Imagine this: You’re 22. You’ve just been signed to act alongside heavyweight stars Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. Your character barely speaks a word until a surprise final scene, and the entire film hinges on that twist. You have to be joyful, alluring, vicious, then hysterical, all in an unfamiliar accent. And all in the space of 2 minutes.
Tough gig, huh?
That was the challenge facing Ruta Lee in 1957 as she grappled with a pivotal role in Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. Breezy and glittering on the stage of the Egyptian Theater at TCMFF, Lee shared memories of making the classic twisty thriller, an experience that sounds almost as tense as the film itself.
The story of Lee’s involvement with Witness for the Prosecution has a fairy tale quality. Destiny conspired to put our heroine in the right place at the right time. During the mid-1950s, Frank Sinatra vowed to help out the owners of the Mocambo, a once-swinging nightclub threatened by the gravitational pull of evening television. Invited by her gracious host in Hollywood, Ruta Lee was there on Sinatra’s opening night at the Mocambo.
As Lee recalls, “I was privileged to sit right under where Frank Sinatra was singing. The entire stage was filled with orchestra and Frank was working on a tiny little dais in front of it. People were sitting around behind him on both sides. I was right there in front looking up at this glorious man, and nobody else in this world is or will be as mesmerizing as Frank Sinatra. So I sat there with my mouth hanging open. At the end of the show a note came to our host and said, ‘Would you mind bringing Miss Lee to my table? I’d like to meet her.’
“So my host took me back around behind where Frank Sinatra was singing, and the man said, ‘Hello, my name is Arthur Hornblow, Jr. I’m a producing a film called Witness for the Prosecution. And I have just given you the most unique screen test. I have watched you watch Frank Sinatra, because I couldn’t see Frank Sinatra, and I think you would make a very good love interest for Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution. Would you come in and meet Billy Wilder.’”
Lee’s voice drops an octave or two at the mention of Billy Wilder, conjuring the butterflies-in-your-stomach excitement that this offer must’ve brought to any young actress.
She pounced on the opportunity. “I said, ‘Is tomorrow too soon?’”
Lee went in for her screen test, but ran into an unexpected obstacle: “Marlene Dietrich took one look at those shots and said, ‘Nicht. Nein. Forget it. She’s a blonde.’ I immediately became a brunette. And that’s how I got Witness for the Prosecution.”
Since Lee’s character doesn’t appear until halfway into the film, she arrived on set later than the principal stars. “I came into the picture about 4 weeks after it had started shooting.” The young newcomer had to hold her own among an intimidating line-up of actors: “I was dealing with theatrical and motion picture royalty, any way you look at this.”
To make matters worse, Lee’s colleagues in the makeup department warned her that Charles Laughton was a “nasty” man who loathed young girls. “You just do what you have to do and everything will be fine,” they assured her.
All these pressures culminated in a nerve-wracking and unexpectedly uproarious first day on the set: “So I walk onto the stage in my darling little tight dress and high heels and a perky hat that Grady Hunt had designed for me. And nobody says, ‘hello,’ ‘get lost,’ ‘who are you?’ I’m sort of thinking for the first time in my life that I wish the floor would open up and swallow me. They’re sitting around over there, Marlene and Charles and everybody in a little tea circle,” Lee says.
“And I frankly didn’t know what to do, so I was looking around, and suddenly someone walked up behind me, smacked me on the rear end, I went flying across the stage, I looked back… and it’s Charles Laughton! And he says, ‘That’s the best damned ass I’ve seen in a long time.’ That’s how he became one of my dear friends.”
After that unconventional introduction, the star settled into a less mischievous mode. “He taught me to play Perquackey and all sorts of wonderful games. He literally would pout if I didn’t come in first to him on the set and say hello,” Lee remembers. “Isn’t that sweet?”
Laughton and Elsa Lanchester both went out of their way to make Lee feel at home: “They used to invite me to lunch, which they cooked in their apartment on the set.”
More importantly, the famous husband-wife team coached Lee on a key part of her performance. “They helped me with that middle British accent. You can do a Limey easily or very, very grand,”—and here Lee gave us some fine snippets of Cockney and Public School accents—“but that middle English is something else. And they both helped me with that.”
By contrast, Dietrich never warmed up to Lee, blonde or brunette.
Asked about the rumors that Dietrich carried a torch for Tyrone Power, Lee replied, “She may have had a crush on Tyrone. She sure didn’t have a crush on me! I mean, I don’t blame her, you know. She just really had nothing to do with me. She was very cool, very distant.”
Despite Dietrich’s icy reserve, Lee valued the chance to watch the legendary screen goddess at work. “I really respected her knowledge of how she would appear on the screen. She was the kind of lady that would say to the cinematographer, ‘I vould like a little tiny gobo* here and maybe vun there to catch the light here and the light here.’ And he would say, ‘Gosh, Marlene, we don’t have those.’ And she said, ‘Don’t vorry, dahling. I do.’ She literally carried a trunk with all the foam lining, with all kinds of lighting instruments. Now that’s knowing your craft.” The Egyptian Theater audience agreed with a thunderous round of applause to celebrate Dietrich the cinematography expert.
Lee remembers shooting Witness for the Prosecution on a colossal set almost as impressive as the cast. “The set of Old Bailey was built exactly to three-quarter scale of the real Old Bailey in London. So that’s amazing. They had to tear apart a wall and build on 2 soundstages.”
Though her role was a small one, Witness for the Prosecution gave Lee one of her most memorable turns on film. “And it’s due to Frank Sinatra, right?”
Before too long, Ol’ Blue Eyes would again intervene to shape Lee’s destiny. “Fade out, fade in, it’s like a year or two later. We all know that Frank Sinatra likes nothing better than to have people up to the house, a big Italian dinner, and watch a new movie. What’s the movie they’re screening that night? Witness for the Prosecution.
“And he says to Howard Koch, for whom I worked many times at Warner Brothers and he was a partner of Frank’s, ‘How about we put this Ruta Lee chick—I’ve been watching her on television—into one of our movies?’ That’s how I became the leading lady to Frank Sinatra in Sergeants 3. He never knew that he was responsible for both jobs!”
*According to We Make the Movies (1937), a gobo is a “black adjustable screen used to keep the rays of light from the camera.”