According to the 2010 U.S. census, less than 0.02 of a percent of Americans live to be centenarians. Actress Patricia Morison joined that exceptionally rare group last month when she turned 100.
“I had a party with dear friends, that was all I wanted,” Morison said from her Los Angeles apartment. “I even sang a couple of songs.”
Morison, a mezzo-soprano, is best known for her stage work, especially her role in Cole Porter's hit musical “Kiss me, Kate” which ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway from 1948-51.
Yet, while she started theater in the ’30s, Hollywood never took advantage of her voice when she moved to the West Coast to work in film. “I screen tested with MGM, but Paramount picked me up.”
Unlike many actors of the day, Morison kept her own name which Hollywood probably found appealing with its unusual spelling — only one R.
“My father would say his family came from the northern Hebrides and were too stingy to put two R’s in Morison!”
With her striking beauty and long, dark hair — down to her knees at one point – Morison was often cast in femme-fatale roles.
In “Dressed to Kill,” the final pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the 1940's Sherlock Holmes film series, Morison played a treacherous seductress attempting to dispatch her real-life friend, Rathbone.
“He was a lovely man with a dry sense of humor and Nigel Bruce, who we called Willy, was just adorable,” she recalled. “My mother was Irish and my father was British. When we moved to Hollywood, British actors such as Ronald Colman, Brian Aherne, and Basil Rathbone would come to our house for a traditional afternoon tea.”
Morison’s murderous resolve was more successful in “Song of the Thin Man,” the final movie in another popular detective film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy.
“At the end of the picture, I shoot my costar, Leon Ames,” noted Morison. “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’ son!”
During the war years, Morison helped out in the Hollywood Canteen and volunteered for the USO, flying to England and Ireland with Al Jolson, Merle Oberon, Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh. But it wasn’t just the Atlantic seaplane crossing that was memorable.
“We waited and waited at LaGuardia Airport for Jolson,” she recalled. “When he eventually arrived, he looked at us all and said ‘I don’t know why the hell they sent you, I could have done this by myself.’ We toured all the airbases, but Jolson complained the whole trip.”
Back at work in the States, Morison enjoyed walking the Paramount lot.
“I loved the technical side of filmmaking and visiting special effects areas. During the war, the makeup department had a section devoted to creating prosthetics for soldiers who had lost ears or noses. The movie industry did a lot to support the war effort.”
In 1947, Morison found herself at war with the loincloth-clad jungle hero Johnny Weissmuller in “Tarzan and the Huntress.”
“Johnny was beautiful to watch, whether just standing or gracefully swimming,” she said. “I didn’t socialize with him much as he was too busy with a new love affair.”
While the film used stock footage for many African scenes, there were animals on the set.
“I remember the chimp going berserk, tearing around the set trying to beat up the crew. We had to hide in our cars until he calmed down. They also used an old MGM lion. It was very hot on the set, so the big stage doors were opened to let in air. Then suddenly, the lion disappeared. We found him walking down La Cienega Boulevard with people fleeing in all directions.”
Morison’s apartment, where she has lived since the 1960s, has been home to more manageable critters, including dogs and birds. Her last pet was a cockatiel that would perch on her head and sing.
“I can still sing, too,” she laughed, referring to her performance at her recent birthday celebration.
“When you consider I’m 100, I probably should only be able to croak! But I’m a very fortunate woman. I’ve done what I wanted with my life and worked with some wonderful people along the way.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 550 magazines and newspapers. Follow on Twitter @TinseltownTalks.