Roy Del Ruth

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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 (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 (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 the book.

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.

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 (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 sailor.

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 enjoyment. 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 (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 (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 patterns.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 (1952) is a funny farce about gangsters who've gone straight. Finally 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.