It’s really amazing. I couldn’t act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn’t the greatest tap dancer in the world, either.
Unless you’re a huge fan of early 1930s musicals, you most likely have never heard of Ruby Keeler. She rose to fame in 1933 with the release of the hit Warner Brothers backstage musical 42nd Street.
She’d go on to star in two other musicals in the same year: Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. In each of these films, Ruby portrayed the girl-next-door character. She was sweet, charming, and wide-eyed with wonder.
Yes, it’s true: She wasn’t a terrific actress or singer, but I will argue that she is still enjoyable in those areas (at least for me) and she really could dance. Her technical skills would later be surpassed on screen by Eleanor Powell, Ginger Rogers, and Ann Miller, but she could hold her own and she did it with a style like no one else.
Ruby was a buck-and-wing dancer, meaning that her footwork was more percussive than anything else. It wasn’t particularly graceful and it didn’t require any distinct movements with the upper body. Now, I’ve seen people liken her footwork to stomping on ants. Personally, I can’t watch enough footage of her dancing around the screen with that charm of hers.
Many of the Busby Berkeley musicals that she appeared in were filled with numbers which didn’t require her to tap dance. Berkeley’s often created musical numbers that showed Ruby and chorus girls moving around in geometric formations, often putting more focus on the formations (and their bodies) than the dancing itself. He created a world – sometimes trippy, always fantastical – in which audiences in the Great Depression era could let go of their troubles for ninety minutes and enter a world created by a genius.
Ruby’s breakout song and dance number on film came at the finale of 42nd Street in the title song and dance number. You can watch it here.
In Gold Diggers of 1933, Ruby’s part is even better, the numbers are even greater, and the supporting cast is hilarious.
Earlier, I said that Ruby always played the sweet, wide-eyed ingenue kind of characters, but she got to have some fun, too. In the cheeky number “Pettin’ in the Park”, she masters the art of being sexy and (nearly) innocent at the same time.
In “The Shadow Waltz”, Ruby is given a platinum blonde wig complete with marcel waves and costumed in a breathtaking gown. She is partnered with Dick Powell, who plays her romantic interest in the film and in several other films, including 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. The choreography and set design is pure Busby Berkeley. If you’re not familiar with his work, this number will give you an idea of what he was capable of producing.
One of Ruby Keeler’s coolest dance numbers happens in Footlight Parade. She shares the stage (I should say bar counter) with none other than James Cagney, a wonderful and unique dancer in his own right. The number is called “Shanghai Lil” and it closes out the film with a level of grandeur that could only be achieved by Busby Berkeley.
Because I’m a cat lady, I adore “Sitting on a Backyard Fence”, in which Ruby is a dancing cat, surrounded by chorus girl cats and a mouse, played by Billy Barty. Gotta love it!
Although the number “By a Waterfall” doesn’t actual contain any dancing, I have to share it because it’s my personal favorite Busby Berkeley number and Ruby is including in the water ballet. This is one of those videos I like to pull out and share with people to show them that, yes, classic film is pretty freaking amazing.
1933 was by the Ruby’s best year in Hollywood. She continued to get parts in films, but none of them were as good as the ones she made in ’33. It’s important to note that Ruby’s first three films (and Dames in 1934) were choreographed by Busby Berkeley, which is an impressive mark on her resume.
In Dames (1934), Ruby is again romantically paired with Dick Powell and she is a sweet and innocent singer and dancer who happens to be in love with her thirteenth cousin. (But hey, who’s counting?)
Dames contains one of the most memorizing song and dance sequences ever put onscreen and our Ms. Keeler is the object of its affection (literally).
Ruby went on to make a handful of other musicals before retiring from film in 1941. She was married to movie musical superstar Al Jolson from 1928 to 1940. According to Ruby, Jolson treated her terribly. Before they divorced, they adopted a son and named him Al Jr. and Ruby retained custody of him. She went on to marry businessman John Homer Lowe in 1941 and they remained married until his death in 1969. They had four children together and Ruby seemed to lead a much happier life with him and their children.
Here are several other song and dance numbers she performed in films from the mid ’30s into the early ’40s. The films may have been ultimately forgettable, but Ruby left us with underrated material.
Using only tap dancing as dialogue, she danced her way through engagement and down the aisle with Paul Draper in this number from Colleen (1936).
In the same film, Ruby’s character informs Dick Powell’s character that she won’t marry him because he can’t dance well.
In the 1937 film Ready, Willing, and Able she tap danced with Lee Dixon on a typewriter. Nothing further need be said.
Her last film before her retirement, Sweetheart of the Campus (1941), isn’t a good one, but Ruby still shows off some great moves. I thought her tap dancing had gotten even better by this point. Take a look and see if you agree.
Ruby Keeler made a comeback in the 1970s with the successful 1971 Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette. It was her first big role since her retirement and she was praised for her ability to still tap dance (with a lot of energy) in her 60s.