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A capable director who made a number of competent musicals and crime dramas, Roy Del Ruth worked consistently throughout the 1930s and 1940s without ever distinguishing himself from his more famed contemporaries. Del Ruth began his career as a gag writer for Mack Sennett during the silent era and moved over to the director's chair in the early-1920s. After churning out numerous pictures, he began to find his footing with the James Cagney vehicle "Blonde Crazy" (1931), before directing what was considered his most popular and accomplished film, "The Maltese Falcon" (1931), the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's famed novel. From there, he directed Cagney in "Taxi!" (1932), Edward G. Robinson in "The Little Giant" (1933), and Ronald Colman in "Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back" (1934). Following several years of above average motion pictures, including the popular musical review "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946), Del Ruth directed one of his most charming and entertaining films, "It Happed on Fifth Avenue" (1947), a Christmas-themed film that some ranked alongside the more popular "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). But just as it seemed he was ready to advance, Del Ruth fell flat with the rather ridiculous biopic "The Babe Ruth Story" (1948), which ended any hope of a career rejuvenation. Though he ended his career on the low notes of "The Phantom of the Rue Morgue" (1954) and "The Alligator People" (1959), Del Ruth undoubtedly made significant contributions during the studio era that certainly bore re-examination.
Born on Oct. 18, 1895 in Philadelphia, PA, Del Ruth began his Hollywood career during the silent era as a gag writer for Mack Sennett in 1915 and began directing a couple of years later with his first short film. In the early 1920s, he moved over to features with such early efforts as "Asleep at the Switch" (1923), "The Hollywood Kid" (1924), "Eve's Lover" (1925) and "The Little Irish Girl" (1926). Following several more titles, many of which were later lost, he directed "The First Auto" (1927), a charming look at the introduction of the first automobile to a small rural town. The film featured several elaborate sound effects for the time and was considered lost until it was restored years later. Del Ruth went on to direct a number of long forgotten pictures like "If I Were Single" (1927), "Ham and Eggs at the Front" (1927), "The Terror" (1928) and "The Hottentot" (1929), before having the distinction of directing the musical "The Desert Song" (1929), the first color film ever released by Warner Bros. That same year, Del Ruth directed "Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929), Warner's second two-strip Technicolor, all-talking feature that also became a big box office hit for the director.
Having successfully segued into the talkie era, Del Ruth directed two more two-strip color musicals, "Hold Everything" (1930) and "The Life of the Party" (1930), before directing James Cagney and Joan Blondell in the cheerfully amoral gangster film, "Blonde Crazy" (1931). That same year, he directed the first of three adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's famed novel, "The Maltese Falcon" (1931), which was more famously remade in 1941 by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade. Here, Ricardo Cortez portrayed the roguish private eye whose investigation of a murder case entwines him in a plot involving a number of unsavory types searching for a fabled, jewel-encrusted falcon. While the plot basically mirrors the 1941 remake, this pre-Code version featured several instances of sexual innuendo, including Bebe Daniels bathing in the nude, overt references to homosexuality and even one instance of cursing. An adequate picture, Del Ruth's original adaptation paled in comparison to Huston's film, which would be regarded as one of the finest pictures ever made. Meanwhile, Del Ruth reunited with James Cagney for the crime drama "Taxi!" (1932) and competently directed the showbiz comedy "Blessed Event" (1932).
Del Ruth went on to helm a number of above average pictures like "The Little Giant" (1933) starring Edward G. Robinson, "Lady Killer" (1933) with James Cagney, "Bureau of Missing Persons" (1933) featuring Bette Davis, "Upper World" (1934) with Ginger Rogers, and the musical comedy "Kid Millions" (1934) starring Eddie Cantor. He next directed Ronald Colman in his second and final appearance as Bulldog Drummond in the detective mystery "Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back" (1934), and helmed the backstage showbiz musical "Broadway Melody 1936" (1935), starring Jack Benny and Eleanor Powell. After returning to the realm of crime for "It Had to Happen" (1936) with George Raft and Rosalind Russell, Del Ruth directed James Stewart in one of the actor's few musicals, "Born to Dance" (1936). He followed up with the inferior "Broadway Melody of 1938" (1937), before guiding ice skating star Sonja Henie through "My Lucky Star" (1938) and "Happy Landing" (1938). Del Ruth continued churning out product for the studios, helming competent films like "The Star Maker" (1939), "Here I Am Stranger" (1939), "He Married His Wife" (1940) and "Topper Returns" (1941), but nothing that really stood out at the time or was later rediscovered as a forgotten classic.
After working solo on "The Chocolate Soldier" (1941), "Masie Gets Her Man" (1942), "Du Barry Was a Lady" (1944) and "Broadway Rhythm" (1944), Del Ruth was one of seven directors on the successful, if uneven musical review "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946), which featured an all-star cast of Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Red Skelton and William Powell. From there, he helmed the cheerfully ambitious Christmas-themed comedy "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" (1947), an appealing entertainment that was compared to "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), but it did not have that film's generational resonance. Inexplicably released during Easter, the musical comedy starring Don DeFore and Ann Harding was still a touching film that managed to delight. Del Ruth next directed "The Babe Ruth Story" (1948), a train wreck of a film centered around the life of baseball icon Babe Ruth (William Bendix). Bending historical truths to the breaking point, Del Ruth's biopic was rushed through production amidst news of the ailing Ruth's declining health, leading to a disjointed film that often veered into the ridiculous. Even Del Ruth remained unsatisfied with the results.
Del Ruth's career never recovered from the "Babe Ruth" disaster. He directed a fading George Raft in the forgettable crime drama "Red Light" (1949), Milton Berle and Virginia Mayo in the comedy "Always Leave Them Laughing" (1949), and James Cagney in the vibrant misfire "The West Point Story" (1950). Following a pair of mediocre Doris Day musicals, "Starlift" (1951) and "On Moonlight Bay" (1951), his career took a nosedive with the farcical comedy "Stop, You're Killing Me" (1952) and the military musical "About Face" (1953). He went on to direct Jane Powell and Gordon MacRae in "Three Sailors and a Girl" (1953), before reaching a true low point with the 3-D horror flick "Phantom of the Rue Morgue" (1954). Away from the director's chair for the next five years, Del Ruth returned to helm the truly ridiculous horror picture "The Alligator People" (1959), a bizarre tale about humans being partially transformed into alligators in the Deep South. After the long forgotten indie thriller "Why Must I Die?" (1960), Del Ruth called it a career. He died a year later on April 27, 1961 at 67 years old from causes unknown.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Production Companies (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Wrote first screenplay
Gagman for Mack Sennett
First short film as director