Kay Walsh was born in London of Irish parentage. There seems to be some confusion on her actual birth year. Some put it as 1914, but the mostly accepted year is 1911. She and her sister Peggy were raised in Pimlico by their grandmother. She initially gained experience as a dancer in revue in London's West End, Berlin and New York. She made her film debut in 1934 in Get Your Man, which she had followed with appearances in How's Chances?, The Luck of the Irish and The Secret of Stamboul.
These films have long since faded into obscurity but Walsh would go on to become one of Britain's most-liked female leads - she also ended up becoming the second wife of the great film director, David Lean. They met in 1936 and for awhile before they were married, Lean moved into the lodgings at which Walsh was living (quite radical as cohabiting was taboo at the time). They didn't marry until 1940.
After her appearance in the play The Melody That Got Lost, she earned a contract with Ealing Studios, where her first film was the George Formby vehicle Keep Fit. Produced by Basil Dean and directed by Anthony Kimmins, it was an immediate hit and did much to establish Walsh with audiences.
Lean edited The Last Adventurers in 1937, a film in which Walsh had a supporting role. Their fees came in handy as a long bout of unemployment followed for both. Her's was broken with her appearance in another George Formby vehicle, I See Ice.
The 1940s were her golden years on screen. Stand-out roles were in In Which We Serve (Lean/Noel Coward, 1942) and Oliver Twist (Lean, 1948). But for me, the outstanding role of her whole career came when she played the part of Queenie Watts in This Happy Breed (Lean, 1944). Lean used> a superb slice of propaganda to tell the story of a London family - the Gibbonses - from 1919-39. Based on Coward's 1943 West End hit, the film marked Lean's debut as a solo director. Lean worked with Technicolour for the first time but he used it brilliantly, all the more remarkable when you consider that most of the film is set in the drab decor of the Gibbons' Clapham home.
It's a great ensemble piece but Walsh held her own. Her Queenie Gibbons, Frank and Ethel's eldest daughter, is the lynchpin of the whole story and Walsh well captures the trauma and torment of one who feels the restraints of surburbia. I would suggest that only if you have grown up in London surburbia in any era (it is as revelant today as it was back then) would you truly understand her despair. She wants nothing more than to rise above her 'common' surroundings and yet, part of her loves the values and decency of those around her and she finally accepts this. It is this juxtapositioning that makes her performance the most important of the whole ensemble.
This Happy Breed went on to become the biggest money maker of its year (despite this, the film didn't get released in America until April 1947).
By the time she worked on the film Oliver Twist (she gave warmth to the Nancy character) with her husband, they marriage was practically dead. Lean was having an affair with the actress Ann Todd, and, rather coldly, needed to leave Walsh behind in order to pursue Todd. Thus he suggested a divorce and Walsh, seeing no point into hanging onto something that was already lifeless, agreed.
Aside from appearing on-screen for her former husband, she collaborated on several of his films by writing additional dialogue and advising on production and casting. Indeed, her wish for many years was to have been a writer rather than actress.
As Lean and Todd married in 1949, Walsh threw herself into work. She appeared in three film which were released in 1950: The Last Holiday, Stage Fright, in which she was directed by Hitchcock, and The Magnet, a minor Ealing comedy.
She married the Canadian psychologist Elliott Jacques in 1949, though the marriage only lasted seven years. Her career on screen never hit the heights again. It seemed lost, left far behind and forgotten when compared to the 1960s successes of her first husband. She was unrecognisable as Mrs Brown in the 1961 movie, Greyfriars Bobby. There was a steady if modest stream of roles, some on TV, until 1981 when she retired after Night Crossing.
In the last years of her life she lived in a nursing home. She died in London on 16 April 2005. Strangely (or perhaps fate?), she died just seven days before John Mills, who played her husband in her two most famous roles in In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed and appeared with her in several other movies.
With their deaths, an umbilical cord was cut for us from the golden age of British cinema. It has past, as all things must, into history.