Mona Ray and Judy King: Kelly Sisters of Stage and Screen

A little murk today in our biography of these two performing sisters and their family, though we’ll fine-tune it as better facts emerge. It owes much to the gang at Nitrateville — some early crowd-sourced research performed about a decade ago,

It begins with a Peter Kelly (sometimes rendered as Kelley), a vaudeville actor born in Michigan in 1876. Two of his daughters had significant stage and screen careers.

The older daughter, Priscilla Kelly (1901-1987 or 1907-1997) was billed as Judy King. In 1921 she was touring vaudeville with her husband Tim Whelan in an act called “Suite Sixteen”.

King focused mostly on film and has many more credits, although usually in small roles. She had bit parts in Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy (1925–she’s the flapper in the fantasy) and Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), as well as the Mack Sennett short Three Foolish Weeks (1924) with Ben Turpin, Madeline Hurlock and Billy Bevan. She the co-starred in numerous Fox comedy shorts in 1925 with the likes of Al. St. John and Bud Jamison. At the same time Whelan was working as writer for Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. In 1926 he wrote the scenario for Beatrice Lillie’s Exit Smiling. His affair with Lillie resulted in divorce from Judy King. Whelan went on to be a successful screenwriter and director in Hollywood for decades. King was a supporting player in several more silent features through 1927. Then she appears to have taken a break for over a decade when sound came in. In 1939, she returned to the industry as a straight-up extra, appearing in a half dozen movies that year, the last of which was Joe E. Brown’s $1000 a Touchdown. Her second husband was a screenwriter named Josef Montiague, who created a lot of drama when he had an affair with Judy’s sister Mona in 1945. Now on to Mona.

Judy’s sister Mona Kelly (1905-1986), was billed in films as Mona Ray and on Broadway as Mona Moray. It’s her birthday today, prompting this post. Mona went back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood so many times she should have had a reserved berth on a sleeper car.

Her best known role may be that of Topsy** in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Virginia Grey, Vivien Oakland and others. Then she went to Broadway for the 1929 Christmas season for a revival of Babes in Toyland, followed by The Prince of Pilsen (1930). Next she starred in three musical comedy movie shorts that Half Pint Polly, Pick ‘Em Young, and Red Heads, followed by the western feature Pardon My Gun, all that same year of 1930. In 1932 she returned to Broadway for The Man Who Reclaimed His Head with Claude Rains, Jean Arthur, and Lucille Lortel. In 1933 she sang in the comedy short Art in the Raw, starring Edgar Kennedy, Florence Lake, Dot Farley, and Franklin Pangborn. She had a good stretch on Broadway in the late ’30s: If I Were You (1938), and Kaufman and Hart’s The Fabulous Invalid (1938), and The American Way (1939). In 1940, she played Mammy Yokum in the all-star, all-weird version of Li’l Abner with Buster Keaton, Edgar Kennedy, Bud Jamison, Walter Catlett, Johnny Arthur, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, et al. In 1942 she appeared in her last Broadway play, Comes the Revelation, which closed on the second night. In 1950, her last film, The Art of Burlesque starring Jack Haley’s old vaudeville partner Charlie Crafts.

Both sisters seem to have been super petite. King is record as being 4’11” tall, and I’m guessing that Mona Ray was about the same size as she played the role of the child Topsy as an adult.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent and slapstick comedy film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.