Ruby Keeler was an established Broadway dancer, the child bride of the legendary hoofer Al Jolson, when in 1933, film producer Darryl Zanuck, then with Warner Brothers, came to her with a role in a movie. It was a musical about Broadway called 42nd Street.
Keeler, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and raised in New York City, had been a professional dancer since the age of 14, in shows produced by, among others, Florenz Ziegfeld—and other than a brief cameo in a talkie in 1930, had no film experience. As a member of Zanuck’s production, Keeler would meet a man who would prove influential to her career, both as an ingenue in film and an veteran many years later back on Broadway: choreographer Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley also came from Broadway, where he built his reputation for creating elaborate, geometric patterns within which his dancers cavorted. 42nd was his first film at WB. Keeler plays Peggy, the youngster who opens in the show-within-a-film at the last minute and becomes a star. She sings and dances to two numbers, with music and lyrics by Harry Warren & Al Dubin: “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” with Clarence Nordstrom, and this one, the title track, “42nd Street:”
Like her character Peggy, 42nd made Keeler a star, and her following three films, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames, were all made with Berkeley, as well as her 42nd co-star Dick Powell, her best known screen partner.
Keeler wasn’t the complete package, at least not in comparison with later musical stars like Judy Garland and Rita Hayworth. Keeler’s singing voice was thin, and the roles she played weren’t what one would call challenging, but for the 30s, when sound in motion pictures was new and people just wanted to escape the hardships of the Depression, she fit in just right.
When I think of her, I see in my mind her and Jimmy Cagney in Footlight, tap dancing atop a bar. Despite her being in yellowface, it’s a superb display of balance and syncopation with Cagney—and her best moments in film are like that. Eleanor Powell would come along later, but for the first half of the decade, Keeler was the tap sensation of Hollywood.
Fast forward to 1970. Keeler was 60, long since divorced from Jolson but remarried and now a widow. A stage revival of No No Nanette was in the works, a Broadway show from 1925 considered by some quaint and old-fashioned for the 70s, and producer Harry Rigby desperately wanted Keeler to come out of retirement to appear in it. Her kids encouraged her to do it, but she was uncertain.
|Keeler with Dick Powell|
Keeler in particular was singled out for her work on numbers like this one, “I Want To Be Happy.” In 1971 Nanette opened on Broadway, played for 861 performances, and won four Tonys. Keeler was back on top.
And just to bring this full circle, 42nd Street was adapted for Broadway in 1980 (I remember the TV ads) and won the Best Musical Tony. Wanda Richert played Keeler’s role of Peggy and was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Films with Ruby Keeler:
Gold Diggers of 1933