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Scott O'Brien Q & A on Ruth Chatterton

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Scott O'Brien Q & A on Ruth Chatterton

Postby moira finnie » June 22nd, 2013, 6:17 am

Here's the spot where we can ask our visiting author, Scott O'Brien, about the remarkable Ruth Chatterton, the subject of his latest book, from June 23-June 28th Ruth Chatterton: Actress - Aviator- Author (BearManor Media). Please ask away about this complex figure from the world of pre-code, 20th century cultural history and dive into all things Chatterton starting on Sunday, June 23rd when this thread will open.

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To get us started, I would like to thank Scott for visiting with us and ask the following:

In the transitional period between silents and talkies and in the pre-code world of the cinema, what do you think made Ruth Chatterton distinctively different?
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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » June 23rd, 2013, 8:54 am

Welcome to The Silver Screen Oasis, Mr. O'Brien! We are so happy that you are here!

I am a writer, and I am most interested in the process of gathering research. What did you find during the process of amassing information that most surprised you about Miss Chatterton?

Thank you!
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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby JackFavell » June 23rd, 2013, 9:15 am

Hi, Mr. O Brien! Thank you so much for stopping at the Oasis. I've enjoyed reading your books so much.

I would love to know which of her films Ruth Chatterton liked best. Personally, my favorites include Lilly Turner, Frisco Jenny, Journal of a Crime, and Female, also of course, Dodsworth.

Can you tell me anything about the making of these particular movies, any anecdotes or stories, how she got along with the cast, director, etc? Did she have a favorite director?

I'm quite curious about her acting with Frank McHugh, their scenes in Lilly Turner are so tender and yet bleak, heartbreaking. Any info on how they got along?

How did she feel about her character in Dodsworth? Her tremendous performance there just blows me away. Did she open herself up, or base her character on someone in particular? What was her method for acting? Did she have one?

Was Miss Chatterton a modern woman? We kind of assume she was like her characters. What I mean is, she seems to have such understanding of women's problems in the movies - entering the mostly male work force, dealing with men on a more equal basis. Did she want to become a role model for women? Was she a feminist, though they weren't really named so at the time? Did she want to help women become more independent?

Sorry to give you so much to chew on! I just want to make sure I get all my questions in. Thanks so much.

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby Rita Hayworth » June 23rd, 2013, 10:47 am

Mr. O'Brien

I never, ever knew her as an actress first in my earlier part of my life and I knew her as an aviator first actress second. I only seen A Royal Divorce of where she played Josephine de Beauharnais. In which it was good. And, the only movie that I seen of her in my lifetime. Did she enjoyed that role at all?

But, first I knew her as an aviator first ... and my question for you sir ... how she got into this because when I did my book report back in my High School years; I never ever find any concrete evidence that she got into this field because she and many other females aviators were vague to begin with?

Did she ever, met any famous people in the field of Aviation? ... Since I'm from Washington State ... How about Bill Boeing founder of Boeing Aircraft ... as a starting point?

Thanks for your time in answering these questions ...

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 12:22 pm

Moira - Thanks for the opportunity to dive into the remarkable Ruthie (as many of her close friends called her). As far as her success in Talkies and Pre-Code films:
Chatterton’s articulate voice was easy on the ears and recognized as a godsend for Paramount. Producer Jesse L. Lasky gloated over his good luck in having signed her. Ruth’s maturity and willingness to let loose was another plus. She could care less what people thought. She was puzzled by the American taste for suggestiveness—preferring the frankness of the French. Her progressive attitude projected on screen.

It was this very same attitude coupled with drive that made Chatterton perfect for the pre-code world of the early 1930’s. She dared herself. She had a distinctly male point of view. As her character Alison Drake declared in Female, “I’m going to travel the same open road that men have always traveled.” Social conventions really meant nothing to Ruth. She did as she pleased. When William Wellman balked at the idea of Chatterton’s ability to play a prostitute in Frisco Jenny she was incensed. She told scenarist Wilson Mizner “When I play a slut, I’m a slut!”—word was passed along to the director. After she calmed down, Ruth and Wellman became real pals.

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 12:29 pm

Christy – I always enjoy finding credits that have been overlooked by other biographers. One of Chatterton’s last stage roles was as Countess Aurelia in The Madwoman of Chaillot. From 1947-1958 she appeared almost annually in a production of The Little Foxes. Ruth was guest on the Arlene Francis TV series Home in 1954. On radio she was interviewed by Mike Wallace on the Mike and Buff Show, also 1954. It was a real delight to view scenes from documentary The House That Shadows Built (1931) which included footage of the Chatterton-Arzner aborted anti-war project Stepdaughters of War. I also came across a few credits that were invalid. Just because something's in print doesn't make it so :roll:

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 1:34 pm

Jack – Pleased to hear you enjoyed my books. My top favorite films of Chatterton?
Dodsworth, Anybody’s Woman, Lilly Turner, Frisco Jenny, and Female. William Wellman and Ruth initially locked horns on the set of Frisco …, but, as Wellman put it, “We became nothing but pals. We made a helluva picture together!” Wellman’s son commented in 2009 on the Chatterton-Wellman combo, “they got along perfectly. Ruth Chatterton was very independent and very strong. My father liked the independent woman, the strong woman who could hang out with the guys, the Barbara Stanwycks and Carole Lombards and Ruth Chattertons.” What I like about Lilly Turner is that the film had no moral (which unfortunately made it a perfect target for the moralistic). I agree that McHugh’s hangdog persona was in top form. As one critic put it, he “coaxed the picture right into his vest pocket.”

As far as directors, I would say Ruth got along best with Wellman and Dorothy Arzner. Her personal favorites that she did not work with were: Fritz Lang (a close intimate friend), Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, King Vidor, Harry D’Arrast, Lewis Milestone, and Jacques Feyder.

When Ruth saw Fay Bainter in the stage production of Dodsworth she walked out during the last act. She didn’t approve of Fran, finding her to be an “unpleasant person.” Fran Dodsworth struck a chord that mirrored Ruth’s own obsessions. Samuel Goldwyn had to coax her for over year before she relented to play the role. By then, she claimed she was eager to play a role that was unsympathetic. She wanted audiences to know that she “could dish it out as well as take it.” Mary Astor put it succinctly, “Ruth didn’t like the role of … a woman who is trying to hang onto her youth—which was exactly what Ruth herself was doing. It touched a nerve. But she gave a beautiful performance in spite of herself.” As far as Ruth’s method … she learned early on from watching mentors such as Julia Dean, but most importantly actor/producer Henry Miller, her co-star and lover.

Ruth fit into mold of a modern, progressive woman. She said she grew tremendously by creating the role of Judy in Daddy Long-Legs (1914). “It has awakened me to many of the social obligations of modern womanhood,” she stated at the time. While Ruth joined in with a throng of other suffragists in a 1915 tribute to Susan B. Anthony, she was mainly focused on her own ambitions.

Thanks for the hearty round of questions, Jack.

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 2:07 pm

Hello Erik,
I was unable to locate a copy of A Royal Divorce, so I’m a bit envious. I have no way of giving it a fresh assessment. Ruth did a tremendous amount of research in preparation– she spent three months in France visiting all the places connected with Napoleon and Josephine. Unfortunately, critics were not kind to the film or her performance.

Ruth’s close friend/co-star/director Auriol Lee, was the first woman to fly across the equator (1927) en route to Kenya. She was influential in Ruth’s own passion for flying. Ruth had boarded one of the first commercial air-mail planes (c. 1926). “After that,” said Ruth, “I wanted to fly everywhere and did a lot of it abroad. But then, when a friend of mine was badly injured on the R-101 [1929], I suddenly became afraid.” It was a French pilot who got Ruth back up in the air in 1932. She finally won her license in 1934. She became friends with Amelia Earhart (there’s of photo of Ruth, Amelia and Kay Francis in the biography). Leland Hayward encouraged Ruth to sponsor her own air derbies in 1935 and 1936. They were highly successful and received a great deal of nationwide news coverage. Ruth’s instructor was Bob Blair, winner of the Carnegie Medal, who had over twenty years experience as an aviator. He also taught Henry Fonda, Cary Grant and Wallace Beery. At the completion of her 1935 derby, Ruth was feted by Major Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker and Penny Rogers (cousin of Will Rogers).

During WWII Chatterton was ranked Captain in the “Queens Own” as well as flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force. She received similar honors from the U.S. Air Corps.

Thanks for showing interest in Chatterton’s passion for aviation.

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby JackFavell » June 23rd, 2013, 2:46 pm

When Ruth saw Fay Bainter in the stage production of Dodsworth she walked out during the last act. She didn’t approve of Fran, finding her to be an “unpleasant person.” Fran Dodsworth struck a chord that mirrored Ruth’s own obsessions. Samuel Goldwyn had to coax her for over year before she relented to play the role. By then, she claimed she was eager to play a role that was unsympathetic. She wanted audiences to know that she “could dish it out as well as take it.” Mary Astor put it succinctly, “Ruth didn’t like the role of … a woman who is trying to hang onto her youth—which was exactly what Ruth herself was doing. It touched a nerve. But she gave a beautiful performance in spite of herself.” As far as Ruth’s method … she learned early on from watching mentors such as Julia Dean, but most importantly actor/producer Henry Miller, her co-star and lover.


Ha! That first quote about dishing-it-out-as-well-as-taking-it sounds like the producer was adept at reverse psychology! He must have told her that someone didn't think she could do it. :D

I think you can feel that touched nerve and Chatterton herself coming through in Dodsworth, in all her contradiction - it's sensational for that very reason. It make Fran one of the most fascinating movie characters of all time, maybe the most fascinating, at least for me. I find a lot to empathize with in Fran, even though I don't like those characteristics in myself. I never tire of seeing the movie (though I have to be in a strong frame of mind to watch - it hits too close to home). It's easy to make Fran the bad guy, but I don't see it that way anymore. I am not quite sure who the bad guy is but I think he/she is still around. Our expectations of what women are and what they are supposed to do haven't changed all that much. I think perhaps everyone has a little Fran in them.

Chatterton brings that very modern sensibility to it (which is what drew me to her as an actress in the first place) - women nowadays have as much difficulty putting ourselves in Fran's shoes as Chatterton did. We don't want to be ONLY a wife or a mother. I think we look at Fran with a lot of horror now, because her wants are so connected to what we want as modern women, and those wants are so looked down on in the movie. We want to be desirable - even more so in this day and age of plastic surgeries and youth markets and anti-aging serums and ogling at people's bodies on TV or in magazines. We see her naked selfishness, her WANT, in ourselves and it isn't pleasant.

My question though, is about the casting of Fran - why did they want Chatterton so badly? I think I know the answer to this one, she's perfect for it! Was she the first choice? Did they try for anyone else, or have a second choice? I love Ruth, especially in that role, but I am also a huge Fay Bainter fan (perhaps another biography could be in the works? :D) Was Bainter asked? Could they have borrowed her from MGM where she had just signed on? Or perhaps they tried to sign Bainter first at Goldwyn Studios? Was she just too much of a newcomer?

I loved what you said about Lilly Turner. There IS no moral! and so no judgment on Lilly's behavior, quite refreshing. I would say that's one of the big pluses of the movie, and a consistent with Wellman's woman's pictures.

Did Kay Francis also learn to fly or have an interest in aviation? Did Kay lead you to your interest in Ruth? If not, what did?

Wendy

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 3:39 pm

Wendy – spot on observations. I think Chatterton’s portrayal of Fran is deeply human. However unwilling (as you mention) we can all see a bit of Fran Dodsworth in ourselves. When Astor takes Fran aside and gently says, “My dear, don’t.”—the look on their faces says it all. If there is a bad guy, it’s a culture inundated with commercialism that reinforces an obsession with youth. Look at all the tabloids that zoom in on star’s age spots, wrinkles, flab, as if we're seeing something out of a horror movie! What does that do to us?

Chatterton was scheduled to make a film called Feather in Her Hat—after four days of shooting she walked off the set. Playing a middle-aged mother of an adult son proved too much for her. She was quite taken with Louis Hayward who played the son. She ended up giving him flying lessons instead of playing his mother. Ruth then decided to do Lady of Secrets, which was an okay story until the overblown 17-minute flashback in which she was allowed to “look young” –trying to pass for 16! It came off like seeing Baby Jane Hudson. It completely deflated any delicacy the film had up to that point. All this, because Ruth wanted the satisfaction of looking young on screen. She emphasized in several interviews that in Europe men preferred older women. Understandably, she wasn’t too keen on America’s shallow obsession with youth.

I came across no reference saying there were other choices for the role of Fran. Goldwyn purchased the screen rights and Walter Huston was the only original cast member included in the contract. Bainter, who was a very close friend of Ruth’s, held her tongue. Ruth had the edge on Bainter when it came to allure, plus the advantage of being a former box-office draw.

I have never come across any mention of Kay Francis flying planes. I have no idea whether or not she went up in the with Ruth. When I was in college I saw a private showing of Ruth’s 1931 film Once A Lady. The script is (unintentionally) quite hilarious, but something about her piqued my interest. Then I saw Dodsworth and I realized she was truly one of the greats.

Good feedback, Wendy!

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby JackFavell » June 23rd, 2013, 4:11 pm

I think I've seen that movie with the flashback! She shot herself in the foot with that choice. Better to look older with sex appeal than to look long in the tooth in rompers! :D

I can understand not wanting to play mother to a good looking young man like Louis Hayward! Can you tell me a little about Ruth's various amours, not only George Brent? No sense in me trying to play it highbrow, I'm curious! :oops:

You say she knew many of the directors, but didn't actually work with them. Was she a terribly social person? How did she get to know so many influential people? Tell me more about her relationship with Fritz Lang.

I'd also love to know more about her start in show business.

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby Jezebel38 » June 23rd, 2013, 5:46 pm

Hi Scott - welcome back to the Oasis! As Wendy has just asked about Ruth's "amours", I'd like to know a bit more about her marriage to Ralph Forbes. I know he takes some knocks from film fans as somewhat dull (as does George Brent), but I really like him, and think he is gorgeous! Firstly, I see his birth year variously listed as 1896, 1902 or 1904 - can you confirm how much younger than Ruth he was? Their marriage was the first for both, and I guess Ruth was in her early 30's; I believe they met on Broadway and were in a couple shows together. It looks like they only made one film together The Lady of Scandal (1930) an MGM film - have you seen this one? I can't recall if it ever played on TCM. I can only assume when George Brent entered the picture, their marriage foundered. But they remained friends? His third marriage was held at her house!

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 7:29 pm

Wendy – Ruth got her start on the stage out of necessity. Her parents had divorced. Her mother had gone through the principal of her inheritance. Ruth’s father had declared a few bankruptcies. Ruth stated that her father was “entirely useless.” Ruth was ambitious. When I talked with her cousin Brenda, she told me that Ruth “was just in there”—a very motivated individual. Producer Henry Miller was completely smitten with Ruth after his son Gilbert engaged her for the lead in the 1912 Broadway hit The Rainbow. Miller and Ruth were lovers. He was 33 years older than her, but she really cared about him. He was the father figure she never had. The physical side of the relationship eventually cooled. Miller hovered over her, but Ruth wanted more control over her own destiny. When she hired Ralph Forbes as her co-star for The Magnolia Lady (1924) real romantic love entered her life. Before their 1932 divorce the couple had taken a few (what they referred to) “vacations from marriage.” Although Ruth fell hard for George Brent (and helped jump-start his career at Warners) she decided to follow through on a prearranged rendezvoused in Spain with reporter Rex Smith. I don’t think Brent had a clue. He was on tour for Warners waiting for Ruth's return. Rex was a well-built redhead. He adored Ruth. Their relationship actually inspired the film Love Affair (1939).

Ruth was a known and respected actress from coast-to-coast by the time she arrived in Hollywood. Although her stage career was faltering at the time, she had an impressive list of influential friends in a number of fields. She enjoyed having salons at her house into the wee hours of the morning—talking about the world and politics. She and Fritz Lang were definitely seeing each other while she was filming Dodsworth. Lang had great admiration for her. He really missed her went she left for England for two years.

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby oscotto » June 23rd, 2013, 8:00 pm

Hi Jezebel … it’s a pleasure to return to SSO. The Chatterton-Forbes romance eventually turned into a brother-sister relationship (that's exactly how they described it themselves). They remained life-long friends. They did several plays together in the 1940’s and had a great success touring in Private Lives. Forbes had the ability to nudge Ruth so she wouldn’t take herself too seriously. He could make her laugh at herself. Forbes fiddled around with his age as much as Ruth did. The 1929 Motion Picture Almanac placed his birth year as 1896.

Lady of Scandal contains one of Forbes best performances. Too bad it’s such a weak film. I found him to be sincere, real, and forceful—there’s a farewell scene between he and Ruth that is quite touching. The Chatterton-Forbes-Brent combo gained a reputation of being a “modern ménage a trios” (quoting Adela Rogers St. John). Forbes and Brent remained friends after they both became Chatterton exes. They even spent a month-long vacation together in Hawaii (1940)-leaving Forbes wife (Heather Angel) and Brent’s current love interest (Ann Sheridan) at home!

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Re: Welcome To Scott O'Brien!

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » June 23rd, 2013, 8:21 pm

oscotto wrote:Christy – I always enjoy finding credits that have been overlooked by other biographers. One of Chatterton’s last stage roles was as Countess Aurelia in The Madwoman of Chaillot. From 1947-1958 she appeared almost annually in a production of The Little Foxes. Ruth was guest on the Arlene Francis TV series Home in 1954. On radio she was interviewed by Mike Wallace on the Mike and Buff Show, also 1954. It was a real delight to view scenes from documentary The House That Shadows Built (1931) which included footage of the Chatterton-Arzner aborted anti-war project Stepdaughters of War. I also came across a few credits that were invalid. Just because something's in print doesn't make it so :roll:


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