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Lots of movies get released just before Christmas – are you looking forward to seeing any? This puts me in mind of one of Australia’s Hollywood success stories, who was born on New Year’s Eve 116 years ago.

Orry Kelly (known as Jack) was from Kiama, in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, the son of a gentleman’s tailor. After studying art in Sydney, he worked as a tailor’s apprentice and window dresser before sailing to New York. Kelly got his start painting murals in nightclubs, which led to a job illustrating titles for Twentieth Century Fox, and designing costumes and sets for Broadway shows, but at times he ran speakeasies, designed bathrooms, and sold hand-painted ties to make a buck.

He also fell in love with a young British vaudeville actor named Archie Leach. Jack and Archie lived together in a Manhattan apartment for about five years, and they both moved to Los Angeles at the start of the 1930s to further their careers. Things went well for each of them. Archie changed his name to something more debonair, and became one of Hollywood’s leading men, while Jack worked for all the major Hollwood studios as a designer, under the professional name Orry-Kelly.

Orry-Kelly designed costumes for famous actresses such as Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Ava Gardner. He worked on almost 300 films during the Golden Age of Hollywood, with classic movies like 42nd Street, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and Oklahoma! on his CV. He won three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design – for An American in Paris, Cole Porter’s Les Girls, and Some Like It Hot. That makes him our biggest Oscar winner ever.

Kelly was a great wit, very outspoken, and had little respect for authority. Unlike many in Hollywood at the time, he made no secret of his homosexuality. It’s said that people either loved or hated Jack Kelly: a lot of the hate was because he was an alcoholic, and a mean drunk. The drinking eventually killed him, and the pallbearers at his funeral included Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder, and Cary Grant – otherwise known as his old flat-mate Archie.

Intriguingly, Kelly wrote a memoir towards the end of his life, titled Women I’ve Undressed. While publishers apparently loved the book, it never reached print – allegedly because of legal issues. Rumour has it that Cary Grant’s estate put a stop to it. The whereabouts of this book is now unknown, and just one chapter survives, filled with amusing anecdotes and sharp observations about the famous ladies he worked with.

Earlier this year, Orry-Kelly featured as part of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) Hollywood Costume exhibition in Melbourne, together with a programme of classic films featuring his costumes. Director Gillian Armstrong, who has made films based on famous Australians such as Florence Broadhurst and Nancy Wake, is planning a cinema documentary about his life. It won’t be out for Christmas, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

Orry Kelly’s father, William, was originally from the Isle of Man, and he gave his son a name from the island’s history.

Godred Crovan was a medieval Norse-Gaelic ruler of Dublin, and King of the Isles. He invaded the Isle of Man three times before he took it, and the last time used a certain amount of trickery. He hid 300 men in the woods overnight, and when the men of Man rose at dawn, ready to do battle against Godred’s forces, 300 men charged out of the woods and ambushed them. Godred later took Dublin as well, but was driven out at some medievally vague date, and the next year died of a medievally vague ailment – pestilence.

Godred is derived from Old Norse names which combine the word for either god or good with the word for peace, so that the name can be understood as “god’s peace” or “good peace”. The modern English form of the name is Godfrey. In Manx, the name is Goree or Gorry, and then became Orry.

The legend of King Orry survives in Manx folk songs, and they call the Milky Way “the great track of King Orry” in his honour. A Stone Age barrow is known locally as King Orry’s grave, although Godred was apparently buried on the island of Islay, in Scotland. According to legend, King Orry was the founder of the Tynwald, the ancient Norse-based Parliament of the Isle of Man, which has existed for over a thousand years, and thus claims to be the oldest continuous parliament in Europe.

Just to confuse things, the name Godred was traditional amongst Norse nobility, and the “King Orry” of Manx legend may very well be a much earlier Godred, although traditionally Godred Crovan is considered to be the “real” King Orry. If you are starting to get the impression that King Orry’s existence is more in the realm of fiction than of fact, mentally hand yourself a kewpie doll and a stuffed animal.

The name Orry commemorates a fascinating character from Manx folklore, and has a nicknamey feel that doesn’t seem out of step with current trends. If you squint a little, it doesn’t seem too different from familiar names like Harry and Ollie. There’s something about it I can’t help liking – it seems cheerful and rugged, and even rather cuddly. And if your son doesn’t like being called Orry, he can always go by Jack.

POLL RESULT: Orry received a surprisingly high approval rating of 75%. People saw the name Orry as cute (29%), an interesting part of Manx history and culture (20%), and not much different to familiar nicknames like Ollie (17%). However, 9% thought the name was ugly, and a further 9% considered it weird. Only one person preferred either Godred or Godfrey.

(Photo shows Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron wearing Orry-Kelly’s Oscar-winning costumes in An American in Paris)

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