Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Virginia Bruce (1910-1982)

The fair haired beauty was born in the US to a pro golfer mother and a father who made his living selling insurance in Minnesota.  The family eventually relocated to California where Virginia planned to attend college but like so many actresses before her, she found work in films instead.

Her first on screen work was as an extra in "Fugitives" 1929 at the tender age of 18.  A few more bit parts would follow until 1930 with her first on screen credit in "Slightly Scarlett" starring Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook.  Her on screen presence was noted, leading her into small roles in ten more films in 1930 alone.  Among those she was fortunate to appear on screen with Gary Cooper and Mary Brian in "Only the Brave", with Maurice Chevalier and Jean Arthur in "Paramount on Parade" then with Ronald Coleman and Kay Francis in "Raffles" to name just a few.

Virginia Bruce on stage while filming in The Ziegfeld Follies 1930

Virginia was cast alongside Marie Provost, Conrad Nagel, Wallace Beery and Clark Gable in "Hell Divers" at the beginning of 1931.  An action adventure film where two rival Navy pilots fight for the same girl.  It sounds like a great film for an actress starting out to have the ability to work with such a talented cast.  Unfortunately Virginia's scenes were all left on the cutting room floor.  That would be her only film that year as she was kept busy appearing as a chorus girl in The Ziegfeld Follies and on Broadway in Smiles then in America's Sweetheart throughout 1931.

with Richard Arlen in "Sky Bride" 1932

Virginia returned to Hollywood in 1932 to appear in the critically successful "The Miracle Man" starring Sylvia Sidney and Chester Morris.  A campy drama where a gang of robbers set up operations in a small town then commence scamming a faith healer out of his funds.  Boris Karloff also has a small part in the film   Virginia would get a larger role in her next film starring Richard Arlen and Jack Oakie titled "Sky Bride" 1932.  She was fortunate enough to follow it up with the hit "Winner Take All" starring James Cagney who plays boxer Jimmy Kane.

1932 turned out to be a very good year for Virginia as she landed a part in "Downstairs" opposite the great silent screen actor and ex lover of Greta Garbo, the handsome John Gilbert.  It was while making this film that Gilbert and Bruce fell in love then married soon after filming wrapped up.  Virginia would film two more films that year including "Kongo" with Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel and Walter Huston before retiring until after the birth of her daughter Susan Gilbert.  (If you like good horror films and you can locate a copy of  "Kongo" its worth watching).  A psychologically disturbing remake of Lon Chaney's "West of Zanzibar" 1928 and one of Lupe Velez's stand out performances as the fiery adulteress. (I'll be doing a post on the fascinating and never boring, Lupe Velez coming up).

Virginia and husband John Gilbert in their backyard

click on Virginia's autographs from my collection and photos for a larger view

I would love to have her shoes and her coat (If it's fake fur of course)!

Already divorced from John Gilbert in 1934, Virginia returned to work, appearing in "Jane Eyre". This would be her first film with top billing opposite Colin Clive.  Virginia would play Jane Eyre herself in the period piece  which gained her nice reviews and a new found respect within the film industry.  Next up was her second starring role that year in "Dangerous Corner" opposite Conrad Nagel and Melvyn Douglas then the biopic "The Mighty Barnum" co-starring Adolphe Menjou and Wallace Beery.  Virginia plays Jenny Lind while Beery places the iconic P.T. Barnum with Director Walter Lang at the helm.  (Not a bad year for a newly divorced mom raising an infant on her own).  

Virginia at her Hollywood home

With John Gilbert

Virginia, now a star kept busy throughout 1935 with 8 films.  Most notably, "Let 'em Have It", a crime drama co-starring Richard Arlen, Alice Brady and Bruce Cabot. Then the comedy "Escapade" with the hilarious William Powell and talented Luise Rainer.  Her last film of the year was the romantic musical "Metropolitan" co-starring Lawrence Tibbett where she tries her hand as a prima donna operatic singer.

with Lawrence Tibbett in "Metropolitan" 1935

1936 brought tragedy to Virginia with the death of John Gilbert from a heart attack. His health had been failing for years due to alcoholism which was brought on by his failing career after the advent of talkies.  Virginia had no choice but to continue working, finding more success that year for her role in "The Great Ziegfeld" co-starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Fanny Brice, Luise Rainer and Reginald Owen.  She also appeared in the very successful musical comedy "Born to Dance" with Eleanor Powell and James Stewart which was released at the end of 1936.

with William Powell in "The Great Ziegfeld" 1936

Virginia continued to get good roles throughout the late 1930's, appearing with Melvyn Douglas and Reginald Denny in "Women of Glamour" 1937 then in the box office hit "Between Two Women" with Franchot Tone and Maureen O'Sullivan that same year.  Written by Eric von Stroheim, it's a great film with an interesting plot. (It's my second favorite film of Bruce's with "The Great Ziegfeld" being my favorite).  Virginia also found love again in 1937, marrying writer/director J. Walter Ruben.  (best known for directing Norma Shearer in her final film "Her Cardboard Lover").  Ruben and Virginia met when he directed her in the western "The Bad Man of Brimstone" in which she co-starred with Wallace Beery.

Virginia continued to receive co-star billing during 1938 in the five films that she appeared in that year. Her two most successful films also starred the talented and charismatic Robert Montgomery. The first being the comedy drama "The First Hundred Years" then the mystery drama "Yellow Jack".  She also received great reviews for her performance in "There Goes My Heart" opposite Fredric March and the very funny Patsy Kelly.  (If you're a Virginia Bruce or Patsy Kelly fan I'm sure you've seen the film but if not please add it to your list of 'must sees' as it's a great little comedy).  

with Fredric March in "There Goes My Heart" 1938

Virginia, adorable in "There Goes My Heart"

Virginia did another successful romantic musical in 1939, a genre she adapted to quite nicely and always sang her own songs in. "Let Freedom Ring" co-starred Nelson Eddy, Victor McLaglen and Lionel Barrymore.  Bruce also starred in another musical drama "Society Lawyer" with Walter Pigeon and Leo Carillo before her final film that year starring Walter Pigeon, another drama titled "Stronger Than Desire".  1940 continued to be good to her allowing her to work steadily and appear in four films that year.  Most notably as the invisible woman in the film with the same title and co-starring John Barrymore and Charles Ruggles.  Virginia also gave birth to her second child, a son named Christopher Ruben.

with Ilka Chase in a scene from "Stronger Than Desire" 1939

On the set of  "Let Freedom Ring" 1939

It's not clear as to why Virginia only appeared in one film during 1941 then only one memorable film of her three pictures in 1942.  Her roles weren't as plum as in the past which happens to every actress over the age of 30 in Hollywood or perhaps she slowed down due to a small child at home and a husband in failing health.  Sadly she lost the father of her second child in 1942 to unknown causes when Rubens passed away.  "Pardon My Sarong" 1942 co-starred Abbott and Costello and the comedy was another hit at the box office for Bruce and the funny comedic duo. 

with Abbott, Costello and Marie McDonald in "Pardon My Sarong" 1942

Virginia returned to acting in 1944, appearing in a couple of B rated films then a part here in there throughout the rest of the decade, like her role in "Night Has a Thousand Eyes" 1948 which starred Edward G. Robinson and Gail Russell.  She made guest appearances on several television shows before retiring from acting for good in 1960.  She found love again and remarried for a third time in 1946 with Turkish citizen Ali Ipar.  They would divorce in 1951 in order for him to receive a commission in the Turkish military. (It was forbidden for Turkish soldiers to marry foreigners).  After his commission they remarried the following year and would remain married until their divorce in 1964.  

with Robert Montgomery in "The First Hundred Years" 1938

Virginia passed away from cancer in 1982 in Hollywood where she had remained after her retirement.  She was cremated and her ashes were scattered by her family and close friends.  She appeared in over 70 films during her very successful career which spanned over four decades.

with Robert Taylor in "Times Square Lady" 1935

Virginia Bruce Facts:

She was one of 20 original "Goldwyn Girls" which included Paulette Goddard, Ann Sothern and Betty Grable.

Her "A" status at MGM waned after the death of Irving Thalberg when she started getting parts in "B" pictures.  (It's no secret that I'm no fan of Thalberg but I will be nice today)!  Virginia remained under contract at MGM throughout her career but I can't help but wonder what parts she would have been offered if she had been loaned out or not saddled with her contract and the inability to choose certain roles throughout the years.  (Even though it's rumored that a Paramount exec discovered her, she wasn't given a long contract with their studio but landed instead at MGM).

She failed seven screen tests for the lead part in "Red-headed Women" which went to Jean Harlow.

It was her parents who pushed her into film work instead of pursuing music at UCLA (her dream) due to their financial troubles.

It's her beautiful voice thats heard singing soprano in the vocal introduction for Cole Porter in "Born to Dance" 1936.  She can be seen singing the intro of "I've Got You Under My Skin" to James Stewart in the film.

After her ex-husband John Gilbert died she busied herself by appearing in 14 films over 16 months.

Please leave a comment on your favorite Virginia Bruce film and enjoy the below clip of Virginia in "Jane Eyre"



  1. Great post, Page! I always liked Virginia Bruce best when she had that beautiful sad-eyed look, not so much when she was smiling. Weird, huh? It was great to see that Jane Eyre clip. I have never seen it, and would love to see what they did with it. Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre were so fantastic it would be hard to beat. The scene in the stormy garden where Rochester asks Jane to marry him is so romantic, with Bernard Herrmann's music --makes my heart pound! That would have been a good choice for Valentine's Day...

    I would love to see Kongo! I wonder if it is very difficult to find?

    Two questions: Why do you hate Irving Thalberg?

    And, can I have that fur coat if the animal died of natural causes? LOL

  2. Hi Becky!

    It's interesting that you brought up Virginia's looks in that I've always thought she wasn't very photogenic since she looked much prettier in candids without her stage makeup. I can't describe it but she looked so different in every photo. Way back when I bought her autograph and I was looking for photos the one of her at the car in the fur stood out to me. It was the first photo of her I bought because it was so striking and she looked so glamorous. If I recall the caption on the back says she's wearing a 'fur' so I guess you win again! ha ha

    As for Jane Eyre, I agree that the 1943 version was the best adaptation (although I am biased due to Fontaine being my favorite actress). But this one with Bruce is very good. Ironically I almost chose the 'proposal' clip for this post but the little girl was so darn cute. It's unusual to find remakes of such iconic literary work that are equally as good and I will always consider the original Pride and Prejudice 1940 perfect. When watching the remake I just couldn't give it a fair chance.

    Oh, and I happened upon a copy of Kongo when looking on Youtube for clips! It appears to be there in full. It would actually be a great film for a pictorial review as it's so darn bizarre.

    As for Thalberg! Hmmm, other than his affairs with young actresses and his frequent use of the 'casting couch' while married to Shearer, the way he treated young starlets (using his power within the industry to put a halt to their careers when they refused his advances). Then theres the blatant nepotism in regards to his wife Norma and her brother which caused deserving actresses to miss out on parts they were better suited for than Shearer not to mention her Oscar win that should have gone to the more deserving Garbo for Anna Christie.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald based a character on Thalberg in his book "The Love of the Last Tycoon" as well as "Crazy Sunday". (It's about an incident at Thalberg's house). In my opinion he was a talented, creepy little weasel! lol


    1. Do you have any real evidence for your sexual allegations about Irving Thalberg? I don't know of any woman linked to Thalberg after he married Norma Shearer.

      I suppose there's no legal risk in libeling the dead, but it is still rotten to do so. So what's your evidence?

  3. Well, now I know why you don't care for Irving! As much as I think I know about the good old days of Hollywood, I am always learning something new from my movie friends. I knew of course about Thalberg's nepotism with Norma, but then I just love her and think she was so talented. I did not know that he cheated on her (boy, if women like Norma Shearer, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe could be cheated on, NONE of us have a chance)! I love Picasso's paintings, but I know he was also a real SOB in life! I also did not know that Fitzgerald's story was based on Thalberg. I've learned a lot from this post!

    I am in total agreement with you about Pride and Prejudice. The original was so good that it is hard to watch others with an objective eye. I will say, however, that Colin Firth was a good Mr. D'Arcy, and he is my modern Errol Flynn.

    Now, you did not answer one question -- would I get red paint thrown on my fur coat (if I had one), if I had raised the minks myself and let them die happily in their little mink beds?

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute to Virginia Bruce. She has always been one of my favorite stars, and I love her early films the best. I have a great photo of her wheeling her baby along in a carriage in Hollywood. She had such chemistry with Spencer Tracy in The Murder Man. I'm so glad to have found your site!

  5. Nazimova,
    Thanks so much for your nice comment. I truly enjoy Virginia and wish she had more written about her today.

    I hope you'll look through the archives and return often for future posts.

  6. Did Virginia sing the songs when she played Jenny Lind in "The Great Barnum?

  7. I believe Virginia was loaned out during her career at MGM , her contract expired after 1939, and went on to work for Universal, I think her down fall was that she didn't fight for her roles like the other actresss like hedy Lamarr , she had bad luck with men, all she ever wanted was to be in Love: another note I'm Virginia Bruce sponsor and working on getting her a Star on the Hollywood walk of fame, it is a shame she doesn't have one after being in over 70 films and tons of radio, she was also the Mayor of the pacific palisades for not one , but two terms.. Her last husband was a mistake Ali Apar, he used her and spent get money, while his family fortune was frozen by the government of his country in Turkey...there are a few inaccuracies on this blog, but I think you did a wonderful job on keeping the legacy of a fine actress in Virginia Bruce the actress with the amazing! Eyes.. If you like friend Virginia Bruce on Facebook and look at all the amazing photos from my personal collection.. Thanks again Charles Cisneros

  8. Thank god for Turner Classic Movies or I would never have discovered Virginia Bruce. I honestly cannot pick out any one picture but they recently ran several of her movies back to back and I loved everyone of them. Lovely website, you have, so beautifully done. Thank you so much