At the start of World War II, women were integral to the expansion of the civilian labor force. They took on many jobs in disparate fields, from engineering to transportation. To help facilitate this rapid change, Hollywood played a role in highlighting the importance of women in the workforce by combining propaganda with entertainment.
One such propaganda film was Danger - Women at Work—a 10-minute piece that highlighted women in factory jobs and ended with the narrator lauding "the women behind the men, behind the gun": "Our enemies must know that for them there is danger, women at work." In 1943, Patsy Kelly offered levity to this sentiment and appeared at the forefront in the comedy B-movie, Danger! Women at Work.
If the film's quality isn't especially memorable, its leading actress is. Kelly was a maverick known for her "broad Irish wit," whose off-screen persona broke through the social norms of Hollywood. Her most defiant act was being an openly gay woman in an inhospitable climate for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Prior to 1941, the silver screen was normally graced by glamour girls such as Jean Harlow and Ginger Rogers, who portrayed the objects of desire for protagonists like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, or Fred Astaire. But at the start of the war, the Office of War Information was established, and they developed a campaign to get women lining up for factory jobs. Thus, the bow-lipped platinum blondes were out, and the working girl was in.
Studios from the most prestigious, like Metro Goldwyn Mayer, to the least partook in this side of the war effort. In the latter category was Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC)—a low-budget studio that was part of a string of similar studios dubbed "Poverty Row." Sam Newfield was PRC's most prolific director, having made up to 250 films, including Danger! Women at Work. The low-budget romp had a timely plot about three women who start a trucking company, an industry that saw the entry of approximately 50,000 women by the time the film was released.
Alongside Kelly, the film stars Mary Brian and Isabel Jewel as friends who join Kelly's character after she inherits a 10-ton truck from her uncle. They end up getting a hauling job from a seedy gambler who wants a delivery from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and a zany road trip ensues. While this film remains obscure in Hollywood history, as do most B-films (many of which haven't even survived the passage of time), it stands as an artifact of a singular time for women in film.
Patsy Kelly Lands on Poverty Row
Leading up to the establishment of the Office of War Information, Hollywood's Production Code heavily censored films, eliminating profanity, sexuality, and political messages. Come 1941, propagandists began tackling political issues that were once avoided, including women's roles in public life.
The 1943 film, Tender Comrade, saw the once devil-may-care Ginger Rogers roll up her sleeves at an airplane factory while she pined for her overseas husband. In 1944's Since You Went Away, Claudette Colbert stars as a housewife making ends meet during the war, in the same vein as the classic Mrs. Miniver. But the independent film gang enjoyed a more sensational take on the war.
Located on Gower Street in Los Angeles, Poverty Row's B-movie studios often lacked the executive oversight of the high-profile studios. Some of the films made between the 1930s and '40s didn't even fully pass through the Production Code, so some filmmakers were able to cover more controversial topics from venereal disease to Stockholm syndrome. While these $20,000-to-$60,000 productions weren't free from post-Code censorship, their lack of ethos gave them more leeway to step outside the norm. It also gave them greater flexibility in who worked for them, as blacklisted artists—Patsy Kelly among them—could more easily find jobs in these lesser studios. Ultimately, Kelly's work for PRC in Danger! Women at Work as well as My Son, The Hero underscored both her good-natured perseverance and her marginalization in Hollywood.
Patsy Kelly Remembered
Patsy Kelly was an Irish American actress born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1910. From the start of her acting career, she was typecast as maids and sidekicks to more conventionally attractive actresses like the glamorous Thelma Todd, with whom Kelly starred alongside in several Hal Roach productions—a relationship that ended suddenly in 1935 when Todd was mysteriously found dead in her garage due to carbon monoxide poisoning. But Kelly continued to play off similar actresses after Todd's death.
Her filmography included the 1937 film Nobody's Baby to the 1976 flick Freaky Friday. But while Kelly was often hired to stand in contrast to women like Todd, Marion Davies, and Jean Harlow, she stood out for her strong personality and brazen wit. Similar to later female comedians like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, who were noted for their willingness to downplay their appearance, Kelly was comfortable sacrificing the traditional beauty standards of her cinematic peers. She told the press in 1943 that she didn't mind getting decked out in overalls for Danger!, stating, "What do I care as long as people laugh?"
Indeed, her indifference extended to opinions about her sexuality. In the 1930s, she told Motion Picture Magazine that she was living with actress Wilma Cox and had no intention of getting married. Hollywood studios' morality clauses of the time encouraged actors and actresses to project a pristine image, but this didn't faze the wise-cracking actress who was known for heavy boozing along with her rejection of sexual mores. As a result, she struggled to find work at any major studios.
Another consequence was that the media wasn't always kind to Kelly, with some critics making quips about her unconventional femininity upon the release of Danger! One critic, in an article titled "Patsy Kelly Registers Groan," loaded it with commentary on her physical appearance. Despite the poor treatment, she found work with independent producers, one of the higher caliber ones being United Artists when she appeared in the 1941 comedy, Topper Returns.
By the end of the war, however, her struggle led her to make ends meet as a domestic worker and assistant to actress Tallulah Bankhead—with whom she also had an affair. It wasn't until the 1960s that stage and screen roles in films like Rosemary's Baby resurrected her career. Although she never became an A-lister, her life's work, while obscure, has remained preserved in the archives of movie history.
Contributor: Jillian Oliver
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