Hays Code

Ella Kelly of Mount Vernon had the idea to start a film company in 1921 that would specialize in “clean comedy.” This was over a dozen years before Hollywood tried the same thing with the implementation of the Hays Code, which led to the motion picture rating system used today.

MOUNT VERNON -- One of the pitfalls of scouring the byways of history for nearly forgotten stories is that sometimes you can only salvage part of a story. Perhaps someone out there will know more about this week's interesting fragment of the past.

Success in archival searches all too often depends on the distinctive nature of a name. That's why I've been pulling my hair out trying to pull together the threads of the faded story of Ella Kelly.

There's a reason that many show business professionals use a stage name: it may be to sound more distinctive, or it might be to sound less ethnic. Ella Kelly is a plain old Irish name, and, frankly, thousands of women have shared it.

The Ella Kelly concerning us emerged from the misty past of southern Ohio into some possible sort of professional show business activity in New York in the early 20th century. For reasons that are unclear — perhaps family connections — she lived for a time in Mount Vernon in the late teens.

Around 1920, she dreamed up an idea to combine the cutting edge entertainment technology of the time with a progressive political idea inspired by the compaign to give women the right to vote.

Kelly decided that she was going to start a motion picture production company that was run entirely by women. Since another issue that was receiving a lot of attention in the early days of movies was the presence of risqué humor, Kelly decided that her films would avoid any bawdy humor. Thus the idea for “Kelly's Klean Komedies” was born.

What she quickly decided, though, is that Mount Vernon did not offer enough capital fundraising potential for movie production, and, according to a July 15, 1921, article in the Democratic Banner Kelly moved to Columbus to start her company.

According to the article, the woman had been running the Oakland Hotel in Mount Vernon at the corner of High and Mulberry Streets, but sold her interest in the operation before heading to Columbus.

Business filings show that Kelly's company went public in 1921, offering $100,000 in stock options, setting up an office at 36 W Gay Street in Columbus. Production got underway quickly on such films as “The Old Maid Model” and “The Bachelor and His Chicken.” Kelly's hope was that the films could be shown in Columbus and then picked up for distribution by Pathé, one of the leading early distributors.

An article about the first film ran in the Portsmouth Daily Times in July 1921 that mentioned local 5-year-old Francis K. Riggs was cast in “The Old Maid Model.” The piece also intriguingly says,

“The company is headed by Miss Ella Kelly, who has many friends here who will remember her as the deputy grand commander of the Ladies of the Maccabees who made such a wonderful record here in 1913. Her record of that year has not been surpassed.”

Other newspaper reports suggest the record was for new membership in the social club, the ladies auxiliary of the Knights of the Maccabees.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Kelly's plan is the accouncement made in an advertisement in the Columbus Dispatch in September 1921 that every investor would be given a screen test, and every actor hired for a film would be given stock in the company. These were bold ideas.

Unfortunately, it appears that Kelly had more nerve than knowledge. In 1922, she was sued by Ollie M. Campbell, one of her investors, who allaged fraud, stating in her lawsuit that Kelly “in securing the subscription to the stock represented that she was a person greatly experienced in producing moving pictures; that she had produced the official war picture “Fighting in France;” that she had invested $54,000 of her own money in the project; that she had insured her life for $50,000 in favor of the company, all of which the plaintiff now contends is untrue.”

Yet, somehow, the company survived. In June of 1923, Kelly was reported in the Mansfield News Journal as being in that town looking for a potential studio site with three other members of her board of directors. The article states that the company had already made a number of films by that point, including ones starring such child stars as “Baby Main” and “Bobby Brooks.”

No one from the period under those names can be found on the Internet Movie Database, however.

One name mentioned in the article, however, does land some search returns. Kelly states that actress Mary Carr will be featured in one of the films to be made in Mansfield if the studio locates there. Mary Carr was a well-known actress of the period who appeared in 154 films from 1914 to 1957, including an appearance as Auntie Em in the now almost-forgotten 1925 film version of The Wizard of Oz.

But was she really about to work with Ella Kelly, or was Kelly just bandying about celebrity names in hopes of drawing investors? Another report names the film as “Adoption,” but no such film is listed in Carr's IMDB filmography.

Considering the lack of information available elsewhere about these projects, it would appear the company never quite took flight. The latest reference I was able to find to Kelly's Klean Komedies was a 1924 ad by Broadway producers Lee and Rosalie Stewart in the program for a vaudeville benefit concert.

The Stewarts were a pair of siblings who became prominent on Broadway in the 1920s.

Interestingly, Rosalie worked closely with a playwright named George Edward Kelly. Was he perhaps related to our Ella Kelly? It is known that he was the uncle of a very famous personality indeed, actress Grace Kelly.

The proximity of these Kelly names is very interesting. Yet, it was a common surname. It could even be that the Stewarts bought the name from Ella Kelly in hopes of attaching it to their productions of George Edward Kelly's plays, which were popular hits in the early to mid 1920s. If they promoted Ella Kelly's films, it does not appear that they had any success with them.

Whatever the case, 1924 was the last known reference to Kelly's Klean Komedies. Was an all-female production company an idea too far ahead of its time? Kelly was certain ahead of the curve in trying to “clean up” the world of film. In 1934, the Hays Code was put into play by the Hollywood film industry to tone down the wild and often bawdy comedies of the Roaring 20s.

Perhaps Ella Kelly sensed the shift in wind direction but made her move before the rest of the world had caught up.

It's intriguing to wonder what her films may have been like. But even if they were finally finished, it is exceedingly unlikely that anything today survives. Film of the 1920s was made with cellulose nitrate, a volatile material which can burn even in the absence of oxygen.

What happened many times over the years was the old film cannisters would catch on fire and burn, destroying the reels.

Nitrate that did not burn would sometimes turn to powder, literally disintegrating. Cellulose acetate began replacing nitrate by the late 1920s, but many early films were never transferred to the new medium, and thus many early films are now lost.

All that we know about the mysterious Ella Kelly is that while working at the Oakland Hotel in Mount Vernon in 1920, she had dreams of Hollywood. What happened to her later on is unknown.

It would be left to later Knox Countians like Paul Lynde and Luke Perry to climb to the heights of Hollywood fame.

Support Our Journalism

Our reporting empowers people to individually and collectively achieve progress in our region. Help make free, local, independent journalism sustainable by becoming a member.