Today is the birth centenary of one of my favourite actresses, the superb Deborah Kerr. Born on September 30, 1921, Deborah Jane Trimmer got a break in the world of show business thanks to an aunt who was a radio star: Deborah began training in ballet at her aunt’s ballet school, and then went on to win a scholarship to Sadler’s Wells ballet school, which led to her appearing onstage as a dancer. Deborah soon came to the attention of the film producer Gabriel Pascal, who gave Deborah her first role in cinema, in Major Barbara (1941).
Till 1947, Deborah worked in Britain; it was her role as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus that got her noticed across the pond and brought with it a contract with MGM. Over the decades that followed, Deborah Kerr became a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood as well: a major actress who went on to play very varied roles in very diverse films. From roles in classic adventure films (The Prisoner of Zenda, King Solomon’s Mines) to horror (The Innocents), from wartime romance-drama (From Here to Eternity, Heaven Knows Mr Allison, Vacation from Marriage – the last-named, in fact, was the basis of the very first review I ever posted on this blog) to musicals (The King and I) to period drama (Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Julius Caesar) to classic romance (An Affair to Remember) and many more… Deborah Kerr was always memorable, always likeable.
Which film should I watch to commemorate Deborah Kerr’s centenary? I have watched a good deal of her filmography (some more beyond the films I’ve already listed in the previous paragraph), so I decided I’d finally watch a film I’ve long been hearing praises of. Black Narcissus, which provided a big boost to Deborah Kerr’s career.
There’s a good reason why I’m reviewing this film today. Ideally, I should have reviewed it last week, on the hundredth anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, but since I didn’t want to publish two posts on consecutive days, I decided I’d let this wait for a week.
What connection is there between Elephant Boy and Jallianwala Bagh? Nothing, on the face of it, except perhaps the rather obvious Indian connection—since Elephant Boy was based on Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants (one of the chapters of The Jungle Book) and was shot extensively in India (it even marked the debut of possibly the most famous Indian export to Hollywood, Sabu—but that’s another story, which I’ll touch upon briefly near the end of this review).
No, what connects Elephant Boy to Jallianwala Bagh is that the man who tried to avenge Jallianwala Bagh acted in this film. Udham Singh, who killed the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, the man who had ordered the massacre (which was carried out by Brigadier General Dyer), had worked at various jobs before he became an integral part of the story of India’s freedom movement. He had been a mechanic, and—briefly—an actor of bit parts, small roles of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type (more on the Udham Singh few know of, in this excellent article). Elephant Boy was one of the films in which Udham Singh appeared. Briefly, but still.