Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dancing Thru

Silver Screen. May 1936. Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler by Marland Stone.

"This is an Irish fairy tale . . . unbelievable but true. For in no other way can certain events be explained. If we followed logic, it would be impossible for the beguiling blue-eyed pixy born twenty odd years ago to be the Ruby Keeler of today."

So begins Dell Hogarth's profile of Ruby Keeler in the May, 1936 issue of Silver Screen magazine. Those "twenty odd years" would more accurately be 26 even years at the date of publication.

The sub-header of the cover story reads, "Ruby Keeler Has Danced All Her Life, And Loves It." The two-page article introduces Ruby's latest pic Colleen, and covers the now familiar tale of her rise from infancy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to her impoverished childhood years in New York City; her early schooling at St. Catherine of Sienna's School, and The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly.

Hogarth paints a picture of Keeler's early career dancing at Texas Guinan's legendary El Fey Club, describing Ruby as being "like some woodland sprite who had become entangled in the maze of the city," while mentioning the "sordid dramas," "feminine schemings" and "shabby tricks" of the dressing room.

"One incident must be recited to reveal more precisely her attitude at that time. One of the girls finally persuaded her to allow two prominent men to drive them home in their limousine. Ruby accepted on condition that they stop two blocks away from her house. She didn't want anyone in the neighborhood to see her get out of that sumptuous limousine - they might think she had gone high hat! The other girl was Patsy Kelly."

As was common in yesteryear, and still occurs to-day, these types of articles are many times planted by movie studio publicity departments and are often apocryphal, offering fact mixed with conflicting fictions. Diving into these intrigues, it's wise to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, these accounts are still fascinating and prove useful, providing information and templates that can be compared and contrasted against other sources.

Of particular interest for many Rubyphiles is the story of how she met her first husband Al Jolson, 24 years her senior, and how she began her Hollywood movie career. These stories shall be examined and dissected as I move through the various sources, but here's a lengthy excerpt from the Silver Screen version as authored by Hogarth:

"The great Ziegfield saw this Cinderella and put her immediately into his current Whoopee [1928]. As premiere danseuse. And romance played its ace.

"Al Jolson was the star of the show. But beneath his gruff, wholehearted manner he was really shy - and still is. When he saw this new recruit to the cast he lost his heart. But they were never introduced. He didn't even speak. He merely watched adoringly from the wings when she danced, and she watched him. Two shy natures that loved and were afraid to make each other understand.

"Fate takes its time: humans don't guide it. Ruby went to California for the first vacation in her life and there, half-heartedly, she tried to get into pictures. But studios weren't interested in a girl who could only sing and dance. Liking the sunshine anyway, Ruby remained to dance in prologues on the stage.

"One evening Ruby went to the station to meet a friend from New York. Al Jolson was there to meet Fanny Brice. Somebody introduced them. Their friends arrived unmet.

"That night when Ruby danced in the prologue at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood the master of ceremonies recognized Al in the audience. It was a preview night, celebrities were there, so he asked the famous comedian if he wouldn't step up on stage and favor the house with a song. It was then that Hollywood got an inkling of a fairy story romance - one that led to rumors that Al and Ruby had been engaged for a long while, that he had taken her away from Texas Guinan, put her in Whoopee and induced her to come to Hollywood. For without hesitation Al jumped to his feet. He didn't go up on stage. He didn't sing to the audience. From where he stood at his seat he sang to that elfin girl on the stage who answered him with a blushing smile.

"Three months later Ruby retired from the stage to be a wife. As far as she was concerned her career was forever finished. But the pattern of her life, she knew, was not quite complete.

"During those years in night clubs and on the stage she had always dreamed of a husband, a family, and a home in the country. But Heaven didn't send a child and Al, who had always lived in hotels and never had a home of his own, couldn't quite adapt himself to the idea of a country estate. His spirit was too restless. So, wisely, Ruby didn't force the issue.

"But that didn't mean she was going to relinquish her real career for a shadowy life on the screen. When Joseph Schenck prevailed upon her to let him make a screen test she laughingly agreed. But when the test turned out so good that he pleaded with her to accept a role, she begged off, afraid. She was humbly content as Mrs. Jolson.

"One Friday night when she and Al were watching the fights at the Hollywood Stadium, Jack Warner leaned over and whispered that he had seen her test. Throughout the main event he implored her to accept the ingenue lead in 42nd Street. Al chuckled. The diversion, he said, might do her good. Go ahead.

"The rest is history.

"The fairy story must continue. The little housewife who became the toast of Hollywood overnight was delighted, but scarcely thrilled. The fumes of worldwide renown didn't go to her head. She was humbly thankful - that is all.

"It is indicative of this child of fortune that she didn't rant against Fate when she remained childless. Instead, she adopted a boy. And after years of quiet persuasion Al was ready to settle down in the country. They built a large, rambling place in Encino. And the day before Christmas Al was elected mayor of the town."

O-kay, that's a very long excerpt. But as a template it should serve us well down the road, separating fact from myth, especially as we compare it against other sources, particularly modern biographies as written by Patrick Watson and Nancy Marlow.

It's curious to note that nowhere in Hogarth's profile do we find any actual quotes from Ruby herself. The only accompanying pictures are the lovely airbrushed cover, and a single uncredited photograph of Ruby in a tree taken from a series of familar Warner/Vitagraph publicity stills shot by Scotty Welbourne in 1934. Indeed, one can surmise that Ruby mightn't have been interviewed or cooperated with Silver Screen in any capacity on the feature.

That said, one doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the feature nor the "facts" presented entirely. It'll all be valuable down the road - and that's what this blog is all about: assembling as many accounts as possible and attempting to formulate the "most likely" scenarios. Stay tuned!

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