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Pert Kelton: Pre-Code "Lady Who Knew What Time It Was"


pandorainmay
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Pert Kelton (above) in all her '30s "glory"...

 

Very early this morning I was delighted to see Pert Kelton pop up in an early George Stevens' RKO feature, Bachelor Bait (1934). Kelton played the divorced wife of the drily amusing Skeets Gallagher, and, as usual, her avaricious character proved to be much more appealing than the ostensible stars of this movie, annoying Stu Erwin and pretty but bland Rochelle Hudson.

 

Vamping it up nicely, she put her amusingly vampish moves on seemingly hapless millionaire Grady Sutton. While the script was often cliched, every time Kelton showed up in one more elaborate, allegedly sexy outfit after another, the brief movie sprang to life for me. The plot centered around Stu Erwin's marriage bureau, Romance, Inc. Unfortunately, Miss Kelton's character is rejected by Erwin for consideration as a candidate for the bureau's most eligible and monied client, (Sutton), since she obviously has not gone "untouched by human hands." As Pert mused, "You got me there." Believe me, it plays better than it reads, thanks to the deft Kelton's way with a line.

 

Kelton rides again on TCM this morning, Dec. 18th at 9:15 AM ET in George Stevens' version of Annie Oakley (1935), which stars Barbara Stanwyck. Can't wait to see if Pert Kelton steals all of her scenes again from anyone as sharp as Stanwyck!

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Here's a profile of the actress that I wrote for the Silver Screen Oasis, if you're interested in more about the sassy Pert Kelton, a Pre-Code gal to remember:

 

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I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is.

I cheer, I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save

The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.

 

I smile, I grin, when the gal with a touch of sin walks in.

I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more "A"

The sadder-but-wiser girl's the girl for me.

-From "The Sadder But Wiser Girl For Me" by Meredith Willson, composer of The Music Man

 

Surely, Meredith Willson could've been writing about Pert Kelton's characters when he penned those lines about "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" for his hit musical, which featured this actress on Broadway and in the film. Most of her characters in some nearly forgotten pre-code films had names like Cookie, Rosie, Minnie, Lulu, Goldie or Trixie. Miss Pert Kelton, a Betty Boop doll come to life, was a skilled comedienne, a touching figure, a hardboiled dame, a McCarthy victim, a television pioneer, and a woman whose work ethic and talent gave her a fine second act in a truncated career. A child of vaudeville, Kelton had a sophistication, humor, and the training needed to embody a certain type in her pre-code days?though she was still unique. She was funny yet sexually aware, sassy, irreverent, had a way with a line that Mae West would've envied, a cute little figure and expressive, almost pretty face, and a voice somewhere between a goose's squawk and sandpaper.

 

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My first exposure to Pert Kelton was The Music Man (1962), in which she played Shirley Jones' funny and down to earth Irish mother; (Miss Kelton was actually of Scottish-Welsh descent). Thanks to TCM, I've recently come to appreciate her work as a racy pre-code babe looking for guy who might be dumb enough to be an easy mark. From 1929 to 1939, Miss Kelton popped up in numerous films, before semi-retirement from the screen to raise her children while pursuing a radio and occasional stage career. She then brought Alice Kramden to comic-tragic life opposite her creator, Jackie Gleason in the original version of The Honeymooners on the Jackie Gleason Show on the Dumont network in the early days of television in the period between 1949-1952. I've seen Kelton's hard-edged portrayal of Alice and she is funny, acerbic and much closer to Eugene O'Neill than Jackie Gleason. Due to her implication as a communist sympathizer by the scurrilous publication, "Red Channels", Miss Kelton was eventually let go from the series, which went on to employ her in the late '60s again?this time as Alice Kramden's mother and Ralph's mother-in-law! However, it is her appearances in several films of the '30s that have sparked my renewed interest in this interesting actress. [/color]

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The Pert Kelton Films of the '30s

In Bed of Roses (1933), Pert Kelton played the best friend and fellow floozy of the heroine, Constance Bennett, and Kelton's mercenary presence enlivened every scene that she appeared in throughout the film. Bennett and Kelton are both prostitutes who are sprung from jail on the same day and fall in with one another, (Bennett later mentions Kelton as "her roommate from convent"). Well directed by Gregory La Cava, this film about role playing and society focuses on Bennett's sacred and profane loves, Joel McCrea and John Halliday, but Bennett and her friend Kelton are the most intriguing couple in this film. They start out willing to do anything for money, but interestingly, the first one of the pair to marry and settle down is not the alluring Bennett, but Kelton, (who settles on a really dumb but steady type). Kelton and Bennett eventually reunite, and boy, is Pert disappointed that her buddy has actually fallen in love with McCrea. Kelton's part seems quite underwritten, and I found the film to be flaccid whenever she disappeared, but I did enjoy Kelton's consternation over her pal's spurning of John "Mealticket" Halliday.

 

 

In The Meanest Gal in Town (1934) Kelton is paired with James Gleason as a barber, the likable and frequent co-star of Kelton, Zasu Pitts as a dress shop owner ,and the abysmal "Scandanavian comedian" El Brendel. Pert appears as a canny manicurist who goes to work for the sublime character actor Jimmy Gleason and increases his business a hundred fold by suggesting her availability through her erotic air. Playing an actress who winds up stranded in a hick town and forced to find any work, she soon realizes that the competition is nil and decides to adapt her skills to her environment, murmuring "Don't worry, I'll wiggle my way out of this one," as she wiggles her derriere walking out of the door of the shop. Eventually succeeding so well that the women of the town become outraged, the film is filled with innuendo and amusing allusions to Kelton's rough charms, allure & her manipulation of the sex-starved menfolk of the town, though there's very little overt sexuality in this film, but lots of suggestiveness. While Gleason and Pitts are often reasons alone to watch a film from this or any period, Kelton steals the show in this one.

 

Sing and Like It (1934) is the broadest comedy of the three Kelton pictures that I've seen recently, yet it has a big part for the actress. Playing the girlfriend of enjoyable character actor Nat Pendleton, who's a dim bulb of a gangster, Miss Kelton saunters through this film looking like a preening, narcissistic bird, (though perhaps it's just the marabou feathers she favors). Kelton's character thinks she can sing and act and browbeats Pendleton into financing her appearance in a Broadway show. Zasu Pitts, as a woman who sings the song "Mother" which?of course, reminds Pendleton of his mother, (the song is awful, sentimental but funny thanks to Pitts), becomes the unexpected star of this turkey however, prompting Kelton's character to have a meltdown, adding to the turmoil.

 

Some of the most interesting pre-code aspects of this movie are how glamorous Pert Kelton is allowed to be in several scenes. Another is the racy dialogue that she exchanges with Nat Pendleton about his interest in the utterly sexless Zasu Pitts. Another, pretty typical pre-code attempt at raciness occurs in the scene in which Kelton attempts to manipulate the hapless Pitts, culminating in a jarring scene in which Zasu Pitts disrobes to bathe in Kelton's penthouse.

 

Another underlying theme that is only touched on briefly, but pointedly, is the way in which casual brutality toward women is mentioned throughout the film by Nat Pendleton's character and cronies. Pert Kelton actually appears with two black eyes toward the finale, and the film implies that she thoroughly deserved them. This attitude toward domestic violence, unfortunately, is just as realistic about life and Hollywood's reflection of societal standards of behavior as the much extolled sexual references found in pre-code films, (though at least in a few pre-codes, women can struggle and occasionally triumph over this fate). To be honest, having fallen completely under the peculiar spell of this minor movie, I tried to overlook the sequence, since on a cartoonish level, it seemed to fit.

 

Pert Kelton is surrounded with another great cast in this film, including John Qualen, and in the latter part of the film by the brilliant playing of Edward Everett Horton as the show's director. Ned Sparks' sarcastic presence and commentary on all the characters adds to the show as well. Zasu Pitts, whom I like, seems to have her comic potential wasted throughout much of the movie, but if you have a chance, this film may entertain you as much as it did me.

 

Miss Kelton did appear in a few other films that I've seen and enjoyed over time, but?to be honest?I can't recall her presence in the wonderful Sylvia Sidney movie, Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935) or in Annie Oakley (1935) or You Can't Take It With You (1938). Unfortunately, Mary Burns, Fugitive, a Paramount Studios film, seems to have fallen into video limbo and is never shown anymore, but Annie Oakley and You Can't Take It With You which occasionally shows up on the TCM schedule.

 

Another film in which she appears that I'd love to have seen is Raoul Walsh's The Bowery (1933), starring George Raft and Wallace Beery. Given that company and the usually sharp direction of Walsh, it sounds like an ideal fit for Pert as a dance hall chorine. If anyone else has seen this one or would like to comment on any of her films, I'd certainly enjoy reading your take on Miss Kelton.

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