Like many film fans writer and biographer, Scott O’Brien’s, love of classic movies and television began from an early age by watching re-runs of the legends, such as, Myrna Loy and William Powell on television. Years later his passion for the forgotten legacy of Kay Francis, prompted him to research and write a biography on the great screen personality. This stimulated his interest in the other forgotten actresses of classic Hollywood, going on to publish two more in-depth biographies on Ann Harding and Virginia Bruce. His new book, “Ruth Chatterton: Actress, Aviator, Author” released this month discusses another remarkable, modern lady from the Precode era. Her personal legacy reached a multitude of arenas – the stage, film industry, aviation, publishing and politics – with her qualities of extraordinary determination, independence and intellect that shaped her successes both public and personal. Graciously, Scott O’Brien agreed to answer a few questions, detailed below, on his new book, Ruth Chatterton and the women of early 1930’s Hollywood.
Emma Alsop: What made you interested in classic films in general and the actresses of the 1930’s in particular?
Scott O’Brien: In my teens (1960’s) I enjoyed coming home from school and watching classic movies on TV. Screwball comedies of Myrna Loy and William Powell were particular favorites. The dialogue was filled with sharp wit, and Loy’s low-key style was still fresh. I got to meet her in San Francisco while she was on tour in Barefoot in the Park (1965) and she showed genuine interest in me as a person. She was a mentor, of sorts. Her work in civil rights, fair housing, and the United Nations (UNESCO) influenced my own world view.
My interest in Precode Hollywood blossomed in the 80’s with the advent of AMC and TNT. The gritty/risqué/honest edge of these films really surprised me. While I enjoyed the more emotional actresses like Norma Shearer and Bette Davis, I was also drawn to the understated style of Kay Francis, Ann Harding and Virginia Bruce.
Emma: When did you first come across Ruth Chatterton and what is your favourite film of hers?
Scott: A private collector in the Bay Area had a screening of Once A Lady (1931) while I was attending San Francisco State in 1968. It’s a dreadful film, but Chatterton had a compelling way of making an impossible, fantastic character come to life. A few years later I saw Dodsworth (1936) and I was hooked. Her role as Fran Dodsworth—a vain, foolish woman who is desperate to stay young is amazing to watch. Chatterton makes Fran familiar and understandable. Anybody’s Woman (1931) is another standout despite a hokey ending. Chatterton plays a burlesque queen who tries to turn her life around. She completely disappears into her character with stunning results. Dorothy Arzner directed this little gem.
Emma: How did you approach the biography considering Miss Chatterton was not only an accomplished film actress, but stage actress, aviator and author?
Scott: I decided that if I wanted to know what made Chatterton tick, I had to look at what she wrote about. I cover her career as a best-selling author in Chapter One. She began writing in the late 40’s—her first book released in 1950. Once I establish how she looked at life, I take the reader on a journey back in time to discover how she acquired her world view. At 16, Ruth took to the stage. She had a mother to support after her parents separated. Her father was a rather useless man who made a career of declaring bankruptcies and living off his in-laws. Chatterton’s acting career was her anchor. Her interest in aviation began in the late 1920’s, capping with her air derbies in 1935-36.
I was fortunate to have the help of Ruth’s favourite cousin’s daughter, Brenda Holman. Brenda sent me a package that contained the only memorabilia that Ruth saved from her career: photographs, telegrams, letters, and the first chapter from her last novel (unpublished). This material was truly a godsend. I also learned that a woman named Ruth Moesel had written a biography on Chatterton in the 1960’s. It was never published, but the manuscript is held at the New York Public Library. I was lucky to find someone who looked over the manuscript and collection of letters that Moesel had accumulated during her research. While the manuscript offered nothing new, the letters from Ruth’s friends and co-workers were very useful.
Emma: She was in her mid-30’s by the time she entered films. Why do you think she made this leap as she was in the midst of a very successful and stable stage career? Was she an instant hit with the studios and studio heads?
Scott: Actually, Chatterton’s stage career had come to a standstill by 1927. Her husband Ralph Forbes was an upcoming star at MGM (Beau Geste) and Ruth was in limbo. She even took time out to cover a murder trial for the Los Angeles press (the notorious Hickman Trial). She did a couple of screen tests that bombed. She never let Josef von Sternberg forget that he rejected her for a role in The Docks of New York (1928). Emil Jannings came to her rescue offering her a lead in Sins of the Fathers (1928—considered a lost film). Paramount signed her to a contract and within months she became one of their top stars. Myron Selznick was Ruth’s agent and when he finagled a more lucrative contract for her with Warner Bros. in 1931, she was pleased. Paramount wasn’t happy. They put her in a few clunkers before she made her exit. Ruth’s stay at Warner Bros. wasn’t fulfilling. Frisco Jenny (1933) was her only big box-office hit for the studio. She decided to freelance and pursue her interest in aviation.
Emma: How did Ruth begin writing novels and were her books popular?
Scott: Ruth’s first novel, Homeward Borne, stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for 23 weeks. Her interest in the assimilation of Jewish refugee orphans into American life was an uncomfortable, unusual topic, but Chatterton had a way of pulling readers into the narrative and absorb her message. She considered herself a crusader for social injustices. Her second book, The Betrayers, targeted Senator Joe McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities investigations. The more progressive critics and readers loved her books.
Emma: Why do you think Ruth Chatterton is largely forgotten as a film actress today, unlike others of her era, Jean Harlow, Mae West and Loretta Young?
Scott: Harlow’s tragic death kept her name and legacy alive (deservedly). Mae West and Loretta Young (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn) remained active on stage, screen, and TV for decades to assure their status as cinema legends. Chatterton’s last film was in 1938. She assumed the public was, in her words, “richly tired” of her. While she continued on stage and did some TV appearances, she was focused on being a writer. She was a success at redefining herself and being, as you say, “largely forgotten”.
Emma: Your biographies include not only Miss Chatterton but Kay Francis, Ann Harding and Virginia Bruce, all women who were at their peak in the Precode era. What drew you to the lives and careers of these women? Did you find similarities with them other than the time of their successes?
Scott: I appreciate the understated style of Francis, Harding and Virginia Bruce. They did not overplay. Their approach to acting was natural and unaffected. I always wanted to know more about them and got tired of waiting for someone else to tell their story. I’ve been fortunate to make contact with family, friends, and co-workers of these talented women. On a personal level, each actress was focused on entirely different things. Francis focused on being financially independent and enjoying a rather prolific love-life. Harding’s background in repertory theatre and ensemble playing didn’t exactly jive with Hollywood stardom. She could be headstrong. She had strained relationships with her family and daughter. Virginia Bruce was a real romantic. Sadly, her devotion to her last husband brought her much heartache and financial difficulty. Ruth’s extravagance and generosity left her practically penniless.
Emma: It is difficult for movie-goers to distinguish the stars from their onscreen personalities. I always imagined Ruth to be strong, independent and modern, similar to her characterizations in ‘Female’ and ‘The Crash’. What picture did you paint about Ruth from your research?
Scott: You are spot-on about Ruth. She was ambitious, independent and had ideas of her own. She was what they call “ahead of her time.” She didn’t give a fig what people thought. She would tell them what to think. She and I are pretty much on the same page in terms of how we see the world. However, Ruth saw herself as a crusader. One thing I like about her novels is that they have no heroes. She was adept about giving the back story for all the characters involved in her novels. You may not like them, but you understand them.
Emma I also hear you are planning a book on one of Miss Chatterton’s husband’s, George Brent. Is this true?Scott: While researching Chatterton, I was contacted by Irish filmmaker Brian Reddin. Reddin is working on a documentary on George Brent (born George Nolan in Ballinasloe, Ireland). As Brent was Chatterton second husband, Reddin was interested in my research. Together, we were able to zero in on Brent’s participation in the Irish Revolution in 1921. I got hooked. While Brent wasn’t as charismatic as Gable or Cagney, he was a steady, reliable talent who was willing to allow his leading ladies to steal the limelight. He’s especially good as Tom Ransome in my all-time personal favourite film The Rains Came (1939)
To find more information on author Scott O’Brien and his works - ‘Ruth Chatterton: Actress, Aviator, Author’, ‘Kay Francis - I Can't Wait to be Forgotten’, ‘Virginia Bruce - Under My Skin’ and ‘Ann Harding - Cinema's Gallant Lady’ – can be found on his website, linked here.