use only in Technicolor cameras. But the stalemate for ‘on demand’ printing was hardly deliberate or designed to illicit bottleneck control over any studio’s output. Also, Kalmus had, for some time planned to perfect a new color stock that would be adaptable in standard cameras.

Ironically, it had not been for lack of funding, research or timing that Technicolor never achieved this latter goal. But even under its current restriction in camera technologies, Technicolor did not have a true ‘monopoly’ on color processing. In fact, two inferior rivals – Cinecolor and Trucolor had been readily in use and in competition with Technicolor throughout the war years. Nevertheless, the anti-trust suit against Technicolor dragged on for three years.

In 1949, Technicolor was dealt a more prominent blow from Eastman Kodak’s debut of a single strip color negative. Eastman’s process was not only faster in printing than Technicolor – it was cheaper. Many in the industry were quick to predict a swift end to Technicolor’s supremacy. But the conversion to other color methods was not as pervasive or instant as the critics surmised. Instead, Technicolor continued to be the preferred process in Hollywood, until 1953’s Foxfire for Universal.In 1955, Technicolor adapted its three-strip negative to the more preferred and pliable single strip process. But the results were hardly complimentary to the advent of widescreen projection via Cinemascope and VistaVision. In fact, though tonality and color rendering remained superb, the new printing process lacked considerably in sharpness and definition. In an attempt to rectify this shortcoming, Technicolor introduced its own anamorphic process – Technirama: superior and utilized by Walt Disney for Sleeping Beauty in 1959.

That same year, Herbert Kalmus – who had toyed with the idea of retiring since the mid-1940s – decided it was time to step down as the company’s chief operating officer. At 78, he had seen Technicolor grow from a modest technological gimmick into the industry standard.


With his appointment as chief executive Technicolor’s incoming chairman, Patrick J. Frawley began an ambitious campaign to diversify and expand the company’s color processing platform. In truth, with the retirement of its patented three strip Technicolor cameras in the mid-fifties – now, collecting dust as relics of the Smithsonian – Technicolor’s responsibilities within the industry were compartmentalized as laboratory and processing facilities only, with satellite offices housed in London and Rome.

Frawley expanded Technicolor’s operations to incorporate the processing of amateur 8 and 16mm film stocks. He also established a link for development with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Air Force, the Department of the Interior and the Government of West Germany.

To some extent, Frawley’s diversification proved profitable. Apart from the company’s continued involvement in processing such color films as West Sides Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and My Fair Lady (1964), Technicolor also became active in printing black and white movies. Frawley next announced that Technicolor would become active in converting full color television prints from color tapes – a revolutionary breakthrough made possible by the company’s subsidiary division: Vidtronics.
Ironically, with a decline in the studio system and dwindling output of major features during the mid-60s, Technicolor suffered a substantial blow to its bottom line. For all of Frawley’s diversification, his new forays away from Hollywood had remained mere sidelines to the company’s main staple - mass orders for prints of major motion pictures. Deprived of these orders by a more cautious and independent Hollywood, Technicolor’s dye transfer process became uncompetitive and the company’s financial future more precariously perched than ever before.

By 1970, Technicolor’s balance sheet had dipped into the red. A new chairman, Morton Kamerman entered the picture, phasing out the old labor intensive dye transfer negative process, selling off its former technology and equipment to China and closing Technicolor’s flagship Hollywood plant within the year. The turnaround may have been drastic, but arguably it was also necessary to restore the company to profitability.

RESTRUCTURING – the other end of the rainbow?

In 1982, Technicolor was privatized with its board of directors’ complicity; acquired by MacAndrews & Forbes. Under new management, Technicolor divested itself of all Frawley’s sideline ventures, concentrating solely on film processing and videocassette duplication. The move was perfectly timed.

The old Hollywood strategy of test marketing new films through ‘limited release’ had given way to a policy of immediate nationwide distribution, resulting in a net increase of orders for more theatrical prints.
Furthermore, the video revolution, with its private collectors clamoring to own their favorite filmic memories on VHS and Beta created a groundswell of demand for video mastering that by the end of 1983 was averaging approximately 50,000 units per year. By 1995, that number dramatically increased to over 200 million units per annum.

In the mid-90s, Technicolor embarked upon an aggressive campaign into new digital technologies designed for restoration and preservation; a shrewd move cautiously tested nearly a decade earlier with the limited release of a restored Beck Sharp. Over the next ten years, studios would begin to realize the importance of these early efforts.

But in the early 80s, film directors, private collectors and fans of the home video market had already noticed an alarming anomaly plaguing their favorite films. Movies as young as six years from their original release had already begun to degrade in color fidelity. Films of the 1950s shot on Eastman and DeLuxe stock had all but turned to chalky pink.

Technicolor’s own revamped dye transfer process from this vintage was not above reproach. In 1980, Steven Spielberg noted that his, Jaws (1976) was among the films that had already lost a considerable amount of resiliency in its blue register – rendering the waters of his horror classic a muddy grayish brown. The cry from the industry was slowly gaining momentum. Something had to be done.
Enter Tom Epley as Technicolor’s new chairman in the early 90s, advancing the company’s prestige and profitability through development of CD and DVD manufacturing and restoration facilities – the latter becoming the biggest generator of revenues for Technicolor. Their Home Entertainment Services division was helmed by Lanny Raimondo who succeeded Epley as Technicolor’s CEO in 1998.

Most recently, Technicolor has expanded into the video game industry; entering into a multi-year agreement with Microsoft to be the primary replicating facility for its X-Box console. At last count, Technicolor has been responsible for the production and distribution of approximately 100 million discs worldwide.

In 2001, Technicolor was acquired by Thomson – a multimedia conglomerate that helped advance the company’s involvement in the installation of digital cinema systems across North America. Under Thomson’s creative wing, Technicolor continues to grow that offshoot of its theatrical interests as the leading partner in the media and entertainment industry.
When Herbert Kalmus established his first Technicolor facilities in Hollywood he could barely have conceived the future impact his invention would have on the movies. Today, color photography is the standard, not the exception to the rule, a testament to Kalmus foresight and conviction. He was a pioneer and a visionary long before the studios realized it. Thankfully, we have all benefited from his dedication to the arts.

@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


The extraordinary life
of Sir Rex Harrison

by Nick Zegarac

“In many ways he did live for the moments when he could show himself through a part… and he always seems to me to be more alive in those moments than I knew him to be off stage.”
Carey Harrison

Indeed, this statement by Rex Harrison’s younger son is most telling to the outsider admiring the actor’s formidable body of work. For in Harrison there is much more than the lion’s share of being deviously deceptive; an almost chameleon-like ability to blend, blur and even obliterate the line between man and myth. When he is on the screen in My Fair Lady he is Professor Henry Higgins; in Cleopatra – Julius Caesar. We believe him implicitly when he sells us a bill of goods that he can talk to the animals in Doctor Doolittle and proves as much by warbling inaudible grunts and moans to a cavalcade of real and imagined beasts.

Rex Harrison lived a life of extremes. In his youth, his outward persona tottered between that of a wellborn cultured jetsetter who, in reality, had little clout or money to his name. As his stature as an actor grew, his personal life became unsteady and insecure. Married six times, yet desperately claiming the constant love of one woman, Harrison was an electrifying mass of contradictions. Though he created a myriad of indelibly complex characters on both the stage and big screen, arguably the most compelling part he ever played was his own life.

NO ORDINARY MAN – the journey begins…
Reginald Carey Harrison was born to privilege in Heighton, England on March 5, 1908. In truth, there was very little about his youth that foreshadowed greatness. Reginald’s father William was a flirtatious and handsome sport who preferred the social graces to a steadfast work ethic. If William was a lax blueprint for Reginald’s upbringing, his mother, Edith more than amply balanced her husband’s wayward nature with a rigid set of finite values that she instilled in her son and Reginald’s two older sisters, Sylvia and Marjorie.

Still, with young Reginald’s health often teetering between virulent bouts of influenza and phenomena, Edith was a doting and loving matriarch whose pampering led to Reginald becoming a confirmed mama’s boy. After a particularly nasty plague of measles, the recovering Reginald was taken to the local live theater to get his mind off his woes. Basking in the afterglow of footlights and thundering applause, the young Reginald returned home to begin practicing his own bows in his living room. The die had been cast. Reginald Harrison was going to become an actor.


“Tomorrow is a thief of pleasure.” – Rex Harrison

At the age of ten, Reginald traded his conventional upper English Christian first name for ‘Rex’ – with its ancient connotations of kingly inheritance and infinitely more manageable placement on the bill of a theater marquee and program. On November 11, 1918, Rex made things more official with a move to Sefton Park and enrollment in their dramatic society. As expected, though paved with good intensions, this road was hardly smooth or glamorous.
At 14, Rex made his debut in the society’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and very quickly came to the realization that there was quite a bit more to acting than taking bows. To be truly great he would have to succumb to expert tutelage. For Rex, the very idea seemed distasteful. “(He was) very rebellious,” son Noel has said of his father, “He would never conform to what people expected of him to do.” Still, it was a means to an end – and so the pupil began his exercises.

By 1925, Rex was accepted under theater director William Armstrong into the Liverpool Repertory Company as their ‘actor in residence.’ But the 17 year old was confined mostly to odd jobs backstage. A bright spot for Rex materialized in a cameo for the company in Thirty Minutes in A Street. Despite the briefness of his appearance, Rex managed to catch the eye of a few critics who thought him a worth addition to the cast.

Unfortunately, ‘Liverpool’ did not pay the bills. Even so, Rex had already managed to adapt his stage persona to life; developing into a randy rake about town, the sort of good time Charlie who caroused a lot with other people’s money and squired the ladies with effortless charm and sophistication. For Rex, these were the happiest of times. His exploits, however, did come with minor fallout; they earned the actor the moniker ‘Sexy Rexy.’

By 1927, Rex Harrison had managed a minor coup; he had become a prolific commodity – a man of envy to most others his own age and a real charmer with the fairer sex. Yet, nothing short of perfecting his craft would satisfy the egotistical actor. And so, in September of that year, Rex moved to London where he began a 12 week tour in Charlie’s Aunt. His part garnered rave reviews in the press.

Unfortunately for Rex, he followed up this performance for the Cardiff Repertory Company with an inconsequential bit in The Ninth Moon – a terrific flop. For the next six years, Rex toured with Cardiff all over the English countryside – appearing in a different play nearly every month and a different town every week. He created dozens of indelible characters and became a fine actor besides.

But in 1933, Rex fell for a glamorous model; Noel Marjorie Colette Thomas. This immediate attraction came with obvious perks. First, Colette (as she was known to friends) came from a well connected and affluent family. As a social climber, Rex aspired to this sort of classis snobbery that Collette had been born into. She also had the spirit and temperament that were well matched to Rex’s ego. But most important of all, Colette knew the sort of people that could help advance Rex’s career.

Colette’s father was no fool. He adamantly disapproved of his daughter’s match to Rex. Despite these strenuousness objections, Colette became Mrs. Rex Harrison in January 1934. It was the beginning of a great love affair that would gradually dissolve into a troubled marriage.


During their formative married years, Rex continued to find steady work as an actor on the stage. He had small roles in The Great Game (1930), School for Scandal (1930) and Leave It To Blanche (1934). If, at least artistically, the parts were increasing in stature, Rex’s pay for the work remained meager at best – a bone of contention that often strained his home life with Colette who had been accustom to more than the actor’s current salary could provide.

Despite these tensions, Rex and Colette had a son, Noel on January 29, 1935. The following year, Rex’s professional prospects began to improve when at the age of 28 he was cast to great effect in Terrance Ratigan’s French Without Tears (1936). The play would go on to become the most widely acclaimed production in the history of London’s prestigious West End.

At roughly this same juncture the movies decided to capitalize on Rex’s popularity. In Britain he made his filmic debut with Storm in A Teacup (1937), opposite a young Vivien Leigh. Rex’s reviews were solid. Based on his performance as Frank Burdon – a small time reporter who is put in charge of a Scottish newspaper – director King Vidor offered Rex a major role in MGM’s The Citadel (1938) – costarring Robert Donat. At long last, Hollywood would hear of the young actor that Britain had already hailed as their ‘most popular.’ Sadly, The Citadel was not the smash hit that either Vidor or Rex had hoped for.

With the advent of World War II looming on the horizon, Rex returned to England to enlist in the Armed Forces. He was rejected from active service due to poor eyesight. Years before, a bout of measles had nearly blinded him in his left eye. Disillusioned and disappointed, Rex opted to return to the London stage rather than accept a contract from MGM. But on September 3, 1939, the fear of regular bombings from Hitler’s army officially closed most of London’s film and theatrical establishments. Rex was out of a job.

During the early part of the war years, Rex toured the countryside in plays as he had done in his youth for the Cardiff Company. If on the surface, this move appeared to be a retread or two steps back in the wrong direction there was one great difference this time around. Rex was a seasoned professional, embraced by the public and critics alike.

His wife, Colette now worked for the Red Cross. Her separation from Rex afforded him the lifestyle of a bachelor – enough time for Rex to become smitten with 25 year old Lily Palmer; a multifaceted novelist, painter and stage performer. The two began a torrid affair that continued as Rex separated from Colette in the spring of 1940. Imagining his new romance at the crux of historically great theatrical husband and wife couplings like Lunt and Fontanne, Rex and Lily set up house in Chelsea.

Rex appeared as Adolphus Cusins in the filmic version of George Bernard Shaw’s stage success, Major Barbara (1941) opposite gifted actress, Wendy Hiller, and for the first time in his career took astute direction from the 84 year old playwright. Though Shaw considered Rex’s interpretation the definitive of his masterwork, the film was not a commercial success and so it was back to repertory work and meager salaries.

By now, these stalemates in his professional career were becoming too much to bear. Thorny and determined as ever to distinguish himself during the war years, Rex appealed his rejection into the Armed Services and was rewarded for his obstinate perseverance with an appointment to the RAF where his duties included guiding British planes safely back to their launching pads after aerial combat missions. During his tenure, Rex also decided to make an honest woman of Lily. The two were wed on January 25, 1943 and for two years thereafter, Rex and Lily enjoyed what appeared to be an ideal union. Their son, Carey Alfred was born on February 19, 1944, the same year Rex was honorably discharged from active service.

At war’s end, Rex and Lily appeared together in The Rake’s Progress (1945), a film that caught the eye of producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck offered Rex a seven year Fox studio contract at $4,500 per week. The couple moved to Hollywood, renting a suite at the fashionable Beverly Hills Hotel.
For his debut project, Rex was cast opposite Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam (1946). Rex excelled as the aggressive and curmudgeonly potentate, though initially he had had misgivings about the part – even going so far as to hire an acting coach to ease him into the character. Never one to take direction well, Rex and his director, John Cromwell did not get on. In fact, on several occasions noted in the Fox memo archive, Cromwell urged Zanuck to reconsider and/or recast the part. To his credit, Zanuck quietly ignored these complaints, affording Rex his first major Hollywood success.

Rex’s follow up was even more suited to his temperament; as the wily, gruff, yet sustainable romantic, Daniel Gregg in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). In the film, Rex is a deceased sea captain who carries on a forty year platonic affair with a flesh and blood woman played by the sultry Gene Tierney. Unfortunately for Rex, old habits died hard. He constantly clashed with Mankiewicz over his performance, quietly cementing his reputation around the backlot and the rest of Hollywood as being a ‘difficult actor.’ Despite these backstage clashes, the film was a colossal smash hit, elevating his stature and importance in the film making community.

Living high and mighty, Rex indulged his every whim off camera, beginning a rather sordid extramarital affair with Fox contract player, Carole Landis. But the Hollywood of his generation was not that illustrious Babylon of decadence that it has become today. Under the rigid conservatism of a studio system, actors were expected to maintain a relatively untarnished surface sheen and to behave properly at all times while working long hours six out of seven days a week. To many, Rex’s devil-may-care attitude in general and very public affair with Landis in particular seemed a glaring and spiteful tweak to these artistic sensibilities. Landis, however, was no stranger to bad press.

By the age of 28, Carole Landis had been a divorcee four times removed with several botched suicide attempts feathered in for the tabloid fodder. For studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, she was increasingly becoming a bad risk at the box office and her star had slowly begun to decline. To Rex however, Landis embodied the sort of free-wheeling excitement he sorely lacked at home. Hoping that their affair would eventually lead to marriage, Landis pursued the relationship long after Rex’s lust had begun to cool.

Meanwhile, 40 year old Rex began work at Fox on Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948) – a film about a philharmonic conductor who plots diabolical and blood-thirsty revenges for his wife that he suspects is having an affair on him. Throughout the shoot, Rex was distracted by his turbulent relationship with Landis. Eventually, he openly admitted that he had no intension of marrying her and Landis – in a state of complete rage and shock – made her final suicide attempt. She died of an overdose on July 4th, 1948 – at approximately the same time as Unfaithfully Yours hit theater screens. The net result for Rex was both a professional flop and a very public scandal.

In support of the negative press, Fox canceled Rex’s contract. He retreated, though not in shame, with Lily to New York City for more than a decade’s worth of solid performing on the stage; beginning with a turn as Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1949). The play ran for 288 performances and earned Rex his first Tony Award. He followed this success with Bell Book and Candle in 1950, costarring with Lily to great acclaim. The couple next appeared as a pair of newlyweds in the classy film comedy, The Four Poster (1951).

But the strain of constantly being together had worn thin the last remnants of their eroding relationship. Lily retired from performing and Rex went on to make The Constant Husband (1954); an ironic tale about a man with six wives.

At approximately this same juncture, 46 year old Rex fell in love with the irrepressibly luminous Kay Kendell. At 26, Kendell was already an exuberant veteran of film work. A vivacious raconteur, Kendell easily won Rex’s heart and the two became lovers. After 11 years of marriage, Rex and Lily separated.

– the definitive Rex Harrison

“Exhilaration is that feeling you get just after a great idea hits you, and just before you realize what’s wrong with it.”Rex Harrison

To say that My Fair Lady came to Rex Harrison at a time when any other actor of his generation might not have hoped for as much is an understatement. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Frederick Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner’s musical about an English elocutionist’s growing affections for his cockney protégée was both a financially reward and an artistic blessing – the much needed shot in the arm that Rex required at precisely that point in his career.

The stage version’s debut at the Mark Ellinger Theater on March 15, 1956 was an unabashedly sentimental and personal triumph, and an overwhelming critical success. To many sitting in the audience, the part of Professor Henry Higgins seemed more Rex Harrison than Rex Harrison himself. Indeed, as an actor’s actor, Rex was in his element. He seemed to take dastardly delight in the sharp tongue lashings Higgins gave Eliza (Julie Andrews on the stage). There was a meter, a distinct tempo and cadence all his own, a seamless blending of the man and mythology of his character. The role earned the 48 year old actor his second Tony Award.

While starring to sell out crowds, Rex moved in with Kay Kendall at a home they rented on Long Island. It was the beginning of the end of their mutual fascination for all things effortless and playful with one another. Unbeknownst to Kendall, she had been diagnosed with inoperable leukemia; a fate confided to Rex by her private physician. Distraught, and still married to Lily, Rex relayed the tragic news to his wife who – with characteristic nonchalance instructed her husband to divorce her and marry Kay for as long as she had left to live; further vowing to return to Rex once the inevitable had occurred.

On June 23, 1957 Rex married Kay and MGM fashioned a star vehicle for the couple to star in – The Reluctant Debutante (1958) the one bright filmic spot on Rex’s otherwise inconsequential Hollywood career. But on September 6, 1959, Kendall died at the age of 32 from her ailment, leaving Rex devastated and alone for the first time in his life.

Unable to draw any sort of clarity or meaning from the loss, Rex retreated to London; accepting a standard actor’s salary to star in Chekov’s Platonov at the Royal Court Theater. The play was a hit, winning the prestigious Evening Standard Award. It also marked the beginning of Rex’s most complicated and troubled relationship; to 33 yr old Rachel Roberts.

In the meantime, 20th Century-Fox approached Rex with the prospect of co-starring in their mega-budgeted spectacle, Cleopatra (1963). Though Rex agreed to appear in the film as Caesar – turning in yet another powerful performance – his presence in the film was all but eclipsed and overshadowed by the scandalous affair between costars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The most expensive movie ever made to date, not even Cleopatra’s $24 million dollar box office gross could offset the film’s epic budget. For years afterward, it would remain on the Fox’s ledgers as the film that nearly sank the studio. If the release of Cleopatra did nothing to further Rex’s career, it equally did nothing to hamper it either.

In fact, Rex was at the cusp of screen immortality when Warner Brother executive chief, Jack L. Warner hired him to reprise his role in the filmic version of My Fair Lady (1964). Reportedly, upon getting the offer, Rex was to have thrown the telephone high into the air and loudly declare “By George, I’ve got it!” Indeed, he had. My Fair Lady was an unstoppable movie experience; winning nine Oscars, including one justly deserved for Rex’s fine performance.

Unfortunately for Rex, his relationship with Rachel Roberts had already begun to crumble. A manic depressive with dependencies on pills and alcohol, Roberts quickly became the unmanageable portion of Rex’s life. Throwing himself into work on his latest project, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Rex excelled as the unrelentingly severe Pope Julius II who commissions Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Rex was in fact a kind of a thorny guy,” Heston relayed years later in reflection on their costarring, “There you are. But he was so good, it was worth the trouble it took.”

A compelling character study, the film was not a huge success for Fox, and it was followed by two more ill received projects. The first, The Honey Pot (1967) cast Rex as a man faking his own death to quietly observe who among his closest friends would turn on him for their share of his inheritance; the second - Doctor Doolittle (1967) proved an elephantine musical with only mediocre songs.

In a last ditch effort to save his relationship with Rachel, Rex appeared to minor effect opposite Roberts in A Flea in Her Ear (1968). A year later, Rex would leave Rachel and costar in his most bizarre film to date; Staircase (1969) playing half of a homosexual couple opposite his old Cleopatra costar, Richard Burton.

“Whatever it is that makes a person charming, it needs to remain a mystery. Once the charmer is aware of the mannerism or characteristic that others find charming, it ceases to be a mannerism and becomes an affectation.”
Rex Harrison

The last acts of Rex Harrison’s life were hardly what one might have expected. In 1971, he married again for the fifth time – to Elizabeth Harris; a 35 year old divorcee with three young children. But Rex was not a family man. Amidst a flurry of personal tensions, Rex managed to pen a well received memoir. For two years thereafter, he toured the country in six plays, including a one man show based on Shaw’s theater critiques.

Then, in 1977 while at a New Year’s celebration, Rex met Marcia Tinker who would become the sixth and final Mrs. Harrison. Despite severe blindness and the onset of age, Rex also embarked upon an ambitious roster of stage productions including Shaw’s Heartbreak House, The Kingfisher (costarring Claudette Colbert) and the 25th anniversary of My Fair Lady. “I’m at the age,” Harrison mused, “where I’ve got to prove I’m just as good as I never was.”

Yet, perhaps the greatest accolade of his final years came when at the age of 82 Rex received a knighthood from the Queen of England. The precedence of this remarkable appointment cannot be overstated. Until Rex’s time, no British subject who had been married more than once or had lived abroad would have been considered for such an honor. Still, when asked by a reporter if any special consideration had been afforded, Rex was his usual glib self.
“Alas no. In the old days, I believe, you got a couple of horses out of the deal.” Internally though, Harrison was deeply moved. It was his crowning achievement, a moment unsurpassed and in a career that had yet to reveal its final act.

That last curtain call came when Rex accepted an invitation to star on Broadway in The Circle (1989) with Glynis John and Stewart Granger. By now, he was nearly blind and gave his performance by pacing out the stage ahead of time. Six months into the run, Rex conceded that ill health precluded his continuation. On June 2, 1990, Rex Harrison died at the age of 82. At his own request his remains were scattered across the Mediterranean.

“There is always a struggle,” Rex once suggested in an interview, “…a striving for something bigger than yourself in all forms of art…and even if you don’t achieve greatness – even if you fail, which we all must – everything…is somehow connected with your attitude toward life; your deepest secret feelings.”
@2007 (all rights reserved).