Kathryn Grayson - Tuesdays in January
Kathryn Grayson, TCM's Star of the Month for January, was a leading light of MGM musicals during the 1940s and '50s. Trained in opera from the age of 12, she had a thrilling coloratura voice and a flair for playing spirited heroines. A dark-haired beauty with a heart-shaped face, expressive eyes and cupid's-bow lips, Grayson was described by friend and frequent costar Howard Keel as "the most beautiful woman in the history of the movies."
She was born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick on February 9, 1922, in Winston-Salem, NC, the third of four children of Charles and Lillian Hedrick. ("Grayson" came from her mother's maiden name.) She had a sister, Mildred (professionally known as Frances Raeburn), who would appear with Grayson in the 1942 film Seven Sweethearts; and two brothers, Clarence and Harold.
Grayson moved with her family to Kirkwood, MO and then to California, where she was signed by Red Seal, the classical arm of RCA Victor Records. After being spotted by MGM executives, she was signed by the studio without benefit of a screen test. At the beginning of her stint at MGM, Grayson was seen by some as the natural successor to Jeanette MacDonald in MGM's filmed operettas; but others felt she was the studio's replacement for Deanna Durbin, who had left MGM early in her career and achieved youthful superstardom at Universal Pictures.
Grayson made her film debut, as did other MGM starlets of the day, by providing romantic distraction for Mickey Rooney in the "Andy Hardy" comedy series - although she had the distinction of playing the title role and singing a few songs in Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941). Grayson was then featured in The Vanishing Virginian, a biographical drama with Frank Morgan, and Rio Rita (again in the title role), a musical comedy starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. That same year, MGM finally put Grayson in a vehicle designed to show off her talents in the way Universal had been showcasing Durbin's: Seven Sweethearts (1942), a family musical also starring Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin.
But it was a pair of morale-boosting World War II films costarring Gene Kelly that really put Grayson on the movie-musical map: Thousands Cheer (1943) and Anchors Aweigh (1945). This engaging couple was joined in the first film by a roster of guest stars and in the second by costar Frank Sinatra.
After joining June Allyson as Two Sisters from Boston (1946), Grayson made two more musicals with Sinatra: It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) and The Kissing Bandit (1948). After her teaming with Sinatra failed to strike sparks at the box office, Grayson was more appropriately costarred with MGM's spectacular new tenor/matinee idol, Mario Lanza, in two hit musicals, That Midnight Kiss (1949) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950). Although the two made beautiful music together, Lanza reportedly struck sour notes with Grayson because of his star temperament, and she refused to make more films with him.
Grayson appeared opposite Van Johnson in Grounds for Marriage (1951), a romantic comedy with music. Then she starred in one of her signature MGM roles as Magnolia in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II classic musical Show Boat (1951). Grayson took first billing in a splendid cast that also included Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, William Warfield, Joe E. Brown, and Marge and Gower Champion.
In his review of Show Boat for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that, "As often as one may have listened to 'Make Believe' and 'You Are Love,' they still sound original and exciting as sung by Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel."
Lovely to Look At (1952) was a loosely adapted film version of another Jerome Kern stage musical, Roberta. This one reteamed Grayson, Keel and the Champions with Red Skelton and Ann Miller also in the cast. On loan-out to Warner Bros., Grayson appeared opposite Gordon MacRae in a film version of the Sigmund Romberg operetta The Desert Song (1953).
Then came Grayson's other outstanding MGM role, Lili/Kate in the film version of Cole Porter's hit musical Kiss Me Kate (1953), again shining opposite Keel. Ann Miller and Keenan Wynn costar with supporting roles brilliantly filled by a trio of young dancers named Bobby Van, Tommy Rall and Bob Fosse. Variety described Grayson's performance as "fiery and thoroughly engaging."
Unfortunately, that high point in Grayson's career ended her term at MGM. Her final feature film was Paramount's The Vagabond King (1956), a version of the Rudolf Friml operetta costarring Oreste (Kirkop, billed by his first name only). She did, however, continue appearing in numerous stage musicals (Camelot, Kiss Me Kate, The Merry Widow) as well as opera productions (Madama Butterfly, La traviata). In the 1960s, she appeared in Las Vegas with Howard Keel.
Grayson was also periodically active on television. She won an Emmy nomination as Best Actress for her performance in "Shadow on the Heart" as part of General Electric Theater in 1955, and in the 1980s had a recurring role on Murder, She Wrote with Angela Lansbury.
In the late 1980s, Grayson began touring in a one-woman show, "An Evening with Kathryn Grayson," and in the late 1990s she starred with former MGM costar Van Johnson in a stage production of Love Letters. In her last years, Grayson gave private singing lessons and served as supervisor for a voice and choral studies program at Idaho State University that bore her name.
Grayson was married to actor John Shelton (1941-46) and singer Johnnie Johnston (1947-51). She had a daughter by Johnston, Patricia Kathryn. Grayson died in her sleep at home in Los Angeles in 2010 at the age of 88. Her obituary in The New York Times noted that her "operatic voice and campus-sweetheart beauty embodied the glamour of Hollywood movie musicals."