ONCE upon a time - the time in question being the 1920s, the palmy season of flappers, bobbed hair and bathtub gin - a pert 18-year-old cupcake, second from the right in the chorus line at Texas ('Hello, suckers]') Guinan's New York night-club, chanced to attract the eye of a colossally successful entertainer who had made his reputation with a sticky blackface routine. Gratified as the chorine was, she already enjoyed the protection of an Italian-born bootlegger whose name, naturally, was Johnny Irish. Irish, more than somewhat sore at the idea of his ward receiving such extra-curricular attentions, began to mutter darkly of fitting out the gatecrashing Romeo for a neat pair of concrete spats and repaired to his rival's suite at the Sherry-Netherland to make good his threat . . .
Of that implausible inventory of Runyonesque cliches the most implausible of all is that it happens to be true. The chorus-girl was Ruby Keeler, the entertainer Al Jolson, and the bootlegger - whose name really was Johnny Irish - compounded the offence by elegantly renouncing Keeler, wishing the two lovers well, but warning Jolson that if he were ever to harm a hair on Ruby's head he would find himself sporting those spats after all for his farewell debut in the Hudson River. True, all true.
Keeler, moreover, had not done with cliches. Indeed, her very first film role, in Lloyd Bacon's and Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street (1933), enshrined what is still the most famous and most frequently parodied cliche in Hollywood's history. It was she to whom, as a chorine propelled into the lead because of a dancer's injury, is addressed (by Warner Baxter) the immortal injunction: 'You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star]' The paradox of Ruby Keeler's career is that - though, as one watches the film, one finds it hard to credit that someone so insufficiently talented as a singer, dancer and actress could ever have become a star - it is just what happended to Keeler after 42nd Street opened. And a further paradox is that it was precisely in these insufficiencies that (at least, for her legion - or rather, legionette - of devotees) her charm resided.
Such quintessential Warner Bros musicals as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (both in 1933), Dames, Flirtation Walk (both 1934), Go Into Your Dance, in which she and Jolson were teamed for the only time in their careers, and Shipmates Forever (both 1935) are of course now most fondly remembered for Busby Berkeley's lavish crypto- Futurist production numbers, living Luna Parks whose merry-go- rounds, roller-coasters and Ferris wheels were fashioned out of dozens of scantily attired chorus-girls. Yet his kaleidoscopic pattern- weaving - though redefining filmic space in a revolutionary manner - might have appeared just a little slick and lifeless had it not been for the spunky, sweet- natured Keeler huffingly-and- puffingly tapping away in the foreground, often alongside her exact male equivalent, Dick Powell. If she lacked true star quality, she had oodles of what might be called 'starlet quality'.
Jolson and Keeler divorced in 1940; and, soon afterwards, she married a wealthy real-estate broker and went into retirement. And that is no doubt where she would have remained if it had not been for the nostalgic reappraisal of Berkeley's work that gathered pace during the Sixties. In 1970, in the campy wake of that nostalgia, she made a triumphant return to Broadway as the star of No, No, Nanette, a musical originally produced in the 1920s, the palmy season of flappers, bobbed hair, etc. Like one of Busby Berkeley's numbers she had come full circle.
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