Ruth Chatterton was an American stage, film and television actress, who was one of the initial superstars of the “talkies.” Venturing into the show business as a teenager, she enjoyed considerable success as a stage actress with her beauty, grace and skilful acting. The advent of the talkies saw her career escalate to new heights and she became one of the most successful female stars of the 1930s. The daughter of an architect, she developed an early interest in acting and began her acting career almost by chance while still in her teens. Having made her first stage appearance while still in school, she dropped out to pursue acting full time. Beginning as a chorus girl, she soon moved on to more substantial roles and made her Broadway debut in ‘The Great Name.’ Within years she became one of the leading ladies on stage and was attracted by the growing motion picture industry. Once she made her silver screen debut, there was no looking back. Unlike several other actresses of her generation, she effortlessly made the transition from silent films to talkies and soon established herself as one of the topmost female stars of her era. A bold and adventurous woman, she was also a keen aviator and was one of the few woman aviators at the time.
Childhood & Early Life
Ruth Chatterton was born on December 24, 1892, in New York City, U.S., to Walter Smith Chatterton, an architect, and Lilian Reed Chatterton. She was the couple’s only surviving child.
Her parents separated when she was quite young and Ruth was primarily raised by her mother and grandmother. She received her early education from Mrs. Hagen's School in Pelham.
She loved acting from a young age. Once in 1908, she attended a play with her friends and later criticized the lead actress to her friends who challenged her to become a stage actress herself. The gutsy young girl accepted the challenge and joined the chorus of the stage show.
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Pretty and talented, Ruth Chatterton soon started appearing in more substantial roles and before long realized that acting was her calling. Still a teenager, she dropped out of school to pursue a career as a full-time actress.
She joined the Friend Stock Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a 16 year old. Within a few years she got the chance to make her Broadway stage debut in ‘The Great Name’ in 1911.
Her stage career flourished over the years and she found tremendous success with her role in the play ‘Daddy Long Legs’ (1914), adapted from the novel by Jean Webster.
During the 1920s, motion pictures were becoming a rage in the U.S. but Chatterton, an acclaimed stage performer was not much interested in making the transition to the silver screen. Fate, however, had other plans for her.
While performing in a Los Angeles theater, Ruth Chatterton was spotted by the prominent actor Emil Jennings who convinced her to perform with him in his new picture, ‘Sins of the Fathers’ (1928). It was her first and only silent movie epic.
Her debut film did not perform too well at the box office but the actress got noticed for her talent. She appeared in her first sound film, ‘The Doctor’s Secret’, in 1929 thereby successfully making her transition from silent films to talkies.
In 1930, Ruth starred in the hit ‘Sarah and Son,’ playing the role of an impoverished woman whose husband sells their son to a rich couple. The tearjerker was a critical as well as commercial hit that earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Her string of successes continued through the early 1930s. She starred in the successful comedy-drama ‘Female’ in 1933 and gave what is considered her finest performance in ‘Dodsworth’ in 1936.
In the late 1930s she returned to the stage after acting in the film ‘A Royal Divorce’ (1938).
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In her later years she pursued a writing career and her first novel ‘Homeward Bourne’ was published in 1950 which became a best seller. She also wrote two other novels.
In addition to acting, another passion of hers was aviation. She was one of the few woman aviators at the time and flew solo across the U.S. several times.
Her portrayal of Fran, an unhappily married woman in the drama film ‘Dodsworth’ is considered one of her best performances. The film was critically praised and nominated for several Academy Awards, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1990.
She played the role of Jacqueline Floriot, a woman who is thrown out of the house by her husband following an affair. Her poignant portrayal of a fallen woman who struggles for redemption earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Awards & Achievements
Ruth Chatterton has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Blvd.
She is an inductee of the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Personal Life & Legacy
Ruth Chatterton was thrice married. Her first marriage to British actor Ralph Forbes in 1924 ended in 1932. Her second marriage to Irish-born actor George Brent was also short-lived.
She married actor Barry Thomson in 1942 and remained together until Thomson’s death in 1960.
She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on November 21, 1961, and was rushed to a hospital where she died on November 24, 1961. She was 68.