Ruby Gentry (1952) Directed by King Vidor. Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden (82 min).
A hot-blooded swamp gal uses her wiles to bed the sexiest guy in Braddock, NC, and wed the richest. A boating accident upends the social order and Ruby, outfitted in a killer wardrobe by iconoclastic NY couturier Valentina, takes on the town and all their class-conscious prejudices. Refusing to be judged by unworthy men, she asserts her power through her knowledge of business and finance and exacts revenge on the narrow-minded town. “She’s the hero we need these days.” (Sass Mouth Dames podcast)
Ruby Gentry was based on a story by Arthur Fitz-Richard, and developed into a screenplay by Silvia Richards. Neither of them have more than a handful of film credits; Richards also wrote the screenplay for the Joan Crawford film, Possessed (1947 version) and Joan Bennett’s Secret Beyond the Door. She’s also credited with the original story for Rancho Notorious. King Vidor directed Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, in which her husband, David O. Selznick hoped to recreate his magic with Gone With the Wind. Duel in the Sun was considered to be an overblown melodrama, rather than an epic, although it was a box office hit.
Jennifer Jones was born Phyllis Isley, and she always wanted to be an actress. Her parents ran theaters, and did not balk at sending her to drama school. There she met and married another fledgling actor, Robert Walker, against her parents’ wishes. By her early 20s, she was mother to two young sons. Walker began as a voice actor on radio, and at first, his success was much greater than that of his young wife. In films, he was promoted as the perfect wartime boy next door, in films like Bataan and See Here, Private Hargrove. Ironically, his most famous role is cast completely against type, as the murderous Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Their older son, Robert Walker Jr, for you Star Trek nerds in the audience played Charlie X in one of the earliest episodes. She was “discovered” by the powerful producer David O Selznick while auditioning for a role in filmed version of the popular play, Claudia. He became obsessed with her, changed her name and determined to make her a star. He managed to cast her in one of the most prestigious films of the year, as Bernadette of Lourdes in Song of Bernadette.
This is from one of my movie star scrapbooks.
When first publicizing the movie, Selznick hid the fact that his new protégée was a married mother of two. When the news inevitably got out, the publicity machine switched gears to promote them as “Mr. and Mrs. Cinderella.” By the time the film was released, it seems likely that producer and protégée were already having an affair. Jones won the 1943 Academy Award for Best Actress for her first major film, defeating Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson and Jean Arthur. That a Jewish producer would promote his mistress all the way to an Oscar as a virginal Catholic saint says all you need to know about Hollywood. The Walkers 1945 divorce shattered all the careful publicity, although Selznick did not marry Jones until 1949. Walker never recovered from the shock of her affair and the divorce. He was an alcoholic, prone to violent outbursts. During one alcohol fueled rage, a doctor gave him what was supposed to be his usual dose of a sedative, which proved fatal. He was 33 years old.
Jones made several popular films, including Since You Went Away and Duel in the Sun, by the time she was proposed for the title role in Ruby Gentry (Joan Fontaine had already turned it down because she didn’t think she could do a convincing Southern accent) Jones’ career was already faltering. She needed a hit. Selznick thought the role would be perfect for her, especially since the film was going to be directed by King Vidor, who had done her last big success. Duel in the Sun exploits a vast Western landscape, expressive Technicolor and impressive crowd scenes, but, it’s a hard watch these days. Pearl, the heroine, is a “half-breed” either mixed race Mexican or Native American, the script is never quite sure. So, there is a big helping of racism, on top of the usual misogyny. But, worst of all, the alleged great love story is that disgusting plot twist, that Pearl falls in love with her rapist, Lewt, played way against type by Gregory Peck. He’s a horrible person, and her devotion to him plays more like Stockholm Syndrome than a tender emotion. Jones’ lover, Selznick, was overseeing every detail of the film, and was always on set to watch the passionate “love” scenes between Jones and Peck, making the whole mess even more distasteful.
Since Selznick was notorious for his interference on film sets on behalf of Jones, Vidor set strict boundaries if he was going to direct Ruby Gentry. According to Charlton Heston, her leading man, “David had script approval, approval of the leading man, and “still” (photograph) approval. In return, David was not allowed to set foot on the Ruby set or see any assembled footage.” Heston was at the beginning of his career. His biggest film to date had been as the circus boss in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. He went to the Selznick home to have lunch with David, and to briefly meet Jennifer. Selznick approved of Heston—this was only his third film—and that was the last Heston saw of him (Epstein 285).
Karl Malden and Jones
As it turned out, Selznick did have one money making idea, free of charge. The Third Man had been a huge hit with a single instrument on the sound track, the zither. He thought that would be a good idea for Ruby Gentry; but the instrument was instead, the harmonica (although there is orchestral scoring to the solo instrument). The theme did become a hit song, and you may regret your compulsion to sing it as you leave the theater tonight. Here you can listen to Ray Charles sing “Ruby” :
Supposedly Jones researched her part by briefly visiting Southport, NC, wandering through the town and chatting up the locals, and driving out into the countryside. Nobody seemed to recognize her (or were too polite to acknowledge it, anyway). She learned to shoot so she would look convincing handling a gun. As it turned out, none of the major players found it necessary to assume a North Carolina accent, which in retrospect, is a relief. There are a few scenes that might have been shot in NC. The beach looks like an NC beach, not a California one, and the waterfront and fishing boats, and the farmlands. One audience member said that there were wetland reclamation projects like the one Boake is obsessed with during the 1950s, and that might have been filmed in NC, as well.
Although her first husband Robert Walker (and some would argue her one great love) had just died when she began to film, she did not bring her personal feelings onto the set. Heston was impressed with how professional she was, “Jennifer showed up on time, knew her lines, and hit her marks. She was also, as far as I could tell, the only actress I’ve ever worked with who didn’t wear make-up in front of the camera. You could see her coloring change, you could see her flush or pale during a shot” (Epstein 286).
During the scene where Ruby furiously hits Boake, Heston told her that he was a big guy, and she should hit him as hard as she could. She hit him so hard with the back of her hand that she broke one of her bones. In some scenes, you can see her wearing some Native American silver jewelry, which I thought was a hugely interesting costume choice to show that even in her masculine hunting attire, she still retained some femininity. In fact, the bracelets covered the brace she had to wear after her injury.
The film was a huge success, King Vidor’s last triumph, and the first one Jones had had since 1946, keeping her in the top rank of stars. The public loved the film, for Jones’ strong character, and for the steamy love scenes between her and Heston, considered to be among cinema’s hottest up to that time. Vidor considered it one of his favorite films. “I had complete freedom in shooting it, and Selznick, who could have had an influence on Jennifer Jones, didn’t intervene. I think I succeeded in getting something out of Jennifer, something quite profound and subtle” (Baxter). Vidor says the character of the doctor and that of Ruby’s fundamentalist brother were insisted on by Selznick, as outsiders whose perspective emphasized Ruby’s desire to escape Braddock. Is there something especially “Southern” about the story? I look on it as being more of the tyranny of the small town than any specific locality.
Vidor made many distinctive films throughout his career. He made the first realistic film about WW I The Big Parade, and, one of my favorite silent films, Show People. In the late 1940s he became enamored of female centered melodramas. The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry became a loosely constructed trilogy. “People said these pictures were unrealistic, exaggerated. But they weren’t. They emphasized in a heightened realistic form, the frustrations and ambitions of real Americans. Let me give you an example. In “Ruby” I had a scene in which the lovers drive their cars into the moonlit sea off a beach. Unreal? Exaggerated? No. I added it to the script myself because I had recalled something from my own experience I wanted to use. In my part of Texas, lovers would drive out to the shore, gaze at the moon, neck, and by the time they wanted to move the tide had come in and they were stuck. At other times they would just, in the heat of the moment and for a joke, drive right into the sea deliberately. Crazy? Yes, but it really happened” (NY Times).
Some writers think Ruby Gentry is unworthy, “small and trashy, only 82 minutes long, close to exploitation” (Thomson 379) and others as “Vidor’s last great film” (Baxter 78) and “a truly great American movie, the film noir imbued with new fervor (Durgnat & Simmons 295). Marc Eliot, writing in 2017 dismissed it as a “redneck love triangle” ! (Eliot 69). Interesting, the critics who admire this film see it as spotlighting “class, money, family, religion and ambition” (D & S 285) but don’t see the way Ruby is treated sexually as a reason for her righteous fury. “It would be almost too easy for a feminist to accuse the film as follows: Ruby is exiled to a life of empty loneliness for (a) trying to rise in the world, (b) trying to be a businesswoman, and (c) being a gun-toting, phallic tomboy” (D & S 291, writing in 1988). Those particular authors see Boake’s desire to literally drain the swamp as a way of restoring a declining Southern culture to its former glory, rather than trying to impose a man-made solution on the natural order.
One of the most striking aspects of this film for me is the amazing wardrobe created for Jones by the New York couturier, Valentina. Although she did costumes for the theater (including for Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway version of The Philadelphia Story) this is her only film credit. She escaped Russia during the Revolution in 1917, and met her future husband, George Schlee while fleeing with her family jewels. She opened her couture salon in 1923, and her very expensive gowns became the rage with café society, she and her husband were members. In 1941, Greta Garbo bought an apartment in the same building as the Schlees in New York, and the three became inseparable, and remained close until Schlee’s death in 1964. I have no idea how the designer came to do this film. The gigantic book about Valentina’s life and career published during a career retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York doesn’t even mention the film. Perhaps, it was a personal request of Jones.
This is my favorite of Ruby’s Valentina outfits. It’s similar to the sort of clothes she designed for herself.
Ruby is judged by everyone. The powerful older men of the town practically salivate watching her in her tight sweater and dungarees. She is well aware of their admiration. “It’s just anatomy” one of them says (more than once), but Ruby knows that as a poor girl from the swamp, which must be way far over on the wrong side of the tracks, she has few advantages. She wants swaggering Boake but he is quite clear that his work is more important than any woman, which is reinforced when he marries the white gloved nice girl his family has selected for him. Jim Gentry, whose wife has been “an invalid” for eight years pantingly proposes to Ruby while she is still wearing mourning for his wife (of whom she was fond). When deep waters make Ruby the most powerful person in town, and she’s treated even more horribly than before, she wastes no time demonstrating how little she thinks of the toxic male vanity that has insinuated itself into her life through pretty much every man in town (including her self-righteous brother Jewel). You can’t win against the patriarchy, but Ruby’s damn well going to try.
Portrait of Jennifer by Edward Z. Epstein, Jennifer Jones, a Bio-Bibliography, King Vidor: American by Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon, King Vidor by John Baxter, Memo From David O. Selznick edited by Rudy Behlmer, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/09/03/archives/long-live-vidor-a-hollywood-king-long-live-vidor-who-was-a-king-of/ (This link is broken) https://soundcloud.com/sassmouthdames/ep-55-jennifer-jones-in-ruby-gentry-1952, Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon by Marc Eliot