News outlets and tabloids — little difference these days — have been milking every little drop from the unexpected and violent death of The Fast and the Furious franchise actor Paul Walker, and his friend and business partner Roger Rodas this past Saturday, November 30, 2013. Unfortunately — and unsurprisingly — apart from a handful of British publications, the death of another film performer on that same day went mostly underreported. If you’re not "in" at this very moment, you may as well have never existed.
Jean Kent, best known for her roles as scheming villainesses in British films of the 1940s and Gainsborough Pictures’ last surviving top star, died on November 30 at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds, England. The previous day, she had suffered a fall at her home in the Suffolk village of Westhorpe. Jean Kent was 92.
Born Joan Mildred Summerfield to a couple of music hall performers on June 21, 1921, in Brixton, London, the (at first) convent-educated Jean Kent learned dancing as a child, making her stage debut — replacing her own mother — at Bath’s Theatre Royal in 1932. According to Tom Vallance’s Kent obit published in The Independent, her film debut, in which she was billed as Jean Summerfield, would take place three years later, in Henry Edwards’ thriller The Rocks of Valpre (1935).
Note: Neither Jean Kent nor Jean Summerfield is listed on the IMDb’s The Rocks of Valpre page. As found on that website, Kent’s first film role was in another 1935 release, the minor Lupino Lane comedy Who’s Your Father, in which she was billed as Joan Kent.
Jean Kent movies
Known on stage as Jean Carr, she was offered a Gainsborough Pictures contract in the early ’40s after being spotted in the London Palladium revue Apple Sauce. Following a handful of supporting roles in minor fare (e.g., It’s That Man Again, Miss London Ltd.), the now rebaptized Jean Kent rapidly began landing bigger parts in more lavish and prestigious productions.
She was Phyllis Calvert’s ambitious friend Lucy in Anthony Asquith’s romantic period melodrama Fanny By Gaslight / Man of Evil (1944), also featuring James Mason and Stewart Granger, while in Frank Launder’s concentration camp drama 2,000 Women (1944) — a sort of distaff Stalag 17 — she got into a brawl with Nazi spy Betty Jardine. In Arthur Crabtree’s immensely popular Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), Kent was jewel thief Stewart Granger’s jealous lover, making life difficult for the bourgeois Italian/wild gypsy, amnesiac/split-personality sufferer, and rape survivor Phyllis Calvert.
There would be more gypsies and more Stewart Granger in Arthur Crabtree’s adventure melo Caravan (1946), with Jean Kent as a Spanish señorita who does some nude diving (courtesy of a body double), while in Charles Frend and Robert Hamer’s The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) she was Googie Withers’ spoiled sister — one of Kent’s favorite roles.
Among her other mid-’40s Gainsborough titles were Sidney Gilliat’s comedy-drama The Rake’s Progress / Notorious Gentleman (1945), starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer; Leslie Arliss’ mammoth hit The Wicked Lady (1945), starring Margaret Lockwood in the title role (Kent replaced appendicitis-stricken Valerie White); and Bernard Knowles’ The Magic Bow (1946), with Stewart Granger as violinist Nicolo Paganini and French aristocrat Phyllis Calvert as his on-again-off-again lover.
Jean Kent: Gainsborough star
By the late ’40s, Jean Kent had become one of Gainsborough’s top stars. She had the title role in three of her few major star vehicles:
- David MacDonald’s Good-Time Girl, as a teen-gone-wrong in this 1948 crime melo held from release for nearly a year because of censorship woes (ultimately, a framing device served as a cautionary tale for teen-about-to-go-wrong Diana Dors);
- Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1949 Technicolor musical Trottie True / The Gay Lady, Jean Kent’s favorite film, in which she played a Gaiety Girl who marries an aristocrat (James Donald);
- Anthony Asquith’s mystery drama The Woman in Question / Five Angles on Murder (1950), in which Kent was a murder victim remembered from five radically different points of view, including those of Susan Shaw and Hermione Baddeley. Coincidentally, The Woman in Question, also featuring Dirk Bogarde and John McCallum, was released the same year as Akira Kurosawa’s similarly structured Rashomon.
“Asquith told me," Jean Kent would later recall, "‘I will be quite frank with you. We originally wanted Bette Davis.’ To do five different versions of one person is very tricky — to get enough difference and for each to be near enough to the others."
According to Jean Kent herself — a self-described movie fan among whose idols were Hollywood stars Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy — her chances of Hollywood stardom were dashed by “a silly bitch who defied management by taking poor roles in the US, after which they would not let any of us go there.” Assuming she’s referring to her time as a Gainsborough contract player, Kent may have been talking about Phyllis Calvert’s brief and unsuccessful Hollywood foray in the late ’40s, when she starred opposite Robert Hutton and Ella Raines in Robert Siodmak’s Time Out of Mind (1947), and opposite Melvyn Douglas in Compton Bennett’s My Own True Love (1949).
["Dead at 92: Gainsborough Pictures Film Star Jean Kent" continues on the next page. See link below.]
Jean Kent Madonna of the Seven Moons photo: Gainsborough Pictures.