Ms. Morison, who died May 20 at age 103, did not emerge to public recognition until returning to her Broadway roots in 1948 to perform in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” which became one of the most popular stage musicals of all time.
She had won the leading role only after big names of opera and stage, from Jarmila Novotná to Mary Martin, had turned down what they assumed would be a hard-sell musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Kiss Me, Kate,” co-starring Alfred Drake, was about battling ex-spouses — he’s vain, she’s tempestuous — who unite for a revival of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. An instant classic, “Kiss Me, Kate” ran for more than two years and won the Tony Award for best musical. The comedy also revived the reputation of composer and lyricist Porter after several flops and enshrined Ms. Morison in theater history.
Robert Osborne, the host of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, once called Ms. Morison “woefully misused” in films. One studio, ignorant of her background in musical theater, even dubbed her singing voice in the 1943 movie musical “Silver Skates.”
But the qualities Hollywood had overlooked — Ms. Morison’s skill as a mezzo-soprano, her droll presence, her feisty charisma — was on full display in the Porter show. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson praised Ms. Morison as “an agile and humorous actress who is not afraid of slapstick and who can sing enchantingly.”
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Among the standards that Ms. Morison introduced were “So in Love,” “Wunderbar” and “I Hate Men,” a song Porter feared would turn the audience against her but in fact won ovations for her wickedly robust rendering while banging an ale tankard. (The score was awash in other future pop hits, including “Too Darn Hot,” “Why Can’t You Behave” and “Always True to You (in My Fashion).”)
Ms. Morison reprised the role for a 1951 London production, followed by several TV performances. In 1954, she took over the Broadway role of Anna Leonowens in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I”, co-starring Yul Brynner. They later toured nationally.
She often recalled fending off the less-than-subtle advances of Brynner, who once invited her to his dressing room — where she found him naked and in a lotus position.
“I didn’t take my eyes off his face and said, ‘You wish to speak to me, Mr. Brynner?’ ” she once told an interviewer. Her nonchalance diminished his morale. But, she added, “We ended up the best of friends.”
Eileen Patricia Augusta Fraser Morison was born in New York City on March 19, 1915. Her father, William, was an Irish-born playwright and actor who worked under the name Norman Rainey.
At 16, she enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse, a theater school in New York where she studied dance and movement with Martha Graham. In the mid-1930s, she was the understudy for Helen Hayes as the British monarch in the long-running drama “Victoria Regina.” Hayes, Ms. Morison lamented, always showed up for work.
In 1938, Ms. Morison won ecstatic reviews in “The Two Bouquets,” a spoof of Victorian operetta that featured Drake, her future “Kiss Me, Kate” co-star. She was soon in Hollywood, under contract with Paramount Pictures. In publicity photos, she was often featured with her Rapunzel-length raven hair, deemed the longest in the film colony.
Ms. Morison played a gun moll in her movie debut, “Persons in Hiding” (1939), based on a book by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. After a run of equally lackluster films, her prospects dimmed quickly. She parted ways with Paramount after the studio replaced her with the new blond sensation Veronica Lake in “The Glass Key” (1942), based on a Dashiell Hammett crime story.
As a freelance actress, she was often in minor or unsympathetic roles. She played the Empress Eugenie in “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), a film that made an Oscar-winning star of Jennifer Jones, and was a bossy type in “Without Love” (1945), a romantic comedy with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
A possible breakthrough performance as a rape victim who commits suicide in “Kiss of Death” (1947), a first-rate crime drama, was deleted by censors from the final film. But perhaps the ultimate indignity she suffered in Hollywood was her exclusion from the 1953 movie version of “Kiss Me, Kate”; Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel played the leading parts.
Ms. Morison, who never married, had no immediate survivors. She died at her home in Los Angeles, said Harlan Boll, her publicist. He did not disclose the cause.
A theater stalwart, Ms. Morison played in regional, touring and stock productions of musicals and comedies. She also had guest roles on television shows ranging from the western “Have Gun — Will Travel” in 1958 to the sitcom “Cheers” in 1989.
Best remembered for her stage work, she expressed surprise when people approached her about her movies, in which she had so often played the femme fatale. Among the meatiest of those films was “Song of the Thin Man” (1947), the last installment of the wry mystery series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.
“At the end of the picture I shoot [actor] Leon Ames,” Ms. Morison told syndicated columnist Nick Thomas in 2015. “About five or six years ago, I was on a Mediterranean cruise and at the dinner table one evening a man looked at me and said, ‘You killed my father!’ He then introduced himself as Leon Ames’s son.”
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