So I admit it. When I find out that historical people had same-sex relationships, I tend to think, “Oh, I should save them for Pride.” Especially women, because women for Pride for Attention Must Be Paid are the category it’s hardest for me to fill. So I was sitting here, reading about Patsy Kelly, and I discovered that she was an open lesbian who had an on-again/off-again relationship with her best friend, Tallulah Bankhead. And I thought two things. The first, of course, was “How am I just learning about this? I even wrote about Tallulah Bankhead!” But the second was, “Huh. I have Pride all booked out for this year; maybe I should save her for next year.”
But I’m not going to. We’re talking about her today. And where we start is not Tallulah Bankhead; where we start is Thelma Todd. Thelma Todd, who died young and under mysterious circumstances and who I need to write about at some point, was Patsy Kelly’s partner in a series of shorts for Hal Roach. I haven’t seen any of them. But apparently, her work there was quite good, good enough for her to work steadily even after Todd’s death. After the decline of shorts, Kelly moved on to features, then went to New York and did radio and summer stock. Then, in the ’50s, she started doing TV.
And I discovered her as a child in three films, two from when she was old and one from when she was young. In Topper Returns, she’s one of the Toppers’ two servants. Perhaps she’s not as memorable as Eddie Anderson, but she’s a lot of fun nonetheless, dizzy in a way that differs from Mrs. Topper, but still less dizzy than Anderson, who is more confused by everything going on. She doesn’t get what’s going on, either, but she’s a lot more willing to roll with it. And she’s pretty, which is a thing I don’t reliably remember about her because it took me years to put together that she’s the same person.
Because the other way I see her, the main way I see her, is in her last two movies. There’s not a lot to Mrs. Schmauss of Freaky Friday; she’s the probably-drunk maid who doesn’t like Annabel. That’s not the world’s most challenging role, and she’s in the movie for like a minute and a half. On the other hand, it probably paved the way for her role as Rose Rafferty in The North Avenue Irregulars. (Strange, now I think about it, how many of the Disney movies I watched as a kid passed Bechdel!) She’s an elderly woman who doesn’t drive herself but is willing to help bust organized crime in her hometown with the help of her husband in drag as a driver, because the idea is that the mob will be less likely to suspect women. It’s such a strange and delightful movie.
The more so now that I realize that Kelly herself would have just been married to a woman. She actually told Motion Picture magazine in the ’30s that she would never marry and that she was living with minor actress Wilma Cox; the relationship apparently fell apart when Kelly moved to New York. There was Bankhead, though the number of people in Hollywood who didn’t sleep with Tallulah Bankhead is surprisingly small. It’s not that I think Patsy Kelly should necessarily be remembered just for being an open lesbian in Hollywood in the ’30s, though my goodness why don’t we talk about that. She was also someone who loved what she did so much that she felt guilty getting paid for it. Even if she had wanted to be a fireman as a child.