Thursday, August 29, 2013

Summer Under the Stars: Unfaithfully Rex




When Rex Harrison came to Hollywood in 1945 to make a movie, he was 37 years old, had already been on the stage in England for 22 years and had been making films there since 1930. Orson Welles later claimed it was on his recommendation that Harrison was given his first American role, a part that Welles himself turned down, that of the King in the 1946 production of Anna and the King of Siam. Welles told his friend, director Henry Jaglom, over one of their now famous lunches, “I suggested him. Rex made pictures that only played in England, teacup comedies and things. No one in Hollywood knew who he was.” Welles had refused the role, he said, because he didn’t want to work with Irene Dunne, who had already been cast as Anna. And so, Rex Harrison made his American film debut.

Anna and the King of Siam

At the time he arrived in Hollywood, Harrison was married to his second wife, German actress Lilli Palmer. She also began making movies in the U.S. and started by co-starring with Gary Cooper in Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger in 1946. Both Mr. and Mrs. Harrison starred in 1947 classics - for Rex, the first and best of his three films for Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Gene Tierney; for Lilli, Robert Rosen’s Body and Soul, opposite John Garfield. Rex also starred in The Foxes of Harrow in 1947; Lilli would star in My Girl Tisa in 1948. Then came the scandal that ruined Harrison’s personal reputation and may or may not have brought him the nickname “Sexy Rexy.”

Lilli Palmer
Rex Harrison, it seems, was a ladies’ man. By 1947, he had become involved in a romance with actress Carole Landis. The affair was no secret in Hollywood and was apparently made public by columnist/radio commentator Walter Winchell. On the night of July 4, 1948, after Harrison spent the evening with her at her home, Landis consumed a lethal dose of barbiturates. Ruled a suicide, her death was naturally surrounded by a storm of hearsay and speculation. The rumor mill had it that Landis was despondent because Harrison refused to leave Lilli Palmer and/or because he was soon to depart for New York to star on Broadway in Anne of the Thousand Days. There was even some conjecture that Harrison had murdered the woman and staged the scene to look like suicide.


Carole Landis
A few months before Landis’ death, Harrison had completed production on a film for legendary writer/director Preston Sturges. It would be the one-time wunderkind’s final cinematic gem, a darkest-black comedy titled – perhaps unfortunately – Unfaithfully Yours (1948). The lurid and lingering Landis tragedy would have an impact on the fate of the film. In an attempt to distance it from the scandal, the film’s release date was held up for several months. Additionally, publicity was dialed back - and the marketing campaign changed drastically. It was labeled a murder mystery, it was touted as “six kinds of picture all rolled into one” – confusing and misleading the movie-going public.


Preston Sturges had written a Broadway hit in 1929 and trekked to Hollywood following the play’s adaptation to the screen. He penned several films for Paramount, including Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940). In 1940 he asked for and was given a chance to direct as well as write. The result was his political sendup, The Great McGinty, a break-out hit that brought Sturges an Oscar for his original screenplay. A string of sly and exhilarating classics written and directed by Preston Sturges followed, namely: The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (1944). But Paramount had begun to view its genius-in-residence as next-to-impossible to deal with, and relations between the studio and the man soured. When his split from Paramount finally came, Sturges went into partnership with Howard Hughes on California Pictures Corporation for three disastrous years. Sturges and Hughes parted ways in 1947 and the writer/director soon went to work for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Zanuck was interested in a story Sturges had written years earlier titled Matrix. In the end, Matrix was dropped for lack of interest and a treatment of another early Sturges story - he called it The Symphony Story - was picked up instead and retitled…
 
Preston Sturges

Unfaithfully Yours bears most trademark Sturges elements – it moves at a dizzying pace, overflows with clever dialogue, is peopled with assorted (and well-cast) eccentrics and its plot completely confounds audience expectations. But in this case Sturges ventured into especially dark farce…

The film opens with the return to New York of Sir Alfred de Carter (Harrison), a well-known symphony conductor, who has been in London. He is warmly welcomed by his beautiful young and doting wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell). But soon the mischief begins. It seems that before leaving New York, Sir Alfred had asked his rich but dull brother in law (Rudy Vallee) to keep an eye on Daphne while he was away. The brother in law misinterpreted the request and took it upon himself to hire a private detective to monitor her. And now he has come to deliver the detective’s report. Sir Alfred, initially shocked and outraged at the misunderstanding, eventually manages to read the report and works himself into a frenzy of jealousy and suspicion. While conducting a concert after quarreling with his wife, Sir Alfred begins to fantasize about how to handle what he believes is her infidelity. As he conducts three orchestral pieces, he vividly imagines three different possible scenarios – each played out onscreen. The first fantasy involves murder and a frame-up, in the second Sir Alfred is noble and obliging, in the third he falls victim to his own bravado. When the concert finally comes to an end, Sir Alfred sets out to make one of his fantasies real.

Unfaithfully Yours - fantasy or reality?

Although Sturges wasn’t entirely happy with the film’s final cut (which came courtesy of Mr. Zanuck), he was pleased with the performances – Rex Harrison executes a superb turn as the temperamental artist/bungling schemer. Sturges was also particularly fond of the fantasy segments. He wrote that he tried to construct the three scenarios envisioned by the conductor “as if written and directed by Sir Alfred, who is neither a writer nor a director.” In his fantasies, the conductor imagines his own behavior “vividly” while the other characters are “marionettelike.” Sturges believed this would be “the natural result of Sir Alfred’s ability to have them say and do exactly what he wants them to say and do.”

The film’s themes are dark and, perhaps, for the audience of its time, too much so for “six kinds of picture all rolled into one." Its timing in proximity to the leading man's notorious Hollywood scandal was extremely unlucky. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, Unfaithfully Yours was not a success. In his autobiographical notes Sturges reflected, “Unfaithfully Yours received much critical acclaim and lost a fortune.” That the film failed to find an audience contributed to the steep decline of his increasingly precarious career. He would write and direct only one more Hollywood film (The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend in 1949) and it was a resounding flop.

My Fair Lady, with Audrey Hepburn
Rex Harrison continued to work steadily and successfully on stage, film – and TV – for the rest of his life. He gained worldwide stardom with his performance in George Cukor’s 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady, a long-running Broadway hit in which Harrison originated the role of Henry Higgins and for which he won a Tony Award. For transferring his Henry Higgins from stage to screen, he duly took home an Oscar for Best Actor. Knighted in 1989 at age 81, Sir Rex would, as the producer of The Circle, Harrison’s final Broadway play, put it, very nearly die “with his boots on;” his last stage appearance preceded his death, in 1990 of pancreatic cancer, by only six months. Harrison’s long Hollywood career had brought him two Oscar nominations and one win; his even longer career on Broadway brought him five Tony nominations and three awards as well as a special Drama Desk Award in 1985. He was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for film and one for television.

Kay Kendall

Rex Harrison would also continue to be inconstant in his private life. Sandy Sturges, Preston’s widow, recalled walking in New York with her husband and Harrison in the early 1950s. Suddenly and unexpectedly Rex walked away and left them – he’d spied a lovely young thing on the street and simply followed her. His interest in women, Mrs. Sturges recalled, was “not subtle at all.” Harrison’s marriage to Lilli Palmer continued until 1957, when the two divorced so that he could marry his lover, actress Kay Kendall, who was dying of leukemia. He married Welsh-born, Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning actress Rachel Roberts in 1962. That marriage ended in divorce many years later and, it is said, she reacted by drinking ever more heavily and by finally taking her own life. Harrison was married to the ex-Mrs. Richard Harris, Welsh actress/socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams, for a time, and his 6th and final wife was Mercia Tinker, to whom he remained married until the end of his life.

Rachel Roberts and Rex Harrison
Harrison has garnered much praise for his work on stage and screen, but not much admiration for his conduct out of the limelight. One of his biographers, Nicholas Wapshott (Rex Harrison, 1991) met the actor while doing research for a biography on British director Carol Reed. Wapshott considered Harrison a “technical genius” capable of “effortless delivery of difficult prose.” He noted that the actor didn’t make much visible effort, “he was inescapably Rex in everything - but his understanding of the text meant that he hit every note the first time.” On the other hand, the author found Harrison, in person, “a cad of the first order,” and at first hesitated to take on the biography of a man whose “black-hole egotism meant he could not appreciate the worth of others, particularly other men, and his attitude to his string of wives…and lovers was often hard and heartless.” Wapshott blamed Harrison’s involvement in the Carole Landis scandal for the fact that Unfaithfully Yours “languished for years.”
Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert in Aren't We All

Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated actor Frank Langella admired Rex Harrison’s work extravagantly; “He was my idol. I thought him the most accomplished, technically perfect, and totally believable English actor of his time.” Langella managed to meet Harrison twice. Their first meeting occurred in the early ‘70s at a cocktail reception in the older actor’s honor. Langella encountered his idol in the foyer where he was removing his hat and coat. The young actor put out his hand and began to extend a greeting when Harrison flung both his coat and his wife’s over Langella’s arm, as if he was a servant, and made his entrance into the party. The two met again in 1984 when a friend of Langella’s was appearing in Aren’t We All on Broadway with Harrison and Claudette Colbert. Forgoing dinner with Miss Colbert (who had utterly charmed him) in order to try once more to pay his respects to Harrison, Langella found the older actor in his dressing room and finally delivered his heartfelt homage. Harrison heard him out and dismissed him with, “Thank you. Very kind. I’m afraid I can’t ask you to sit down.” Langella was not amused and would remember that his good friend, Harrison’s 5th wife, Elizabeth, told him of Rex, “He was the only man I ever knew who would send back the wine at his own dinner table.”
Rex Harrison and Preston Sturges on the set
British film critic and historian David Thomson‘s view of Harrison the actor is fairly restrained, seeing in most of his screen roles the personification of the stereotypically empty-headed aristocrat. However, Thomson allows that Unfaithfully Yours is “one of the few films that made use of his grating charm.”

Harrison is in top form in Sturges’s black-humored classic, adapting with surprising ease to the writer/director’s penchant for slapstick. Unfaithfully Yours airs on Saturday, August 31, at 3:00pm Eastern/noon Pacific, part of TCM’s 2013 Summer Under the Stars tribute to Rex Harrison.



This is my entry for the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon now in progress and hosted by Jill Blake of http://sittinonabackyardfence.com/ and Michael Nazarewycz of http://scribehardonfilm.wordpress.com/. Visit their sites for more information and links to participating blogs.

Sources: 
My Lunches with Orson by Henry Jaglom and Peter Biskind (Metropolitan Books, 2013) 
Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges adapted by Sandy Sturges (Simon & Schuster, 1990) 
The New York Sun, “Unfaithfully Yours, Rex” by Nicholas Wapshott, March 8, 2008 
Dropped Names, a Memoir by Frank Langella (Harper, 2012) 
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson (Knopf, 2010)

30 comments:

  1. Excellent post! And so well researched.

    Has anyone made a movie of Rex Harrison's life? It would be pretty tough to cast him, though...

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    1. Ruth, Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Iain Glen who portrays Sir Richard Carlisle on Downton Abbey might be a capable and interesting Rex Harrison.

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  2. Lady Eve, an elegant portrait of the dichotomy that was Rex Harrison’s life. I was vaguely aware of Harrison’s reputation as a ladies’ man, but often found it difficult to reconcile with his Doctor Dolittle persona. The idea that his proclivities may or may not have contributed to Carole Landis’s early death also made it difficult to warm to him in any role. This attitude changed recently when I saw Rex Harrison in "Blithe Spirit" for the first time. Although the film truly belongs to Margaret Rutherford, Harrison is excellent as the exasperated husband at his wit’s end dealing with two wives. I’m really looking forward to seeing "Unfaithfully Yours", which I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen. Thanks for the excellent background on the film and for the reminder to record on Saturday afternoon.

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    1. Gypsy, I find Rex Harrison - both the actor onscreen and the private man - fascinating. Though I haven't read a full bio on him, I did read Lilli Palmer's excellent book (Change Lobsters and Dance) years ago and that was when I first became interested in his offscreen self. I have enjoyed his performances in many films (including Blithe Spirit)- his against-type portrayal of the diabolical husband in the Gaslight-ish Midnight Lace is very effective (obviously, he had some "villain" in him to draw upon).

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  3. I loved him in NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, one of my all time favorite thriller films. But I sort of knew about his rocky personal life. It's hard sometimes to separate the personal life from an actor's screen life. Sometimes I can't do it. But despite that, I still liked Rex Harrison on film. Lethal British charm. Evelyn Waugh talked about it in BRIDEHEAD REVISITED - it was something I'd never thought about before.

    But jeez, imagine two women committing suicide over you. He really must have been a conscienceless son of a gun. Perhaps he might have had a knack for attracting 'unstable' women to begin with? Agatha Christie had a theory that certain types of people will keep attracting the same sort of people over their lifetime. She used this idea in several of her books.

    One actor whose personal life turned me completely off and I was never able to watch him on film again: Bing Crosby.

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    1. Yvette, Among the films of Rex Harrison's I haven't seen is Night Train to Munich. I'll be recording or watching several of his pre-Hollywood films on TCM tomorrow and wish it were one of them. Though I find his private life off-putting, I'm able to separate the actor from the man and like many of his films. He was apparently drenched in the lethal British charm you mention - seems to have been catnip to women. I think, too, that the type of woman he became involved with for any length of time must've had a serious weakness for men of his sort (nearly literal ladykillers?).

      Bing Crosby. Much as I know the role was a real departure from the man in private life, I have to admit I can't resist him as Father O'Malley.

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  4. FASCINATING! And as always, a fabulous read! Left with little space on my DVR after the entire SUTS schedule, I'm glad I chose UNFAITHFULLY YOURS as my Harrison must-see.

    Aurora

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    1. Aurora - You can rarely go wrong with Preston Sturges, and Sturges + Harrison = a real treat. Enjoy!

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  5. Eve, this was truly tremendous. I've always been quite apathetic towards Harrison. This really was insightful for me-- I thank you!!

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    1. Thanks, Carley. I hope his day on TCM will create more interest in Rex Harrison. He is, it's true, always "inescapably Rex," but he did deliver some very good performances. My favorite films of his are Blithe Spirit, Anna and the King of Siam, Unfaithfully Yours, Midnight Lace and My Fair Lady.

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  6. For the blogathon, I wrote about Anna and the King of Siam, so it's nice to see a piece on another film, one that I have to see! I was surprised by how different he was (in weight) in Anna... and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, where I imagine his character as older.
    Very nice to know more about Rex, he surely had an intense life.
    Kisses!

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    1. Lê, Anna and the King of Siam is one of my very favorite Rex Harrison films. Very moving and quite enchanting. I do love The King and I, but every time I watch Anna and the King I can't help but think I prefer it to the musical.

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  7. An impeccably researched article on Mr. Harrison and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. Although I was aware of the Landis suicide, I never placed it in proximity to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. Perhaps the timing was poor, but the film's tone and structure probably didn't help either. Honestly, it seems more like a 1960s film thematically (if that makes any sense). Still, Sturges wasn't afraid to push any envelope and I can see why the idea appealed to him.

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    1. Rick, I didn't realize until I began working on this piece that the death of Carole Landis occurred at the time Unfaithfully Yours was about to be released. I also wasn't aware of the enormity of the scandal. I'd assumed Unfaithfully Yours failed because it was so black a comedy and too edgy for audiences of the time. I think now that the scandal played a big part in its demise. Interestingly, Rex Harrison did go to New York to star in Anne of the Thousand Days in 1948 and won his first Tony Award for it - so his notoriety didn't seem to harm his stage career.

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  8. I admit it took two viewing of Unfaithfully Yours for me to fully embrace its dark charms but by the end of that second view I was completely in. Harrison's is of course the centerpiece performance but two others that are often ignored are the two ladies of the cast. Barbara Lawrence steals all her scenes as Rudy Vallee's sharp tongued wife, surprisingly she was only twenty when this was filmed but comes across far wiser and more knowing than that. Her unremarkable career is a failure of her studio to cast her properly.

    Speaking of actresses whose studio didn't take advantage of their gifts, in both cases 20th Century Fox, Linda Darnell nails her role as Daphne. Total devotion is hard to play without tipping into being cloying, Linda's Daphne obviously adores Sir Alfred but when he starts acting the fool she's no doormat. She tries to be a good sport up to a point but is winningly exasperated by his flights of temperament. After this and the next year's A Letter to Three Wives, playing quite the opposite of her adoring wife here and where she and Barbara Lawrence again play sisters, and the rave reviews that came with that, although inexplicably no Oscar nomination?, you would have thought 20th would have seen what they had in her. Instead after two more good pictures, Everybody Does It and No Way Out (she's excellent in both) she was cast in increasingly lackluster productions and was gone from Fox within two years. She jumped from studio to studio and did have one more choice role in This Is My Love, she is amazing in it, but with her departure from Fox her A list career stumbled. A true waste of a fine actress.

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    1. Joel, It seems to me that Fox - or maybe it was just Zanuck - didn't have much vision when it came to its leading ladies. It was Howard Hawks who told Zanuck he was missing Marilyn Monroe's true potential and asked to make Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with her. She may have created a stir in Niagara, but her role in Blondes made her a superstar. Many actresses who spent time under contract to Fox were dissatisfied with how the studio/Zanuck handled them - Loretta Young, for one, was very happy to move on the moment she fulfilled her contract.

      By the way, some sources report that Barbara Lawrence was actually only 18 when she made Unfaithfully Yours. If so, her performance is even more impressive.

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  9. Wonderful -as usual! It took me quite a while to warm to Sexy Rexy, but I now do appreciate his icy and witty charms. Add Linda Darnell to the mix and I am a happy camper.

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    1. Chick - They play well off each other, don't they? Unfaithfully Yours is one of my favorites of both. Preston Sturges had a real gift for putting together a cast.

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  10. Eve, - This is one of the few Sturges films I still have not seen. I know it's on TCM often but, well to tell the truth, I just cannot warm up to Rex Harrison. For whatever reason, I find him annoying. This takes nothing away from your article which is superb as always. The last time this film was on TCM I recorded it and then erased it to make space for something else. Hopefully, I can overcome my Harrison rash enough one day to watch this film.

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    1. John, I'd be very curious to hear your take on this film when (and if) you finally see it. Originally, Sturges wanted James Mason for the lead. Much as I prefer Mason to Harrison, I think Rex was made for the role of Sir Alfred.

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  11. I must admit that I feel so-so about "Unfaithfully Yours," which is surprising considering how much I love Preston Sturges. But I do like Rex Harrison in it and cannot see James Mason at all in the part. I do like Rex as an actor -- "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" is a big favorite of mine. His life off-screen and off-stage ... well, if you read Mark Harris' book on the films of 1967, it's not kind to Mr. Harrison and the making of "Dr. Dolittle."

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    1. CFB, I think I may have been more indifferent to Unfaithfully Yours the first time I saw it - but it grew on me. Until I began digging into the background on this film I had no idea how personally disliked Rex Harrison was by so many. According to Frank Langella, Claudette Colbert disliked him so much that, off stage, she spoke only French in his presence to annoy him.

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    2. Ha! That's funny about Claudette Colbert. I'll take another look at this film and see how I feel.

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  12. Fascinating reading, especially all the background reading. Those Langella stories are real eye openers. It makes one wonder if someone like Harrison could get away with such behavior in these days of TMZ and Internet spies everywhere.

    I was lucky enough to see him and Claudette Colbert in "The Kingfisher" when it played in Chicago. They were both great, her especially. He did have an enormous stage presence. Too bad he was so miserable off stage. I loved this post.

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    1. Thanks, Kevin. It's said that, for a while, Harrison's film career was hurt by the Landis scandal. BUT, he was headed to Broadway at the time to star in Anne of the Thousand Days - for which he won his first Tony. From then on he seems to have been very busy with stage, movie and TV roles. Hard to say how he would've fared under the scrutiny of today's breed of paparazzi.

      I envy you having seen Mr. H on stage with Miss Colbert. What a delight that must've been, you lucky man.

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  13. Well, Eve, Rex Harrison is another good example of remembering that the artist is not his art -- I've always admired Harrison's performance, particularly as Henry Higgins, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and a lesser-known movie, "Staircase". The fact that he was an SOB means that I wouldn't want to have dinner with him, and definitely would not want to marry him, but doesn't change the fact that he was a talented actor. Wonderful article!

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    1. Becky, Rex was hardly alone as a professional talent who was a !*$#% in his private life, was he? I knew he was a womanizer, thanks to Lilli Palmer's book, but had no idea he was quite the "cad" I discovered he was. Still...love him in Unfaithfully Yours, Anna and the King of Siam and so many other films - and only wish I'd had the chance to see him onstage.

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  14. Thank you for this! I found it too late to watch "Unfaithfully Yours", which is one of the few Rex Harrison films I haven't seen, but I'll continue to look for it. My understanding based on the Masheter & Masheter biography is that Lilli Palmer wouldn't go back to him after Kay Kendall's death because she had fallen in love with and married Carlos Thompson in 1957. In her case, at least, she left the role of long-suffering spouse and found true love with the man who was to be with her for nearly thirty years until her death.

    Harrison was my first cinema crush as a child because of Doctor Dolittle and one of my regrets is never having been able to see him on stage. Even knowing what I know about him, I must say that I think it could have been fun to be one of the ladies he chased - in between wives, of course - purely to have been the subject of his efforts to charm!

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    1. Hi Tracy - I haven't read the bio you mentioned but did read somewhere else (possibly Lilli's memoir) the same account as to why she didn't return to Harrison after Kay Kendall died. She was fortunate to meet someone who made her happy after so many years of turmoil.

      Rex Harrison isn't the first or last star to misbehave scandalously in his/her private life. But we don't see their films because of their private lives. It is always nice to find out, though, that our favorites are gracious and admirable out of the limelight.


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  15. Eve,

    I'll admit that I've never truly warmed up to Harrison, but your excellent essay has convinced me to give him another chance. Unfaithfully Yours is added to the queue.

    That photo of Harrison and Colbert is absolutely sublime.

    Thank you for another insightful and well-researched essay for the SUTS Blogathon. I really appreciate it. My apologies for it taking a while to stop by. It has taken me a long time to read through all the contributions.

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