By Raquel Stecher, classic film blogger
Born on May 30th, 1935 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Ruta Mary Kilmonis seemed destined for a career in the entertainment industry. She moved to Hollywood at a young age and got a job at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as an usherette and candy.
When I interviewed her at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival, she said: “I failed math two or three times... Then, one night, a cashier at the booth got sick, so I got promoted to cashier. Needless to say, things were different... We were forty dollars short. And I got fired. Wouldn’t you know God took care of me? My star on the Hollywood Boulevard is in front of the box office from which I got fired.”
Being fired from Grauman’s was the best thing that happened to Ruta, who eventually changed her name to Ruta Lee. Shortly afterwards, she got an agent and landed a role in the MGM musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
This was an auspicious start for a decades-long career in film and television. Lee went on to play roles in films alongside big names like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Jane Powell, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and more. She was a regular on Hollywood Squares, What’s My Line?, and Alex Trebek’s game show High Rollers, and also appeared in episodes of beloved shows like Perry Mason, Murder, She Wrote, Roseanne, 77 Sunset Strip, The Andy Griffith Show, Hogan’s Heroes, Fantasy Island and many more.
Ruta Lee is a firecracker. She’s a born entertainer, gracious with her fans and has this electric personality that wins over everyone. Let’s celebrate Ruta Lee with a look at three of her early films, available to rent on DVD Netflix!
Set in the backwoods of Oregon in the 19th century, director Stanley Donen’s musical looks at romantic relationships and the dangers of miscommunication. When Jane Powell’s character Milly marries backwoodsman Adam, she has no idea that she’s also in charge of taking care of his seven brothers.
Things get worse when the seven brothers decide to kidnap seven potential brides and they are all trapped in the woods after an avalanche. The musical is famous for its amazing song and dance numbers, including the barn-raising and Sobbin’ Women.
Ruta Lee plays Ruth Jepson, a bride kidnapped by Caleb (Matt Mattox). When I spoke to Ruta Lee at TCMFF, she had this to share about making the film: “To this very day, it’s my most favorite movie. And why? Because it was my first one. I learned so much. I was too young and too stupid to get scared of anything, so you just do it. There I was dancing with the premier dancers in America, and I thought, oh my god what am I doing here?”
A precursor to The Devil Wears Prada, Funny Face is one of the most fashionable musicals ever made. With glorious outfits designed by Edith Head and Givenchy, everyone is dressed to the nines in this stunning movie. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as a bookshop clerk who catches the eye of a fashion magazine photographer, played by Fred Astaire.
It’s colorful and fun with wonderful songs by George and Ira Gershwin. Ruta Lee reunites with director Stanley Donen for this film. She plays Lettie, the leader in a posse of secretaries who cater to fashion publisher Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson, also known as the author of the Eloise children’s books) and her every need.
To compare with The Devil Wears Prada and Funny Face, Ruta’s Lettie is a role similar to that of Emily Blunt’s Emily, and one could also compare Audrey Hepburn’s Jo to Anne Hathaway’s Andy.
This classic courtroom drama is beloved for a reason. It’s engaging, smart, and has a twisted sense of humor, all delivered beautifully by lead actor Charles Laughton. Directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, the film also stars Tyrone Power (in his final film role), Marlene Dietrich, and Elsa Lanchester.
Ruta Lee has a small but pivotal role in this courtroom drama. In an interview at TCMFF, Ruta Lee shared how she got the role of Diana. While attending Frank Sinatra’s show at the Mocambo, she was in the front row staring up at Sinatra while he sang. Little did she know that was a makeshift screen test for the part of Diana, who spends most of her time on screen in the gallery staring and reacting to the goings on of the courtroom.
The film’s producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. watched her watching Sinatra and wanted to sign her up. Soon after, she met director Wilder and did a real screen test. Marlene Dietrich saw some test shots of her and complained that she didn’t want another blonde in the film. Eager for the role, Ruta Lee dyed her hair. The rest is history!
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past, or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.