Scene Dwellers – #7 Patsy Kelly, Queen of Slapstick

#7 PATSY KELLY, QUEEN OF SLAPSTICK

‘I was a domestic, an uppity, loud, butch maid … I was there to liven up the proceedings and give ‘em a little low humor. That’s why my roles were pocket-sized; a lot of me would have been like a tidal wave; the males wouldn’t have known what hit ‘em’—Patsy Kelly in an interview with Boze Hadleigh, from Hollywood Lesbians.

Patsy Kelly’s apple cheeks, button nose and guileless eyes suggest an embodiment of innocence, at least until she opens her mouth to offer a snappy retort or invite chaos with every choreographed pratfall. Kelly crashed through a series of film shorts produced by Hal Roach, who developed a female comedy team in a tenor similar to the Laurel & Hardy franchise. Kelly was a replacement for Thelma Todd’s first partner, Zasu Pitts. Thelma Todd’s ‘ice cream blonde’ turns to long suffering side kick when partnered with Kelly as comic foil. For every onscreen lark, Patsy Kelly strikes a protest against established forms of authority. To the bully on the street or in the seat behind, a megalomaniacal film director, policemen, and a conceited glamour girl, Kelly was quick to taunt, challenge and dismiss the legitimacy of their power.

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In two shorts with Todd (both available on YouTube), Beauty and the Bus (’33) and Maid in Hollywood (’34), Kelly offers a masterclass in piss-take. Years in vaudeville made Kelly appear downright polished in Beauty and the Bus. The plot involves the ladies entering a cinema ticket raffle for a new car, which they win, but their windfall proves short-lived after a calamitous fender bender. Road rage 1933 style remains the standout scene, a brilliant contest of reprisal, where Kelly faces off between a pinch nose button-down (Don Barclay) and massive hulk (Tiny Sandford), a man who blots the sun when he steps from his vehicle.

Rather than opt for a shouty altercation, Patsy Kelly meets perceived threats with a firm scorched-earth policy, whereby she smashes and tears everything to utter ruination. Old pinch nose demands their contact information so he might seek restitution, and by way of response Kelly kicks the fender from his car and justifies it to Thelma Todd, ‘that’s the trouble with those guys, always trying to make a mountain out of a mothball’. In Kelly’s worldview, they are vexed by ‘those guys’ and should answer in kind. Wearing a beret, bow front blouse, A-line skirt and heels, Kelly presents a surprisingly gritty and formidable opponent. Lady catastrophe then shatters his headlamp and pulls strips from the tarpaulin roof. She’s just warming up.

When the hulk in dungarees wants to beef about a flat tyre from broken glass in the street, Todd blames pinch nose while he’s standing next to their prize-won roadster. Mr dungarees stomps on the car as though it were a vat of grapes and he had a terrible thirst. While Thelma Todd can only manage to plead with the giant, Patsy Kelly climbs atop his open load of furniture and starts tossing the contents into kindling on the road as she yells out ‘how do you like that, King Kong?’ Undeterred by his size, Kelly commits to wreak havoc, which escalates to include a series of car crashes, a poultry incident, property damage and horns blaring in a bumper-to- bumper jam that stretches for blocks. To summarise the extent of Kelly-induced devastation, a policeman predicts ‘whoever caused this is gonna hang’. Anarchy has never been as expertly or delightfully staged. Patsy conducts a symphony in pandemonium. No one’s going to push around a couple of women on her watch.

Maid in Hollywood (’34) localises Kelly’s carnage to a Hollywood set. First, she scores a screen test for wannabe starlet and roommate Todd by roughing up another blonde glamour-puss (Constance Bergen) who had been gloating about her success. Once she has the competition locked in a broom closet, Kelly rings the studio to let them know she has a replacement for ‘the blonde with the blue eyes’ because ‘well, they’re black now’. Kelly’s facility with slapstick pinpoints complication within simple tasks, such as helping Todd out of a dress while it’s partially locked in a suitcase, or slipping on Todd’s coat with the hanger still attached. Quotidian bedlam appears so natural and unforced. She just can’t help it.

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Inside Colossal Studio, Kelly’s spoiling for a fight, with dukes held up to greet the men who hassle her in the reception area. On the sound stage, Kelly tangles with a pile of cables that catch her ankles like a boa constrictor. Each step lands as a stagger, lurch and wobble to produce a version of clumsy that’s so deft it’s almost balletic. The scene on set offers clear evidence of Kelly’s years of dance training that requires an incredible amount of grace and precision to hatch such a divine blundering gag piece.

Self-important German director, Mr Von Sternheim (Alphonse Martell), begs to be taken down a notch with a little Kelly mischief. Under the guise of helping her friend to nail the screen test, Kelly meddles with props, interrupts Todd’s performance (at one point, Todd’s looking for a gun and Kelly calls out ‘hey, toots, it’s in the box on the table’) walks inside the frame and does whatever she can to disrupt the director’s control over the shoot. Then there’s a mishap with a fan and a pile of red pepper. Kelly terrorises the set but stops short of burning the place to rubble.

Somehow, Gus Meins, director of Maid in Hollywood thought it a bright idea to bring in a sandwich peddler (Billy Gilbert) to do various interpretations of a sneeze that sucks all the air from the scene. When the camera’s not on Kelly, it becomes a yawn-fest. Viewers want to see Kelly stick it to the man through slapstick. Meins should have sent the sneeze fella to Laurel Hardy and kept the two reel focus on Kelly. As a master of mayhem, Kelly’s antics amount to a larcenous theft of each reel.

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NEXT >> #8 LIFE FAILS TO IMITATE ART IN BACK STREET (’32)
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