Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Ruby's Turn Now...!

Modern Screen. August 1933. Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler illustrated by Marland Stone.

Another straight transcription of a cover story feature article, this time from Modern Screen magazine, dated August, 1933. It's always fascinating to see how those contemporary versions of events become blurred when compared and contrasted against other versions. I've already posted some of these, and will doubtless post more. It'll all be assembled into some sort of timeline with footnotes shortly. In addition to the feature story ("It's Ruby's Turn Now...!"), the magazine also posts a lead review of Gold Diggers of 1933, and a nice feature interview with Jack Warner about his plans for the Warner studio stars. I have transcribed the Gold Diggers review in full, and excerpted Warner's comments about Ruby from his profile. It's curious to note the conflicting and inconsistent usage of the titles "Golddiggers" vs. "Gold Diggers," and "42nd Street" vs. "Forty-Second Street," within the binding of the same magazine issue.

August 1933
Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler illustrated by Marland Stone


By Caroline Somers Hoyt

ONE day I was having lunch in the First National commissary with Ruby Keeler.

He husband, Al Jolson, attired in golf knickers and white cap, came up to the table.

"Want to play golf this afternoon, honey?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, darling, I can't," she said. "I've got to rehearse the dance routines for 'Golddiggers.' Then I've got a fitting later." She saw the look of disappointment on his face. "But maybe if I hurry I could meet you about five and we could have one round."

And there was Al Jolson with a glorious California afternoon on his hands and nothing to do with it but wait for Ruby to finish her studio activities.

When Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson arrived in New York not long ago to attend the opening of Ruby's latest picture, she was interviewed by dozens of reporters.

Hundreds of eager fans stood in the lobby of their hotel and begged for her autograph.

The news cameramen snapped dozens of pictures of her.

During their stay in New York I called Ruby on the telephone. Al answered and told me that Ruby was out and could not see me that day. He might have been Ruby's business manager or press agent—the way he spoke to me. And I was disappointed. I had wanted to see Ruby.

Then suddenly I remembered that just a few years ago I had turned heaven and earth in an attempt to get an appointment with the busy, the sought-after, the important Al Jolson.

FOR behind these three apparently simple and average incidents there is a story as tragic as the history of show business.

Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler. Five years ago you said it that way, if you said it at all. Five years ago it was the great Al Jolson and "who was that little chorus girl he married?"

But now it is Ruby Keeler. Al Jolson is her husband.

Even before talkies Al was the greatest entertainer in the world. He made more money than any of the then-great. Came talkies and he was the one great star. "The Singing Fool"—his picture—will go down in motion picture history. Being a part of history, however, is scant consolation when one is still alive. When Al appeared on the street thousands followed him and begged for his autograph and laughed at his wisecracks. And just the other day I was disappointed when he answered the 'phone and told me Ruby Keeler was out. Isn't it amazing that now this slip of a girl, not much over twenty, erstwhile Texas Guinan chorus girl, is now the star of the family and Al Jolson—the great Jolson—makes appointments for her, answers her telephone and languishes away a California afternoon waiting while she rehearses and has fittings at her studio?

But the curious part of this strange, topsy-turvy pattern is that Ruby doesn't know it is different from what it was. To Ruby, Al is as great as he was that night, years ago, when he came to Guinan's night club and asked somebody who the cute little tap dancer was.

So perhaps that is what makes it possible for Al to go on. Perhaps that is why he can watch Ruby's fame grow and his diminish. Ruby adores him, admires him and respects him.

To her he is still the greatest showman of his time.

You should have seen them when they arrived in New York. The news cameramen swooped down to take their pictures. It was Ruby they wanted, but Ruby stepped behind Al, let him take center stage, with a big broad smile, and just looked over his shoulder. Ruby wanted it that way, because that's the sort of girl Ruby is.

IF it hadn't been for the fact she was born with dancing feet, Ruby would never, never have chosen the theatre as a career. She just isn't the type. But in school her teachers watched her going through the dull routine of "drill" and saw how lithe her body was, how quick her step and that she turned the stupid exercise into a thing of rhythmic beauty.

It was those teachers who persuaded her to go to the Professional Children's School. At thirteen she was a chorus girl in "The Rise of Rosy O'Reilly." And not much longer after that was a dancer in Texas Guinan's night club.

I'm sure you'd say that was no place for a young and inexperienced girl to work. But you wouldn't know Ruby. She tells you now—her soft eyes lit by the fire of sincerity—that the girls at Guinan's were "awfully nice girls." And she isn't putting on an act. To Ruby, they were.

Ruby managed, somehow, to remain immune to the sinister and sometimes sordid atmosphere she breathed. She danced at Guinan's but she was never a part of it. I'll give you a typical incident.

One night there was a fight in the club, the reason for which remains a tawdry secret of the underworld. Guns were drawn. Hatred charged the air. Everyone in the place was filled with terror.

And Ruby? Well, Ruby was down in the grill room. She didn't know there had been a fight until the other girls told her about it later, for Ruby was always somewhere else when these spectacular events occurred.

Ruby worked at Guinan's—that was all. The life was never an actual part of her life.

And that, of course, was partly because of her family.

For Ruby had lots more fun telling her brothers and sisters about the celebrities that came to the club than she had stepping out after the show. Besides, she was too tired to do much stepping out.

Ruby's working day at the club began at twelve-thirty and ended at half past four in the morning. The rest of the morning and the better part of the day were the child's sleeping hours. She usually got up at five and told the family everything that had happened the night before.

It was one of those big, jolly, Irish families and with them Ruby felt much more at home than in the world of glittering tinsel in which she worked.

ONE day Ruby asked her sisters, "Guess who came in last night?"

Ruby couldn't wait for them to guess.

"Al Jolson," she said, with a note of due awe in her voice.

"Al Jolson!" they repeated.

Yes, the great Al Jolson had been to Texas' Club—the greatest entertainer in the world, the big shot of the theatrical business and—what's more—he had definitely noticed Ruby. He had asked who she was. It was all very exciting and thrilling and her sisters sat wide-eyed and listened as she told the story.

And that was how the romance began—the romance between the big entertainer and the little chorus girl.

Ruby was so thrilled to be seen in company with the great Al Jolson. For she had never overcome her awe of celebrities and a feeling of her own unworthiness.

She was so shy, so unsure of herself that when Ziegfeld asked her to star in "Show Girl" she told him she could neither sing nor act and that he was making a mistake in putting her in the part. But he patted her on the back and persuaded her to take the stellar role.

She suffered such torments that when she would look out into the audience and discover two heads together, people whispering and laughing, she was quite sure that they were laughing at her. In spite of encouragement from Ziegfeld she died a thousand deaths of self-consciousness whenever she stepped on the stage and finally, her nervousness was so great, she became physically ill and a doctor told her she must leave the show.

Ruby didn't want to be anything but just Al Jolson's wife, to shine only in his reflected glory.

But the executives begged her to work in pictures. The first offer came to play opposite Al in one of his films. Ruby refused that flatly. She knew Al was nervous when he worked and she thought the added worry of her would trouble him. Besides, now that she and Al were married she had no desire for a career.

They broke down her resistance finally and she consented to "Forty-Second Street."

Again she suffered from stage fright, although she was thrilled to meet the stars and asked for autographs like any high school girl. And still, as her popularity on the lot grew, she believed that it was just because of Al.

WITH the utmost sincerity she told me, "People hardly ever remember me. But they all know Al and it's fun meeting them through him."

You see? To Ruby there is no change. Their relationships are exactly the same. She does not realize what has happened.

But these are the facts. With the release of "Forty-Second Street" Ruby's star ascended. It was one of the smash hits of the season and Ruby became an instantaneous success. She was rushed into "Golddiggers of 1933" and other films are in preparation for her.

IN the meantime—and even long before—Al's star had been waning. The novelty of his work in the first talkies having worn off, he is no longer the greatest entertainer in the world.

But the curious part is Ruby doesn't know it. The beautiful part of the story is that Ruby still sees Al as the greatest entertainer and her picture triumphs are merely secondary to the glory of being Al Jolson's wife.

The important part of her life is being with Al.

She actually doesn't realize that he is answering the 'phone for her and waiting on her while she rehearses and has fittings, for Ruby is still the little girl in the night club who was awed when Al Jolson asked her name.

As his popularity with the public fades, his popularity with Ruby grows. In her heart he is the great one, she the lesser. She still thinks that it is only because she is Al Jolson's wife that anyone is interested in her.

And so, perhaps, Al is compensated.

August 1933


Review ~

GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933 (Warners)

EXTRA swell musical. Hollywood can't make up its mind whether this is better than "42nd Street" . . . or merely as good. By that you can see that it's an evening of really swell entertainment.

It's that same old "Golddiggers" theme, but the girls, the dancing, the songs and the spectacular beauty of the whole thing is what makes it stand out.

Poor chorus gal falls for song writer (millionaire playboy in whiskers) whose brother threatens to "cut off his drinks" unless he forgets all dancers. The brother thinks they're all golddiggers. He (Warren William) comes to New York with his attorney (Guy Kibbee) to steer the younger brother (Dick Powell) on the virtuous track. Of course, he falls for the very gal he thinks the kid brother is about to marry (Joan Blondell) and thus the brother is able to actually marry the gal he loves (Ruby Keeler) and all ends in weddings.

All through the picture you will hold your breath at the gorgeous dance numbers created by Busby Berkeley and the songs, especially "We're in the Money," will send you away humming to yourself.

Joan shows a lot of dramatic ability that she hasn't had to display in the past. Ruby Keeler puts over a couple of grand songs . . . Kibbee is funny and the gals are way, way above par. You'll like it—the whole family will like it!

August 1933



What do the producers themselves plan for their own stars?

WHAT is to be the 1933-34 professional fate of Ruth Chatterton, William Powell, George Arliss, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Kay Francis, Ruby Keeler, Bette Davis, Richard Barthelmess, Barbara Stanwyck and Joe E. Brown? If any man in the world could know the multiple facts necessary to forecast these many fates, that one man would be Jack L. Warner, vice-president and sole production chief of Warner Brothers-First National Studios in Hollywood. [...]

"At the present moment, we are particularly interested in the possibilities of Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler as potential big stars of the screen. Joan has been with us for some time and I do not mean to insinuate that we have overlooked her worth to any of our pictures. But just recently we got a new slant on her. A certain scene in "Gold Diggers of 1933" suggested something new in Joan's personality, something we have overlooked. We shall develop this.

"Ruby Keeler, on the other hand is a perfect musical comedy natural and since we intend producing many of these, it is a certainty that she will figure greatly in our new program.

"Dick Powell is another newcomer who can't be ignored this season. I like him very much teamed with Miss Keeler."

August 1933


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