SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSIC FILM STAR CECIL KELLAWAY by Deborah Painter

If you have seen many classic films you have seen Cecil Kellaway’s plump figure and heard his distinctive clipped accent.  Born August 22, 1893 n Cape Town to Edwin John Kellaway and Rebecca Annie Brebner Kellaway, Cecil Lauriston Kellaway’s British father had come to South Africa to help build the Houses of Parliament.  The Normal College in Cape Town was where Cecil received his first few years of schooling and when the family moved to Great Britain Cecil attended Brad for Grammar School.  When in his teens he studied engineering and, returning to South Africa, worked for an engineering firm for a time.  But Cecil loved acting more than engineering and became a full time stage actor, debuting in Potash and Perlmutter.  After a brief Army career he was discharged due to illness and toured with a stage company through South Africa as well as Europe and Asia.  Kellaway married Doreen Elizabeth Joubert in Johannesburg on November 15, 1919.  The Kellaways had a son, Peter, born in South Africa in 1920.  Bryan, their second son, would be born in South Africa in 1925.

In 1921 Cecil signed a contract with J. C. Williamson, Limited in Australia where he performed on stage in mostly lighthearted musical comediessuch asFlorodora (1931), A Warm Corner (1931), Whirled into Happiness (1924), Sons o’ Guns (1931), Blue Roses (1932), Hold my Hand (1932), and The Gipsy Princess (1933).   The 1933 Australian film The Hayseeds was Cecil’s first motion picture.  However, he considered himself primarily a stage performer and it was not until he became associated with the Cinesound Production Company and wrote the story for 1937’s It Isn’t Done that his film career grew by leaps and bounds. RKO Radio Pictures in the United States offered him a contract following this successful picture.   His first film,Wise Girl, was followed by Wuthering Heights (United Artists, 1939) andRKO’s Mexican Spitfire, starring Lupe Velez in which he was Mr. Chumley.  His character returned for the sequel Mexican Spitfire Out West.  Cecil Kellaway also performed in horror and suspense films forUniversal Pictures:

Cecil Kellaway (fourth from left) is a magician who finances an archaeological expedition to the long sought tomb of Princess Ananka with terrible consequences in The Mummy’s Hand. CREDITS: Universal

The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and The Mummy’s Hand (1940), in which he played a magician, The Great Solvani, whose daughter (Peggy Moran) accompanies two young archaeologists (Dick Foran and Wallace Ford) to find the long lost tomb of Princess Ananka. In so doing she puts herself and her father in the path of a murderous mummy, Kharis (Tom Tyler).  More films in the 1940s included The Letter (1940) and a role as Lana Turner’s alcoholic husband in MGM’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).Cecil Kellaway was a real leprechaun in 20th Century Fox’s The Luck of the Irish in 1948.  Artists and artwork were a frequent subject matter for Cecil; he portrayed an artist in Vanguard Films’Portrait of Jennie, and painter Thomas Gainsborough in Kitty (1945) starring Paulette Goddard.

 

Cecil’s cousin Edmund (Kellaway) Gwenn was enjoying success as an actor, having given a memorable performance in The Walking Dead with Boris Karloff in 1936. Perhaps his most famous role was Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947 with little Margaret O’Brien.  So, if you ever thought that Gwenn’s voice and build reminded you of Cecil Kellaway and wondered if the two could be related, well, now you know!  Interestingly, Cousin Cecil had turned down the role of the jolly Saint Nick.Arthur(Kellaway) Chesney was another cousin who had an acting career, focusing in Great Britain.  Cecil’s brother Leon was ballet master for  Edouard Borovansky and the Australian Ballet.  Cecil’s other brother Alec Kellaway also chose an acting career.  Cecil’s son Peter became a neurophysiologist.

In Harvey(1950), a Universal comedy, Cecil portrayed Dr. Chumley, head of Chumley’s Rest. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), whose best friend is a giant white rabbit, is about to be committed to the institution by his sister (Josephine Hull).  Soon the rabbit will become Chumley’s friend too!  The character of Chumley is not the same one Cecil portrayed in Mexican Spitfire and Mexican Spitfire Out West.

The new medium of television proved a good showcase for his talents, and he appeared on several 1950s and 1960s era series produced in the United States, including The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason and My Favorite Martian. Cecil decided to transition into semi-retirement by shining brightly in supporting roles in two hit films: Hush…. Hush, Sweet Charlotte (20th Century Fox, 1964) and Columbia Pictures’ Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), playing Monsignor Ryan, a family friend of a Caucasian family whose daughter Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) wants everyone to meet her fiancé, African-American physician John Prentice (Sidney Poitier).  The film was produced when marriage between members of different races in the United States was controversial.  Cecil earned a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  This was his second; his first was for The Luck of the Irish in 1948.

In February of 1973 Cecil Kellaway passed away, leaving behind his wife, his two sons and four grandchildren.  He also left behind many a film and television episode for future generations to enjoy. I know I do.

 

The Reformer and the Redhead was a typical 1940s screwball comedy involving a daughter who tries to get her father’s (Cecil Kellaway’s) boss to give him his zookeeper job back. CREDITS: MGM

Cecil Kellaway is a professor who is able to diagnose and solve Tommy Kirk’s problem… he keeps turning into a shaggy dog! CREDITS: Walt Disney Pictures