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Harrison, Rex (1908-1990)


Main image of Harrison, Rex (1908-1990)

No one could do better that particular thing Rex Harrison did: the quizzical, elegant, sexually predatory man-about-town. The film that enshrines the persona most vividly is The Rake's Progress (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1945), in which he plays the caddish philanderer who redeems himself in World War II (Harrison himself had served in the RAF).

The facts of his own life are not entirely remote from the type he made his own on stage (from 1924) and screen (from 1930): he married five times, including three rounds with famous actresses - Lilli Palmer (2), Kay Kendall (3), and Rachel Roberts (4) - and seems to have left much to be desired as husband and home-maker; and he was famously involved with American star Carole Landis who, allegedly, killed herself for love of him. The press of course dubbed him 'Sexy Rexy', and this personal history made him safe casting as the ageing homosexual in the British-set, French-made, US-financed Staircase (d. Stanley Donen, 1969) .

The other great role of his life was his Tony-winning Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1956-58), for repeating which on screen he won an Oscar (US, d. George Cukor, 1964). Curmudgeonly, misogynistic, talking his way through his songs, hectoring and charming the audience as he did Eliza, he recreated Shaw's original perhaps definitively.

He wore a lot of dinner jackets in 1930s British theatre and had a moderate innings in prewar cinema (e.g., a society doctor in The Citadel (d. King Vidor, 1938); a breezily intrepid hero in Night Train to Munich (d. Carol Reed, 1940). Postwar, he hit his stride with Blithe Spirit (d. David Lean, 1945), had major US success with Anna and the King of Siam (US, d. John Cromwell, 1946), and from then on was more likely to be filming in Hollywood (or anywhere, really) than Britain.

Among his later films, Cleopatra (US, d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) gave him a fine chance as witty, cynical Caesar; there was much, of course, to be cynical about. He was starring on Broadway in The Circle when he died. He was knighted in 1989.

Autobiographies: Rex (1974), A Damned Serious Business: A Life in Comedy (1991) Biography: Rex Harrison by Alexander Walker (1998).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blithe Spirit (1945)Blithe Spirit (1945)

Noël Coward comedy about a ghost who won't stay still

Thumbnail image of Constant Husband, The (1954)Constant Husband, The (1954)

Comedy with Rex Harrison as an amnesiac with a terrible secret

Thumbnail image of Men Are Not Gods (1936)Men Are Not Gods (1936)

Romantic comedy melodrama inspired by Shakespeare's Othello

Thumbnail image of Rake's Progress, The (1945)Rake's Progress, The (1945)

Definitive Rex Harrison, as a carefree 1930s playboy confronted by war

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Thumbnail image of Kendall, Kay (1927-1959)Kendall, Kay (1927-1959)


Thumbnail image of Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)