The Glorification of Virginia Bruce

Born this day the great early Hollywood star Virginia Bruce (Helen Virginia Briggs, 1910-1982).

I don’t usually frontload an actor’s credits, but in this case I fear it might be necessary, for Bruce’s name has not lived on among the wider public as has many of her contemporaries’. Her most memorable year was probably 1936, when she played “Audrey Dane”, the haughty, snooty Lillian Lorraine character in The Great Ziegfeld, and introduced Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in Born to Dance with Eleanor Powell. She played the title role in the soon eclipsed 1934 version of Jane Eyre, as well as Jenny Lind in The Mighty Barnum (1934), and was the title character in the horror classic The Invisible Woman (1940). Other notable pictures include Times Square Lady (1935), the 1938 adaptation of Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack, Pardon My Sarong (1942) with Abbott and Costello, and the 1960 melodrama Strangers When We Meet.

Born in Minneapolis and raised in Fargo, it’s now wonder Bruce decided to go to Southern California for college. Brrrrrrrr! There are various versions of why she decided to try a film career: that she auditioned on a bet, that her parents encouraged her for financial reasons, and that William Beaudine heard her playing piano at her aunt’s one day. It could easily have been all three! She started out as an extra and a chorus girl. She was one of the original Goldwyn Girls, and one of her first appearances was in Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee (1930) When it became apparent that a real screen career seemed plausible she went to Broadway to gain a little experience, appearing in Smiles (1930) with Marilyn Miller, Fred and Adele Astaire, et al, and America’s Sweetheart (1931) with Inez Courtney, Dorothy Dare, Gus Shy, et al. Upon her return to Hollywood, a fourth-billed part in Kongo the 1932 remake of West of Zanzibar was what set her on her way.

In 1932, she married John Gilbert, the first of three husbands. In 1937 she married J. Walter Ruben, who directed her picture The Bad Man of Brimstone (1937), though he’s better known for his later Maisie (1939) and Tennessee Johnson (1942). Ruben died in 1942, else that might have been a permanent one. Her third husband was Turkish producer/director Ali Ipar, responsible for such films as Istanbul (1952), in which Bruce starred.

After 20 years of retirement Bruce was persuaded to appear in a Paul Morrisey movie for Andy Warhol entitled Madame Wang’s (1981). Hutch Dano of Disney’s Zeke and Luther is her great grandson.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.