Roy Del Ruth
| The Life of the Party | The Maltese Falcon
| Blonde Crazy | My Past
| Taxi! | Blessed Event
| Bureau of Missing Persons | The Little Giant
| Lady Killer | Thanks a Million
| Broadway Melody of 1936 | Born To Dance
| Private Number
| My Lucky Star | The Chocolate Soldier
| Topper Returns
| The Babe Ruth Story | Stop, You're Killing Me
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Roy Del Ruth
Roy Del Ruth is a prolific but critically neglected creator of
Hollywood movies, from the 1920's to the 1950's. Recently I have
had a chance to see several of his earlier films, courtesy of
Turner's TNT and TCM networks and the American Movie Channel,
which are doing a splendid job of reviving hundreds of old films.
The Life of the Party
The Life of the Party (1929) is an old early talkie, a
light comedy starring the now forgotten actress Winnie Lightner.
Boy is she abrasive, but she could be funny, too. I liked her
scene as a song plugger in a New York music shop, a profession
that doesn't exist today. Lightner and Del Ruth married in 1934,
and stayed married. But the funniest scenes in this movie involve
a middle aged roué who comically explodes when frustrated,
which is fairly often, considering how many times he gets shafted
by the other characters. These scenes are really over the top,
and make an otherwise rather ordinary picture enjoyable.
The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon (1931) is the first version of Dashiell
Hammett's famous mystery novel. (The famous Humphrey Bogart version
(1941) directed by John Huston is actually the third film of the
novel, the second being Satan Met A Lady (1936).) This
version in some ways much closer in tone to the novel than the
Huston version. Sam Spade, the detective hero, is portrayed here
both as a sleazy detective, and as a womanizer, just as in the
book. Bogart's Sam Spade, by contrast, is a noble hero, pure as
the driven slush. The other characters, as well, keep more of
their character traits from the book. The feel of the story construction
is closer to the "floating poker game" effect (to borrow
a phrase from Andrew Sarris) of many of Hammett's stories, with
a great deal of negotiation going on in Spade's apartment. There
is also a feel of erotic fantasy, perhaps a bit embarrassing,
but also sensuous and exciting, that is definitely not associated
with the Huston version. This film runs out of steam in the second
half, but it is well worth seeing, especially for mystery fans
who want to see a very different, but still faithful version of
Blonde Crazy (1931) stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell
as pair of con artists, and marks Del Ruth's first film with Cagney.
The best scenes in the picture are some interesting con games,
including one with jewelry. The film also shows Del Ruth's uniform
obsession: there are six different uniforms that appear in different
scenes, including a classic bit of fantasy involving Nat Pendelton
as a fake motorcycle cop interrupting an adulterous tryst. As
usual in Del Ruth's film's, the characters are trying to transform
themselves, but here Joan Blondell's respectable marriage (to
a very young looking Ray Milland) ends in disaster as he turns
out to be a crook. Del Ruth is usually far more supportive of
his character's transformations, which typically end happily.
My Past (1931). This not very good triangle drama is notable
mainly for the charm of its three stars: Bebe Daniels, Ben Lyons
and a pre-Andy Hardy Lewis Stone. The script is sometimes more
sensible that other romance dramas. At one point, trivial reasons
look as if they are going to keep Bebe and Ben apart. Many films
have milked such inane gimmicks for a half-hour of romantic anguish
and misunderstandings. But here Joan Blondell, playing Bebe's
best friend, intervenes, spills the beans to both characters about
what's keeping them apart, and insists they try again. This scene
shows refreshing good sense.
Ben Lyons clearly liked getting dressed up to the max. He is at
his happiest here in his big scenes in white tie and tails. You
can tell he is just thrilled with his outfit on camera. Lyons
and Daniels were silent screen veterans, and both had often gotten
to wear very elaborate costumes in their films.
Taxi! (1932), starring Jimmy Cagney as a compulsively violent
cab driver, is not very good - at least the first half, which
is all I wanted to see. I don't like or admire people who keep
getting into fights - they remind me of the obnoxious bullies
I sometimes encountered in my childhood. In general Hollywood
films have equated violence with manhood too much, with a hero
that has to fight back to keep his self respect and his prosperity.
In real life, however, violence is almost always disastrous, but
in too many films it leads to sex and success. Yucch! This film
is way below Del Ruth's best work.
Blessed Event (1932) stars Lee Tracy in a satire of Walter
Winchell type gossip columnists. The first 15 minutes or so of
this film are extremely funny, but the film is uneven. One problem:
a little Lee Tracy goes a long way. This relentlessly abrasive
comedian probably gave everyone a lift during the Depression,
when people felt that if they just had as much drive as Tracy,
that the Depression would not leave them licked. However, he specialized
in obnoxious characters, and this film is no exception. Tracy
was probably at his best in Gregory La Cava's The Half-Naked
Truth (1932). The satire in Blessed Event is at its
best when the plot is being carried not by Tracy, but by his long
suffering secretary (Ruth Donnelly). Her comic delivery and uninhibited
dialogue during the opening quarter hour are genuinely zingy.
Allen Jenkins is also good as a naive, good-natured mobster.
Also notable in the film: Dick Powell's comic impression of a
nauseatingly sappy crooner. Powell, who was making his film debut,
goes after this role with a meat ax. His sheer relentlessness
at putting over his inane songs suggests that crooners were as
aggressive as they were idiotic. Del Ruth loved such gusto oriented
characters, people who drove everything before them. Powell's
confidence is equaled only by his inaneness. Every time he comes
on screen, you just have to laugh. The crooner craze has been
mercifully forgotten today. A little of this makes one long for
the Andrew Sisters or Ricky Martin. Still, this film, like other
Del Ruth works, is refreshingly uninhibited about mixing in music
with comedy or drama.
The stage origin of Blessed Event is obvious. It is a work
in the same "hard-boiled newsmen" genre as Hecht and
MacArthur's The Front Page. That film has an accused criminal
going to the death house; this film has Tracy at his most driven
recounting the execution of Ruth Snyder. Tasteless as it is, one
has to laugh at this dark comedy.
Bureau of Missing Persons
I found Bureau of Missing Persons (1932) to be a disappointing
crime film. The best bits are by comic character actors who also
appeared in Del Ruth's Blessed Event (1932): Ruth Donnelly
as a secretary once again, and Allen Jenkins as a lower down cop.
Del Ruth is often sympathetic to such subordinate types.
The film claims to drawn from real life police files, in a way that became
popular 15 years later with Dragnet. The film is full of
dozens of little crime vignettes. This sort of police realism
seems unusual for its date.
The Little Giant
The Little Giant (1933) stars Edward G. Robinson as an
ex-mobster trying to crash high society. It is one of Del Ruth's
best raucous comedies. It shows Del Ruth's perennial theme: someone
trying to make something of themselves.
The heroes of the film
also show the typical Del Ruth enthusiasm for getting dressed
up, with many scenes involving new outfits. They are often over-dressed,
wearing more fancy formal outfits than everyone around them, including
white tie and tails. They also manage to get into naval uniforms
aboard a yacht, leading to a delightful comic encounter with a
Lady Killer (1934), is the best of the early Del Ruth films
I have seen. Among other things, this film has enough plot for
three films. The story is full of wild twists and turns, but I
don't want to say too much about it for fear of spoiling the reader's
Cagney gets reunited with Mae Clarke, whom he "grapefruited"
in Public Enemy, and the individual episodes along the
way are mainly very enjoyable.
Thanks a Million
Thanks a Million (1935) was written by Nunally Johnson,
and reflects Del Ruth's change of studio away from Warner Brothers.
This delightful musical satirizes politics, and has some very
witty dialogue. It maintains Del Ruth's transformation theme (Dick
Powell goes from crooner to politician), and is unusually candid
about the corruptions of 1930's politics. It clearly anticipated
such later political films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
(1938) and The Great McGinty (1940), both of which are
much better remembered today. Del Ruth's interest in motorcycle
cops appears in this film in the finale, in which dozens of singing
cops give a motorcycle escort to our hero and heroine, who are
driving off to be married. One cop out in the lead keeps weaving
his bike back and forth, while he and everyone else belts out
the final chorus! An interesting set of specialty numbers were
written and sung in this film by The Yacht Club Boys, a quartet
that does satiric patter songs. Their lyrics here are very penetrating
comments on politics, and their performances are nutty and spirited.
They brought a similar oomph to Mitchell Leisen's 1938 musical,
Artists and Models Abroad. This unusual group should be
better remembered today.
Broadway Melody of 1936
Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936) made a star of tap dancer
Eleanor Powell. Far and away the best part of this movie is the
musical number "I've a Feelin' You're Foolin'". This
is an inspired bit of whimsy, with many original ideas and touches.
Notable are the moving parts of the set, and the special effects.
It won choreographer Dave Gould an Academy Award. It occurs near
the start of the film, which goes down hill steadily after this.
The film is also the origin of "You Are My Lucky Star";
later a record of "All I Do Is Dream of You" is played
in French! Both of these Arthur Freed - Nacio Herb Brown song
classics were revived in Singin in the Rain (1952),
Not much has been written about Dave Gould, although he was a
prolific choreographer in 1930's Hollywood. He is probably best
known today for the initial Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers films,
Flying Down to Rio (1933) and The Gay Divorcee (1934).
The latter film has one of his best numbers, "The Continental".
One can see some common features between it and "Foolin".
Both dances exploit unusual gimmicks - the shadows on the wall
cast by the revolving record player in "The Continental",
the moving sets and special effects in "Foolin". These
effects are charming, and add freshness and originality to the
numbers - they are not they same old thing. They are also inherently
kinetic: Gould likes effects that involvement movement. Both numbers
are also carefully designed in black and white. Gould has worked
closely with the costume designer in each film. The black and
white clothes worn by the numerous dancers are woven by him into
complex and regular patterns. In both films, Gould alternates
between dances done by couples, and dances done by large groups
of performers. There is also an alternation between singing and
pure dancing, giving variety to both very long and elaborate sequences.
Gould can be compared to Busby Berkeley. Like Berkeley, Gould
loves geometric patterns formed by his corps of dancers. They
are less overhead and less kaleidoscopic in Gould, but the geometrizing
impulse is strong in both directors. Unlike Berkeley, who favors
all female chorus lines, Gould likes equal numbers of male and
female dancers. His dancers tend to be dressed to the teeth in
evening clothes as well. Gould sometimes breaks his dancers into
groups of four or five, and uses these as building blocks in his
I thought the non-musical parts of this movie were pretty weak.
Once again, the best comic performances are given by two of the
lower downs, Una Merkel as producer Robert Taylor's secretary,
and Sid Silvers as the assistant to Broadway columnist Jack Benny.
Benny's role is another spoof of Walter Winchell; it starts right
in where Blessed Event (1932) leaves off. In fact, Benny's
early radio broadcasts here are full of references to forthcoming
"blessed events", just as in the earlier movie. I did
enjoy the scenes where Taylor keeps punching out Benny for the
nasty things he writes about him in his column. The feud here
between Taylor and Benny is modeled after the one in Blessed
Event between Dick Powell and Lee Tracy - there are very close
links between the two films. Benny gives a subdued, in character
performance which obliterates his usual comic persona; it is generally
not funny. I've always been a big Jack Benny fan, and found this
rather disappointing. And Taylor is completely wooden.
Born To Dance
Del Ruth made an Eleanor Powell musical, Born To Dance
(1936), that is pretty weak. It has the much satirized finale
of a Broadway show set on board an Navy ship, complete with chorines
in skimpy sailor girl outfits and a giant cannon that goes boom
at the end. I have seen a zillion camped up spoofs of this, but
never knew what musical was being sent up till I saw this show.
Jimmy Stewart, who can't sing but tries anyway, plays a poor man
with no visible means of support but a naval officer's pension
who runs around in expensive suits and white tie and tails. While
some of the dance numbers in this film are good, all in all it
is pretty rough sledding. The film does fit in, with all its sailors
and naval officers, with Del Ruth's enthusiasm for having his
male characters in uniform. There is the young state trooper in
Stop You're Killing Me who romances Broderick Crawford's
daughter, and the fake spoof military beginning of Lady Killer.
Del Ruth clearly enjoys the glamour of Hollywood military uniforms,
the gaudier the better, making another thread in the tapestry
of his films. There is also a comic floorwalker in full formal
day wear, another outfit that shows up frequently in Del Ruth's films.
Apparently untypical of Del Ruth's films is the soap opera Private Number (1937).
This film puts maid Loretta Young through a
hell of sexual harassment, discrimination from the rich, and legal
persecution. It is so downbeat that it is depressing, and has
little entertainment value. But it is politically interesting.
It is consistent with the corruption and just plain meanness with
which Del Ruth charges the rich in such films as Blonde Crazy
and Thanks a Million. The emphasis on the problems of servants
also recalls the hotel staff in Blonde Crazy and the movie
palace staff in Lady Killer. Martinet head butler Basil
Rathbone's quasi-military inspections of the staff are like creepy,
sinister versions of similar scenes played for laughs in the start
of Lady Killer. (Rathbone's villainous performance here
is something of a classic.) Joan Blondell also had to endure sexual
harassment from a customer in Blonde Crazy, but that was
just one scene; here it takes up much of the movie. The male chauvinism
displayed by the hero's father in the movie, a chauvinism severely
criticized by the film, is also the result of very politically
advanced thinking on sexual politics on the part of the filmmakers.
All in all, Private Number is a road map to some of Del
Ruth's most serious political concerns, concerns that are still
relevant to feminist thinkers today.
My Lucky Star
Del Ruth made two Sonje Henie ice skating musicals in the later
1930's: My Lucky Star (1938) and Happy Landing (1938).
The second is not very good, but the first, set at Dartmouth's
Winter Carnival, is a lot of fun. Billy Gilbert has a good bit
as a waiter who waxes emotional over pistachio nut ice cream,
and the importance of pistachio nuts to the economy of "the
old country". This is truly nutty.
The Chocolate Soldier
Del Ruth continued his
musical making career with The Chocolate Soldier, a Nelson
Eddy - Rise Stevens musical based on "The Guardsman".
This is a mildly entertaining film.
Nelson Eddie's transformation
of himself into a Russian bass is typical of the many Del Ruth
characters who try to transform themselves and their lives. Many
of his male characters are ex-gangsters who try to go straight;
many of his females are trying to get married and start a new
and different life.
Topper Returns is a minor entry in
that series. The best parts of a dull film are some mystery movie
parodies at the start, particularly with the Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper.
The Babe Ruth Story
Del Ruth's postwar films include The Babe Ruth Story, a
biopic of the baseball great I enjoyed when I saw it as a child.
Del Ruth's last film is The Alligator People, a rare (for
Del Ruth) excursion into sf, of the 50's monster movie variety.
It stars Beverly Garland, who was the mother on "Scarecrow
and Mrs. King". I saw it long ago, and all I remember is
that it was not bad.
Stop, You're Killing Me
Stop, You're Killing Me (1952) is a funny farce about gangsters
who've gone straight.
On Moonlight Bay (1951) is
a nice little musical romance with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae.
Both of these films have considerable delicacy of feeling, as
do most of Del Ruth's works: he is sensitive to his characters'
romantic feelings and desires. Many of his films mix genres, with
serious mystery or crime plots being combined with comedy, often
pushed to nutty absurdity, romance, characters' yearnings for
a better life, an emotionally richer and more satisfying life
- a Del Ruth characteristic that appears in film after film -
and often music too. While this makes his films rather unfocused
- they can seem like a little bit of everything - it has given
some very interesting work to the screen, too.