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Ruth Chatterton: A Screen Career in Photographs (In Defense of the Fan Collection)
This post is about a fascinating, talented and beautiful movie star of the 1930s named Ruth Chatterton. However, it's also about a dedicated fan who preserved her legacy. Yes, this is the type of collection many archivists dread: the much-maligned fan collection.
Perhaps I better explain this for any laymen reading. If the library had Ruth Chatterton's Papers, that would mean that the stage and film actress, novelist and aviatrix (!) maintained her own photographs, scripts, correspondence, programs, clippings, etc. and gave them to us (or her heirs did.) If that were the case, Chatterton would be both the subject of the collection and its creator. In this case, Chatterton is the subject of the collection, but Ruth Moesel is the creator, so we have the Ruth Moesel Collection of Ruth Chatterton Materials.
So, who is Ruth Moesel? Ruth Moesel, a Pennsylvanian pre-school teacher, started out as just a fan of Ruth Chatterton. As she told The Scrantonian, in an interview on Sept. 2, 1951, “I thought she was a very good actress. I admired her, so I started the scrapbook. After I got a good start, I just kept on with it.” She certainly did! The collection I processed has no fewer than 32 scrapbooks!
Moesel may have started as a fan, but she soon upgraded to Chatterton's quasi-official custodian and biographer. Chatterton eventually met Moesel many times and gave her interviews for her biography. The collection includes drafts for Moesel's Chatterton biography, but I can't find any evidence that it was published. Many repositories were interested in her collection, but she expressed her intention to give it to NYPL as early as the 1950s.
Some archivists have disdain for fan collections. To be perfectly candid, I've even occasionally been guilty of this myself. And our disdain isn't completely unfounded. Fan collections can consist entirely of stuff that's readily available for purchase on eBay. But my experience with this collection surprised me, so I'm going to make a case, here and now, in favor of fan collections. In this case, according to notes on collection items, Chatterton gave Moesel some of her personal papers — correspondence and photographs — as well as artifacts, like a tin of face powder, a purse with two cigarettes in it, a suit, and best of all — a mink collar!
This collection has a lot to offer, but the real treasure trove here is the amazing group of scrapbooks containing photographs — production stills from Chatterton's movies, spanning her entire film career. To prove that, under certain circumstances, a fan collection can be just as good as the real thing, I'd like to share with you a few out of the hundreds of beautiful photographs this collection includes.
After a successful career on the New York Stage — a career that encompassed starring in Broadway hits and translating plays from French to English — Chatterton made her film debut at age 35 in Sins of the Fathers (1928). In this, her only silent film, Chatterton was cast as a femme fatale who pushes Emil Jannings on to financial ruin. The film didn't get very good reviews, but Chatterton did.
That same year Chatterton also got a crack at one of Hollywood's favorite stories — at least, it must've been since they filmed it half a dozen times! — Madame X. This melodrama, also based on a hit play, tells the story of a fallen woman who shoots a lover who's threatening to reveal her identity to the son she lost 20 years ago, now a successful lawyer, and ends up being defended in the trial by said son, who still doesn't know who she is! Sure, this story is up to its ears in hoary sentiment and maternal self-sacrifice, but it's also undeniably powerful, and it earned Chatterton her first Oscar nomination.
The next year Chatterton got another Oscar nomination for Sarah and Son, another story of a woman searching for a lost son. This time she's a good girl whose bad husband stole her son and sold him to a rich man. When she becomes an opera star she wins her son back with the help of a devoted lawyer, after her deadbeat husband conveniently dies and in the end she gets her son and her lawyer.
Chatterton's Paramount films are mostly unavailable on home video, and largely forgotten. Notably, three of them were directed by Hollywood's only female director in this era, Dorothy Arzner. After a series of women's pictures/melodramas, Chatterton left Paramount Studios, where she had reigned as top female star, for Warner Brothers. Chatterton and a few other stars perceived as sophisticated were wooed by that studio, associated mostly with gangster films, in an attempt to change its image. Her first film at Warner's was another melodrama, The Rich Are Always with Us, which cast her opposite future husband George Brent, and also featured one of the studios' rising stars, Bette Davis.
Some notable films from Chatterton's time at Warner Brothers include Frisco Jenny (1932), Lily Turner (1933) and Journal of a Crime (1934). Perhaps her most intriguing vehicle is Female (1933). Chatterton stars as the CEO of an automobile company. Not only does she boss around all her male employees with easy assurance, she gets just as many kicks from inviting the attractive ones to work “overtime” at her house, getting them drunk on her "special vodka" and toying with them, only to discard them callously at the office the next day.
The film does takes a disappointing and predictable turn when Chatterton's character finally meets her match in George Brent, but the first half of the film is remarkable for the casual way the heroine engages in sexual encounters and the complete power she has over men — both sexually and professionally. It's also worth noting that in youth-obsessed Hollywood, Chatterton was 41 when she played this role!
In her mid-forties, Chatterton's career was beginning to wane. Journal of a Crime (1934) was her last film at Warner Brothers. After that she bounced around from one studio to another, doing films at Columbia, at Fox and for the Samuel Goldwyn Company, where she made the film for which she is best remembered today. Dodsworth (1936) was an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel about a middle-aged American husband and wife, who retire to Europe together and quickly realize they have nothing in common.
Walter Houston starred as Dodsworth, Chatterton as Fran, his bored, social-climbing wife. The impressive cast also boasted Paul Lukas and David Niven as some of Chatterton's new beaux, the formidable Maria Ouspenskaya as the forbidding mother of a young nobleman Chatterton wants to marry, and Mary Astor as the wonderful woman Houston finds happiness with. Dodsworth also had one of the greatest directors of all time, William Wyler, at the helm.
Though Chatterton's character is unsympathetic because of her snobbery and cruelty to her gentle husband, her complexities make her fascinating and Chatterton's performance is certainly dynamic. Fran Dodsworth's fear of aging is especially poignant, particularly in the devastating scene between Chatterton and Ouspenskaya. Chatterton had some reservations about playing a middle-aged woman. While doing so did effectively end her career as a leading lady, it was also her greatest film and greatest role.
Despite her success in Dodsworth, Chatterton's Hollywood film career was over. She made two films in England, The Rat (1937) and A Royal Divorce (1938) before going back to the stage. For the next twenty years she worked steadily in theatre and also flew solo across the Atlantic several times and turned out four novels in her spare time!
That's Ruth Chatterton, a remarkable woman with a fascinating career. I'm grateful to Ruth Moesel for collecting these wonderful images and everything else in this valuable collection. I know I won't be dismissing the fan collection out of hand ever again! And if anyone wants to write that Chatterton bio, Moesel's done a lot of the job already.
To learn more about Chatterton, check out the Ruth Moesel Collection of Ruth Chatteron materials in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.