Know Your Character Actor – Ruth Donnelly

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February 22, 2015 by smumcounty

RuthDonnellyRuth Donnelly was born on May 17th, 1896 in Trenton, New Jersey, the daughter of a newspaper editor and music critic and one time mayor of Trenton. She got her acting debut at the age of 17 in the chorus of the touring company for “The Quaker Girl”. Four years later she made it to the big time with the role of a telephone operator in the Broadway production of “The Scrap of Paper”.

Young Ruth

Young Ruth

Her performance brought her to the attention of George M. Cohan (the original Yankee Doodle Dandy) who proceeded to cast her in comic roles in such productions as “Going Up” (1917), “A Prince There Was” (1918-19), and “The Meanest Man in the World” (1920-21). Donnelly appeared in some Hollywood shorts in 1914 and 1916 and her first role in a feature film was in 1927 in the silent “Rubber Heels” starring Ed Wynn and Chester Conklin but her film career didn’t take off until the early 30’s when, either due to the lack of stage roles caused by the Wall Street crash of ’29 or Hollywood’s need for experienced actors who could speak after the advent of sound in ’27, she made the trek to Hollywood.

Displaying her signature doubtful smirk in "Blessed Event" with Lee Tracy

Displaying her signature doubtful smirk in “Blessed Event” with Lee Tracy

In films of the 30’s she was invariably cast in comic roles. Common characters were whip-smart and wise cracking secretaries, the BFF of the main female protagonist, and harrowing wives or mothers. She had a small, blink and you’ll miss me, role as Kay Francis’ maid in “The Jewel Robbery” (1931) but her first meaty role came in “Blessed Event” (1932) starring Lee Tracy where she portrayed one of those smart-mouthed secretaries that she was so adept at playing.

with James Cagney in "Hard to Handle"

with James Cagney in “Hard to Handle”

"Ladies They Talk About"

in “Ladies They Talk About”

This seems to have brought her to the attention of Warner Brothers execs because she then appeared in a string of notable films from Warners. In “Employees’ Entrance” (1933), she played the secretary of Warren William’s power hungry department store executive. In “Hard to Handle” (1933), she plays the mother of James Cagney’s love interest as Cagney works through one get rich quick scheme after another. In the Pre-Code classic “Ladies They Talk About” (1933) she plays the prison matron tasked with watching over Barbara Stanwyck et al.

with Glenda Farrell in "Heat Lightning"

with Glenda Farrell in “Heat Lightning”

In “Footlight Parade” (1933), she plays the wife of Guy Kibbee as he and Cagney put on short stage productions that appear before feature films. (Was that really a thing?) In another Pre-Code classic, “Female” (1933), Donnelly plays the new secretary of id monster Ruth Chatterton after she decides that male secretaries are too distracting. In “Heat Lightning” (1934), she appeared with a cavalcade of Warners character actors as one-percenter Mrs. Ashton-Ashley who gets stranded with her best friend (Glenda Farrell) and chauffer (Frank McHugh) in a desert gas station run by Aline MacMahon.

with Mae West in "My Little Chickadee"

with Mae West in “My Little Chickadee”

The late 30’s saw her appear in both Frank Capra’s Mr. films, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) where she played the wife of Guy Kibbee (again!) Other notable films from this period include “A Slight Case of Murder” (1938) in which Edward G. Robinson plays his usual gangster character in a comedy and “My Little Chickadee” (1940) which paired Mae West with W.C. Fields.

in "The Bells of St. Mary's with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby

in “The Bells of St. Mary’s with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby

The 40’s saw her break out into dramatic roles. She played Sister Michael in the “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945) and a fellow patient in the mental institution into which Olivia de Havilland’s harried wife is thrown in “The Snake Pit” (1948). Donnelly appeared in fewer movies in the 50’s than was common for her in the 30’s and 40’s but still succeeded in keeping busy. Her last film was “The Way to the Gold” (1957) after which she largely retired from acting making only occasional television appearances. She lived the remainder of her life at the Wellington Hotel in Manhattan where she died on November 17th, 1982.

Private Detective 62 (1933)

Hard to Handle (1933)

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