Jean Brooks: B Movies and the Bottle

Scarcely more than a dozen years and 40 film performances comprised the screen career of Jean Brooks (Ruby Kelly, 1915-1963), but today she is regarded as something of a Goth icon and pioneer. She is easiest encapsulated as a lesser B movie/horror queen, best known as the female lead in the Val Lewton pictures The Leopard Man and The Seventh Victim (both 1943), a half dozen Falcon vehicles starring Tom Conway (1943-46), the voodoo themed independent Obeah! and Republic’s The Crime of Dr. Crespi (both 1935). She also had smaller roles in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1941). If the picture above looks unfamiliar you may recall her most striking guise, from The Seventh Victim:

Though born in Texas, Brooks was mostly raised by her mother on a family plantation in Costa Rica. Bi-lingual and part Latin this exotic background was like something out of the plots of Lewton’s movies.

She first gained notice as a singer and guitarist with Enric Madriguera’s Orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York and on radio. Erich Von Stroheim saw her perform with the band, helped her get cast alongside him in Dr. Crespi. In 1936 she acted with Lenore Ulric in a production of Name Your Poison at the Shubert Theatre in New Jersey.

Brooks was induced to change her professional name twice on account of tap dancers. Her given name, Ruby Kelly, would have been terrific, but Ruby Keeler was still popular at the time. So she became Jeanne Kelly, her crediting on over half her movies. But then Gene Kelly came on the scene, so she took the surname of her husband, Richard Brooks, who was not yet the powerhouse producer-writer-director he would later become. Indeed, it was probably his marriage to Jean (1941-44) that gave his nascent career its initial boost. Soon after writing the screenplays for White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944) for Maria Montez, the pair split. Jean also used the screen name Robina Duerta when she starred in a handful of Mexican films.

Brooks was also in several “classic comedies”, notably Buck Privates (1941) with Abbott and Costello, but also The Wife of the Party (1936) and Wedding Yells (1937) with Ken Murray, Junior G Men (1940) with several of the Dead End Kids, Meet the Chump (1941) with Hugh Herbert, and Too Many Blondes (1941) with Rudy Vallee. Westerns (many with Johnny Mack Brown) and crime dramas fill out most of the rest of her body of work. Mark Robson’s Youth Runs Wild (1944) with Bonita Granville was one of her last legit parts. Her last for a major studio was RKO’s The Bamboo Blonde (1946) starring Frances Langford in the kind of part Brooks used to get, with Brooks now 10th in the billing.

Several embarrassing incidents of public inebriation are what contributed to her downfall. Drink likely was a factor in her divorce from Brooks in 1944, as well. In 1946 she married Mexican-American writer William Douglas Lansford, a union that lasted a decade. Brooks’ last film was a low-budget independent called Women in the Night (1948), in which she was eighth billed. By this time, though only 33, she had developed Laennec’s Cirrhosis from the massive drinking she had done. In 1956 she married Thomas H. Leddy, an editor at the San Francisco Examiner, where she worked in the classified ads department. During the San Francisco years she participated in live theatre.

Brooks died of complications from her alcoholism, including malnutrition, on November 25, 1963, which also happened to have been the day of President Kennedy’s funeral, assuring the instant burial of the news. (In related trivia, a dozen years later, Brooks’ ex-husband William Lansford wrote the screenplay for the TV movie The Deadly Tower, about University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, which we wrote about here. Whitman was of course one of the foremost Oswald copycats of the decade.) At any rate, one can’t help picture Brooks’ end as being not unlike her character’s in The Seventh Victim: lonely, sad, mysterious, self-induced. And one remembers those lines of John Donne, quoted in the film: “I run to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”