A surprisingly funny showcase for America's Sweetheart of Song
Ruth Etting appeared in quite a few musical shorts during her heyday as a top singing star. In the initial efforts, which date back to the earliest days of talking pictures, she would simply stand before the cameras and sing; there was no story, and little or no dialog. Once the sheer novelty of sound pictures had worn off, however, the producers who made these shorts realized they'd have to concoct story lines -- not just for Etting, but for all the musical stars -- or risk dullness and diminishing returns. Some of the resulting shorts are enjoyable, some are routine, and some not so good, but Along Came Ruth is a real treat, by far the best showcase for this performer I've seen to date.
Miss Etting plays herself, and the clever opening sequence conveys two messages: 1) that she's very much in demand, and 2) that the grind of stardom is wearing her down. We watch as Ruth gamely performs her signature song "Shine On, Harvest Moon," first in a recording studio, mid-day, then at a radio station in the evening, and finally on the Broadway stage that same night. (The clever part is that she appears to perform the song in a continuous take, as she's whisked from one place to another.) Finally, the lady has had enough. Over the protests of her manager, she and her maid decide to skip out on fame for a while, flee the city, and check in at a country hotel incognito.
Almost instantly upon arrival the ladies meet the hotel's "social director," an aggressive little man who suggests they mix with the other guests. That's exactly what Ruth does NOT want to do, but the man, who refuses to take a hint, goes on to propose that they participate in the hotel's upcoming talent show. (Ubiquitous character actor Chester Clute plays the social director, and he's perfectly cast: that is, he's believably pushy and clueless.) Later on the ladies are walking the grounds, and Ruth decides to swing on a swing-set. While doing so she sings "Moonlight on the River." The social director hears her, and insists that she take part in the show by impersonating Ruth Etting! Amused, Ruth agrees to this.
So, that's the set-up for the big finale. Up to now, this short has been agreeable enough, though nothing extraordinary. But the talent show turns out to be highly enjoyable -- a real hoot, in fact -- because the hotel folks have chosen to put on a 19th century melodrama. They've got all the ingredients: an innocent, blonde-wigged heroine who can't pay her rent, the villainous landlord who twirls his mustache as he implies there are OTHER ways to pay the rent, etc. etc. For additional grins, there's a stagehand with buck teeth who struggles to raise and lower the curtain at the right moment. And for the finale, the bad guy ties the girl to the railroad tracks, where she is menaced by an oncoming, ridiculous, cardboard train. At the height of all this silliness Miss Etting comes back for one more song, and the curtain falls.
Around the time this short was made there was something of a fad for send-ups of stage melodrama in the movies; you can find them in other Vitaphone shorts (such as Soft Drinks and Sweet Music), cartoons (such as Mickey's Mellerdrammer) and feature films (such as The Old Fashioned Way, starring W.C. Fields). The last-mentioned of these is my personal favorite, but Along Came Ruth is a close second, maybe because the parody comes as such a surprise in a Ruth Etting vehicle. In any case it makes for a pleasant, entertaining short that nicely balances music and comedy.
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