January 2, 2017


Kathleen Byron (1921-2009) b. London, England.

Kathleen Byron

Kathleen Elizabeth Fell was born in East Ham, London; the daughter of two staunch socialists, both of whom would become mayors of East Ham. Educated at East Ham grammar school, she was judged to have university potential, but instead won a scholarship to the Old Vic. Her acting career began with small parts in Climbing High (1938) and The Young Mr Pitt (1942).

She began her association with Powell and Pressburger on the wartime drama The Silver Fleet (1943) and later appeared as an angel in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Powell and Pressburger later cast her as the neurotic Sister Ruth in the steamy Black Narcissus (1947), driven mad by her lust for government agent Mr Dean (David Farrar). In the film’s climax, Sister Ruth rouges her lips blood red and slips into a hugging scarlet dress and grapples with Sister Clodagh in the bell tower, a scene superbly directed by Michael Powell, with whom she was having a love affair.

On the strength of Black Narcissus, Byron was cast as the female lead in war drama The Small Back Room (1949), again opposite Farrar, who was an alcoholic bomb- disposal expert. That year, she was Margaret Lockwood’s romantic rival in Madness of the Heart (1949). The strength of her performance in Narcissus led to Kathleen Byron being typecast as a dangerously neurotic woman and good parts were running out. It was frustrating for such a talented actress to be typecast. She asked John Huston about how he saw her: “We see you as strictly neurotic, Miss Byron,” he replied.

Increasingly, she drifted into second features and supporting role. Few were memorable and they ranged from stolid literary adaptations such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1951), crime-drama’s like The Scarlet Thread (1951) and My Death Is a Mockery (1952), to such horror pictures as Night of the Eagle (1962). But there would be cameo parts for Kathleen in The Elephant Man (1980) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

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