Classic Movie Travels: Virginia Bruce

Classic Movie Travels: Virginia Bruce – Fargo and Los Angeles

Virginia Bruce
Virginia Bruce

Virginia Bruce was a popular star of the 1930s and enjoyed success as an actress and singer. She was born to Earl and Margaret Briggs. Though born Helen Virginia Briggs on September 29, 1909, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, her family soon relocated to Fargo, North Dakota. Two years later, her younger brother, Stanley, was born. The two children grew up and received their education in North Dakota. Virginia harbored happy memories of life in the red brick house and ice skating on a nearby frozen pond during the winters. She also busied herself with swimming and horseback riding. 

Virginia also enjoyed playing the piano. When she found herself expelled for verbally retaliating at her history teacher just before graduation, the Fargo High School Choral Society struggled to find an accompanist as talented as she. As a result, Virginia was asked back and the choir won their contest. Virginia presented them with their award and also wound up receiving her diploma. 

Virginia Bruce young
a young Virginia

Soon after her 1928 graduation from Fargo Central High School, her family once again moved to Los Angeles with the intent of Virginia enrolling at the University of California—Los Angeles. There, her father worked as a salesman.  Initially, she wished to study music and cultivate her soprano voice but her parents encouraged her to seek work in films. She was discovered by director William Beaudine when Virginia accompanied her clothing designer aunt to a styling appointment with Beaudine’s wife. The meeting turned into an audition of sorts for Virginia, who entertained the Beaudines by playing piano and singing.

Virginia made her screen debut in 1929 in a bit part in Fugitives (1929), following the appearance with many more uncredited roles. She also worked on stage in the Broadway shows Smiles and America’s Sweetheart, returning to Hollywood in 1932. Virginia would find herself as one of the 20 original Goldwyn Girls, including Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard, and Ann Sothern.

Virginia Bruce and John Gilbert
Virginia Bruce and John Gilbert

During the production of Kongo (1932), she met and married actor John Gilbert. Their wedding was held in haste in Gilbert’s dressing room, with Irving Thalberg, Donald Ogden Stewart, Cedric Gibbons, and Dolores del Rio in attendance. Their marriage produced one daughter named Susan Ann. The couple divorced in 1934.

Virginia Bruce and her daughter, Susan Ann
Virginia and her daughter, Susan Ann

While working in films, Virginia was given the opportunity to showcase her vocal talents. She introduced the Cole Porter song, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in Born to Dance (1936), and also appeared in the hit musical film The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Though her roles gradually improved since her entrance into films, her career plateaued in 1936 with the death of friend and producer Irving Thalberg. Virginia soon found herself featured in B movies. In response, she occasionally appeared on the radio to partake in dramatic shows on the air.

Virginia Bruce

In 1937, she married J. Walter Ruben and had a son, Christopher Ruben, with him in 1941. They remained together until his passing in 1942.

Virginia Bruce and her son, Christopher Ruben
Virginia and her son, Christopher Ruben

After a string of disappointing projects, Virginia retired from films in the 1960s. She emerged or a final appearance in Madame Wang’s (1981). In her later years, Virginia dedicated herself to a variety of political causes before passing away from cancer on February 24, 1982, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. She was 72 years old.

Her family home in 1928 still stands at 421 14th St. S in Fargo. This is the home today:

421 14th St., Fargo, ND Virginia Bruce
421 14th St., Fargo, ND

Unfortunately, her 1930s home at 4456 Lockwood Ave. in Los Angeles has been razed. This is the property today:

4456 Lockwood Ave., Los Angeles, California Virginia Bruce
4456 Lockwood Ave., Los Angeles, California

At this point, Virginia’s filmography and radio performances can continue to be enjoyed.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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One Response to Classic Movie Travels: Virginia Bruce

  1. Scott OBrien says:

    Lovely tribute (and photos) to the lovely Virginia Bruce. I enjoyed researching and writing Virginia Bruce – Under My Skin (2008, BearManor). I had the help of her family and author James Robert Parish. I’ll point out that she was actually born in 1910, and that Virginia did not appear in the film Madame Wang’s. I talked to the film’s director Paul Morrissey, and he told me that the “Virginia Bruce” who played Madame Wang was actually a “very masculine” cross-dresser, who was in his 60’s and had 5 children.

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