Chatterton went on the stage at age 12 to help support the family after her parents separated. She became a major star in the original 1914 Broadway production of Daddy Long Legs and starred in numerous Broadway productions through 1925 when she moved to Hollywood.
Her first film was 1928’s Sins of the Fathers opposite Emil Jannings. The film, her only silent, was not a success, but Chatterton was. She was immediately showcased in five talkies in 1929, the fourth of which was Madame X, the perennial tearjerker which would earn her the first of two back-to-back Oscar nominations. She lost to Mary Pickford (Coquette), who had starred in the 1919 film version of Chatterton’s Daddy Long Legs.
With five more starring roles in 1930, Chatterton was quickly becoming one of the early talkies’ most popular actresses. She received her second Oscar nomination for another tearjerker, Sarah and Son opposite Fredric March. She lost to Norma Shearer in The Divorcee.
Moving into more sophisticated roles, she divorced actor Ralph Forbes, her husband of eight years on August 12, 1932 and promptly married frequent co-star George Brent the next day. The marriage would last just two years and two months.
Her most challenging roles during this period included the pre-Code classics Frisco Jenny and Female.
Chatterton’s greatest role was as Fran Dodsworth in the 1936 Samuel Goldwyn production of Dodsworth, but playing a middle aged woman did not bode well for a continuing career as one of Hollywood’s highest paid stars and the film’s lukewarm reception at the box office caused Goldwyn to withdraw his consideration for her to star in the following year’s Stella Dallas, a role which would bring an Oscar nomination to Barbara Stanwyck who replaced her.
Pretty much washed up in the movies, Chatterton went back on stage after making two more films in England. An accomplished aviatrix as well as an actress, Chatterton often flew cross-country and made several solo flights across the Atlantic.
She married stage actor Barry Thomson in 1942 and remained married to him until his death in 1960. Chatterton became a successful author in the 1950s, publishing several novels while continuing her acting career with TV appearances when not performing on stage.
Ruth Chatterton died of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 24, 1961 exactly one month before what would have been her 69th birthday..
MADAME X (1929), directed by Lionel Barrymore
Although Chatterton was under contract to Paramount, she would have her biggest hit on loan-out to MGM for the fourth of seven to date versions of the venerable old tearjerker. Director Barrymore is credited with inventing the first tracking crane for use in talkies for this film – the silent film cranes were too noisy and couldn’t be used.
Chatterton triumphs over the creakiness of the plot as the woman thrown out in the street by her husband, her son brought up to believe his mother dead, only to inadvertently defend her in the film’s climactic courtroom scenes. Lewis Stone as her cruel husband and Raymond Hackett as her compassionate grown son are also quite good, but it’s Chatterton’s towering Oscar nominated performance that makes this one of only two of the versions worth watching – the 1937 version with Gladys George is also quite good thanks to its star performance.
SARAH AND SON (1930), directed by Dorothy Arzner
Chatterton’s most successful vehicle at her home studio is another soap opera about another mother trying to get back the son taken from her, although this one has a happier ending. Fredric March, who had been Chatterton’s co-star in the previous year’s The Dummy appears late in the film as the lawyer who helps her get the kid back.
Chatterton received her second Oscar nomination in a row for this, but unlike the previous year when she was thought to be the favorite, only to lose to Academy founder Mary Pickford for her inept performance in Coquette, she wasn’t given much of a chance to win this time. The race had been strictly between MGM’s Greta Garbo in Anna Christie and Norma Shearer in that studio’s The Divorcee. Shearer won.
FRISCO JENNY (1932), directed by William A. Wellman
Moving to Warner Bros. for more money and the promise of better roles, Chatterton rarely got them. This bawdy rip-off of Madame X was an exception.
Pregnant Chatterton loses her lover (James Murray) in the San Francisco earthquake, has her baby and gives him up for adoption, rising to become San Francisco’s most notorious madam. Her grown son (Donald Cook) now the crusading District Attorney wants to shut down the brothels. Partner Louis Calhern wants to tell the D.A. who is mother is, so she shoots him to keep his mouth shut. The still in the dark son must now prosecute his mother for murder.
Chatterton is a hoot.
FEMALE (1933), directed by Michael Curtiz
Curtiz reportedly had help from William Dieterle and William Wellman on this, with Wellman directing 17 scenes.
A sharp role reversal comedy finds Chatterton the head of an auto company who runs her love life, like her business, like a man until George Brent (then her husband in real life) comes along and things change. The dialogue is as sharp and witty as anything Chatterton was given to play at either Paramount or Warner Bros.
DODSWORTH (1932), directed by William Wyler
This adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel was by far the best film Chatterton made and features what is arguably her best performance as the social climbing wife of a mild-mannered retiree, played by Walter Huston.
The film features beautifully modulated sympathetic performances by Huston and Mary Astor as the welcoming divorcee in whose arms he lands after Chatterton goes astray, but the thrust of the story often revolves around Chatterton and her affairs with the likes of David Niven and Paul Lukas.
The film should have opened up more opportunities for Chatterton but a combination of a less than stellar box office, the shock of those audiences who did come in seeing Chatterton suddenly in middle age and the general unattractiveness of the character combined to put an end to her film career instead.
RUTH CHATTERTON AND OSCAR
- Madame X (1929) – nominated Best Actress
- Sarah and Son (1930) – nominated Best Actress