Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

People We Like: Kay Walsh

Following on from THE WITCHES, below, here's a piece I did back in 2009 on Kay Walsh: 

Kay Walsh: there’s an actress who doesn’t get much attention these days, but she was one of the most fascinating English actresses from the ‘30s right into the ‘70s (along with Glynis Johns, Ann Todd, Margaret Leighton, Pamela Brown etc) mainly in character roles, with quite a few classics to her name, and also some writing credits. Her best-known role is as the original Nancy in David Lean’s 1948 OLIVER TWIST. I would say her best role though was as Queenie Gibbons in Coward and Lean’s THIS HAPPY BREED in 1944. She was married to David Lean throughout the 40s, and had co-starred with Alec Guinness and John Mills about 5 times each - so she certainly mixed with the best!

Born in London in 1911 Kay was in films by the late 30s. Coward and Lean’s first film IN WHICH WE SERVE in  1942 is her 17th credit and her first important role, as Freda, John Mill's pregnant wife, who the other women make sit under the stairs as the bombs fall… The whole cast is marvellous in this still-engrossing classic war film.

THIS HAPPY BREED in 1944 continues the Coward and Lean tradition, in this richly humorous and moving tale of the Gibbons family between the wars, another traditional stiff-upper-lip saga for the war years, but it certainly works and holds up now, with fascinating colour, art work and well-rounded characters. Celia Johnson is superb of course as the mother, matched by Kay as Queenie, the rebellious daughter. There is also the enjoyable bickering of the spinster sister living with them and the cantankerous old mother in law who relish their spats, while young John Mills courts the wayward Queenie.

Giving it a modern interpretation, one could also say that Coward writing as a closeted gay man in the 40’s depicts Queenie as a coded gay role – unable to settle for suburbia, she runs off with someone unsuitable and becomes estranged from the family, the mother in particular not forgiving her. Queenie eventually redeems herself and returns married to dependable John Mills and is forgiven. It gets me every time. THIS HAPPY BREED though however one sees it remains a key British film and 40s classic. Another John Mills film THE OCTOBER MAN followed in 1947, an engrossing British noir with Mills on the run from a murder he did not commit. Joan Greenwood is the heroine here, and Kay the good time girl which she captures perfectly.

OLIVER TWIST in 1948 remains the classic it was from the start and Walsh is a startlingly vibrant Nancy - below. She was Mrs Lean at the time (they divorced in 1949) and she is one of the credited script writers here. She was it seems involved in writing and casting on his films of the time.

Hitchcock’s STAGE FRIGHT in 1950 may be one of his lesser classics but is still a fascinating entertainment with a great cast of the time, Kay fits in as Nellie the dresser for Marlene Dietrich, whom heroine Jane Wyman pays to replace for a few days so she can investigate Dietrich’s involvement in the murder which Richard Todd is on the run for. Jolly good fun.
Kay & Dirk - CAST A DARK SHADOW, 1954
Another with Guinness, LAST HOLIDAY, also in 1950 was followed by her segment “Winter Cruise” in ENCORE in 1951, a trio of Somerset Maugham stories, where she is the spinster on a cruise who never stops talking driving everyone to distraction. After roles in THE MAGIC BOX and HUNTED in 1952, she had a good part in YOUNG BESS as the loving servant of the young queen, well played by Jean Simmons. Its more of a pageant though than an engrossing period film. Several roles later brought the 1958 hit Alec Guinness film THE HORSE’S MOUTH, scripted by Alec and directed by Ronald Neame, with a solid role for Walsh as Coker, the barmaid, in this study of a somewhat tiresome rogue painter, reputedly based on Stanley Spencer. 

REACH FOR GLORY in 1962 is an interesting film by Philip Leacock, based on the novel “The Custard Boys” by John Rae (which I read and enjoyed when a teenager) about teenage boys longing to be soldiers and involved in the (second world) war in a small English town and the violence that ensues. Kay and Harry Andrews are the bickering parents. Its long been unavailable but I did track down a copy recently on the internet, so it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with it after 40+ years!

After A STUDY IN TERROR in 1965 came the enjoyable hokum that is THE WITCHES – this 1966 Hammer Film is Joan Fontaine’s last credit and Kay co-stars as the improbably named Stephanie Bax, a leading light in the English village where Joan takes up a teaching position after encountering problems with witchcraft in Africa which led to her nervous breakdown. Kay has great fun here and relishes the camp factor while Joan works that quizzical look of hers and the raised eyebrow, and guess what …. this village too is over-run with witches as Joan gradually realises and stumbles on the local coven … A delirious treat all round.

Later roles included co-starring with a subdued Bette Davis in CONNECTING ROOMS in 1970, the spinster aunt in the engrossing THE VIRGIN AND THE GYPSY – an interesting one to see again now, and as Mrs Fezziwig in the Albert Finney SCROOGE, and in Peter O’Toole’s THE RULING CLASS in 1972. These are just the ones I have seen – she was quite busy, as per her imdb profile, until her retirement in 1981.

Kay died aged 94 in April 2005, a week before her old co-star John Mills, aged 97. They had both lived to tremendous ages and were certainly two stalwarts of the British cinema which they were part of from its early days onward.

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