In 1949, twenty-eight year old British actress Deborah Kerr starred opposite screen veteran Spencer Tracy in Edward, My Son. Though Kerr had already won critical acclaim for a handful of popular films in her native England–among them I See a Dark Stranger (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947)–Edward was only her third American film, and in my mind, presented the young actress with one of the most interesting roles of her career.
The film is framed by narration from Arnold Boult (Tracy), who reflects upon his life from the birth of his son, Edward (who is never seen during the course of the movie), through Edward’s untimely death as a young man. The flashback begins in 1919: Boult (a native Canadian) lives in London with his British wife, Evelyn (Kerr), and their infant son. On Edward’s first birthday, Arnold decides to go into the furniture financing business with his old friend Harry (Mervyn Johns), who has just gotten out of prison, and is optimistic about the venture despite Evelyn’s hesitation about his working with a convicted felon. The happy couple celebrates the day with Harry and with their close friend (and family doctor), Larry Woodhope (Ian Hunter). Arnold toasts the sleeping Edward, stating, “To Edward … This is just to let you know that down here, we have the matter of your future well in hand, all four of us. Sleep safe, Edward. The world shall be your oyster.” Evelyn wonders aloud, “What does that mean, the world his oyster?” To which Arnold replies, “That means that nothing is going to be too good for him–ever.”
We jump ahead five years to Edward’s sixth birthday. A specialist diagnoses Edward with an “atrophy of nerves in the hip” and informs the Boults that the only cure is an expensive operation in Switzerland. Though Edward will eventually recover without the operation, the doctor tells them that the boy will have a permanent limp, much to Arnold’s disappointment, as he dreams of his son being active in sports. Arnold tells Larry that he will find a way to pay the one thousand pounds to cover the cost of the procedure: “Somehow or other, my son’s going to have what’s best for him.” Arnold’s solution is to burn down the furniture store and collect the insurance, and he convinces his business partner, Harry, to reluctantly go along with the scheme. The plan works, and Edward’s operation is a complete success.
Time passes in a montage of birthday cakes and the story picks back up again in 1930, around the time of Edward’s twelfth birthday. Edward is enrolled in prep school, and Arnold has, by this time, grown wealthy and become “Sir Boult.” According to the headmaster and Edward’s instructors, the boy is a disrespectful “little stinker” and they plan to expel him from the school. However, Arnold, who has also grown incredibly arrogant in the ensuing years, refuses to acknowledge Edward’s faults and instead reveals that he owns the mortgage to the school and that he will close the academy if Edward is not permitted to remain there.
By 1935, as Edward turns sixteen, Evelyn expresses concern to Larry that Arnold has spoiled Edward to the point of ruining the boy’s chances to be a “normal,” well-adjusted man. Larry, for his part, has distanced himself from the Boults due to his suspicions about Arnold’s behavior and his growing love for Evelyn. Harry, who had in previous years been implicated in the collapse of a business venture with Arnold, is released from prison and comes to Arnold’s office looking for work. But when Arnold indicates his unwillingness to help, Harry goes to the roof of the building and jumps off, committing suicide. Arnold’s secretary, Eileen (Leueen Macgrath), covers for her boss, lying to the police to cover up Arnold’s involvement with Harry in order to downplay any possible scandal.
This leads to an affair between the two, which lasts for over a year, until one night the pair discovers a detective staking out Eileen’s apartment. Arnold and Eileen confront the detective, who is there to gather evidence of the affair, as Evelyn has decided to divorce her philandering husband. Arnold promptly dumps Eileen flat (we later learn that she commits suicide by overdosing on pills) and flies to Switzerland to see Evelyn and Edward. Evelyn informs Arnold that she plans to divorce him very publicly so as to reveal to Edward the truth about his father, but Arnold remains unfazed. He threatens to ruin Larry’s career by insinuating that Larry seduced Evelyn while she was his patient. Evelyn, trapped and frightened, collapses on the bed and weeps, knowing that if she wants to remain a part of her son’s life, she must remain inextricably bound to Arnold.
As three more birthdays pass, Evelyn becomes withdrawn and haggard, losing herself in an alcoholic haze. Meanwhile, Edward is preparing to marry the rich and well-connected Phyllis Mayden (Harriette Johns), but has impregnated his lower-class mistress, Betty (Tilsa Page). Arnold summons Larry to the house in an effort to convince the doctor to “take care” of the situation (a not-so-subtle hint at abortion), but Larry refuses and offers to help the young woman after Arnold informs Betty that Edward will not marry her. Betty tells Arnold that he doesn’t have to worry about paying her off, because she will take care of herself.
Two years later, in 1941, the country is in the midst of World War II. Edward has recently died in a plane crash, killing himself and his crew while “showing off” during a routine drill. Larry stops by the Boult house, bringing his condolences, and finds Evelyn hosting a one-woman “celebration” of Edward’s birthday as she sinks into a drunken stupor. When Evelyn goes to bed, Arnold reflects on Edward’s life, telling Larry that he did the best he could for his son, and doesn’t think he could have done anything better.
As Arnold’s story winds to a close, we find that Evelyn died in 1945, shortly before the end of the war. A year later, Arnold appears at Larry’s office, seeking his old friend’s help in locating Betty, for Arnold wants to take possession of Edward’s child. Larry, however, refuses to assist him. The movie ends with Arnold addressing the audience once more. He explains that the government had found him liable for burning down the furniture store all those years ago, and that he had just recently been released from prison after four years (side note: Arnold’s conviction and jail time was added to the film per the request of the Production Code office, which demanded that Arnold be held liable for his crime). Arnold concludes by vowing that he will never stop searching for his grandson, showing that despite all of the tragedies he had engineered over the years in his own life and the lives of his family, he has yet to learn his lesson.
Edward, based on a British play co-written by Noel Langley and Robert Morley, was adapted by screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story). That film’s director, the incomparable George Cukor, also directed Edward, and at one point pushed for longtime friend (and Philadelphia star) Katharine Hepburn to appear as Evelyn. Tracy and Hepburn ultimately nixed this idea, however, as the not-so-secret lovers reportedly sought to limit their onscreen pairings (nonetheless, Hepburn and Tracy would go on to costar in Adam’s Rib for Cukor only months later). The door was open for Kerr, who had played Evelyn on the London stage, to take the lead. And while Tracy may have been the bigger star–and his turn as the heartless and devious Arnold is quite effective–this is undoubtedly Kerr’s movie.
The film’s storyline requires Kerr’s character to age from her early twenties through her forties and, perhaps more dauntingly, also requires her to portray Evelyn’s gradual descent into drunkenness. She handles both with aplomb. Her development from a rather innocent young wife to a bitter, slurring, and graying alcoholic is a natural progression on the part of the actress. Subtle changes in Evelyn’s expression–from open to shuttered, wide-eyed to narrowed, smiling to grimacing–reveal the depths of degradation. Kerr even pitches her voice differently in Evelyn’s later years, injecting a note of shrill disregard in the character’s late interactions with Arnold. Her booze-soaked sorrow and bitterness in the wake of Edward’s death is utterly heartbreaking. All in all, it’s an intriguing performance, and an indication of the sheer breadth of talent that Kerr would display in her later films.
Edward, incidentally, would present Kerr with the first of her six Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. For all that recognition (and for all she deserved a victory), however, Kerr never won a competitive Oscar, though she was awarded an honorary statuette in 1994.
This post is my (somewhat belated) contribution to the “Darling Deborah” blogathon hosted by Sophie at Waitin’ for a Sunny Day. Check out the other entries here.