Claudia Dell: Star of Early Musicals

A tribute to stage and screen actress Claudia Dell (Claudia Dell Smith, 1910-77). Originally from San Antonio, Dell played violin as a child, and moved to New York as a teenager to join her aunt Mary Dell, a vaudeville performer. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Julliard before her launching her Broadway career.

On Broadway, Dell started out in the chorus of Gay Paree (1925-26), followed by the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 (in which she understudied Irene Delroy), and Rosalie with Marilyn Miller which ran almost the entirety of 1928. In 1929 she starred in the play Mary, Mary in the West End. Homesick, she cut the engagement short after 3 months and moved to Hollywood to begin a film career.

Her rise was rapid but brief. Her first film was a musical short called Viennese Melody (1929). This was followed by Montana Moon (1930), in which she had a bit part as Cliff Edwards‘ girlfriend. She ascended to movie stardom with the title role in Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), followed by Big Boy with Al Jolson (1930), and 50 Million Frenchmen (1931) with Olsen and Johnson. Then came Sit Tight (1931) with Joe E. Brown and Winnie Lightner. 

But the original vogue for musicals was already over and so too was Dell’s time as a top-flight star. Over time, the parts, movies and studios got smaller, although not all at the same time. You can see her in the original Destry Rides Again (1932); Cleopatra (1934); two Our Gang shorts Mama’s Little Pirate (1934) and Anniversary Trouble (1935); Algiers (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces with the East Side Kids (1938); Juarez (1939); Black Magic (1944) with Orson Welles; and Call of the Jungle (1944) with Ann Corio. 

As movies dried up in later decades, Claudia Dell acted in radio, was a panelist on a TV show called Leave it to the Girls, was a syndicated columnist and taught at a charm school.

To find out more about the history of show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,