The Diverse Doings of Nell O’Day

Texas born Nell O’Day (1909-1989) was a kind of show biz Renaissance woman: Broadway dancer and performer, horseback ridin’ star of westerns, writer of plays and screenplays, and more.

Starting at age 10, O’Day started serious dance training with Ernest Belcher, father of Marge Champion, stepfather of Lina Basquette. As a teenager she joined a vaudeville dance act that played presentation houses. With the Tommy Atkins Sextette she toured with a John Murray Anderson show called Laces and Graces and appeared in Paul Whiteman’s film The King of Jazz (1930). That same year she was cast as the female lead in the Broadway musical Fine and Dandy (1930) with Joe Cook, Dave Chasen, and a young Eleanor Powell. This led to speaking roles in films. She was third billed in Rackety Rax (1931) with Victor McLaglen, and second-billed to George O’Brien in Zane Grey’s Smoke Lightning (1932), her first western. Both of these were for Fox.

Then there seems to have been a bit of a fall for some reason. Throughout 1933 she appears in comedy shorts with Harry Langdon, not exactly a step up. In 1934 she appeared in the low-budget exploitation film The Road to Ruin, and had bit parts in the major features This Side of Heaven and Woman in the Dark, followed by a similarly small supporting role in Convention Girl (1935). She then returned to comedy shorts: Serves You Right (1935) with Shemp Howard, Watch the Birdie (1935) with a pre-stardom Bob Hope, and Captain Blue Blood (1937) with Georgie Price.

Apparently seeking to regain her potency she returned to the stage in 1937 in the Broadway play Many Mansions, directed by Lee Strasberg. This was followed by the revue One for the Money (1939) with Gene Kelly, Keenan Wynn, et al. Both had respectable runs of several months. From 1935 through 1941 she was married to Broadway lyricist Ted Fetter.

1940 through 1943 was O’Day’s busiest period, when she played the female lead in dozens of B movie westerns opposite the likes of Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, and others. In these films, she wasn’t just a perky, peppy, loveable presence like so many other ingenues in the genre. She was highly respected for her equestianism. As a native Texan, she really rode! O’Day also had some smaller roles in major films outside the genre, such as Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, Hugh Herbert’s Hello Sucker, and W.C. Fields’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, all in 1941. O’Day is also reputed to have helped her second husband Larry Williams write the screenplay for the 1944 horror film The Monster Maker with J. Carrol Naish and Ralph Morgan, though she was uncredited.

In 1945 O’Day returned to Broadway to appear in the play Many Happy Returns with Mary Astor which closed almost immediately, optimistic title notwithstanding. In 1946 she appeared in an industrial produced by General Motors, entitled The Story of Kenneth W. Randall, MD. After this she is known only to have done a little work in television. She appeared in a teleplay called “Thunder on Sycamore Street” in a 1954 episode of Studio One. A script she co-wrote with Williams called “Can You Coffeepot on Skates?” was used as a 1956 episode of Star Tonight, starring Leo G. Carroll. Another of their scripts The Bride of Denmark Hill was produced by the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 and adapted for television by the BBC.

O’Day lived in England and Italy for a time, and gradually morphed into a writer of magazine articles and technical manuals. For much more, there is a terrific interview with her here on Western Clippings.

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