Patricia Morison, who originated the role of an overemotional diva in the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, starred on stage opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I and appeared in films with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, died on Sunday at the age of 103.
With her long auburn hair and fiery blue-gray eyes, Morison radiated a sophisticated sex appeal. She had “the most sensual mouth of any lady in the movies”, Gregory William Mank wrote in his book Women in Horror Films, 1940s.
The Broadway actress Merle Dandridge posted a picture of herself with Morison on Sunday and tweeted out a tribute. “Rest, Beautiful Patricia Morison,” Dandridge said. “It was an honor to follow in your footsteps.”
Morison’s career got off to a rocky start. At 18 she was cast in the 1933 Broadway comedy Growing Pains, which lasted 29 performances. “I was so bad in it, they fired me in rehearsals,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “I cried so hard they gave me a walk-on.”
Her second Broadway role five years later was only marginally better – The Two Bouquets with Alfred Drake lasted 55 performances – but Hollywood noticed and Paramount signed her. The New York Times praised her “willowy elegance.”
Morison made her film debut in 1939’s Persons in Hiding, but she often found her options in the studio system frustrating. She appeared as Empress Eugenie in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, opposite John Garfield in the 1943 thriller The Fallen Sparrow and in the 1945 Tracy-Hepburn romantic comedy Without Love.
She was often cast as the femme fatale or villain, including the mastermind in 1946’s Dressed to Kill, sparring with Sherlock Holmes, played by Basil Rathbone. Her other films included Danger Woman and Tarzan and the Huntress.
Born in New York, she was the daughter of playwright and actor William R Morison and Salina Morison. She studied acting and movement with Martha Graham. In 1935, she understudied Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina on Broadway.
After Paramount replaced her in several films, Morison left the studio and joined Al Jolson on a USO tour of Britain to entertain troops in 1942. She returned to get a part in one of her most-remembered films, Hitler’s Madman. She also played opposite Lon Chaney Jr in Calling Dr Death in 1943 and Victor Mature in Kiss of Death.
To appear in Kiss Me, Kate, Morison needed to get out of a commitment to appear in what was a new line of work for actors in 1947 –a TV series. She had been cast as a psychiatrist who helps a detective solve cases. The producer shot all of her 13 segments on the show in a quick two-week period.
Kiss Me, Kate, in which she was reunited with Drake, turned out to be Cole Porter’s biggest musical success and gave Morison the opportunity to play the temperamental Lili Vanessi and sing such songs as Wunderbar and So in Love.
She told the Associated Press in 1988 that she went to Porter’s home to audition for him but picked a Rodgers and Hammerstein song to sing. “I thought it was safer,” she said. She went on perform the role for almost 1,500 performances on Broadway and in London. The New York Times called her “an agile and humorous actress who is not afraid of slapstick and who can sing enchantingly”.
In 1954, Morison appeared on Broadway as a replacement Anna Leonowens with Brynner in The King and I and joined him on tour. She took over the role in 1952 shortly after Gertrude Lawrence died while performing the lead character. “She was marvelous,” Brynner said. “I could do anything with her.”
One story she told frequently was knocking on Brynner’s stage door and opening it to find Brynner sitting naked, in a Buddha style position, waiting to get his skin stained with a special juice to look like the King of Siam.
In 2000, she was struck by a car and the right side of her body was badly hurt. Morison, who never married, lived in a Los Angeles apartment with a piano upon which there were signed photographs of Porter and Oscar Hammerstein II.