Orry Kelly - Women He's Undressed (2015)

I was very excited to see this film about to play at the annual Mostly British Film Festival in San Francisco.  I bought tickets immediately.  I knew about the book that had just been published, Kelly's salacious, gossipy memoirs, hidden or suppressed in his lifetime.  I had such high hopes that this documentary would be a fitting tribute to a designer who really did define the art deco, sleek look of the Warner Brothers films of the 1930s.  Sadly, I came away disappointed.

Scene from Women He's Undressed (2015)
The film's main theme is based on a childhood photo of Kelly dressed in a sailor suit, posing in front of a scrim and in a rowboat.  We see much of the rowboat, named Kiama after Kelly's hometown in New South Wales, Australia, the ocean blowhole "at the end of the street" and signposts in the water as a metaphor of his journey through life, travels across the globe, and, ultimately, his passing.

Orry George Kelly, aged six (1904)
The fantasy adult, snarky, malicious and gossipy Orry Kelly is portrayed by Darren Gilshenan.  He and the other re-enacters form the odd framework for the film, as I am calling it, "docudramedy."  Therein lies the most jarring and unsatisfying heart of the film, punctuating his story with ill-advised, nasty and sloppy dramatic fantasy sequences.  The other aspect, if the source of the film is actually based on Kelly's memoirs, there is precious little about Kelly himself.  He left himself out of his own story.

No doubt, Orry Kelly as a (publicly) closeted gay man, one can assume some of his personal anguish was quenched in his alcoholism.  Only vaguely referenced in the film suddenly when we discover he's ended up in a sanatorium (referred to in the modern turn of phrase, rehab).  But, this all comes later.

For all of the re-enactments, we literally do not see Orry Kelly until the very end of the film, accepting his third Academy Award for Some Like it Hot.  At the final sequence, we see some production stills of Kelly with Kay Francis, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe.  This was more of what I was hoping to see, a true documentary of an artist and his work.

To be sure, there were plenty of short film clips, spectacularly Mandalay with Kay Francis as Spot White, and Barbara Stanwyck from Baby Face.  A few tantalizing shots of some of his costume designs The focus kept turning back to whether or not Kelly and Archie Leach (Cary Grant) were lovers, and how Grant dumped him and kept entering lavender marriages to cover up (and soon divorces).  According to the film, it was not only Grant who indulged in lavender sham marriages, Adrian, Travis Banton and Randolph Scott, did as well.  I do not know, so can't say one way or another, I guess Orry Kelly between films was keeping score?  That was the message I got.  Well, until Kelly meets his ideal, Bob Roberts, we see a portrait of him, then he disappears never to be mentioned again.

The talking heads were Leonard Maltin, a saucy Jane Fonda (who had fond memories working with and respect for the creator of such amazing clothes), Dame Angela Lansbury, William Mann (Wiscracker: The Life and Times of William Haines), several costume designers such as Ann Roth and Colleen Atwood.  Also interviewed was Scotty Bowers, which, his commentary needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt (boulder sized).  One would hope that the Warner Studio Archives might have been consulted, alas, apparently not.  I do wish they had spoken to Olivia de Havilland, I am sure she could had added to our knowledge of Orry Kelly.

I came away sad as this was not what I was expecting, shame on me for not paying attention.  While I do feel a sense of Orry Kelly not being well served, I am glad I can cross this film off my list.  I hope that another book may come out on Kelly, in tribute to artistry that seems to be classic, still wearable, incredibly stylish, and stunningly creative.  Meanwhile, I will go back and revisit so many much loved films of the 1930's and 40's, because you just can't beat the great designs.

Kay Francis and Orry Kelly early 1930s
Glenda Farrell in Orry Kelly 1933

Joan Blondell in Orry Kelly circa 1933

Costume Design for Kay Francis

Costume Design for Bette Davis

Bette Davis in Orry Kelly Dark Victory 1939

Kay Francis in Mandalay

Ruth Chatterton in Orry Kelly Female


Tinky said…
It sounds like such an opportunity wasted. Thanks for the photos, anyway!
Thomas Gladysz said…
Thank you for the insightful review.

It is too bad that this was not more of a documentary, as you point out. I had tried to get it for our film festival without success. Orry Kelly was such a great talent, if a character and an alcoholic, as were a few costume designers. Thanks for reviewing this film

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