Among the many wonderful things about films of the 1930s are the rich array of supporting actors -- and that certainly was true for Carole Lombard's starring vehicles. Today, we'll examine one of those players, shown above with Carole and Marie Prevost in 1935's "Hands Across The Table," portraying the manager of the hotel manicuring shop where they work.
Her name was Ruth Donnelly, and while "Hands" was the only time she appeared with Lombard on screen (and her character is, at best, peripheral to the plot), she was well known to audiences of the 1930s. She normally played a world-weary, wise-cracking woman who either could teach the lead a thing or two or cut them down to size with a wonderful riposte.
Born in Trenton, N.J., in 1896, Donnelly got her start in New York in the mid-teens. While she had appeared in a few silents in minor roles, the bulk of her work was on the stage. George M. Cohan liked her way with a line, and she regularly appeared in several of his productions.
When talking pictures became dominant, she headed to Hollywood, was signed by Warners, and soon became a valued part of their magnificent troupe of character actors. You can see her as the maid of Kay Francis in "Jewel Robbery," but perhaps her first notable performance came as department store martinet Warren William's secretary in "Employees' Entrance" (1933); she would later play the studio boss' secretary in Lucille Ball's two "Annabel" films. Ruth followed "Employees' Entrance" with perhaps my favorite performance of hers, in "Hard To Handle":
Playing opposite one of filmdom's most dynamic actors, James Cagney, Donnelly -- portraying the mother of his girlfriend, Mary Brian -- manages to hold her own and then some. Mom makes it evident that any marriage Cagney has with his daughter is a package deal, as evidenced by their matching outfits, a recurring theme throughout this comedy:
Next up for Ruth was a part as a kindly women's prison warden in the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle "Ladies They Talk About." Donnelly adds to the absurdist air of the prison by distributing mail with a cockatoo on her shoulder:
Audiences of 1933 could also see Donnelly in "Lilly Turner," "Footlight Parade," "Female" and "Havana Widows"...not to mention "Convention City," the holy grail of pre-Code that no one now can see. The beat went on in 1934 with the likes of "Mandalay," "Wonder Bar" and "Heat Lightning."
Although Warners' character actor roster fizzled a bit after the Production Code was enforced, Ruth continued working throughout the 1930s, appearing in small parts in the likes of "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and other films.
After World War II, Donnelly showed her dramatic chops, appearing in "The Snake Pit" (1948), "Where The Sidewalk Ends" (1950) and "Autumn Leaves" (1956). Aside from a handful of TV appearances, the last in 1965, that was it for her career.
In 1932, Ruth had married executive Basil de Guichard, which lasted through his death in 1958. She returned to New York and resided for many years at the Wellington Hotel at Seventh Avenue and West 55th Street, where she died in November 1982. Nearly 30 years after her passing, new generations of classic film fans have come to appreciate her sparkling performances and witty dialogue.