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Chatterton, Ruth (1893–1961)

Chatterton, Ruth (1893–1961)

American actress, best known for her performance in Dodsworth. Born on December 24, 1893, in New York City; died in Redding, Connecticut, on November 24, 1961; daughter of an architect; married Ralph Forbes (a British actor), in 1924 (divorced 1932); married George Brent (an actor), in 1932 (divorced 1934); married Barry Thomson (an actor), in 1942 (died 1960).


Sins of the Fathers (1928); The Doctor's Secret (1929); The Dummy (1929); Madame X (1929); Charming Sinners (1929); The Laughing Lady (1929); Sarah and Son (1930); Paramount on Parade (1930); The Lady of Scandal (The High Road, 1930); Anybody's Woman (1930); The Right to Love (1930); Unfaithful (1931); The Magnificent Lie (1931); Once a Lady (1931); Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1932); The Rich Are Always with Us (1932); The Crash (1932); Frisco Jenny (1933); Lilly Turner (1933); Female (1933); Journal of a Crime (1934); Lady of Secrets(1936); Girls' Dormitory (1936); Dodsworth (1936); The Rat (UK, 1938); A Royal Divorce (UK, 1938).

Ruth Chatterton—now best remembered for the film Dodsworth—was popular in movies during the 1930s, when she was often referred to as the First Lady of the Screen. Drama critic James Agate once quipped: "As an actress la Chatterton seems to me to knock La Garbo silly." Hollywood was only a brief interlude in Chatterton's career, and some believe she became trapped in a series of overly melodramatic films in which she played tense, misunderstood, and sometimes misguided women. Her career, however, also included stage acting, playwriting (Monsieur Brotonneau), directing, and, in her later years, some literary success as the author of four novels. A liberated spirit somewhat ahead of her time, she was a licensed pilot and flew her own plane cross-country.

Chatterton was born in New York City on December 24, 1893, the daughter of a successful

architect. She reportedly took her first stage role at age 14 to earn money after her parents separated. Her Broadway debut came in 1911 in The Great Name, and she triumphed at 20 as the star of Daddy Long Legs (1914), the dramatization of Jean Webster 's popular book. Chatterton went on to become one of Broadway's leading ladies, shunning movie offers until she was well into her 30s. With her debut film performance as Emil Jannings' second wife in Sins of the Fathers (1928), she signed with Paramount, who found her stage background a great asset in the new talkies. She won an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her role in Madame X (1929), which she made on loan to MGM. Picturegoer called her performance "the most poignant thing the Talkies have given us to date." Back at Paramount, she received another Oscar nomination for her role as a German immigrant in Sarah and Son (1930).

After The Right to Love (1930), a tour de force in which she played both mother and daughter, Chatterton made a series of duds before signing with Warner Bros. Her first movie for the new studio was a comedy, The Rich Are Always with Us (1932), co-starring George Brent, who became her second husband. (Chatterton was chastized in the media for marrying Brent less than 24 hours after her divorce from British actor Ralph Forbes became final.) By 1934, both her marriage and her Warner's contract were finished, and her career was in such a rut that the major studios lost interest. As one of the oldest female stars of her time, other than character actors like Marie Dressler , she also encountered age discrimination. After a two-year absence from the screen, she starred in the forgettable Lady of Secrets (1936) for Columbia and had a supporting role in Girls' Dormitory for 20th Century-Fox. That same year, however, cast as the vapid, self-centered wife of Walter Houston in MGM's Dodsworth, Chatterton played what may have been her finest movie role; according to Hollywood lore, though, she hated it and gave director William Wyler a difficult time during filming. After losing the lead in Goldwyn's Stella Dallas to Barbara Stanwyck , Chatterton left Hollywood, explaining that she was just too lazy to fight for good roles. She made two British films before returning to the stage in a London revival of The Constant Wife, after which she toured the United States in West of Broadway. Chatterton appeared on Broadway again in Leave Her to Heaven (1940).

During the 1940s and 1950s, she did stage work, television, and radio, including an appearance in the New York City Center revival ofIdiot's Delight in 1951. Her last stage appearance was in St. Louis in 1956 in The Chalk Garden. During the 1950s, she also published four novels, most notably Homeward Borne. Chatterton suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1961 in Redding, Connecticut.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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