Jean Kent was the star of many Gainsborough melodramas, as well as appearing with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl. She became a major star during and after the Second World War, but demonstrated her all-round acting abilities in major dramas, comedies and soap operas. Kent became renowned for the bodice-ripping melodramas of Gainsborough Films, appearing with stars such as Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert. She was a considerable actress with a vibrant and warm personality that ensured her popularity with colleagues and the public.
She was honoured on her 90th birthday by the British Film Institute. Kent, irrepressible as ever, told the audience: “I am available for work – as long as I don’t have to walk. A nice sitting-down part would be fine.”
Joan Mildred Summerfield was the only child of a theatrical family and made her debut in 1923, on stage in Glasgow as an 18-month-old babe in arms, waving the Stars and Stripes in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Kent attended a dance college and began, in 1935, on the chorus line of the Windmill Theatre in Soho. She changed her name to Jean Kent and after some revues she did a season at the London Palladium with Max Miller. There she was spotted by the talent scouts of Gainsborough Studios.
Kent, with her broad smile, glowing personality and handsome features, was soon one of the top box-office draws of the post-war years. She was often cast as the haughty, self-assured strawberry-blonde femme fatale who was, invariably, the wicked lady for whom all the men fell. In 1942, she co-starred with Tommy Handley in a film version of the radio hit It’s That Man Again and that led to her most important early film, Fanny by Gaslight in 1944. Directed by Anthony Asquith, it did much to consolidate Kent’s burgeoning career.
In 1946, she played the central role of a gypsy who nursed the ailing Stewart Grainger in Caravan. The film was to have happy memories for Kent as on it she met her future husband – the Hungarian Jusuf Ramart, who performed all the horse-riding stunts. They married in 1946, with Grainger as best man.
That year Kent also filmed Carnival, alongside Michael Wilding and Stanley Holloway, based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie. Two huge box-office hits followed: the charming romantic comedy Waterloo Road (with Grainger, John Mills and Alastair Sim) and The Wicked Lady – about a lord’s wife who secretly has a double life as a highwayman – with Margaret Lockwood as the siren temptress.
Kent made a dramatic appearance in the classic 1951 film version of Terence Rattigan’s play The Browning Version. She balanced the introvert acting of Michael Redgrave’s embittered school master with a sharp and vicious performance.
Kent cuts an unsympathetic figure as the selfish and unfaithful wife, but she never tries to gain any understanding from the audience. It is a performance of much guile, cunning and crafty duplicity.
Kent did appear on stage, but never quite enjoyed the acclaim she received on screen. She toured Scotland with several plays and on a pre-London tour of a musical seen at the Kings in Edinburgh and Glasgow called She Smiled at Me. In London’s West End, it closed after a week. However, Kent was seen to better effect at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, when she played the lead in the uproarious musical Lock Up Your Daughters in 1966.
Kent remained in demand for films and took a cameo role in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and Grip The Stranger with Boris Karloff.
In 1957, she was cast as the leading chorus girl in the club where Monroe worked as a chorus girl in The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier and Monroe had some testing moments in rehearsal and it was not an altogether happy experience for anyone – least of all Kent, who had her big musical number cut from the film.
When asked for her memories of Monroe, Kent said: “She was tiny and rather grubby. If you passed her in the street, you wouldn’t look twice. But she had something the camera loved. She was the embodiment of sexual allure.”
Kent was often seen in television dramas. These varied from playing the snobby wife of a garage boss in Crossroads to a gloriously imperious Queen Elizabeth 1 in Francis Drake in 1961. In the latter, she had some superbly dramatic scenes over the decision to execute of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Other TV appearances included Emergency Ward 10, Up Pompeii, Lovejoy and Shrinks.
In the Eighties, Kent spent much of the year in Malta, where her husband ran a property company. He died in 1989 and she returned to their home in Suffolk.