Kathryn Grayson, the soprano-voiced star of Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, and several other MGM musicals of the 1940s and early ’50s, died yesterday (Feb. 17) in her sleep at her Los Angeles home. Grayson had turned 88 on Feb. 9.
An aspiring opera singer, Grayson became an MGM contract player in the early ’40s, reportedly as a potential rival to Universal’s Deanna Durbin. Usually, the pretty, bosomy brunette didn’t have much to do on screen whenever she wasn’t belting out songs — except, of course, look pretty and bosomy. The exceptions to that rule were two George Sidney-directed early ’50s adaptations of Broadway musicals: Show Boat (1951, photo) and Kiss Me Kate (1953).
In the former, Grayson plays riverboat captain’s daughter Magnolia Hawks, who falls in love with a ne’er-do-well gambler played by Howard Keel. Grayson and Keel’s rendition of "Make Believe" remains one of the highlights of MGM’s Golden Age of musicals. As a plus, Grayson rose to the occasion in the dramatic scenes as well, delivering what I consider the best performance of her career. Grayson was so good, in fact, that she was able to make me forget Irene Dunne’s remarkable performance in Universal’s 1936 version.
In Kiss Me Kate, a musicalized, Broadway-set variation on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Grayson was once again paired with Howard Keel, fighting and singing like a feral cat. For that role, she received the best notices of her career.
The film debut of the Winston-Salem, N.C., native took place in 1941 in the Mickey Rooney vehicle Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary. (The "Andy Hardy" series served as a sort of training ground for many MGM female newcomers.) From there Grayson got squeezed between Abbott and Costello in a 1942 update of Rio Rita, had the lead in the 1943 all-star color musical revue Thousands Cheer, and played opposite Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in the likable, Oscar-nominated Anchors Aweigh (1945), a movie that proves that dreams do come true in Hollywood — as long as you’re starring in a Hollywood movie.
Additionally, Grayson co-starred with June Allyson in Two Sisters from Boston (1946) and was part of the all-star cast in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), a glossy (and phony) Jerome Kern biopic in which she plays herself performing the role of Magnolia in Show Boat.
It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) and The Kissing Bandit (1949) were big flops, but those hurt Frank Sinatra’s career more than hers, as she was paired with Mario Lanza, with whom she didn’t get along all that well, in the more successful That Midnight Kiss (1949) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950). She also played another former Irene Dunne role in Lovely to Look At (1952), MGM’s glitzy remake of RKO’s Roberta (1935).
Grayson’s only three films away from MGM were The Desert Song (1953) and So This Is Love (1953), both at Warner Bros., and The Vagabond King (1956) at Paramount. Her career abruptly ended at that point as those films weren’t exactly successful, and Hollywood’s musical wave was about to crash. Referring to the bloated The Vagabond King, she later said: "It never should have been made. [Composer] Rudolf Friml was so upset about it that he told Paramount he was going out of town for the weekend. He went to Hong Kong."
In later years, Grayson sang opera, starred in several stage operettas including The Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta, and toured in Man of La Mancha with former MGM co-star Howard Keel. Television appearances included those in Playhouse 90 and Murder She Wrote.
She was married to two minor MGM contract players: John Shelton (1940-1946) and Johnny Johnston (1947-1951).
"I’m a Pollyanna," Kathryn Grayson once said, explaining why she could never write her memoirs. "I had to stop writing because I love everybody and I was saying everyone was beautiful. I just happen to think people are pretty wonderful."
Kathryn Grayson can be seen a couple of times — wearing a Dutch cap; singing at the conclusion — in this “Forgotten Actresses” montage.
Kathryn Grayson quotes: Associated Press