Saturday, January 7, 2023

Ruth Donnelly: The Sneer With No Peer

This is my entry in the "What a Character" Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful bloggers at Once Upon a Screen, Paula's Cinema Club and Outspoken and Freckled. Please check out their sites for more of those unforgettable characters that put the support in supporting characters.

The peerless sneer of Ruth Donnelly

In those heady pre-code days (1927-1934), Warner Brothers had the most marvelous stable of supporting characters. Standing tall among such unforgettables is the indomitable Ruth Donnelly, the lady with a face full of priceless expressions. She was paired with Guy Kibbee many times and they made a perfect portrayal of a married couple whose ties now (as the great Erma Bombeck said) bind and gag.

Ruth and Guy Kibbee: this is what
mature married love looks like, kiddies

Ruth was a successful Broadway actress before she came to movies in a big way in 1931 (no less that George M. Cohan liked her comedy chops), and she certainly had a long and busy career playing not only comedy, but dramatic parts. However, it is her work as a pre-code wise-cracking, morally flexible woman of a certain age that tickles my funny bone.

My favorite Ruth Donnelly performance is in 1933's "Hard to Handle." As Mary Brian's mother on the make, she is simply hilarious as she veers from support to disdain to the financial status of the girl's suitors. As the dollars ebb and flow, so does her opinion of the men. When James Cagney, as her chief suitor, asks Ruth if his daughter told her he was in town, she replies, with that disdainful sneer, "yeah, you and the rest of the Depression." Her work with Cagney is tops. Both players never are afraid to be "too much" and they operate on a plane completely different, yet wholly compatible, from the rest of the cast.

Ruth Donnelly: never afraid to go big

As the protective mama bear, Ruth keeps a very close watch on her pretty daughter who is her meal ticket to a comfortable life. Hey - things were tough then and a woman of a certain age had to be tough and shrewd. "Hard to Handle" is typical of those quick and dirty Warner's pre-codes. There was not much subtlety, but lots of snarky, funny jokes are thrown all over the place. As Ruth and her daughter (a very platinum blonde Mary Brian) frequently appeared in the same outfit, I couldn't help thinking this was a humorous slap at Jean Harlow and her mama Jean.

Ruth and daughter (Mary Brian):
like mother, like daughter #1

Ruth and daughter (Mary Brian):
like mother, like daughter #2

The real Mama Jean and daughter Jean Harlow

Ruth sells the rented furniture for some quick cash

As Ruth's character sells rented furniture, schemes with friends and foes, and holds her daughter's charms like the crown jewels (when preparing for a date, Ruth counsels her daughter to wear a different dress, one that shows more of her "girlish laughter"), she steers this crazy ship of her daughter's romantic desires, Cagney's fortunes and her extraordinarily focused ambition for financial security to a safe harbor. Of course she did! The woman was on a mission.

She likey: Ruth and her "Footlight Parade" boy-toy Dick Powell

My other favorite Ruth Donnelly role is (again with Cagney), in "Footlight Parade." Although she is married to Guy Kibbee, she seems to have a parade of young, male "protégés." And, since it's pre-code, Kibbee doesn't seem to mind. As the film begins, her latest young man is Dick Powell, who soon gets a yearning for Ruby Keeler. Ruth shamelessly promotes her young man to Cagney to place him in the show (lucky for him the boy can sing) and gives epic shade to younger rival Keeler throughout the film. 

That look says it all. Nobody looked as though she was
smelling something foul better than Ruth Donnelly.

When she finally sees the writing on the wall that Powell has thrown her over for Keeler, she finds a new squeeze and makes sure he gets a part in Cagney's prologues. She is a woman who knows what she wants.

Great character actors usually have great presence and, many times, great faces. They may not get top billing, but their presence in any film brings a bit of satisfaction and comforting familiarity to the viewer. When I see Ruth Donnelly in the cast, I breathe a little contented sigh. 

Ruth as a women's prison warden in the crazy
"Ladies They Talk About." And you thought
Allison Janney was the first dame with a bird.

Don't forget to check out more great characters in the What a Character Blogathon. I hope you find a favorite or two there.