Saturday, December 4, 2021

WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon: Kathleen Harrison

 

Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled, and Once Upon A Screen are hosting their annual What a Character! Blogathon on December 4th. It is the 10th anniversary of this highly anticipated event! Thank you, Paula, Kellee, and Aurora.

Kathleen Harrison
February 23, 1892 - December 7, 1995

"Go out into the Old Kent Road and just listen to the women talking." This was the advice from George Bernard Shaw to Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts student Kathleen Harrison rehearsing the role of Eliza Doolittle in the author's Pygmalion. It would be the making of her career, but the actress would not see overnight success.

Kathleen Harrison
RADA student

Born in Lancashire and raised in London by her working-class family, young Kathleen aspired to the theatre and while attending RADA in 1914 - 1915 was the recipient of the Du Maurier Bronze Medal. Love entered the actress's life and she was married to John Back from 1916 to his passing in 1960. The family would grow with two sons and a daughter. Her husband's work took the family to Argentina and Spain. A return to England in the 1920s opened up avenues for Kathleen's career. 

Kathleen's movie career during the 1930s see-sawed between featured roles as in The Ghoul or The Man from Toronto both 1933, and those uncredited in nature as in Inside the Room, 1935.

Robert Montgomery as the psychotic Danny
Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Terence in Night Must Fall

Emlyn Williams' 1935 stage success Night Must Fall featured Kathleen in the role of the housekeeper Mrs. Terence and she recreated the role in the 1937 film produced by MGM. Dame May Whitty was Oscar-nominated for recreating her role as Mrs. Bramson.

Kathleen Harrison and Kay Walsh in In Which We Serve
A telegram from the war office.

More bits and uncredited roles would follow Night Must Fall, but the always notable actress would garner more memorable performances and films throughout the years including The Ghost Train, and Major Barbara in 1941. In Which We Serve, the WW2 morale booster written by and starring Noel Coward, who co-directed with David Lean gave Kathleen the plum role of Mrs. Blake, the mother to seaman "Shorty" played by John Mills.

Jimmy Hanley, Susan Shaw, Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Petula Clark, Jane Hylton
Here Come the Huggetts

In 1947 we go to a Holiday Camp with the Huggetts. Joe and Ethel Huggett played by Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison take their family away for the summer. The popularity of the family with audiences would lead to sequels and some tweaking of the family as originally met. The follow-up was Here Come the Huggetts, 1948, Vote for Huggett, and The Huggetts Abroad, 1949. Meet the Huggetts was a popular radio program starring Warner and Harrison which ran from 1951 to 1963.

Kathleen Harrison as Violet
The Winslow Boy

Terrence Rattigan's play The Winslow Boy, based on an Edwardian court case opened in 1946 and the 1948 film version featured two of the original cast members, Kathleen Harrison as the maid Violet and Mona Washbourne as Miss Barnes, a journalist of the sob sister sort.

The film does not bring us to the all-important conclusion of the trial. Instead, we are treated to Kathleen as the loyal Violet emotionally relating all to the Winslow family. The performance and scene are a genuine cathartic treat.

Kathleen Harrison, Yvonne Mitchell, Joan Collins
Turn the Key Softly

Turn the Key Softly
, 1953 finds Kathleen in the murky world of film noir in a film based on a novel by John Brophy which follows three women on their first day of freedom after being released from Holloway Prison. Yvonne Mitchell plays Monica who was led into crime by her boyfriend. Joan Collins plays prostitute Stella. Kathleen Harrison is a poverty-stricken shoplifter, Granny Quilliam.

Critical reception for the honesty in the film, and the performances of our trio of ex-convicts was laudatory. 

"Kathleen Harrison contributes the film's top portrayal. She makes the loneliness of the poor and unwanted strikingly real."
- New York Times

Robert Flemying, Kathleen Harrison, Dirk Bogarde
Cast a Dark Shadow

Cast a Dark Shadow
, 1955 is another film noir starring Dirk Bogarde as a charming psychopath who kills his older wife played by Mona Washbourne (see The Winslow Boy) for her money. He even goes so far as to cheat the maid Emmy played by Kathleen out of her paltry bequest.

Estelle Winwood, Sybil Thorndyke, Kathleen Harrison
Alive and Kicking, 1958

Here's another trio of actresses with whom to reckon, Estelle Winwood, Dame Sybil Thorndyke, and Kathleen Harrison in Alive and Kicking, 1958 as three retirees who run away from a senior's home. Go, girls!

Kathleen Harrison told a reporter that her favourite author was Charles Dickens and she certainly made her mark in filmizations of his work.


Kathleen as the nasty Mrs. Sowerberry in Oliver Twist, 1948
Directed by David Lean


Kathleen as the gullible Rachel Wardle in The Pickwick Papers, 1952
Directed by Noel Langley


Kathleen as befuddled charlady Mrs. Dilber in A Christmas Carol, 1951
Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst

The crown jewel of these performances may well be Mrs. Dilber in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol aka Scrooge. Second-billed behind Alastair Sim, Kathleen's talent at characterization and Noel Langley's script make charwoman Mrs. Dilber a memorable personality that not even Dickens himself envisioned. She is a vibrant personality with whom we share the experience of life in Scrooge's orbit. 

On television, Kathleen played the aptly-named Mrs. Prigg in a 1964 production of Martin Chuzzlewitt, and the well-intentioned Henrietty Boffin in Our Mutual Friend in 1976.



The 1966-1967 television series Mrs. Thursday, saw Kathleen as a charlady whose late employer left her his fortune and company. Quite a step up that came with quite a few problems. Created by playwright Lord Ted Willis with Kathleen Harrison in mind, the program was a popular comedy-drama that explored the good and the ill that came with Alice Thursday's luck. The show ran for three series of 38 episodes, and a few of them can be found on YouTube. The working actress was now a star thanks to the television success.

"Because of my popularity as Mrs. Thursday, I can't go shopping anymore. It's embarrassing to be recognized and stopped all the time."
- Kathleen Harrison quote on the IMDb

Kathleen's final television appearance was in the Danger UXB episode The Quiet Weekend, 1979. Her final film role was in The London Connection, 1979 where she is billed as "Elderly Lady."

We are aware that actors do not have ages, per se, but age ranges. However, even character actresses must consider age when wondering whether producers and directors are considering stamina in their hiring process. Kathleen would knock five or six years off her age throughout her working life but returned to her original birthdate when it came time to receive the 100th birthday message from Queen Elizabeth II in 1992.

According to a Jim McPherson report in The Toronto Sun dated 1989, 91-year-old Kathleen was living with a son in London and "hale and hearty." Cheering news for all of us fans who wished her well all the days of her 103 years.












26 comments:

  1. Well, when you're 100, you might as well wear it as a badge of honor, right? Oh this lady...I'd know her anywhere. I first became aware of her in "Night Must fall," and was always happy to see her name in the credits. She is the true description of a supporting player - you gotta have strength to hold up those fragile stars! Great post, as always, my friend.

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    1. Thanks so much. I just knew you would be a fan of the great Kathleen Harrison. I had a wonderful time working on this piece. I'm surprised I hadn't worked one up sooner.

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  2. I loved this tribute! Thank you for bringing her to mind for me. She added so much to Night Must Fall, which is one of my favorite psychological thrillers of the 40s. It's a wonderful contribution to the blogathon and it makes me want to rewatch The Winslow Boy, Turn the Key Softly and Cast a Dark Shadow this weekend! Cheers, Joey

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    1. You couldn't have said anything that would please me more. Thanks so much.

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  3. Might’ve seen her in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Or at least I might’ve read your review of same.

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    1. You have some catching up to do, my friend.

      What is your A Christmas Carol of choice? We fans of Sim and Harrison are pretty adamant about ours.

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    2. Honestly? Bill Murray in SCROOGED.

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    3. The gag with his family home being the only one on the street not decorated made Garry and I roar when we first saw it. Odd how some members of an audience get peeved at folks laughing at a comedy.

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  4. What a great career! Thank you for joining our blogathon and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing more about this actress that I knew very little of prior to reading your article. Lovely piece, Paddy!

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    1. Thanks, Kellee. I feel proud to have shared Kathleen's storied career with you.

      The blogathon is always exceptional, but it feels like this anniversary year is extra special.

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  5. Well, as often happens in this blogathon, I recognize the face, but the name...? Anyway, I was thrilled to learn ore about Kathleen Harrison. I've always admired her performances, but you've turned me into a bona fide fan.

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  6. I love that you picked a co-star of my s'character actress, will definitely have to bump her film Here Come the Huggetts, to see Ms Harrison with Ms Dors!

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    1. 17-year-old Diana is so much fun in this movie and so talented. She takes over the household and the side-eyes from Kathleen are well-deserved. Such a treat.

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  7. I remember her best from the original screen version of The Winslow Boy, an excellent movie that doesn't get mentioned often enough. Described by film critic Leslie Halliwell as “Britain’s answer to the Hardys,” the Huggetts' movies featured a good young Petula Clark.

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    1. I really enjoy the Huggetts movies but it wasn't until I was working up this piece that I discovered its years on radio as well.

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  8. The immortal Kathleen Harrison! One of my faves! (and I'm sure for many others). Always welcome when she appears onscreen--she's always so warm and alive. I'm surprised she never received a knighthood; surely it was deserved!

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    1. Immortal indeed! I hadn't thought of the lack of a knighthood. Surely persons with a lesser body of work and public impact have received it.

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  9. Once again, Paddy, you are opening the doors of enlightenment. I can't place Kathleen's face or name, but now I will be on the lookout for her. By the way, Alive and Kicking sounds like a gem! Thank you for the delightful intro to Ms. Harrison :)

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    1. I am so happy to have introduced you to Kathleen. We will never get bored in our world of classic movies because there is always something or someone new to discover, and there is no telling where that discovery will lead.

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  10. One of the character actresses that I like is VIRGINIA GREGG. She guest-starred on BONANZA, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, GUNSMOKE and countless others. She was one of the "stock members/cast" of DRAGNET, I believe. I also remember her from the DRAGNET TV-MOVIE that was about a dating service. BOBBY TROUP was also in it.

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    1. I'm a big fan of Virginia Gregg as well. She was incredibly versatile and a great radio actress too.

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  11. I forgot my handle. CLASSIC TV FAN.

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  12. Kathleen Harrison is wonderful, and how cool is it that she got direction from George Bernard Shaw? That is awesome.

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    1. The thought just gives me chills. What a boon for a young actress!

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