On Itty Bitty Pretty Kitty Kelly

A brief introduction, should one be needed, to the life and work of Kitty Kelly (Sue O’Neill, 1902-1968).

Standing a mere 4’11” in adulthood, the pint-sized Kelly first enters the documentary record in the chorus of the Shubert revue The Midnight Rounders of 1921. It seems likely that she took her name from a hit song of the day, “Pretty Kitty Kelly” by Harry Pease and Ed Nelson, a savvy move, but a funny one, for her real name “Sue O’Neil” is hardly less Irish. Kelly is also reputed to have been a Ziegfeld Girl; she’s not shown as such on IBDB, but she may have been in a touring edition of one of his shows, or perhaps in one of his after-hours rooftop shows. By The Whirl of New York (1921) she was given a named character (“Kissie Fitzgarter”), clearly playing on her chorus girl identity. This show was a hit, her longest Broadway run. Kelly found work in seven more Broadway shows through the end of the ’20s, most of them short-lived, but with respectably sized parts in all of this.

This gave her a boost into talkies, starting in 1930. A lot of earliest films were racy pre-code dramas and comedies, things like Behind Office Doors, Bachelor Apartment, and White Shoulders (all 1931). During her heyday (through 1943), she was usually cast at about sixth in the billing, but she was in some well remembered movies, including the original version of Girl Crazy (1932) with Wheeler and Woolsey; the original version of The Lemon Drop Kid (1934) with Lee Tracy; Dizzy Dames (1935, she’s La Vere, the girl; with the seal act); and So Proudly We Hail (1943). As we get into the ’40s she increasingly got bit roles, as in Road to Singapore (1940), and Holiday Inn (1942).

I’ve seen it asserted that she was a CBS radio host, but I think someone may have their wires crossed. Sylvia Sidney starred in a radio soap called Pretty Kitty Kelly in 1940. And Marion Seikert hosted a 1946 radio talk show called Meet Kitty Kelly. Neither involved the lady in question.

Starting in the mid ’50s, Kelly worked frequently in television, normally in bit parts, although she did have a recurring part on The Loretta Young Show (1958-63). Her last screen credit was in the 1968 Jimmy Stewart western Firecreek.

For more on entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.