October 14, 2014
A leggy young kewpie from a vaudeville family, comic actress PERT KELTON (1907–68) was born to play the Trixies, Lulus, and Rubys required by pre-Code Hollywood, but her real gifts were her déclassé voice and cynical, bone-dry delivery. Whether wheedling a part in a show out of a gangster-producer or half-heartedly resisting a pick-up artist (“You wouldn’t fool a little girl in a strange city, would you?”), her chorines, molls, and paroled hookers always know their onions, and that social niceties are as scripted in life as they are in film. In Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery, her rendition of the 1890s brothel song “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” steals the movie: eighty seconds of braying, stomping, and bloomer-flashing that establish Old New York’s vulgarity and vitality more convincingly than the ninety minutes that surround them. Kelton also did a good deal of radio and stage work, and played Alice Kramden in the early, sketch-length incarnation of what would be become The Honeymooners, though her casting in the iconic series was scotched by the blacklisting of her husband Ralph Bell. This, and her later turn as Shirley Jones’ mother in The Music Man (on Broadway and in the movie), were warmer roles, but she also continued doing what she did best, cracking wise as Agnes, the housekeeper to Monty Wooley’s fading Shakespearean actor on the 1950s radio comedy The Magnificent Montague. In every theatrical medium, Kelton’s finest moments were her coarsest.
READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).