Queer & Now & Then: 1943
In this biweekly column, Michael Koresky looks back through a century of cinema for traces of queerness, whether in plain sight or under the surface. Read the introductory essay.
Patsy Kelly, film unknown.
The movies never had a better wiseacre than Patsy Kelly. If ever I had been able to tell her how entrancing I found her, she’d probably have socked me in the kisser. Always on the level, Brooklyn’s own Kelly was an unparalleled comic sidekick whose Hollywood heyday was in the early sound era of the ’30s, when the studios were smart enough to know comedy was well served in small doses. Most frequently paired with Thelma “Hot Toddy” Todd in a series of Hal Roach Studios Vitaphone shorts, she was also an inveterate scene-stealer who appeared in almost two-dozen features between 1933 and 1943. Boasting a personality like a battering ram and a blithe W.C. Fields–esque slyness (though without Fields’ intimidating apathy), Kelly played characters—housekeepers and cooks, wives and shop girls, supportive roommates and best friends—who always knew what to say: she didn’t just have a comeback for everything, she was ready with a line before the conversation even started.
Trained in vaudeville and renowned for her ad-libbing abilities, the lumbering but deceptively graceful Kelly was a salty, brash delight who turned up in so many small roles that she might look familiar even if you don’t know her name. Today, she’s surely most recognizable for a film she made decades after her Hollywood career had effectively ended: at age 58 she played a tiny but unforgettable role in Rosemary’s Baby as a different kind of sidekick, Minnie Castevet’s hilariously insecure best friend—and, as it turns out, witch—Lara-Louise. Though in her comic bits, her swagger got occasionally discombobulated—she wasn’t above slipping on a pair of misplaced roller skates for a laugh—Kelly never took any guff, and was haughty to a delightful extreme. That audacity wasn’t just a role she played: this “Queen of the Wisecracks” was in reality a lesbian unafraid of living outside of the closet.
In the ’30s, Kelly gave an interview to the fan mag Motion Picture in which she freely talked about living with the actress Wilma Cox, using coded but unmistakable language like “often Wilma and I have a few folks in for the evening”; when asked why she doesn’t want to get married, she responded, “I’m having too much fun as I am . . . I like my life.” Kelly’s sexuality may not have been widely known to her fans at the time, but it was common knowledge in Hollywood circles. Even in public, she preferred the company of what they used to call “mannish women,” went to lesbian bars and clubs, preferred pants to dresses, and later claimed to have had an affair with bisexual diva Tallulah Bankhead, with whom she toured the country on the summer stock and nightclub circuit as her assistant.
Patsy Kelly, Jean Harlow, and Franchot Tone in The Girl From Missouri (Jack Conway, 1934)
Kelly’s indiscretion and unapologetic openness about her life would be a persistent problem with studio gatekeepers. Into the ’40s, Kelly was still getting offered character roles, but that was all to change as she increasingly became persona non grata in the industry. The under-the-radar freedoms afforded Hollywood stars, even during the immediate post-Hays Code era of the mid- to late-’30s, appeared to become especially unacceptable during wartime. After working variously with studios like United Artists, 20th Century Fox, and RKO, Kelly finished out her golden-age Hollywood career making a couple of films for the independent Poverty Row studio, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). In 1943—incidentally the same year that trailblazing lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner made her final film and left Hollywood for good—Kelly starred in her last screen role for 17 years: the frivolous but highly entertaining home-front comedy Danger! Women at Work. It’s a film that plays off Kelly’s well-honed, butch persona, but also gives her something that the studios rarely would: a leading role.
Unlike those produced by, say, Val Lewton, the movies made by the cheapo outfit PRC weren’t Bs that could pass for As. It is estimated that Sam Newfield, whom Wheeler Winston Dixon called “in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history,” and who was the brother of studio head Sigmund Neufeld, directed more than 250 films for PRC, mostly throughout the ’40s. These low-budget quickies included westerns, melodramas, horror films, and comedies, films of varying quality and preparation: some took as little as three days to shoot. In 1943, Newfield directed an astonishing 18 shoestring features, one of which was Danger! Women at Work, which was based on a story by Poverty Row exploitation king, Edgar Ulmer, who would go on to direct low-budget noir milestone Detour. Though it has no aspirations to greatness, Danger! Women at Work is a comic road movie that has rough-hewn thrills all its own, and is smart enough to hang all its charm on Kelly’s able shoulders.
As the title promises, the movie concerns women on the job, which it refreshingly takes as a given, rather than as a goofy novelty or necessity while the men are fighting overseas. Quick as a wink, the comic possibilities are established: L.A. gas station attendant Terry (Kelly) is atwitter upon finding out she inherited a dead uncle’s estate. As she tells her best pals, co-worker Marie (Isabel Jewell, who appeared in Lewton’s The Leopard Man and The Seventh Victim that very year) and cab driver Pert (Mary Brian), she assumes it’s just a bungalow in Glendale—nothing to sniff at. But soon she finds out that she’s been bequeathed nothing less than a 10-ton gas-guzzler.
Danger! Women at Work (Sam Newfield, 1943)
“What am I going to do with a truck?” she wonders, though Pert’s truck-driver boyfriend Danny tells them they can make as much as 50 bucks a day if they drive the rig, a lotta dough. Danny and Terry’s boyfriend, Pete, introduce the three women to their boss, who at first tries to make a crack: “I don’t know what to say about women drivers…” Pert curtly cuts him off: “Then don’t say it.” Soon enough, he tells them the score: he has five tons of glycerin that needs to be transported into Vegas to L.A., and he could use their truck and their street smarts. Yet due to wartime regulations, an empty truck isn’t allowed on the highway, so to have a full vehicle coming into Vegas as well as going, they’ll need to find a way to fill it up. The ladies choose to accept the mission. Such a setup portends a comic variation on Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear—still 10 years off—but Newfield’s film doesn’t even make it to Vegas for the pickup. Instead, it’s a movie of on-the-road mishaps, as the women get waylaid over and over; pick up an assortment of female strangers, including an amnesiac and a runaway wife; get pursued by multiple gangs of gangsters and repo men; are accused by gamblers of fixing a craps game; and finally end up, as all screwy comedies do, in a courtroom for a wild, nonsensical reckoning. And all this happens in under an hour of screen time.
Rather than a series of hoary jokes about the follies of distaff drivers, Danger! Women at Work is a spirited comedy propelled by female togetherness and camaraderie. There’s more than a hint of intimacy between the women, who are roommates as well as friends, and who sleep in the same twin-sized bed in their tiny apartment. (Terry, of course, is the one to toss and turn and flail her arms with anxiety dreams about trucking, all but knocking Marie onto the floor.) The women all have boyfriends, but they are consistently more engaged in their travels and work than any romantic interests. And it’s surely a winking in-joke when the fortune-teller hitchhiker they pick up introduces herself grandly as “Madame Sappho.”
Yet of course what distinguishes Danger! Women at Work is Kelly, her endlessly cheeky delivery providing the film’s fuel. She offered the kind of comic skills that come around once in a generation, if at all. With her balance of can-do gumption and relatable neuroses, she holds the screen without ever being the butt of the joke. It’s a persona that could only come from something rare in a star: confident self-knowledge. Journalist Boze Hadleigh interviewed Kelly in the ’70s, following the success of Rosemary’s Baby and her subsequent stage resurgence. When asked directly about her sexuality, she said, surely in that inimitable, matter-of-fact, suffer-no-fools Patsy Kelly way: “I’m a dyke. So what? Big deal.”
Michael Koresky is a writer, editor, and filmmaker in Brooklyn. He is cofounder and editor of the online film magazine Reverse Shot, a publication of Museum of the Moving Image; a regular contributor to the Criterion Collection and Film Comment, where he writes the biweekly column Queer & Now & Then; and the author of Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press, 2014.