Saturday, June 30, 2018

Patsy Kelly, Queen of Wisecracks

In the Thirties Patsy Kelly was a very successful comedienne and actress. She made a series of short subjects with Thelma Todd until Miss Todd's unfortunate death. She appeared in such films as The Girl from Missouri (1934) and Topper Returns (1941). Her speciality was wisecracking characters, earning her the title of "Queen of the Wisecracks". What makes Miss Kelly even more notable is that she was also one of the first actresses to be openly gay, this at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon in society (to say the least).

Patsy Kelly began her career in entertainment when she was still very young. She started out as a dancer in vaudeville when she was only 12. She made her film debut in the Vitaphone short "The Grand Dame" in 1931. In 1933 she appeared in the feature film Going Hollywood. That same year producer Hal Roach teamed Patsy Kelly with Thelma Todd in a series of short subjects. Miss Kelly replaced Miss Todd's previous comedy partner, ZaSu Pitts, who had left Hal Roach Studios in a salary dispute. The team of Kelly and Todd proved very successful, appearing together in over twenty shorts. Thelma Todd's mysterious and untimely death in 1935 brought an end to the series of shorts, although Hal Roach tried teaming Patsy Kelly with other partners. Patsy Kelly appeared opposite Pert Kelton in one short ("Pan Handlers" from 1936) and Lyda Roberti in two shorts and the feature film Nobody's Baby (1938). Sadly, like Thelma Todd, Lyda Roberti would also die young. She died at age 31 from a heart attack. Interestingly enough, Patsy Kelly and ZaSu Pitts would appear together in the 1941 feature film Broadway Limited.

Patsy Kelly was known for playing brash characters, and in many respects she was that way in real life. She was unapologetically open about being a lesbian in the Thirties and Forties. Keep in mind that was at this time even a hint of homosexuality could mean the end of one's acting career. The Hollywood studios regularly inserted morality clauses into their performers' contracts. Despite this, Patsy Kelly made it no secret that she was gay. In the Thirties, she gave an interview to Motion Picture magazine in which she said she lived with actress Wilma Cox and planned to never marry any man. She was known to refer to herself as a "dyke" in private and at times did so publicly as well. It is impossible to say for certain, but it seems possible that Patsy Kelly's openness about her sexuality may have had an adverse impact on her career. She worked steadily in film from the Thirties into the early Forties, appearing in such movies as There Goes My Heart (1938), Topper Returns, and My Son the Hero (1943). Danger! Women at Work (1943) would be her last appearance in a feature film for nearly twenty years. With the exception of the short "Babies, They're Wonderful" in 1947, she was absent from the big screen.

Patsy Kelly continued to work in both summer stock and radio. For a time she was also Tallulah Bankhead's personal assistant, and she would later state that she had an affair with the actress. Eventually she began making appearances on television in the Fifties, guest starring on such shows as Four Star Revue, Laramie, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Bonanza. Her film career would eventually see a revival. She appeared in Please Don't Eat the Daisies in 1960. In the Sixties she went onto appear in the films Naked Kiss (1964), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), C'mon, Let's Live a Little (1967), Rosemary's Baby (1967), and The Phynx (1970). In the Seventies she appeared in Freaky Friday (1976) and The North Avenue Irregulars (1979).

Patsy Kelly would even return to Broadway in a role in the 1971 revival of No, No Nanette. She won the 1971 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The following year she appeared on Broadway in Irene, for which she was also nominated for a Tony.

Patsy Kelly suffered a stroke in January 1980. She died on September 24 1981 at the age of 71. The cause was cancer.

Patsy Kelly was an incredibly talented comedienne who known for her ability to ad lib on screen. She truly earned the title of "Queen of Wisecracks" as no one could deliver them better. While she was absent from the big screen for many years, she left behind a legacy of work that is enjoyed to this day. Indeed, her comedy shorts with Thelma Todd remain among the best comedy shorts ever made. In addition to all of this, she displayed a good deal of courage. At a time when homosexuality was a forbidden topic, she was wholly open about her sexuality.

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