Ruth Donnelly: Character Comedienne in Classics

Ruth Donnelly (1896-1982) figured as a character actress in a number of classic comedies and musicals such as Alibi Ike (1935) with Joe E. Brown, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), the “Annabel” films with Lucille Ball (1938), and My Little Chickadee (1940). She was often cast as the wife of characters played by Guy Kibbee, such as in Footlight Parade (1933) with Cagney, Wonder Bar (1934) with Jolson, and Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Donnelly was the niece of a popular mayor of Trenton, New Jersey. A chorus part in a touring production of The Quaker Girl launched her professional career in 1914. She briefly gave silent films a tumble, appearing in 7 movies for IMP between 1914 and 1916. This have her sufficient cache for Broadway, where she appeared in a dozen shows starting in 1917. Going Up (1918-18) cast her alongside Frank Craven and Ed Begley. George M. Cohan put her in A Prince There Was (1918-19) and The Meanest Man in the World (1920-21). In the middle of her Broadway career she took a supporting role in the now-lost Paramount comedy Rubber Heels (1927) shot at Kaufman Astoria studios by Victor Heerman. It was Ed Wynn’s first film, and also had Chester Conklin and Thelma Todd. She Means Business (1931) was her last Broadway show from the early phase of her career.

As Broadway tanked at the beginning of the Great Depression, Donnelly headed to Hollywood, where she played over a hundred roles over the next three decades. In addition to those named above you can see her in This is the Army (1943), The Bells of St Mary’s (1945), The Snake Pit (1948), The Spoilers (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956). Her last screen roles was on the tv show The Doctors and the Nurses (1965). In 1963 she returned to Broad way in a play called The Riot Act which featured Dorothy Stickney, Sylvia Miles, and a young Linda Lavin. In 1971 she understudied for Patsy Kelly in the revival of No, No, Nanette starring Ruby Keeler and had the opportunity to replace Kelly in the touring production.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.