Saturday, March 7, 2020

Those dancing feet of Ruby Keeler

The 2020 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

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
Then Rigby told her none other than Berkeley himself would be part of the production, in an advisory capacity. She decided to take the plunge. Though Berkeley’s presence was said to not be as influential to the production as expected, Keeler, at least, was re-energized by him, and despite the troubles experienced prior to Nanette’s tryout in Boston, once the show opened, it went off well. 

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
Footlight Parade

Walter Huston
Sarah Polley
John Candy
William Shatner


  1. There is something so sweet and unassuming about Ruby that I find very appealing.

    I read the cutest thing years ago (probably about the time of "Nanette") that her kids didn't realize she'd be a movie star but every once in a while she would start dancing in the kitchen.

  2. Both my parents would sing around the house when I was a kid, but I’d never mistake either of them for movie musical stars. To put it kindly.

  3. Ruby Keeler is sometimes derided as a lightweight – not a stellar singer or actor – but she is a fabulous dancer and I always thought she had good screen presence. Like you said, she was was musicals needed in the early 1930s, and I adore her.

    Thanks for sharing the story re: being coaxed out of retirement. Sounds like she still had it, after all those years.

    And thanks for joining the blogathon and for bringing the lovely Ruby Keeler with you.

  4. Thanks. It was learning about her comeback late in life that made this post come together for me.

  5. I have a soft spot for Ruby Keeler, probably because my mother liked her so much. Also because I get a kick out of someone who was not slick, or even very talented - certainly no Judy Garland, indeed - but who seemed to work so hard hammering away in those clunky tap shoes and becoming a star in spite of herself.

  6. Well, that just about sums up her appeal.

  7. I love the Depression-era musicals starring lovely Canadian Ruby Keeler! She was not the best actress/singer/dancer but she certainly was a fun and appreciable entertainer and made a great pair with Dick Powell! Thanks for this great article!

  8. It was FOOTLIGHT PARADE that sold me on her. She’s cute with those glasses.

  9. I'm mostly familiar with Fred and Ginger's musicals from the 30's so you've convinced me to check out Ruby Keeler. I look forward to appreciating her hard work and unique appeal. You've written a great tribute to her!

  10. Thanks. Start with GOLD DIGGERS. Ginger’s in that.


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