Patricia Morison at 100: "The Fire and Ice Girl" Has Still Got It
March 19, 2016
This piece was originally written for the American Cinematheque, and they graciously gave me permission to re-print it here, in a slightly edited form.
Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to attend a handful of events that have included introductions and/or discussions with some of classic Hollywood's centenarians. Those I've had the fortune to hear speak include Carla Laemmle (at a 2012 screening of 1925's The Phantom of the Opera), Norman Lloyd (in 2014 at the Aero for a belated 100th birthday celebration and in 2015 after 1949's Reign of Terror played at TCMFF), and Mary Carlisle (at a 2014 showing of 1930's Madam Satan at the Egyptian).
Add to that list "The Fire and Ice Girl" Patricia Morison, who celebrates her 101st birthday today. (That moniker, by the way, was bestowed upon her by Paramount publicity after she signed with the studio).
Patricia Morison at the Egyptian Theater. (Picture by the American Cinematheque)
The Egyptian Theater and the Film Noir Foundation's Alan K. Rode welcomed the actress a few weeks after her 100th birthday last April to introduce a screening of the 1943 noir The Fallen Sparrow, which she starred in alongside John Garfield and Maureen O'Hara. The picture played with Ride the Pink Horse (1947) as part of a Dorothy B. Hughes double feature at Noir City 17 in Hollywood.
Morison's career stretches back an impressive eight decades. An accomplished singer, she had been working on Broadway for years when she was spotted by a Paramount talent scout while performing in the short-lived Victorian operetta The Two Bouquets in 1938. Paramount signed her to a contract and brought her out to Hollywood, but...they didn't seem to know what to do with her! At the time, Morison was primarily known as a singer, but Paramount wasn't interested in doing musicals. "They had an idea of what they wanted me to be, and I went along with it," Morison said.
Speaking of that studio deal, Rode quoted Morison as once saying that she "ate her way out of her Paramount contract." Morison elaborated: after signing with Paramount, she found she was making money for the first time in a long while, so she bought a nice home in Beverly Hills, invited her parents and two cousins from England to stay with her, and lived it up...and also ate it up! In her estimation, Morison assumes she missed out on a lot of roles because she got too "heavy." (I wonder what constitutes 'heavy' in this case and how accurate this idea may be).
Morison looking glamorous in the 40s.
Rode brought up a few of Morison's film roles, including her part in Kiss of Death (1947), which has screened at Noir City many times. However, if you try to locate her in the movie, your quest will end in failure; Morison's character, originally constituting a major role, was cut before release at the request of the censors. She played Victor Mature's wife, who, after Mature is sentenced to prison, leaves her baby at a church and commits suicide by putting her head in the oven. Morison received a letter from Darryl Zanuck praising her on such a "breakthrough role" that showcased how wonderful an actress she was, but unfortunately, the public was never able to see the performance.
Morison also divulged a juicy story about Louis B. Mayer right before the screening that Rode asked her to share with the audience. "You really want to hear that?" she asked. Of course, the response was an enthusiastic yes! The story starts with a friend of Morison's who worked in the story department at MGM who also happened to be a close friend of Mayer's. On Sundays, Morison regularly visited her friend's house to work on a portrait, and on one particular Sunday, Morison's friend invited her to dinner at Mayer's house. Morison recalls entering Mayer's "fabulous" home and taking a seat at a huge table where Mayer, seated on one end, recounted his start in the business. Though Mayer talked about himself all night, his stories fascinated Morison; after all, Mayer was one of the pioneers of the American studio system.
Well, that Sunday dinner turned into a weekly ritual. After a while, one of Mayer's female friends called Morison up and asked her to come over to talk. She sat Morison down and disclosed that Mayer was very much in love with her and would like to marry her; she even assured Morison that Mayer would make financial arrangements for Morison's parents! Everything seemed to be planned perfectly by Mayer...except for the fact that he didn't ask Morison himself, nor did Morison have any inkling of his feelings. As you can probably guess, she did not accept his offer.
Morison with John Garfield in The Fallen Sparrow, which screened that evening.
Rode then turned the focus on Morison's storied Broadway career. He began with Kiss Me, Kate and the role of Lilli, which Morison originated on Broadway. Morison owes her casting in that musical to two people: her agent and Cole Porter. The story goes like this: one day, Morison's agent drove her out to Brentwood to visit Porter. The meeting wasn't for any project in particular; he just wanted Morison to get used to auditioning. Morison sang for Porter, and the composer obviously liked what he heard, because he handed her the score for Kiss Me, Kate and instructed her to learn the music and get back to him. Though Porter actually ran into a lot of trouble raising the money for the musical (several people questioned who would want to produce or see a show based on a Shakespeare play) and some thought he had lost his touch, but of course, he proved them all wrong when Kiss Me, Kate became a smash hit. As an interesting aside, Morison returned to the subject of Louis B. Mayer and mentioned that when Mayer eventually remarried and was honeymooning in New York, it was reported that he stood in the back of the theater and caught every performance of Kiss Me, Kate for as long as he was in town. "That was nice to hear," Morison sighed. "These things happen." To that response, Rode exclaimed: "Not to everyone, Patricia. Just to you!"
Morison displaying her famous long locks with Alfred Drake on Broadway in Kiss Me, Kate.
Morison also talked about taking over the role of Anna in The King and I on Broadway. When she joined the company, she actually started rehearsals with Yul Brynner's understudy, because the star was on vacation. When he returned a few days before he was due back, Brynner surprised the cast by entering the theater dressed in black leather and proceeding to do acrobatics while Morison ran lines with his understudy on stage! When rehearsal wrapped, Brynner invited Morison to his dressing room. After knocking, Morison opened Brynner's door to reveal a shocking sight: the actor was sitting in front of his mirror, naked. "I didn't take my eyes off his face," she admitted. In his defense, he told her that he had to "stay" in his body, to which Morison quickly replied that she understood. And with that, Brynner welcomed Morison to the show! "We ended up the best of professional friends," she recalled. "I said professional." According to Morison, Brynner was a very good actor and a nice man. "Naughty but nice," she added.
This shot with Yul Brynner for The King and I looks like a painting, doesn't it?
To wrap up, Rode asked Morison if any one film stuck out during her Hollywood career. Morison considered the question but confessed that she never felt the movie industry "really saw me, you know what I mean?" In her eyes, it wasn't until she returned to Broadway that she really found herself and where she belonged.