Wesley Ruggles — His Third Time On Top (1934) 🇺🇸
Wesley Ruggles, who slipped twice, says ace-high director has toughest film job.
by Beauregard Brown
The most uneasy heads in Hollywood are those of ace directors, Wesley Ruggles is convinced.
“This is my third time on top, so I should know what I’m talking about,” says the man who directed the gigantic Cimarron, awarded the Photoplay Magazine Gold Medal as the best picture of 1931.
“Twice before it was the same precarious, sometimes despairing struggle to climb. Then, when I lost my hold, I shot to the bottom so fast I never have been able to figure out exactly how I might have saved myself.”
Those two slips that Ruggles never will forget are forgotten by almost everyone else. Since 1927 he has been doing a regular “Shipwreck” Kelly — sitting high and pretty on the thickly greased pole that rears to movie glory.
His third time on top seems to be something of a charm for him. The coming of the talkies could not shake his new grip, although his only experience with speech in the theater had been staging amateur minstrel shows while he was an oil company employee in his native Los Angeles. He has added to the short list of real screen epics with “Cimarron” . He wrote and directed “Are These Our Children?” and found that one of its youthful players, Arline Judge, could add to his happiness as his second wife (she is less than half his age). Now he has one of the best directorial contracts, with Paramount. His latest picture is Bolero, with Carole Lombard, George Raft, and Sally Rand, the fan dancer.
“So many things can happen to bring a director to grief,” Ruggles explains.
“The pitfalls that endanger an actor’s career are not nearly so numerous. Usually it takes several bad pictures in a row to severely damage a star’s reputation. Directors have been plunged into obscurity on the strength of a single flop.
“No one else in pictures bears so much responsibility, no one is concerned with so many details. When money is lost on a production, the accusing finger first points at the director. “Then, too the director is so apt to be drawn into studio politics, sometimes entirely against his will.
“There are plenty of men who used to be big shots as directors, stumbling around Hollywood in a daze, wondering just what put the skids under them. For reasons which they can’t figure out, a new foothold is denied them. And I speak of men who are not victims of their own misconduct.”
Ruggles says his own first toboggan ride was brought about largely by the death of Wallace Reid, whom he was signed to direct in “Mr. Billings Spends His Dime” for Famous Players Lasky. Reid died in January, 1923.
“Finally, it was decided to give the leading role to Walter Hiers, and it was rewritten in just three days. Can you imagine what happened to a part intended for the handsome Reid, then hurriedly altered for the chubby Hiers — good comedian though he was?
“After I went through with ‘Mr. Billings,’ the studio heads told me they had no more stories for me to direct. I knew they had. They preferred to settle. I wanted to make ‘Big Brother,’ and told them if they’d let me direct that one picture, then they could tear up my contract if they so desired. But they wouldn’t, so I just sat pretty and drew my pay.
“My attitude helped to put me in bad generally, I suppose. For the next year, there was so little demand for my services I thought I had no future. Yet I had been considered a good money director before that ‘Mr. Billings’ experience.”
Both times Ruggles has been “down,” assignments to direct a series of short comedies have figured in his resurrection. He began his film career as a Keystone cop, learned the A-B-C’s of laugh-making under Mack Sennett, and directed Charlie Chaplin for the Essanay Company, so he knows what comedy is all about.
Comedy, in fact, runs in the Ruggles blood. There are few more droll fellows than Brother Charles.
Several days before Christmas, 1924, F.B.O. played Santa Claus and signed Ruggles to direct “The Pacemakers,” a series of two-reelers written by H. C. Witwer.
“Then B. P. Schulberg had the rights to a novel he wanted to produce, but the Hays office disagreed on its treatment. I told Schulberg I could put the story on the screen for him, and he said it was a go. The story was ‘The Plastic Age,’ and it made Clara Bow a star.”
But Ruggles was to enjoy this comeback only a few months.
“First National wired me to come to New York and direct ‘The Wilderness Woman,’ with Aileen Pringle. Two weeks after I started that job, I was dismissed and told my comedy was no good — after the many comedies I had directed! As a result of that setback I couldn’t even get an interview with a major producer.
“But Sam Zeiler had George Walsh signed to act in five quickies. He advanced me twenty-five thousand dollars to make them. Anything I saved out of this staggering sum was mine. If I spent more, the loss was on my head.
“I rented an old studio over in Fort Lee, New Jersey, wrote ‘The Kick-Off’ and produced it. I actually came out ahead on that one, and, incidentally, discovered Leila Hyams. The second attempt, however, was disastrous. Rain held up the out-of-door shots. I lost more than I made on the first one and got out of the deal.”
Things were black, indeed, for Ruggles, when along came more comedies.
Universal entrusted him with the direction of “The Collegians,” also two-reelers, and liked his work on these well enough to hand him Laura La Plante to direct in feature length comedies. He turned out “Silk Stockings,” and from that day to this his services have been at a premium.
Some of his other pictures were “Condemned,” with Ronald Colman; “Street Girl,” with Betty Compson, the first talkie produced by RKO-Radio and a money maker; “Honey,” with Nancy Carroll, and “I’m No Angel,” with Mae West.
The “Cimarron” man has held high rank for a long stretch now. Is it a third time charm?
The man who came back twice attained a happy home life, too. Ruggles and Arline Judge, his young wife, with little Charles Wesley.
Source: Photoplay, April 1934