Ruth Gordon (1934).
On this date in 1944, a hit comedy opened at the Music Box Theatre titled Over 21. A semi-autobiographical play, it marked the debut of a writer who was already a renowned Broadway and film star: Ruth Gordon. Forty-eight at the time and having already been on the Broadway stage since the age of nineteen, she remarkably still had forty years to go. Only her death at age eighty-eight ended her rich and varied career as a writer and performer (I was fortunate to have seen her on Broadway in the title role of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession when she was a spry eighty-years-old). But when Over 21premiered seventy-eight years ago, it was a bold and fresh thing for a mere “actress” to take on the mantle of a playwright.
And oh, she starred in it too.
Ruth Gordon as Paula Wharton in Over 21 (1944).
But that was Ruth Gordon. An iconoclast and as strong a presence the theatre has ever known on stage and off. Beginning in 1915, she would eventually appear in a total of thirty-two Broadway shows over the course of a sixty-one-year career. And, since so many of her achievements were long before the Tony Awards were founded, she was only nominated once: as Best Actress in 1955 for her turn as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. It’s a sin that she was never voted a special lifetime achievement Tony, for if anyone deserved such an honor, it was she. Standing at just 5 feet tall, she was something of a giant in the business, again not only for her acting, but for her writing. Alongside her husband, playwright and director Garson Kanin, the team were nominated for three Academy Awards for three original screenplays: A Double Life (1947), Adam’s Rib (1950) and Pat and Mike (1952). In total, and all on her own, Gordon penned three Broadway plays and two volumes of autobiography.
The morning after Over 21’s opening night, Lewis Nichols in the New York Times wrote that “Having started writing plays for herself, Miss Gordon will probably keep on. That will be all right, too, if she can act in them as she does in this.” But now bitten by the writing bug, Gordon stayed offstage for her next play, Years Ago, which opened on Broadway just shy of three years later. Even more directly an autobiographical play that Over 21, Gordon based the story on her coming into her own as a young actress growing up in Quincy, Massachusetts. The primary relationship in the play is one with her father, a salty seadog and former ship’s captain, played by Fredric March. Years Ago ran for 206 performances, about the same as Over 21, which played for 221. Though unlike Over 21,a successful 1953 film was made out of Years Ago. Retitled The Actress, it starred a luminescent Jean Simmons playing opposite Spencer Tracy as her father.
Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons in The Actress (1953).
Though in his opening night review of Over 21, Nichols dubbed the play only “okay,” he found it newsworthy enough to write a follow-up in the Times a few days later. “What gives Over 21 its gaiety is, of course, the fact that Miss Gordon belongs to it body and soul — the latter, as author, the former as actress. For a long while she has been one of the theatre’s better comediennes, who can toy with a good line something like a terrier puppy with a Christmas sock. If there is humor hidden anywhere in a sentence, she can bring it out, displaying it proudly.”
It’s important to consider what the theatre was like in 1944, when home front-related plays like Over 21 were wildly popular (and for good reason). World War II was still eighteen months away from ending in September 1945 and plays like Gordon’s had ready audiences needing an escape to a simpler time. With this one, Gordon took from her own experiences as a wife with a husband overseas (Kanin served in the Signal Corps and then in the Office of Strategic Services). In her fictionalized version of events, Gordon’s character followed her husband to a Florida Army camp, taking up residence in a motor lodge, in order that she could be nearby to help him as he struggled through Officers’ Candidate School. Creating a character that owed more than a little to her good friend, Dorothy Parker, Gordon played a celebrated writer with a smart aleck’s way about her, but with an a somewhat more attractive allure that eluded Parker herself, once described by her Algonquin Round Table pal Alexander Woollcott as “so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth.”
With encouragement from critics and audiences alike, Ruth Gordon’s engine was fueled to continue writing. Sadly, all the time she spent doing so took her away from her acting. As her New York Times obituary reported, “for twenty-three years, from 1943 to 1966, Miss Gordon did not act in a single film, partly because of her constant activity on other fronts.” And yet, there was a silver lining, in that (as the obit goes on to say) “when Miss Gordon did return to film… she found an entirely new audience, moviegoers young enough to be her grandchildren.”
For her first film back, Gordon received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Three years later, she would win in the same category for playing Mia Farrow’s nosy neighbor (who happened to be a witch) in Rosemary’s Baby. At the time, she was the oldest winning actor ever, having made her first film (a silent one) in 1915, the same year as her Broadway debut.
Here’s the video of her being handed the Oscar by Tony Curtis:
The opening line of her acceptance speech is still a classic: “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.” And take notice of her walk to the podium, filled with such confidence, pride and poise. And on that night, Gordon had no way of knowing that for the next twenty years she would be working at a pace that might have put younger actors to shame. Her roles in Where’s Poppa? (1970) and Harold and Maude (1971), made her a hero to young and hip moviegoers the world over. Her biography is so long and stuffed with credits that these 1,300 words can’t begin to cover it, so, you’d do best on your own by way of some simple Googling.
Gordon as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” (a personal triumph) in 1937.
Allow me to offer my favorite Gordon quote; one that was told to me by the late actor and playwright George Furth. As a greenhorn forging his way in New York in the 1950s, Furth had reason to get to know Gordon while she was on Broadway in The Matchmaker (he was roommates at the time with the young actor playing Barnaby Tucker, Robert Morse). Seeing the performance many times from backstage, Furth considered it the greatest he ever saw from any actor or actress in his lifetime. One time, he asked Gordon what he needed in order to succeed as an actor, and she told him in no uncertain terms: “It’s not enough to have talent! You have to have a talent for talent!”
Ruth Gordon most certainly did.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.