Above: It seems every film star once smoked like a chimney. Judy Kelly in a publicity photo of the early 1940s – and a long way from Narrabri, New South Wales. Author’s collection.
Judy Kelly made a name for herself performing on the stage and on screen in England between 1932 and 1949. She is unusual in some respects because her pathway to becoming a recognised actor seems – at first glance – to have been achieved with remarkable ease, when compared to the trials and tribulations of others. She had no professional acting experience in her native Australia and yet by 1949 she had almost fifty film credits behind her and she had emerged as a competent actor.
She was born Julie Aileen Kelly at Narrabri, an inland town of New South Wales, about 500 kilometres north west of Sydney, in 1913. An older brother Owen Arthur had been born in 1911. Judy’s mother Blanche Esse nee Davis belonged to a well connected farming family, from the more prosperous southern area of the state.
At the time of his marriage to Blanche in 1911, Eugene Gerald Kelly, had been appointed a teacher at a one teacher school. Mogil Mogil was remote – a town with a tiny population but supporting two pubs and a butcher, with uncertain school enrolments , uncertain rainfall and a reputation for hitting 114 degrees fahrenheit in the shade in summer (45.5 degrees C). Perhaps the reason they had moved to the relative comfort of Narrabri in 1913 was because remote life was so hard. But by 1916 Blanche had moved again, taking the children with her to the pastoral property of her brother, H. M. Davis, near Robertson, in the green rolling hills of the southern highlands. Here, another daughter, Betty, was born in 1917. Eugene joined the Australian Army in 1916, in the great enlistment surge after Gallipoli, being posted overseas soon after.
Judy and her siblings spent much of their childhood growing up on another Davis family farm at Lockhart, in the Riverina district. Of Judy’s childhood we know little, except that she had adopted the name “Judy” well before she travelled to England, and she may have dabbled in some amateur theatricals while at Wagga Grammar School. Blanche and Eugene were finally divorced – acrimoniously and publicly – in 1923. (Note 1)
Reportedly, 1,200 young women entered the competition, whose judges included director Ken Hall and actor Bert Bailey. The prize was very attractive – it included three months training at Elstree in England and a try-out in films. Judy was described as a teacher by several newspapers, but if that was so she must have been unqualified, given her age. But most later accounts stated she was a cinema usher.
Above: Blanche and Judy departing for London. The Home, An Australian Quarterly. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.
After extraordinary publicity and many farewells, Judy and her mother departed for England on the P&O ship Cathage, arriving on 29 July, 1932. She was set to work for BIP almost immediately and the transition to British film actor all went remarkably well. But not surprisingly, in the British Pathe newsreel made soon after she arrived, she still looked very young and uncomfortable in front of the camera. She acknowledged how hard it was at first, when she told a journalist “I have only made one friend. Molly Lamont — fellow Colonials they call us, since she is South African. There is a terribly impersonal atmosphere about a studio. Directors look right through you and murmur: ‘What are we going to call this young woman?'”
Judy claimed her first experience of film was with Molly Lamont, as an extra in Lord Camber’s Ladies (other sources state it was Sleepless Nights), but her first credited role in a film for BIP was in Money Talks. This was a 70 minute BIP quickie comedy, a vehicle for popular vaudeville and radio comedian Julian Rose and produced by the prolific Walter C Mycroft. Judy had a small role as the daughter of Abe Pilstein (played by Rose). Thereafter, she appeared in a string of mostly program fillers – or B-films, often mysteries and crime dramas such as Crime on the Hill (1933), The Four Masked Men and The Black Abbot (1934). But at the same time, she can also be seen in a few supporting and un-credited roles in quality films, such as Alexander Korda‘s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).
Above Left and centre: An early photo of a very young Judy Kelly. The short bio on the card may confuse the casual reader today – reflecting the reality that many people considered Australians of the time to be “British born”. Author’s collection.
At right: A still of Judy from Everyone’s Magazine, May 10, 1933. It is reportedly from the BIF film Their Night Out. In later years she explained she took every role offered to her. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Judy developed a reputation for working hard. She judged competitions, appeared at openings, modeled clothes and sought out every acting opportunity she could. (Click here for a British Pathe newsreel of Judy judging some laundry sports in 1937). Doubtless this also had something to do with advice from her agent – the well known Herbert de Leon, who also represented Margaret Lockwood, Greer Garson and numerous others.
Back in Australia, sometime in March 1933, Judy’s sister Betty managed to accidentally shoot herself in the arm. She was trying to shoot a sting-ray, she said, and the injury , although minor, might delay her plans to travel to England to become an actor like her sister. About a year later, she and older brother Owen finally arrived in England on the SS Barrabool. All three Kelly children settled into life with Blanche in an apartment in London’s Paddington. None of them ever returned to Australia. The contrast between a quiet life in rural New South Wales, and London, the bustling capital of the Empire, must have been stark.
On 21 April, 1934, The Australian Women’s Weekly compared Judy (left), who had now lost a great deal of weight, with a photo of her sister Betty (right), photographed while en-route to England. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.
It was no wonder Betty thought she, too might become an actor. Judy Kelly was now well established (and was much more at ease in front of the camera) as the following British Pathe newsreels suggest.
- For thee Alone (1934) Modelling
- For thee Alone (1934) More Modelling
- Caught by the Camera #105 (1936) Birthday party.
But as the 1930s wore on, some of Judy Kelly’s feature films continued to be like her first. British films of the 1930s were often made on a limited budget, sometimes produced to fulfil the exhibitor’s obligations under the Cinematograph Films Act (1927) – which was to show a certain proportion of British films in their programs. But this era of filmmaking doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad reputation it has sometimes been given – the films were a “mixed bag” that included great successes amongst the forgettable and underwhelming. Judy’s repertoire reflected this diverse range of films. It included light romantic comedies, mysteries and even a few jaunty musicals, including Charing Cross Road (1935) with John Mills and Over She Goes (1937) with Sydney-born actor John Wood.
Above: a screen grab of Judy Kelly as Anne Mayhew, with fellow Australian John Wood (1909-1965) as the eligible Lord Harry in the musical Over She Goes. She plays Harry’s gold-digging former fiancee. This rarely screened film can be purchased from networkonair.com. Author’s collection.
It was Margaret Lockwood who said“The British star who waits for the ideal role… will do a lot of waiting” and one can’t help but feel Judy Kelly might have sometimes felt the same way. Perhaps this explains why from the late 1930s, she was also found performing on the stage, with some success. In 1937, she went on a tour of South Africa, performing in Barre Lyndon‘s crime drama The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse. The play had been a hit in London, and like so many new plays of the 1930s it was quickly made into a film – by Hollywood in this case. Judy also appeared on stage in light comedies and musicals such as (Australian writer) Eric Coppel‘s Believe it or Not in 1940, Stanley Lupino‘s musical Lady Behave in 1941, Vernon Sylvaine‘s farce Women Aren’t Angels in 1941 and his comedy-thriller Warn that Man in 1943.
Two of Judy Kelly’s stage appearances. Lady Behave was a musical, Warn That Man a thriller. Author’s collection.
One striking feature of Judy Kelly’s story is her consciousness of being an Australian at work in England. She wrote a few articles for popular Australian paper “Smith’s Weekly” that expressed that awareness – including an unusually frank comment about England’s class system; “The English are a curious people—so curious, indeed, that I, an Australian, sometimes feel a foreigner among them…To anyone reared in the Australian democratic tradition, (the) alignment of social forces is inexplicable.” It was doubtless coincidental, but she appeared in a number of films with fellow Australians busy working in England – amongst them Coral Browne (Charing Cross Road in 1935) Betty Stockfeld and Edward Ashley (Under Proof in 1936), Frank Leighton ( The Last Chance in 1937), John Wood (Over She Goes in 1937 and Luck of the Navy in 1938), Ian Fleming (The Butler’s Dilemma in 1943) and John Warwick (Dancing with Crime in 1947). She reported that at times she bought her friends Australian presents and sometimes she mixed with other Australians – including Patti Morgan, whose 1949 wedding she attended.
Judy Kelly in a publicity photo c 1945 and looking every bit the movie star. Author’s collection
Above: This is a screen grab from Tomorrow We Live, re-titled At Dawn We Die for the US market. Judy plays Germaine from the bar. She looks a little sad because the man she is keen on – Jean Baptiste – has just said “goodnight little cabbage” before dismissing her. Author’s collection.
Her final films are perhaps her most notable. In 1945 she appeared in a small role in the well received British horror film Dead of Night. But it was in John Paddy Carstairs’ film-noir crime thriller Dancing With Crime (1947) that she most demonstrated her ability. Set in a perpetually wet and dark post-war London, she played Toni, a hard drinking dance hostess for a dodgy Dance Hall, really a front for black market operations. Richard Attenborough plays Ted Peters – a salt of the earth taxi driver, while Joy, played by Sheila Sim, is his perpetually worried girlfriend. It’s the sort of film where the characters say cheerful things like “Don’t worry about me Ducks” and “I’m off to see a man about a fortune” between fighting or shooting at each other. In the end, Toni cooperates with the Police Inspector, played by Australian John Warwick, while Ted and Joy are sent off home to enjoy the rest of their lives.
Here is Judy Kelly as Toni, giving her boss (one of the gangsters, played by Barry K. Barnes) a piece of her mind, in Dancing with Crime (1947). Author’s collection.
In 1949 Judy appeared in Warning to Wantons, where she plays the mother of the insufferable Renee (Anne Vernon), a sixteen year old who is determined to use her feminine guile to manipulate the dopey eligible Count Max (David Tomlinson) on the eve of his wedding, plus any other men she meets. It’s well acted but the plot is so unpalatable it makes tiresome viewing today. It is worth noting that Kelly was only 36 while playing a mother in this, her final film. It was based on a novel with the same title by Australian novelist Mary Mitchell . (Note 2)
Above Left: Eric Summer photographed in 1966. Illustrated London News, 17 September 1966. Copyright ILN Group.
Above Right: Judy Kelly and her baby in 1952. Birmingham Gazette, 31 May 1952. Via British Newspaper Archive.
In April 1946 Judy married Eric Summer, a businessman, lawyer and former British Army colonel. Amongst Summer’s later accomplishments was his Chairmanship of Royston Industries, makers of the first Black box flight recorders. A son was born of the union in 1952.
Betty Kelly did not develop an acting career. But from 1938-1949 she was married to popular English comedian Michael Howard. Judy’s older brother Owen Arthur Kelly served in the British Army in World War II. He married Vera Felix (Kempner) in 1941.
Judy Kelly retired from acting in 1949 and lived much of her later life in the Surrey countryside. Unfortunately this talented actor left no further commentaries about her work or life. She died in London in 1991, aged 77.
Judy’s father, Eugene Gerald Kelly was never mentioned in her biographies. At best, it was inferred her father had been a pastoralist, occasionally it was stated he was dead. The reason for his disappearance from the family story is hinted at by examination of his colourful wartime military record in the 45th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) – available online in the Australian National Archives. In addition, a clumsy attempt by Eugene to pretend to be dead in 1920, apparently in an effort to avoid paying Blanche child support, was reported by “Truth” newspaper. Clearly Eugene’s relationship with his wife and children fractured irrevocably. It is a testimony to their fortitude that they successfully rebuilt their lives in Britain without further contact.
The IMDB lists Judy as appearing in a British film Adam’s Apple/Honeymoon Abroad in 1928 and in the US in the Jack Benny TV show in 1954. These are different people. There is no record of her travelling to the UK at the age of 15 to play a “Vamp” and the woman in the Jack Benny show was a well known US-born dancer, who had also worked with Bob Hope.
- Kurt Gänzl (1986) British Musical Theatre Vol. 2. Oxford University Press.
- Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
(Produced too late to interview Judy Kelly, this wonderful book contains interviews with many of her contemporaries)
- Robert Murphy (2009) The British Cinema Book. BFI Palgrave Macmillan.
- Vincent Porter (Ed) (2006) Walter Mycroft: The Time of My Life. The Scarecrow Press.
- Jeffery Richards (Ed) (1998) The Unknown 1930s. An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939. I.B.Taurus
- J.P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield.
NSW Police Gazettes 1919-1923
UK Shipping records
UK Census records
- National Library of Australia – Trove
GOSSIP FOR WOMEN. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.) 28 Jan 1911 P.10
FAKED OBITUARY. Truth (Brisbane, Qld.) 29 April 1923: P.13.
LONELIEST GIRL IN ENGLAND, The Daily News, (Perth, WA)19 September, 1932. P. 2.
WILL I SUCCEED? JUDY KELLY’S IMPRESSIONS Everyone’s. 23 November 1932.
JUDY KELLY TELLS HOW IT FEELS TO CRASH TALKIES. Everyone’s. 30 November 1932.
THE PICTURE PARADE. Everyone’s. 10 May 1933.
ANOTHER FILM KELLY. Western Mail (Perth, WA) 5 April 1934 P.33
PARIS PRESENTS NEW IDEAS IN FURNISHING, Smith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW), 4 January, 1936. p.16.
MISS AUSTRALIA, 1937 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW) 10 Mar 1937 P.4
YOUNG AUSTRALIANS IMPORTANT IN ELSTREE STUDIO News (Adelaide, SA) 8 Jul 1937 : P. 12
Eugene Gerald Kelly #2263, Service record, 4/45 Battalion, AIF.