In 1936, The Great Ziegfeld dazzled audiences with its sheer showmanship; a gorgeous, if slightly fabricated, celebration of the life and times of Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., tricked out in all the finery MGM could afford and given no less a queenly nod of acceptance than by the widow Ziegfeld herself; Billie Burke – an elegant madcap who had carved a niche for herself in Metro’s pantheon of supporting contract players. It’s Burke’s voice that won her acclaim in movies; most notably as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939). But Burke’s involvement on The Great Ziegfeld had ensured both her husband’s reputation and legacy not only endured, but remained Teflon-coated; impervious to criticisms about his private failings as a man, husband and father. MGM would likely have preferred to have William Powell reprise his role as the great man himself in Robert Z. Leonard’s Ziegfeld Girl (1941) except that to do so would have contractually obligated them to get Burke’s permission and input yet again to make the effort stick. Burke had not been particularly demonstrative during the hand-crafting of The Great Ziegfeld. But she had been specific about the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ built into the exercise. A way around this alas conspired to deprive us of Powell’s presence in this follow-up. Yet, in hindsight, it also allowed Ziegfeld Girl to evolve into a rather more complex and textured critique of life in the fast lane for a trio of unknowns, plucked from obscurity and transformed into those rarified flowers of the American theater. Billing Ziegfeld Girl as a ‘valiant successor’ to The Great Ziegfeld is a miscalculation on the part of MGM’s publicity department, drawing unwanted, unfair, and, immediate direct comparison between the two movies. Ziegfeld Girl is not more of the same, but a backstage pass into the glamorous, and occasionally seedy underworld that can as prop up as tear down a chorine from her much cherished pedestal. The other difficulty to overcome herein is the picture’s billing as a ‘musical’. Although the production features several musical sequences; two, fairly lavish, including Judy Garland’s ebullient ‘Minnie from Trinidad’ (a calypso-inspired ditty) somehow nothing in this show ever tops the jaw-dropping spectacle of the elephantine and revolving ‘wedding cake’ first act finale, set to Irving Berlin’s song, ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’; the footage cleverly reused from The Great Ziegfeld herein for Ziegfeld Girl’s bewitching, yes somewhat uneven finale.
As with its predecessor, the focus of Ziegfeld Girl is not on the music but the back story bookends propping up these musical sequences. However, unlike The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl attempts perhaps even more ambitiously, to chart the meteoric rise, then fall, of three aspiring glamor gals. One, Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr) surrenders her life upon the wicked stage for a chance at marital happiness with a failed concert violinist (played rather turgidly by Philip Dorn); another, Sheila Regan (Lana Turner) slips in and out of a harrowing addiction to alcohol, sacrificing her fiancée, Gil Young (James Stewart) and her health for a chance at the big time, and, the third, Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland), plucked from relative obscurity at the Harlem Opera House where she performs nightly with her dear ole dad (Charles Winninger), a Vaudevillian trooper, attains super-stardom of the ever-lasting ilk…or, at least, so we are led to believe. It is interesting to note and compare the trajectory of each star’s career in real life with their on-screen alter egos in this movie; Garland, eventually succumbing to pills and liquor prematurely at the age of 47; Lamarr, noted off the screen for her inventions that included an improved traffic stoplight and radar-jamming guidance system for torpedoes (Lamarr attaining a certain level of infamy later in life from several shoplifting charges and a ‘tell all’ biography she claimed to be full of falsified accounts); and Turner, ultimately going on – and on – to appear in dozens of movies and guest appearances on television well into the 1980’s – a radiant glamor queen to the very end.
By all accounts, Ziegfeld Girl was a very smooth production, cobbled together in record time from a screenplay by Marguerite Roberts and Sonya Levien (with an unaccredited assist by Annalee Whitmore); all of them cribbing from William Anthony McGuire’s original story. The picture catches the careers of all three of its female stars at the zenith of their studio tenures; particularly Lana Turner – tagged as ‘queen of the nightclubs’ by the age of twenty, and given the plum assortment of staggeringly handsome close-ups to adore. Even in the last act, when her Sheila Regan is supposedly a fragile lush on the verge of physical collapse, Turner emits a statuesque beauty impossible to top. By contrast, Hedy Lamarr’s charm herein is more saintly than smart, and yet, it too emanates great sincerity and warmth. Even so, Garland’s performance remains the standout. Only two years after her iconic performance in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Garland was already a veteran of the screen; on the cusp of womanhood with an on-camera presence as easily to warm as to break the heart. Not surprisingly, Garland is given the lion’s share of songs to warble, including the aforementioned ‘Minnie From Trinidad’, the rambunctious ‘When Joe Miller Told a Joke’, cloying finale, ‘You Gotta Pull Strings/You Never Looked So Beautiful Before’ and the now legendary ballad, ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows’. Originally Judy was also to have sung, ‘We Must Have Music’ in the finale, a number cut from Ziegfeld Girl but later given its own truncated reprise in a studio PR short subject of the same name, featuring outtakes and songs from other pending Metro product.
Ziegfeld Girl also features a roster of memorable hams mugging for the camera; Eve Arden as Patsy Dixon, a social-climbing chorine, semi-retired and doling out glib adlibs and advice to the up and comers; Ian Hunter, as oily hoi poloi, Geoffrey Collis; enamored with Sheila until her drinking gets the better of them both and puts a decided crimp in Geoffrey’s blue book social standing; Jackie Cooper, as her younger brother, Jerry - innocent but hot to trot for Susan’s hand in marriage; Tony Martin, as manipulative fellow performer, Frank Merton, temporarily luring Sandra away from her husband’s affections; Edward Everett Horton as Noble Sage – Mr. Ziegfeld’s right-hand, chronically bumbling and utterly loveable, and finally, Dan Dailey, in his debut as rough around the edges ‘has been’ prize fighter, Jimmy Walters, who gives Sheila a light slap that sends her to the hospital. “Dames is just like traffic,” Jimmy explains, “Sometimes you stop. Sometimes you go,” to which Sheila swats back, “Yeah, but a smart guy don’t drive to beat the lights!”
Ziegfeld Girl is nobly ambitious; that is, it endeavors to look at the milieu already popularized by the first movie from an entirely different perspective. As such the picture is more of a stand-alone than a follow-up to The Great Ziegfeld; bearing only a passing resemblance to the earlier effort, cohabiting the same sets and backstage promise of stardom unexpectedly thrust upon individuals who either possess or lack the heart, mind and guts to see this heady rise to the top all the way through to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s still the glamor the paying public has come to see, and Ziegfeld Girl does not disappoint on this score. From top to bottom, this is an A-list production as only MGM in its heyday could provide. Even so, the concept is uneven, chiefly for not providing enough songs and musical sequences to boggle the imagination. The Great Ziegfeld had steadily built upon an ever more spectacularly staged series of numbers. Just when you thought the movie could not get any more lavishly absurd, another song would debut to provide the necessary gateway for an even more elephantine exhibition of Metro’s embarrassment of riches. By contrast, the numbers in Ziegfeld Girl are bunched together; centered, in fact, around two extended sequences; the first, ‘You Stepped Out of a Dream’ – sung by Tony Martin with a nautical theme that dissolves into a display of some of the most wildly bizarre and fascinating outfits the studio’s resident designer, Adrian, ever created; girls, bedecked in giant fluffy white pom-poms or adorned from horn to hoof in gam-revealing tinsel-gowns and spangles, with ‘Hershey’s Kisses-styled sequined beanies atop their quaffed heads.
The other breath-taking moment to genuinely admire is Busby Berkeley’s execution of Garland’s tropical themed, Minnie from Trinidad; the stage set for a sort of Calypso-attired artist’s ball and teeming in all manner of the ‘local’ gentry, toting their wares and the occasional live ox or stubborn mule across the stage; Garland hoisted up for the jaw-dropping final moments in a saucer-like contraption presumably held together by their extended bamboo poles. The sequence begins again with a nautical theme (Tony Martin aboard a yacht); the fish motif, shifting from live specimens depicted in an aquarium to women wearing fish-headdresses. We segue to a flamenco dance performed by Sergio Orta and Lois Lindsay amidst a swirl of shredded curtains and then Garland’s debut as the new follies’ headliner, smarmy as she sings “Aiy, Aiy, Aiy, they all call her Minnie from Trinidad…she wasn’t good, but she wasn’t bad…and the natives would be so sad if Minnie ever left Trinidad.” The song is even more potent as it pokes fun at the Hollywoodization of Minnie’s earthy sex appeal; the fictional character enduring a name change to ‘Minnie Lamarr’…resulting in her fiancée, Calypso Joe taking his own life. “When Minnie heard this she almost cried,” Garland’s Susan reasons, “She took a gun to try suicide. But as she started to shoot she sighed…I think I’d rather live instead. Aiy, Aiy, Aiy!”
Despite its emphasis on glamour, Ziegfeld Girl is undeniably Judy Garland’s show. Both Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr were great stars in their own right. Yet, with their obvious sex appeal assured, Lamarr is given rather short shrift in this screenplay, passed along on Frank’s romantic ether until she comes to her senses and realizes Franz is the only man for her. If Garland’s position is firmly cemented as the musical performer of the piece, then Turner’s Sheila Regan is undeniably its dramatic centrifuge; Turner, delivering an intensely felt/subtly nuanced performance as the doomed sexpot, prematurely spoilt by ego run amuck and ambition knowing no master until it is much too late for salvation. The third act is devoted to Sheila’s fall from grace, begun when she stumbles from a drunken cloud at the end of Garland’s triumphant number on opening night, narrowly avoiding physical injury, but effectively bounced from the follies for good and shortly thereafter, goaded by a rather insidious maid into believing her own PR, until at last, she uses up even her last ounce of capital and strength to return to the theater for the first follies to be entirely built around Susan’s star billing. Suffering a near fatal heart attack, Sheila regally exits the theater without disrupting the performance, only to crumble in a heap on the grand staircase just beyond; comforted by Gil and Sandra while they wait for the ambulance to arrive. In what could have so easily devolved into a maudlin bit of play-acting, Turner exhibits the irrefutable hallmarks of a great lady on the rocks; her sad-eyed confession and apology to Gil (as understanding as ever of her failings) so heartfelt and genuine it can almost bleed tears from a stone.
Ziegfeld Girl opens with a brief introduction to all three potential Ziegfeld Girls. Sandra is discovered by Mr. Sage while quietly observing her husband Franz’s audition for the Ziegfeld orchestra. Although Franz is rejected for inclusion, Sage quickly hires Sandra as one of Mr. Ziegfeld’s new showgirls. Franz is displeased; first, by this obvious exploitation of his wife’s physical attributes, but also, to suffer the embarrassment of having to be supported by his wife; a crushing blow to his air of gemütlich European sophistication. Meanwhile, Sheila, an elevator operator at a well-known department store, catches Mr. Ziegfeld’s eye. Given a card by Mr. Sage for the next day’s audition, the street-wise Sheila thinks him fresh and the invite a ruse, but then decides to take a chance on a new career with aspirations for bigger and better things. Like Franz, Sheila’s boyfriend, Gil is entirely unconvinced about this move. He is working for a trucking company and later gets involved with some spurious characters in an attempt to outperform Sheila’s newfound wealth. Fame changes Sheila for the worse. She moves out of her family’s home, rejects Gil’s proposal of marriage and moves into a swanky 5th Ave. penthouse; courted by the elegant, Geoffrey Collis who would be good for her, if only he were not such a stuffed shirt, more invested in the preservation of his own social standing than his love for her.
The two quarrel and separate. Sheila is appalled by her younger brother, Jerry’s misgivings about her lifestyle choices. She admonishes him for taking advantage of all the luxuries her moneys has afforded the family. Meanwhile, Jerry becomes smitten with Susan. Discovered by Mr. Ziegfeld at the Harlem Opera House, Susan’s hope for fame as a showgirl is thwarted when the stage manager, John Slayton (Paul Kelly) thinks her too short and unprepossessing for the stature befitting a glamour girl. Pop Gallagher presses on in his attempts to promote Susan as a singer in the Ziegfeld show. Slayton is, at first, thoroughly unconvinced, more so after hearing Susan’s first audition, coached by Pop to belt out the ballad with Vaudevillian gusto rather than more subtly nuanced strains of heart-felt angst. Encouraged by Sheila to do it her own way, Susan readdresses her solo audition and gains Slayton’s respect. Steadily, her reputation as a singer grows; swiftly to flourish. With each passing show, Susan’s parts get bigger. As meteoric as Susan’s rise, is Sheila’s plummet from success; increasingly dependent of pills and alcohol to get her through each performance, Sheila becomes more and more erratic. She turns even more to the bottle for solace.
On the eve of the newest follies debut, Sheila collapses on stage, causing Slayton to have her fired from the show. Where once she courted stage door Lotharios and men of culture at some of the most fashionable restaurants and casinos in New York, Sheila now relies on the kindness of fellow rummies inside the local speakeasies. Her chance reunion with Jimmy Walters, a prize fighter she once admonished for not having enough class to suit her, but now is willing to tolerate for the price of a drink, leads to a bitter scene in which Walters, also on the downswing, challenges Sheila to defend her position on his merits as a man and potential suitor. Unable to simply walk away from him this time, Sheila is slapped into submission; collapsing from the assault. Sometime later, she begins her slow recovery; moving back home, lovingly attended to by Jerry and Gil, who has never stopped loving her. Sneaking out to the theater to attend Susan’s opening night, Sheila enjoys the first act before suffering from the first signs of a fatal heart condition. She exits the theater without drawing attention to herself; her resolve momentarily reinforced by the strains of a song she once strutted to in a former Ziegfeld show. Attempting to regain this former glory by walking down the balcony steps to the mezzanine, Sheila is stricken ill and folds like an accordion. Discovered by one of the ushers who summons Mr. Sage, Gil and Sandra to her aid, Ziegfeld Girl concludes on an ambiguously hopeful note; Sheila embracing Gil’s dream of owning a small Connecticut farm where they can raise ducks together. We return to the stage to witness Susan’s triumphant finale in the new Ziegfeld show, atop the same wedding cake edifice that prominently featured in the first act finale of The Great Ziegfeld.
For this penultimate farewell, Art Director Cedric Gibbons and Set Decorator, Edwin B. Willis rebuilt the entire top portion of that gargantuan set full scale, adorning Garland in a blonde wig to mimic Virginia Bruce in the original movie; panning back and then into a lap dissolve to reveal Bruce atop the original set from a distance; the transition imperceptible to the naked eye and allowing for the illusion it was Garland’s Susan Gallagher all along who had adorned this rotating set. In drawing such deliberate comparisons to the more masterfully composed and evenly paced The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl cannot help but distinctly feel like a very poor cousin to its predecessor. This does not negate the picture’s stand-alone merits which are many and varied. But it does perhaps explain why Ziegfeld Girl did not do nearly as respectable business at the box office; nor did it earn any notable praise or Oscar-nominations besides. Viewed apart from the original movie, Ziegfeld Girl is an interesting variation on the backstage machinations that go into putting on an epic show of shows. Sorely missed is William Powell’s Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Barring Billie Burke’s red seal of approval, Powell’s reappearance in this picture remained a non sequitur. But it does rather create the false illusion Flo was too big to do his own dirty work; relying on the fictional Mr. Sage for inspiration and guidance. The real Florenz Ziegfeld was very much a ‘hand-on’ producer of these stage spectacles and not the omnipotent puppet master pulling the strings by proxy.
Ziegfeld Girl may not be as sumptuously mounted as its predecessor (in point of fact, it falls spectacularly short of these expectations and seems ever more so, at least in hindsight, to satisfy L.B. Mayer’s edict for family entertainment rather than the late Irving Thalberg’s verve for spellbinding adult film fare). Still, it offers a refreshing backstage glimpse into the lives of those oft nameless showgirls who aspire to something else – something better – than just a glorification of the American girl. As in life, some will succeed while others fail. The triumvirate of Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr – three of Metro’s biggest stars back then – ensures the picture more than a modicum of cache and reasons for revisiting it from time to time on home video. Interestingly, James Stewart is top-billed in the cast despite the fact his part is distilled to little more than a walk-on in support of Turner’s spoiled, if sympathetic chorine. Stewart was, by 1941, much in demand; having had back-to-back smash successes in a pair of Frank Capra classics; You Can’t Take It With You, and, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (both made for Columbia and released in 1939). To this he would add two stellar performances in The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story (both made at MGM in 1940). His appointment to Ziegfeld Girl is decidedly a step down from these legendary starring roles and a real oddity, considering Stewart’s popularity as the congenial ‘every man’ who increasingly exemplified the American ideal; the antithesis of ‘the ugly American’ on the screen. Viewed today, Ziegfeld Girl is a refreshing entertainment with merits and merriment at hand. It’s not quite as good as The Great Ziegfeld, but doesn’t really need to be to entertain us royally.
In keeping with Warner Home Video’s consistent commitment to the classics, Ziegfeld Girl looks remarkably pristine on DVD, although, like The Great Ziegfeld, this is a movie long overdue for the A-list Blu-ray treatment via the Warner Archive. One can wait in hope, I supposed. But for now the job is competently achieved in standard def with a transfer showing off good solid gray scale and contrast. Overall, the image is sharp and gorgeous, showing off Ray June and Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography to its best advantage. Contrast and black levels are perfectly realized. Some scenes contain minor age-related artifacts and minute traces of edge enhancement but nothing to terribly distract. The audio is mono but nicely balanced. Extras are limited to the ‘We Must Have Music’ outtake (truncated and which would have been Ziegfeld Girl’s original finale), two deleted audio tracks and an introduction by Judy Garland biographer, Jonathan Fricke. Bottom line: recommended for now. Blu-ray in 2017?!? Pretty please.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)