Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Making of an Anti-Damsel: Deborah Kerr in "Vacation from Marriage"

Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In urge us to think of the "anti-damsel", empowered ladies of the silent and classic film. Here is where all the inspiring females hang out.

It is not enough to say that Robert and Catherine Wilson, the lead characters in 1945s Vacation from Marriage, directed by Alexander Korda, are an average couple. They are not. They are rather a below average couple. Robert is a perfect little automaton, a nondescript London bookkeeper and a slave to routine. Cathy, his wife, nurses a perpetual cold while fussing over the needs of her husband.

Robert Donat, the dashing star of Knight Without Armour and The 39 Steps plays Robert Wilson. Cathy is played by Deborah Kerr who had just made a great success in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and in a short time would win over the folks in Hollywood.

Cathy at home serving tea.
Deborah Kerr

Cathy Wilson, at the time we meet her, is in the unshakable throes of domestic damselhood.  However, Robert and Cathy's lives are to be changed forever. It is 1940 and Robert is off to war. Prone to seasickness, Robert is facing untold years in the Royal Navy. Whatever will poor Cathy do without his steadying influence?

Cathy  and Dizzy Clayton
Deborah Kerr, Glynis Johns

Cathy's answer to the long separation is to join the Women's Royal Navy Service (WRENS). Among new companions and with new and energizing responsibilities, Cathy gradually sheds her old cardigans and old ways. Cathy becomes a modern, self-sufficient anti-damsel!

Cathy's new pal, "Dizzy" Clayton is a confident contemporary woman. She smokes, uses lipstick and tilts her hat at a flattering angle. Dizzy also has a cousin Richard, an intriguing and conveniently located artist.

Cathy in the thick of things.

It is a matter of routine for the young woman to deliver important messages at night, alone, across the open water during a bombing raid. "A bit noisy", but no trouble at all.

Our inner selves are often at odds with the face we present to the world or the lives we lead. Sometimes all we need is a little shaking up. For Cathy, it took a worldwide conflict to embrace her inner anti-damsel.

Cathy dancing with Dizzy's cousin.

Roland Culver plays Richard, Dizzy's cousin. Richard is a man who appreciates the new Cathy, who takes her on picnics and opens her mind and heart to possibilities heretofore undreamed. Richard teaches Cathy to dance.

A most uncomfortable Cathy.

After three years Cathy and Robert finally have leave at the same time. Cathy thinks it is immoral to have to be a wife to someone you haven't known in years. She likes her new life and wants nothing to do with the old one, especially her stick-in-the-mud husband, Robert.

Cathy is surprised.

It is obvious that Cathy was under the impression that her Robert was sitting on his hands all this time. Not a bit of it! Robert has had his share of adventure and change. He's met interesting people and done his fair share of dancing. Robert may be even less thrilled about this reunion with the mousy damsel he left behind than even his spouse. The dawning light finds Robert as surprised as Cathy.

Cathy dances with Robert.
Deborah Kerr, Robert Donat

As the strangers dance, they begin to think perhaps their marriage isn't such a lost cause. After all, any anti-damsel worth her salt is allowed a change of heart and free reign to follow that heart's desire.


  1. Thanks so much for joining in with a fascinating review of this intriguing film. I am definitely going to have to give this one a watch!

    1. It's a real winner that I know you'll enjoy. The story and performances mesh perfectly.

  2. Great choice of film, and such a great actress.

    1. Deborah Kerr's talent and her subtle use of it is a joy.

  3. Ooh – this sounds like a new favourite, especially Robert Donat's unexpected un-eagerness to see his wife. Was not expecting that twist. Thanks – will be watching out for this one!

    1. It's a real charmer. Alexander Korda really knew how to make movies that last.

  4. Great roles for two fine performers. I suspect this is one of the lesser-known films for each of them, but it's well worth seeking out. Thanks for highlighting it and the always marvelous Deborah Kerr--who never really played a damsel (not even in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA).

    1. What you say about Ms. Kerr is true. Even in peril and distress, there is a lady with backbone - an anti-damsel.

      Probably what you say about "Vacation from Marriage" is true as well. Perhaps this will be its revival year.

  5. Hi Caftan Woman. Sorry it took me such a long time to get here, but I'm glad I made it. I have always been an admirer of Robert Donat. I would love to borrow his voice. And speaking of voices, Glynis Johns is always interesting. But Deborah Kerr's performance here, growing and learning is wonderful to watch. Good choice of movie.

    1. Thanks a lot, Joe. Computers often try our patience. Ms. Kerr is always watchable, but there is something especially winning about her work in this film.



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