Busby’s Babe – Ruby Keeler (1910 – 1993)

Posted in Rewind by - February 17, 2014
Busby’s Babe – Ruby Keeler (1910 – 1993)

“I was all personality and no talent” – Ruby Keeler

Petite and pretty, with limited ability, the lovely Ruby Keeler certainly made the most of her restricted talents. Her average acting and singing ability, and rather heavy-footed dancing, did endear Ruby to the public, and she was very popular in numerous Thirties musical extravaganzas.

Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 25th 1910, her family moved to New York when Ruby was 3 years old. Keeler began dancing as a child, and in her early teens was appearing in nightclubs, singing and dancing, earning enough to help with her fathers medical bills. Soon, Ruby was being offered small parts in theatre before Broadway Impresario Flo Ziegfeld spotted her in a production of ‘The Sidewalks of New York’, where she was offered a part in ‘Whoopee!’, but was replaced before it opened.

In 1928 Ruby was sent to help publicize Al Jolson’s forthcoming feature; ‘The Jazz Singer’. The much older Jolson was smitten with Keeler and in September that year, they were married. In 1933 Ruby was cast by producer Darryl F. Zanuck in the Warner Brothers big studio feature; ‘42nd Street’. This popular backstage musical first introduced the genius choreographer Busby Berkeley to a mass audience, and was a huge hit. The films success led Keeler to be given a contract by Jack Warner, and she went on to appear in other Berkeley musicals, including ‘Footlight Parade’ (’33) and ‘Dames’ (’34), in which she co-starred with fashionable crooner Dick Powell. A popular duo, Powell and Keeler would go on to star together in ‘Flirtation Walk’ (’34) and ‘Shipmates Forever’ (’35).

In 1935, Ruby starred with her then husband Al Jolson in the musical ‘Casino de Paree’, and then once again with Powell for the romantic musical ‘Colleen’ (’36). 1937 saw Keeler in the rather sweet musical; ‘Ready, Willing and Able’, where she got to sing a rather catchy song; “Handy with Your Feet”. Ruby then replaced Joan Bennett in the 1938 family drama ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’, co-starring Anne Shirley. Disney would later loosely remake this movie with Hayley Mills, entitled ‘Summer Magic’ (’63).

Ruby’s final movie before her virtual retirement was the rather entertaining comedy musical ‘Sweetheart of the Campus’ (’41), as tap dancer Betty Blake. Keeler was very good in this, and plays her part with more vitality than she had in her more famous roles of the Thirties. In 1941, after her troubled marriage to Jolson had ended, Ruby met and married John Holmer Lowe. They had four children and would remain together until his death in 1969.

After an apparent cameo in the acclaimed drama ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ (’69), Ruby appeared as herself in the obscure 1970 comedy ‘The Phynx’, alongside other aging stars including Rudy Vallee, Dorothy Lamour, Maureen O’Sullivan and fellow Berkley babe Joan Blondell.

Following her husbands death, Ruby made a return to Broadway in a 1971 revival of the popular musical comedy; “No No Nanette”, and continued to appear in the show until she suffered a brain aneurysm in 1974.
After Keeler’s eventual recovery, she made a rare emotional appearance at the 1979 Academy Awards, where she received a standing ovation when co-presenting the Oscar for Best Song. Ruby’s final screen appearance was a brief bit as ‘Goldie’ in the 1989 Peter Billingsley comedy ‘Beverly Hills Brats’.

Four years later on February 28th 1993, Ruby Keeler died of kidney cancer. She was 82. Ruby was all too aware of her own ability, but her cheery manner, warm smile and have-a-go attitude, more than compensated, and she remains an important part of a bygone age of dazzling spectacle and musical extravaganza.

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1 Comment on "Busby’s Babe – Ruby Keeler (1910 – 1993)"

  • Almichael

    I love Ruby Keeler very much. She had the sweetest charm, a great spirit on film and in person, was very kind and likable, and was beautiful. And in spite of some people’s opinions, Ruby was a great Tap dancer, a great actress, and I personally loved her unique style of singing. Hearing her sing her parts in “Like a waterfall”, ” Pettin in the park”, “42nd Street”, her dancing in that cute cat outfit in ” Sitting on a backyard fence”, and the sweet charming way she almost talked her line while getting onto the subway during “I only have eyes for you”. Also, the pretty way she closed her eyes smiling on Dick Powell’s shoulder on the subway while he started dreaming of 25 pictures of Ruby’s face and then the adorable close-up of her smiling right before the camera backs up and shows her and 25 Ruby lookalikes dancing, lifting the sides of their white pretty floor length skirts up and down, and also their beautiful singing during that part of the song. I love that wonderful Ruby Keeler. I hope she can see these kind words about her now from up in heaven.

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