Hers was a face made for close-ups: high cheekbones; big, seductive eyes; pouty lips – all framed with a mane of luxuriant dark hair, rumored to be the longest in Hollywood. Add to that a creamy singing voice, and you had the makings of quite a star. And while full-fledged stardom eluded Patricia Morison on the silver screen, she ultimately achieved it on the Broadway stage, where she created the role of Lilli (and Katharine) in Cole Porter’s hit musical Kiss Me, Kate.
Born in New York in 1915, Morison came from a theatrical family; her father was a sometime playwright, William Morison, who himself had numerous uncredited movie roles in the 1940s and 1950s, acting in bit parts under the pseudonym Norman Rainey. Patricia graduated from Washington Irving High School in New York, took acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and studied dance with Martha Graham.
In 1933, the teenager made her Broadway debut in the unsuccessful comedy Growing Pains, which died a quick death. By 1935, she was waiting in the wings to replace Helen Hayes in Laurence Housman’s play Victoria Regina but had to remain behind the scenes throughout the run as an understudy.
Morison’s start in a Broadway musical took place in 1938, when she appeared in the original cast of Eleanor Farjeon’s The Two Bouquets, playing alongside the future Broadway legend Alfred Drake (with whom she would famously collaborate again) and the already well-established thespian Leo G. Carroll. Her performance and striking looks caught the attention of Hollywood, and she soon appeared in a steady stream of films, starting with three in 1939: the thrillers The Magnificent Fraud and Persons in Hiding, and the comedy I’m from Missouri. In the 1940s alone she appeared in twenty-five films, sharing the screen with such Hollywood royalty as Ralph Bellamy, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, William Powell, Basil Rathbone, Spencer Tracy, and Johnny Weissmuller. Most of the movies came and went without making much of a impression, though a few have survived the test of time, like The Song of Bernadette (1943), after Franz Werfel’s novel, and the early Tracy-Hepburn vehicle Without Love (1945). In 1947, she had the leading role in the adventure film Queen of the Amazons and, still in jungle mode, played opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan and the Huntress.
Despite her busy schedule in the movie studios, Morison briefly returned to Broadway in 1944 to play in the flop musical Allah Be Praised!, which closed after twenty performances. Fortunately, her next experience on the Great White Way proved far more gratifying; she starred opposite her old colleague Alfred Drake in the original production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate! (1948), a musical about an acting troupe performing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Her solo numbers “I Hate Men” and “So in Love,” and her famous duet with Drake, “Wunderbar,” were high points in the show. The chemistry between Drake and Morison was superb, and the musical was a smash hit – winning six Tony Awards®, including Best Musical and Best Composer and Lyricist, and playing for 1,077 performances. Morison went on to reprise the role of Lilli in the London production and on television.
She returned to Broadway once more, stepping in to star as Anna Leonowens in The King and I in the 1950s. But she continued to take to the boards beyond Broadway in such works as Milk and Honey, Kismet, The Merry Widow, Separate Tables, and Private Lives.
Later film credits include Song Without End, Won Ton Ton: the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, and Mirrors.