I innocently logged onto Netflix a few days ago, and I was greeted by a “Movie Note” from a Netflix Friend of mine who had evidently been paying far-too-close attention to my queue and my general tastes. Next to a picture of the cover art for a little-known screwball comedy from 1943 entitled My Son, the Hero was my Friend’s question/comment, jumping off the screen in a large, purple, impossible-to-miss font:
“What prompted this? Doesn't fit your normal Netflix rental pattern at all."
I stared at the question/comment for a few seconds, and then my own question/comments started to percolatin’: “What is he saying, my fanatical Friend? That I don’t rent enough obscure comedies from the ‘40s? Did he know about the movie and decide that, amongst all of the late-period screwball comedies I could have chosen, this one was so far afield in quality from the others that it merited worried attention? Just how closely is my Friend paying heed to what I’m having sent home to me? (Not that I’m paranoid or anything, but…) Will he feel compelled to chime in again when the reputedly rotten The Life of David Gale (currently #32 with a bullet) finds its way to the surface of my ridiculously long queue? (I probably would.) And why would anyone’s rental patterns but your own (and perhaps even your own) be so fascinating as to merit a question/comment sent down the Netflix pipeline?
I hastily fired back an e-mail, explaining that though I didn’t realize it at the time, the movie was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a fact that I thought would satisfy my cinephiliac pal. But then I added the real reason-- “Besides, I’ve got a bit of a Patsy Kelly fixation these days”—and left it at that.
Imagine my surprise when my friend, whose knowledge of cinema, particularly Hollywood genre films, handily surpasses my own in a most complete and embarrassing fashion, shot back a curt reply:
“Who’s Patsy Kelly?”
I realized that if my film-soaked Friend didn’t know who Patsy Kelly was, then it was safe to assume that most casual and even passionately devoted movie buffs, not to mention the audience at large that creates $100 million hits out of movies like Wild Hogs and Norbit, wouldn’t know Patsy Kelly from Marjorie Main or Shirley Booth. (And they probably wouldn’t know who the other two were either.) One of the most popular comediennes in American movies in the 1930s and 1940s, Patsy Kelly, her early movies of this period largely unavailable on DVD, now seemed to be vaulted away in musty obscurity with the rest of the stars of a long-forgotten Hollywood.
Patsy was born Bridget Sarah Veronica Rose Kelly in Brooklyn, New York in 1910 and was given the nickname that would stick with her throughout her career by her brother. The actress was discovered by vaudeville star Frank Fay and by 1927 was on Broadway in Harry Delmar's Revels. She also starred on the Great White Way in shows like Three Cheers, Wonder Bar and two for producer Earl Carroll-- Sketch Book (1929) and Vanities (1930).
But after Wonder Bar in 1931, Hollywood, in the personage of producer Hal Roach, came calling, and he signed Kelly to a series of featherweight two-reel comedies co-starring Thelma Todd. Kelly, from the start never one to keep her mind to herself, is quoted as saying about her journey to the movie capital, “"I'll be a flop in movies. Besides, I don't like 'em, and I never did believe there was a place called Hollywood. Somebody made it up!" But it turned out to be very real indeed, and the Roach comedies ended up having a very popular run. The encyclopedic John McElwee has lots of good information about the Roach/Todd/Kelly/Pitts shorts in this detailed post on Todd at his blog Greenbriar Picture Shows. However, his comments re Kelly, who replaced Zasu Pitts in the shorts after money issues made it impossible for her to continue, are restricted to one sentence with which I must good-naturedly take issue: “Zazu’s easier to take than Patsy. Even a subdued Patsy (and Patsy was never subdued) is akin to root canal without benefit of anesthesia.” The series ended after 21 films when Todd died in 1935.
Two years earlier, Kelly broke into features as Marion Davies' wisecracking sidekick in Raoul Walsh’s Going Hollywood, and over the course of the next 10 years she made nearly 40 more films, including The Girl from Missouri (1934), Page Miss Glory (1935), Pigskin Parade (1936), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), The Gorilla (1939), Topper Returns (1940), In Old California, My Son, the Hero and Danger! Women at Work (1943). (You can catch one of her best-- Ever Since Eve (1937), again with Marion Davies-- this coming Monday, April 9, at 8:30 a.m. PST.)
Cresting on a wave of popularity, the once–in-demand actress found herself nearly unemployable by the mid-1940s and ended up taking work as a domestic. Theories to explain why Hollywood was no longer interested in one of its most bankable comic actresses inevitably turn toward Kelly’s hard drinking. But others have claimed that it was her openness about her homosexuality that was most off-putting in a Hollywood that was still a good 45 years from setting a collective toe out of the closet. (She admitted to author Boze Hadleigh in his book Hollywood Lesbians (1996), which was published after the deaths of all the interviewees, that she was gay.) It was Tallulah Bankhead (hardly one to be taken aback by drinking or homosexuality) who ended Kelly's long creative dry spell by hiring her as support in the play Dear Charles in 1954. The two carried on a long, stormy and relatively above-ground relationship for years afterward.
Kelly was a fixture on television in the 1960s, making guest appearances on classic shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bonanza, Laredo and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She returned sporadically to movies as well, with featured roles in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and as Laura-Louise, one of the sinister coven who befriend Mia Farrow and then betray her to Satan in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). She returned to Broadway in 1971 in the revival of No, No, Nanette with hoofers Ruby Keeler and Helen Gallagher. Kelly scored a huge success as the wise-cracking, tap-dancing maid and won Broadway's 1971 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actress for her performance in the show. She topped that success the following year when she starred in Irene with Debbie Reynolds, and was again nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Kelly (third from left) with Irregulars costars Edward Herrmann, Cloris Leachman, Karen Valentine, Virginia Capers and Barbara Harris
The actress ended her film career with two Disney movies that helped to prove that the era at the Mouse House dominated by producer Ron Miller wasn’t a complete disaster-- the original 1976 version of Freaky Friday, and the silly ensemble comedy The North Avenue Irregulars, in which Kelly butted heads (and purses and umbrellas) with a bunch of crooks as well as fellow irregulars Edward Herrmann, Cloris Leachman and Barbara Harris. Patsy Kelly died two years after the 1979 release of The North Avenue Irregulars, in 1981 at the age of 71, of cancer.
The North Avenue Irregulars marked the first time I ever saw Patsy Kelly on screen. (I might have run across her on TV as a kid, but if I did I didn’t remember who she was.) But in that movie I remember being enamored of her tough-old-broad shtick. I grew up around some tough old broads who reminded me a lot of Kelly, and so it’s no wonder I loved her. But it was only recently that I began to encounter Patsy Kelly in her prime, in the comedies and musicals that made her Hollywood name in the 1930s and 1940s. My Son, the Hero was made at the end of the first stage of Kelly’s movie career for Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s a likable comedy, somewhat turgidly paced (given the lickety-split speed of the movies that can be found at its roots), with a typically farcical plot—a low-rent bookie holes up in the mansion of an associate with his girlfriend (Kelly) and a bunch of their cohorts in an attempt to convince the bookie’s returning war-hero son that his old man is a moneyed big shot. Roscoe Karns as the bookie and professional boxer-turned-actor Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom as his gigantic good-natured henchman turn in some pretty snappy work amid Ulmer’s no-frills mise-en-scene (Maxie turns to the camera during one would-be frenetic episode and mutters, “What a screwy picture!”) But Kelly provides My Son, the Hero with whatever oomph that it has, and it seems a rarity among her credits that actually allows the dumpling-shaped actress to bring a bit of sex appeal onto the screen, albeit her own brassy variety.
Much, much better is the other Patsy Kelly vehicle I managed to see in the last month, the gee-whiz college romp Pigskin Parade, which, among other things, happens to be the film debut of Judy Garland. Of course, this bit of casting is probably now the primary reason why most people will pay any kind of attention to Pigskin Parade, along with the early peeks it provides of Jack Haley, Jr., an incredibly sexy Betty Grable, Grady Sutton, Stuart Erwin and even, if you look real close, Alan Ladd. It’s a very typical comedy of the period—lowly Texas State University is invited by Yale, due to a staff miscommunication, to participate in a benefit football game. Before the Ivy League hotshots can blush and correct their mistake, the hale and hearty lads and ladies of the tiny rural campus are fit to bursting with musical energy in celebration of their big opportunity. They even bring in a big coach from the East Coast, the lecherous Slug Winters (Haley), helmed by his no-bullshit pigskin aficionado wife (Kelly), to help guide the meat-and-potatoes squad to victory.
But one night, in a hilarious scene that spotlights her nimble physical ability, Kelly confiscates a flask of gin from a couple of frisky co-eds, gets ripped on it herself and is eventually discovered by her husband drunkenly swinging from a pair of gymnastic rings while the big rally dance roars away just one door over. Suitably berated by Slug, she steps into an adjoining workout room where the team quarterback is licking his wounds after being dumped by his best gal. Mrs. Winters tries to cheer him up by showing him how to take a hit on the field and ends up causing a stack of free weights to fall on him, crushing his leg.
Mrs. Winters, embarrassed by her drunken behavior, is quickly enlisted by her husband to help some of the other students scout for a new quarterback. They eventually make it to the watermelon farm outside of town where Amos (Erwin), who will become the team’s bullet-throwing replacement quarterback, lives. But before they find Amos, the audience is treated to another great Kelly moment, this one a deadpan reaction to the inexplicable musical stylings of Amos’s in-bred relative, who tells the group where Amos can be found, but not before letting fly with a bizarre vocal performance that must be seen to be believed—it’s like Dueling Banjos as it would have played on a Mayberry front porch instead of one found in James Dickey's deepest, darkest Tennessee.
Pigskin Parade is in many ways a very routine musical comedy, but it’s lifted up by its bootstraps (or should that be cleat straps) through the efforts of its excellent cast, of which Patsy Kelly is one of the main anchors. Hers is a tough, sassy demeanor wrapped up in hands-on-the-hips defiance and cat-o’-nine-tails tongue lashings, yet she’s always appealing and genuine underneath the salty exterior. I’d even say that she had a very personable kind of beauty about her in her ‘30s pictures, even up through her wild turn in My Son, the Hero. It sounds strange, but while I was watching and admiring her in Pigskin Parade, and hoping I’d get to see more of her very soon, I saw a very strange confluence in her—Kelly has a frisky ingenue's energy and comic timing, as well as the unglamorous physical appeal and brassy, barking bulldog quality of the best straight-up (no pun intended) broads. She was a worthy contemporary of that other great screen dame, Barbara Stanwyck, and though she never showed the range and greatness that Stanwyck (currently battling Carole Lombard for status as my favorite actress) did, she carved out her own niche and honored it time and again. While watching Pigskin Parade, I kept thinking that Patsy Kelly is who might result if time and space could be breached and science could find a way to deposit Maggie Gyllenhaal and Broderick Crawford in the same body; she’s also a wonder and a hoot to watch and one of my new favorites, and she deserves to be remembered by a lot more movie fans than actually know who she is today. Patsy Kelly once told an interviewer, “In 40-odd years in show business, some years I could do no wrong, and some years I could do nothing right. Show business-- I owe it everything - it owes me nothing.” But you owe it to yourself to find out just how delightful a comic actress Patsy Kelly was—and Pigskin Parade is a great place to start.
(For further reading about Patsy Kelly, here’s an informative essay by Charles Stumpf entitled “Patsy Kelly: Ugly Duckling with an Enlarged Funny Bone”.)
(And don’t forget—Patsy Kelly stars with Marion Davies, Frank McHugh, Robert Montgomery and Barton MacLane in Lloyd Bacon’s Ever Since Eve this Monday, April 9, at 8:30 a.m. PST on Turner Classic Movies.)