1930s Hollywood actress called Fargo home
One of the most popular movie stars of the 1930s was raised in Fargo. Virginia Bruce was not only a Hollywood glamour actress of the '30s, but she was also the wife of one of the biggest heartthrobs of the silver screen, John Gilbert. Helen Virgi...
One of the most popular movie stars of the 1930s was raised in Fargo.
Virginia Bruce was not only a Hollywood glamour actress of the '30s, but she was also the wife of one of the biggest heartthrobs of the silver screen, John Gilbert.
Helen Virginia Briggs was born Sept. 29, 1910, to Earll F. Briggs and Margaret Morris Briggs in Minneapolis. A month later, they moved to Fargo and bought a home at 421 14th St. S.
Earll was an independent insurance broker and Margaret was an outstanding golfer who won the North Dakota amateur golf championship three times.
At an early age, Helen preferred to be called by her middle name, Virginia, and used it the rest of her life. Slight of build, with blond hair and blue eyes, Virginia Briggs took piano lessons and spent her free time swimming and riding horseback. In high school, she was a member of the chorus, glee club, orchestra, debate team and girls tennis team. She did not participate in school theater productions, but as a senior was involved in the Christmas and PTA pageants.
Virginia graduated from Fargo Central High School in 1929. Because the insurance business was slow, Earll moved to Southern California when Virginia expressed an interest in attending UCLA.
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Virginia toured the Paramount movie studio and was spotted by Harry Wurtzel, the publicity man for director William Beaudine. Beaudine signed her to a personal contract for $25 a week and changed her name to Virginia Bruce. He gave her a bit part in his movie "Fugitives."
Bruce appeared in small roles in 19 movies from 1929-30. One of the films that garnered her a lot of attention was the 1930 musical "Whoopee." It was directed by Thornton Freeland of Hope, N.D. In the picture, Bruce played a Goldwyn Girl and was joined by another Goldwyn Girl, Ann Sothern of Valley City, N.D.
Jack Harkrider, a designer for theater producer Flo Ziegfeld, took her under his wing. Harkrider helped Bruce land a role in Ziegfeld's musical comedy "Smiles," starring Fred Astaire. She traveled to New York for an increase in pay to $50 a week, which allowed her to send home half her wages. After completing "Smiles," Bruce was hired for another Ziegfeld production, "America's Sweetheart."
Bruce returned to Hollywood and auditioned for MGM. After a few small roles, she won the lead female role in the 1932 movie "Downstairs." The script was written by John Gilbert, who also had the starring role.
During the 1920s, the two major romantic men of the screen were Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert. But when talkies were introduced, Gilbert's voice was "less dashing than his looks." His career plummeted, and he hoped "Downstairs" would help him recover his fame. That didn't happen, but he fell in love with Bruce. They married later that year, and she retired from acting.
She gave birth to their daughter in 1933, but life as Mrs. John Gilbert was not easy. Having fallen from favor with the movie public, Gilbert developed a dark mood and drank heavily. Bruce filed for divorce in 1934, moved in with her parents in a home she had purchased for them and resumed her acting career. Her first film back from retirement was in the title role of "Jane Eyre."
Bruce appeared in 14 movies in only 16 months. She appeared opposite most of the leading men of the time, including Jimmy Stewart, John Barrymore, Robert Taylor, James Cagney, and Frederick March.
Gilbert died Jan. 6, 1936, leaving the bulk of his estate to Bruce and their daughter. Later that year, she appeared in "Born to Dance" opposite Jimmy Stewart. It was in this film that she introduced the song "I've Got You Under My Skin," which later became a big hit for Frank Sinatra.
In 1937, Bruce played the female lead in the Western "The Bad Man of Brimstone," which was directed and produced by J. Walter Rubin. When the film was done, the two were married on Dec. 18, 1937. Rubin died less than five years later of heart disease.
During the 1940s, Bruce was given less prominent roles in movies. She married Ali Ipar, a Turkish writer-producer in 1946. Ipar visited his father in Turkey in 1947, but U.S. immigration authorities didn't allow him back until a year later.
In 1951, Ipar was inducted into the Turkish Army but was denied a commission because he was married to a foreigner. To accommodate Ipar's request, Bruce granted him a divorce. Ipar was discharged in 1952 and the two remarried.
The next year, Ipar directed and produced the movie "The Plague." Bruce was the first American actress to star in a Turkish movie. In 1961, Ipar was arrested and spent 19 months in a Turkish prison for not paying a debt of $3 million. Virginia filed for divorce in 1964.
She did little film work during the 1950s and 1960s. She died in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 1982.
One mystery about Virginia remains.
In 1981, underground movie director Paul Morrissey released a movie titled "Madame Wang's," about an East German who comes to the U.S. looking for Jane Fonda to help him start a revolution.
In the credits, the role of Madame Wang, the lady who booked punk bands in her restaurant, is played by Virginia Bruce. Morrissey claimed it was the same Virginia Bruce who was a major movie star of the 1930s.
But many people who have seen the movie insist it was someone else. The only person who could definitively settle this matter died shortly after the movie was released.
"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: email@example.com .