Women of Character: Kay Kendall

May 21, 2020

21st May 1927 – 6th September 1959

It is a sad fact that British cinema of the 1950s so often overlooked the talents of so many actresses, from Diana Dors to Fenella Fielding. Sir Michael Balcon ignored the advice of Alec Guinness to sign a bit player from The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) named Audrey Hepburn to a contract. And this is why the moment in Genevieve (1953) when Rosalind Peters decides to play the trumpet is both utterly sublime and worth of a myriad of Oscars.

Monthly Film Bulletin thought the picture was ‘perfectly served by Kendall and Kenneth More’, but then she was always a star – it was merely that Wardour Street was merely several years behind the times. Shortly after Kendall died of leukaemia aged just 32 one writer stated, ‘her candle was still burning brightly’.

The Square Ring (1953)

As is so often the case for an “overnight sensation” Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy had made several films before Genevieve. Her screen debut was as an uncredited player in the 1943 Ealing comedy Fiddler’s Three, and three years later Rank misguidedly promoted her as ‘Britain’s Lana Turner’ in the musical London Town. Writing in 1983 George Perry though Kendall ‘still managed to enchant from under several layers of deep red lip gloss and thick make up’.  Alas, forty-seven years earlier The Observer review bemoaned that Sid Field aside, the picture suffered from ‘an almost complete lack of talent’. 

‘I was a Cockney tart behind a sweet counter, and I adored it’ 

 The impact on Kendall’s career from London Town was considerable. Even  Golden notes in The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall how the actress’s personality ‘veered widely from dazzling self-confidence to a bitter inferiority complex. She slowly rebuilt her career over the next few years with a spate of supporting roles. Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) showcased Kendall’s gift for comedy acting – ‘I was a Cockney tart behind a sweet counter, and I adored it’. 

Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951)

Two years later she played the female lead in Street of Shadows, which was to be Kendall’s last minor B/W feature prior to Genevieve. The latter half of the 1950s saw her co-star with Gene Kelly in Les Girls (1957) winning a Golden Globe for her Sybil Wren while the Kendall-Peter Finch screen partnership in 1955s Simon and Laura was so delightful as to make one regret there was no sequel. In 1957 Kendall married Rex Harrison, her co-star from The Constant Husband (1955) and Elspeth Grant thought they were ‘the most perfectly matched screen couple since Mr. and Mrs. Nick Charles’ in The Reluctant Debutante (1959).  But it was to be her penultimate film. 

Kendall’s agent once tried to promote her as ‘a Rosalind Russell type of comedienne’, but the actress created her own niche in British cinema. She knew only too well ‘the tatty publicity, the hired furs, the premieres and all the muck that goes with it’ and her characters often treated the male leads with amused disdain. As Rosalind remarks in Genevieve – ‘Ambrose only seems to think about two things. That silly old car – and the other thing’.

Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA


  1. John Butt Reply

    Hope you don’t mind me saying, but in your introduction about Kay Kendall you’ve spelt WITHERNSEA, the town where she was born wrong. The ‘r’ has been missed out. I live in Withernsea, just round the corner in fact from the very house that she grew up in, so I noticed the spelling mistake straight away !.

  2. matthew Hopson Reply

    excellent . one of the best and most beautiful actresses of her time. So sad that she died so young.

  3. Kathy Saban Reply

    A lovely feature on a some times forgotten star

  4. Mary McCarthy Reply

    She definitely was a talented actress who died before having major international success. I loved her in Lady Godiva Rides Again and Genevieve, but I would love to know what happened to Pauline Stroud who played the lead part of Marjorie in lady Godiva Rides Again she is a forgotten actress of the 50’s as I have never seen her in anything since.

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