Ruthelma Stevens

April 27, 2009


I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you probably haven't heard of Ruthelma Stevens. I hadn't either until I watched the Adolphe Menjou b-movie "The Circus Queen Murder" last week. The script was pitiful, the acting was mediocre and the plot was predictable. The one thing that stood out above all else was Ruthelma Stevens, playing Adolphe Menjou's sidekick, Miss Kelly.

I watched the film with my mom, who every ten minutes or so would say "she's really good... I wonder why we haven't seen her in anything else!" And so when "The End" appeared on the screen, I dashed off to imdb.com to find out what happened to this b-movie queen. I was very saddened to see her small filmography filled with parts like "(uncredited)... secretary" or "(uncredited)... brunette in theater." Her biography is empty, except for the name of her husband, and her birth and death dates (October 23 and October 23... she died on her 81st birthday.)

When I went looking for photos of her for this post, I couldn't find ONE. I looked on every search engine, every place I could think of, and "Ruthelma Stevens" turned up zero results. I finally resorted to playing my Circus Queen Murder DVD and taking screenshots in order to show you who she was.

Perhaps the saddest part of Ruthelma's story is the fact that she was actually a very good actress. It's easy to turn in a good performance when you have Dark Victory or Gone With the Wind for a script. But when you can turn a supporting role in "The Circus Queen Murder" into a chance to shine, and wring every existing drop of interestingness out of a mediocre, dull script, that's an accomplishment that deserves recognition.

Unfortunately, Ruthelma didn't get any recognition. In "The Circus Queen Murder," the title role went to Greta Nissen, who had about ten lines and one high-wire circus scene. Yet, Greta received top female billing. Squinting hard, staring at my screen I couldn't make out "Ruthelma Stevens" anywhere on the movie poster, at all.

Since her biography was so incredibly sparse, I can only hope that Ruthelma had a very happy life after films; that she and her husband enjoyed life out of the spotlight, and that her unfulfilled stardust dreams didn't haunt her.

18 comments:

Sebina said...

I love reading about actresses I don't know about - Merci :)

caseykoester said...

Very moving post, Kate. I haven't met Ruthelma before, either. I do have a vague recollection of seeing this film once and now I'm dying to rerun it to see Ruthelma.

Ruthelma is such a neat name, don't you think? A combination of Ruth and Thelma - it's actually pretty clever.

Matthew Coniam said...

This is lovely.
Needless to say, I hadn't heard of Ruthelma, but I have a special place in my heart for all these Hollywood nearly-weres.
Some of my favourites: Renee Godfrey, Irene Ware (Miss United States 1926!), Cyril Ring, and June Vlasek, of whom my 1933 Wonder Album of Filmland writes:
"It is, maybe, a little early to include a picture of June Vlasek in such a gallery as this. Her film career has only just begun and the world has yet to see her real capabilities. But she deserves to appear in any film-land picture display because she really is admitted on all sides to be 'the most beautiful girl in Hollywood'..."
I think we should all keep a special lookout for these unfulfilled careers and give them the spotlight they deserve.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Someday, someone will write a book - a collection of character studies of all the worthwhile talent that flashed through movies and, for one reason or another, never quite caught the big spotlight. Call it "The Hollywood That Might Have Been." Nice post, Kate. -- Mykal

Avalon76 said...

It looks as if Ruthelma did a bit of Broadway, also:

http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=61066

Jen ^_^

Raquelle said...

You could be Ruthelma's champion! Like I am (sort of) with Norma Shearer and Pamela Tiffin. Ha ha.

I hadn't heard of her either, thanks for this.

I like that her name is part Ruth part Thelma. It's like her parents may have been arguing over what to name her and they couldn't decide between Ruth or Thelma so they joined it into one name. Unless that's her stage name... than maybe her management had the same argument.

Have you ever read The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (sp?)? It's not the greatest book in the world, the author has way too many opinions that she tries to force on people, but she does look at why certain film stars made it and why others didn't. Even people who were perfectly talented and that studios got behind didn't have that x-factor that made stars shine.

DKoren said...

Never heard of her either, but what a great name!

Elizabeth said...

I haven't heard of her, but now I want to see her movies!

And I agree with DKoren - she had quite a name!

Mercurie said...

I have to admit, Ruthelma's name didn't ring a bell, but looking at her filmography at IMDB it does seem like I have seen many of the films she was in, even she only had walk on parts in them and went uncredited. I'll definitely have to check out those films again and keep an eye out for her!

vivienne strauss said...

well, at least you've immortalized her here on your wonderful blog :)

joltenjoeswife said...

I have a pic of Ruthelma with Spencer Tracy from Dante's Inferno. I would be more than happy to email it to you. I couldnt find any way of contacting you other than to leave a comment.

Kate said...

I'd love to see the picture, thank you! My email is silentsandtalkies103 {at} yahoo.com. Thank you! :D

Gene S said...

Amazing---I just had the same experience tonight. I was watching The Circus Queen Murder on TCM and all I kept asking myself was "who is this actress?" I would turned the movie off after about twenty minutes if it wasn't for Ruthelma. And like you I went immediately to IMDB and looked her up and found what you found and felt my heart sinking. Then I came upon your post. Even so, this is what I love so much about old movies...a forgotten performance by an unknown actress can redeem can still move us across the years and redeem an otherwise worthless film.

Mark Beck said...

I actually enjoyed the film a lot more than you did, but I was also very impressed with Ruthelma Stevens! Wow, a great performance, and a real screen beauty! Pity she wasn't given more to do, and that we don't know more about her life. Thank you for honoring her here!

Velvetwhip said...

I just watched Circus Queen Murder and found this entry while looking for information on Ruthelma Stevens. I agree with you completely: she was beautiful and talented and it's a shame so little is known of her. She managed to shine in this very dull and pedestrian film and it's shocking to me that her career didn't take off.

JARVIS----Chicago said...

Howdy KATE:
I was looking for RUTHELMA's specific death date for Lordheath's Another Nice Mess site which he credits your beautiful, well-done site for bio information on some of the HAL ROACH family of actors.RUTHELMA co-starred in a 1934 CHARLIE CHASE comedy.You and ask.metafilter.com have some great researchers!
RUTHELMA STEVENS was born in Wichita, KS on 23 Oct 1903 and died in NYC on 1 June 1984. The 1June date is an internet source. I've never found an obit or burial site for her or her brother, although her sister and mother are at findagrave.com buried in Wichita.Her dad is buried in San Francisco.
On 27 April 1925,RUTHELMA married CLARENCE DAVID RUSSELL in NYC (attached) and are also as man and wife in the 1925 New York Census. By 1930, they were divorced. I can't find her in the 1930 Census and I found and "lost" him in the 1930 Los Angeles Census as a divorced man living in a hotel there.He soon became an internationally famous cartoonist with his "Pete the Tramp" character, worked for King Features,was good friends with RUBE GOLDBERG, TOURED US bases in WWII, and help found the National Cartoonists Society in 1947.
In Nov1933,in Yuma, AZ, she "secretly" married WALDO LOGAN, a mega-wealthy playboy in the same league as HOWARD HUGHES.
Her sister, VIRGINIA, similarly (1932-1940) married and divorced a mega-wealthy playboy-sportsman.
From 1927-1953, RUTHELMA gave 154 performances on Broadway in 7 different plays and toured often.
From 1932-1953 she appeared in 14 feature films. She performed with the "biggest" stars in Hollywood and on Broadway at that time.
If you desire more dates, details,and sources, just email me.
JARVIS---Chicago

JARVIS----Chicago said...

Howdy again KATE:
I don't see how to attach "attachments" to this. I have RUTHELMA's marriage record and a few other "proofs". If you email me at gmail, I know that I can do it.

JARVIS--Chicago

Unknown said...

Ms. Stevens was married to Waldo Logan, a Chicago businessman and adventurer who hunted for sunken Spanish galleons and pirate treasure in the Caribbean. Years after they divorced he killed himself in a Miami hotel room, having been broke for years. Apparently he went through the fortune he had inherited and the money he'd made in the bond business.

A new book about the assassination of John F. Kennedy claims Rene Dussaq was the mastermind of the terrible deed. He worked for Mr. Logan in the 1930's, diving for sunken treasure.