Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What a Character: Cecil Kellaway

Cecil Kellaway is among a handful of older character actors active during Hollywood's heyday who brought to the screen a delectable combination of warmth, kindliness and good cheer that I call "old guy charm." Other members of this twinkly-eyed pack of golden boys include the likes of sweet and snuggly S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, shyly unassuming Henry Travers, rascally Charles Ruggles and spry ol' Harry Davenport.

Kellaway, who seemed to personify the very essence of "classic Irishman" on the screen - he was Oscar-nominated for his role as a leprechaun in The Luck of the Irish (1948) and for his portrayal of Monsignor Ryan in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) - was born in Capetown, South Africa in 1890 and schooled in both his native country and in England. Though he studied and briefly practiced engineering, young Cecil was drawn to the footlights. After leaving his profession to go on the stage he toured through Asia, other parts of Africa and Europe before returning home and gaining recognition as a comedian. Then he was off to Australia in 1921 and there, over the next 16 years, the actor built his reputation in the theater.

Cecil Kellaway as Horace (a leprechaun) with Tyrone Power, The Luck of the Irish
Katharine Hepburn with Cecil Kellaway as Monsignor Ryan in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner 
Following appearances in a few Australian films of the late '30s, Kellaway was offered a contract by RKO Pictures. His first credited Hollywood movie would be a crime film, Everybody's Doing It (1938), starring Preston Foster. He made a total of 10 unremarkable movies in 1938, but was luckier the following year: his first two films of 1939, Gunga Din for RKO and Wuthering Heights for Goldwyn, were hits that became enduring classics. Cecil Kellaway would perform in more than 75 Hollywood films, classics ranging from The Letter (1940), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Harvey (1950) to The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). He also worked in television during its gilded age, appearing in live dramas and on such series as Perry Mason ("The Case of the Glittering Goldfish"), Rawhide, The Twilight Zone ("Elegy"), Burke's Law and That Girl. Kellaway's years as an actor spanned more than five decades and he even managed to find time to appear on Broadway late in his career.

He was cherubic-looking, with what seemed a barely suppressed chuckle in his voice - no wonder that his screen roles were usually genial and often lovable. He is so charming as Dr. Chumley in Harvey that it would have surprised no one (including Elwood P. Dowd) if the towering rabbit had taken up with him permanently.

Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Chumley and James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey
Kellaway's Nick Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice is a most amiable and hospitable fellow.  But it's hard to imagine that Nick's decades-younger wife, Cora (knockout-in-white Lana Turner), could have been so desperate and unable to make her way beyond a remote stretch of California highway that her only option was to marry him. And so it's no wonder at all that she wanted to be rid of Nick when brooding young drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) arrived at their seaside burger joint and she finally warmed (heated?) up to him. But to murder bighearted, unsuspecting (if loopy) Nick/Cecil...how could they?!?

Frank and Cora confirm their reservations at the Hotel Hades in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Much less grim circumstances await Harry Wilson, the Lloyd's of London insurance investigator Kellaway portrayed in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a mid-'60s biddie-horror genre picture in which he co-starred with Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Mary Astor. Cast to type, Kellaway's soft-spoken Wilson is but a bystander - albeit a mystery-solving bystander - to the mayhem that takes place inside a crumbling Louisiana mansion.

 Who killed John Mayhew? Mary Astor and Cecil Kellaway in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
It's reported that Cecil Kellaway was Fox's original choice to play Kris Kringle in a holiday movie that went on to become a yuletide classic, Miracle on 34th Street (1947). But he balked and refused the role, remarking to one of his sons, "Americans don't go for whimsy." The Santa Claus role ultimately went to his cousin, Edmund Gwenn, who also possessed a good amount of "old guy charm"...

This is my entry in the "What a Character" blogathon hosted by Paula of Paula's Cinema Club, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Please check out their sites to learn more.


Saturday, November 8, 2014


2014 has been jam-packed with anniversaries significant to classic film lovers. The year has marked not only the on-screen centennial of Chaplin's "Little Tramp," but also the centenary birth dates of many silver (and Technicolor) screen luminaries including Alec Guinness, Hedy Lamarr, Ida Lupino, Tyrone Power, Jane Wyman and Richard Widmark. 2014 also marks the diamond anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind 75 years ago in December, 1939. And 70 years ago On the Town, the musical that catapulted the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to fame, made its much-heralded debut on Broadway in December, 1944. The pair went on to script its 1949 screen adaptation as well as screenplays for Singin' in the Rain (1952), Auntie Mame (1958) and more.

There's been much to celebrate, and the revelry continues.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hair-raising Tales


Léonard Autié (Monsieur Léonard) was the imaginative 18th century hairdresser responsible for creating the wildly elaborate coiffures of Marie Antoinette. The rococo hairstyles he concocted during her heyday were called poufs, and several of the fantastical coifs he whipped up for her rose 36 inches or more from the top of her head.  In her offbeat and whimsical Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins describes one of Autié’s first important hairstyles for Marie Antoinette, the pouf d’ inoculation - a celebration of Louis XIV’s vaccination: “a rising sun and a serpent holding a club as he shimmied up an olive tree nestled into her hair. The sun symbolized the king. The olive tree stood for peace. The slinky serpent represented medicine, with its club to clobber disease.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

SPELLBINDER: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Hollywood films about Hollywood behind the scenes didn’t begin or end with Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), but none has painted a more glamorous/gimlet-eyed portrait or better mirrored the town’s notion of itself at a particular moment. It was mid-20th century, just as the old order - the studio system - was about to collapse. David Raksin, composer of the film’s sinuous score, characterized this cinematic self-reflection as “…an affirmative appraisal, one that captures the spirit of the time and place with cunning eloquence; and when it looks at the scars and wrinkles, it is with a lover’s eye. In 1952 we were still infatuated with our little world…”

Sunday, July 13, 2014

About Memory, Movies, More...

I’ve been noticing lately that my mind has developed a stubborn habit of drifting, and one of the places it seems to wander most often is into that vast mental warehouse where my memories are kept. I would say that this “mind drift” is worrisome except that it is so frequently pleasurable.

For example, the other day I found myself remembering Strawberries Romanoff.

When I was in my 20s and harbored aspirations to be quite a bit more sophisticated than I was, I mastered a few snazzy recipes, simple but compliment-inducing dishes I’d whip up for small dinners or buffet occasions. My default dessert for a while was Strawberries Romanoff. I haven’t made the dish for decades but, when the thought of it popped into my head recently, so did distinct memories of berries drenched in Grand Marnier being whirled into a mixture of softened ice cream and whipped cream…and served with chilled champagne.

Monday, June 30, 2014



Last year the San Francisco Symphony launched its first film series, film nights at Davies Symphony Hall where the classics played onscreen while the orchestra performed their scores live. It was a runaway success, with sold-out screenings and glowing reviews (one of those rave reviews was mine). Thus, the way was paved for another series, and the symphony has just announced the schedule of films set for its 2014/2015 season,"From ruby slippers to Brando at his best, cinematic greats are made even greater when accompanied live by the San Francisco Symphony...":