Everybody knows Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers “dance[d] on air” (thanks, Madge!) but nobody ever talks about Ruby Keeler! Maybe because she did more stomping that gliding? Or sang less like a canary and more like… herself. It’s that uniqueness which makes it so shocking to me that while she was one of the biggest stars of her day, she is no longer a household name.
Ruby Keeler wasn’t graceful and really couldn’t sing. She’s been quoted as having said, “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.” She was cute as all get out, with her giant doe eyes and “gee whiz” air. She was a perfect little package until she danced and when she danced it all went out the window. It’s as though her limbs all had minds of their own, as though she was trying to tame them and control them but lost every time. Her dancing was messy and loud and primal. If you’d like to learn the basic Ruby Keeler step, you can go here, to an eHow article about it.
She was trained as an Irish step dancer and (lying about her age) was hired to dance in a show at 13 to help her family financially. She went on to become the major breadwinner, dancing sometimes in two and three shows a night. At 18 she married Al Jolson, 24 years her senior. (That’s one year less than Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas if anyone’s counting.) Unfortunately for her, that seems to come up somewhat often as an argument for why she was such a huge star, which I find infuriating especially as it could be argued that he was past his prime and she was actually the bigger star in that marriage!
So, let’s give Ruby her due, shall we? I recommend you start with Footlight Parade, which also stars James Cagney, and then move on to 42nd Street. Those are the two most famous and you can take your own path from there. And do take it, you’ll thank me later.
image via © Bettmann/CORBIS