As mentioned in a previous Speakeasy, This Happy Breed from 1944 is one of my favourite films. Among its great cast, was the marvellous Kay Walsh as the defiant/errant Queenie, daughter of Frank and Ethel, played by Robert Newton and Celia Johnson. In the film, Queenie was determined to avoid the conventional life that was set out for her, and so rejected the romantic overtures of Billy, played by John Mills in the film. Instead she left the family home one night, running off with a married man, though a few years later she went back, after seeing the error of her ways, and married Billy.
Upon seeing the film for the first time, the part reminded me of my good friend Emma from my days in Fleet Street, 35 years ago, who i then called Queenie. I could tell, Emma was never really going to settle for the regular life. And so, it proved, when she suddenly moved to Hong Kong and settled down with a CNN anchor man called Andrew. Out there, she set up a very successful PR company, that is going from strength to strength to this day. We are still in touch by the way, and I saw her in London just a few weeks ago. And of course, I still call her Queenie… Anyway, I found myself totally captivated by Kay Walsh and was soon looking out for her in other films.
She was born Kathleen Walsh, of Irish parentage on 15th November 1911, in Chelsea, London. She and her sister Peggy were then raised by her grandmother in Pimlico. Having had little or no formal education, Kay hit the stage as a dancer from a very young age, in a bid to escape those poverty-stricken years. She joined the Andre Charlot revue and then later worked in New York and Paris.
‘I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dance. My first memory of a public performance was darting into Church Street, Chelsea, and dancing to a barrel organ, aged three.’
Once on the stage, she caught the eye of one Pownell Pellew, later to be the 9th viscount of Exmouth and they were soon engaged. She made her bona fide West End stage debut in the early 1930s, in the production of Sweet Devil and made her first film Get Your Man in 1934. Her natural talent and magnetic presence brought her to the attention of critics and audiences alike. She then met the then film editor, David Lean, in 1936 on the set of the film Secret of Stamboul. She later said…
‘David was a little jealous of me, I think. Linden (Travers, a fellow actress) told him not to be as she could tell I was crazy about him.’
She subsequently ended her engagement to Pellew and moved in with Lean. They married in 1940, by which time, Lean had become a film director. Walsh appeared in his film In Which We Serve in 1942 which found Lean too shy to ask for a co-credit with his co-director Noel Coward. His wife took up the cudgels on his behalf and spoke to The Master, as Coward was known.
‘I pushed and pushed and eventually we won. I only ever had his (Lean’s) best interests at heart. We worked all day and danced all night and slept through the weekend, waking late on Sunday to make love, to read the Sunday papers and to breakfast on eggs and bacon. And, of course, we went out to a film. We were asked everywhere – we were an attractive couple, we enjoyed life enormously.’
Walsh and Coward got on well, despite differing political views. However, privately, Coward disapproved of her strong left-wing leanings calling her ‘Red Emma.’
Lean and Coward then collaborated again on This Happy Breed. Walsh said of her part of Queenie…
‘The only difference between Queenie and me was that I would never have given in, never have gone back home.’
Despite the success on the big screen, Walsh also remained committed to her theatrical roots. She continued to perform in various stage productions. Her notable stage credits include Cyrano de Bergerac and Pygmalion, where she displayed her remarkable range and ability to inhabit complex characters. She had established herself as a versatile actress and continued showcasing her ability to seamlessly transition between various genres. She effortlessly portrayed both comedic and dramatic roles, leaving a lasting impression with her remarkable performances.
‘I love working, just working…’
Her memorable role in Brief Encounter from 1945, once again directed by Lean, of Myrtle Bagot, a talkative acquaintance of the film’s main characters, demonstrated her impeccable comedic timing and earned her widespread acclaim. She was also a skilled writer and helped devise the dramatic opening scene of Lean’s original Oliver Twist from 1948. She also recommended Anthony Newley for the role of the Artful Dodger after working with him in the film Vice Versa the year before.
‘I went to the first day rushes, then telephoned David at Pinewood, where he was doing dreadful things in the make-up room to Alfie Bass’s face (to test him for the Artful Dodger). I said, ‘I’ve got your Dodger.’
She also played Nancy in the film, though she was dissatisfied with the performance.
‘I wanted to look dirtier and more damaged.’
Kay and Lean divorced in 1949, following his affair with actress Ann Todd. Despite that, Walsh remained a prominent figure in the business, adapting to changing trends consistently and delivering powerful performances as her career continued through the 1950s, in her many character parts. Her personal favourite being as Miss D. Coker in the film The Horse’s Mouth from 1958.
She married again in 1956 to psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques, who famously coined the phrase ‘mid-life crisis’ The couple adopted a baby daughter Gemma.
Though she kept busy, and remained active in films, it is fair to say her career had dipped somewhat in the 1960s and 70s and she retired in 1982, after her last role in the film Night Crossing. In that retirement, she loved her garden and renovating old houses.
Kay Walsh died aged 93 in 2005 due to multiple burns, following a fire at her London flat.
The Mumper of SE5
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THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 3 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Eddie Piller
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