On the Ziegfeld Movies

We take the occasion of Florenz Ziegfeld’s birthday to fill out his footprint on Travalanche a little further. Our main post on him, adapted from my long-ago talk to the Ziegfeld Club, ends with the great impresario’s death in 1932. Yet Ziegfeld’s brand persisted posthumously for all practical purposes at least a quarter century beyond that. The last Broadway show bearing the name was as late as 1957! But of course, the way nearly all of us who are alive experience the original Z Man is through old Hollywood movies. In the last years of his life, he actually co-produced Hollywood adaptations of his then-recent Broadway hits: Sally with Marilyn Miller (1929), Rio Rita with Wheeler and Woolsey (1929), Whoopee! with Eddie Cantor (1930), and the first of the three screen versions of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat (1929). But attention must be paid to the four movies devoted to conveying the experience of the Ziegfeld Follies to movie audiences, and so here they are.

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

My wife blogged about this movie when we were first dating; you can read her appreciation here before (hopefully) returning. I’m going to hit it more from the vaudeville angle. This 1929 film is one of the first cinematic musicals, and is essentially a clever excuse to present the Ziegfeld Follies onscreen, in this case as produced by Ziegfeld himself. Actual Follies girl Mary Eaton (who also starred with the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts that year) is the lead, a small town gal who’s just gotta make it in show business, and has been practicing her dance moves in anticipation of her big break. It arrives in the form of a passing vaudevillian (Dan Healy) an opportunistic creep who’s booked to play the town picnic. This scene gives us cool vaudeville business in the form of a song and dance act featuring Healy and musical comedy actress Kaye Renard, as well as an unidentified acrobatic act. Healy, incidentally, was the husband of Helen Kane.

Anyway, Eaton skips town with the dude, ditching her boring boyfriend (Edward Crandall) with whom she works in the sheet music section of a department store. But that’s okay, he winds up with fellow drudge Gloria Shea, whom he feels sorry for after she is run over by a car. Sarah Edwards plays Eaton’s nagging mother, a role not unlike the one she played in It’s a Wonderful Life 18 years later. The plot, such as it is, was partially penned by J.P. McEvoy, an important collaborator of W.C. Fields.

The film is shot in New York, which is a boon for us, both in terms of the THRILLING location shooting on busy NYC streets of 1929, as well as the access to Broadway talent. The whole third act is just a show, really. First, there is documentary footage of Jazz Age celebrities entering the theatre, including Ziegfeld himself with wife, Billie Burke, as well as Noah Beery, Texas Guinan, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Irving Berlin, Adolph Zukor, Otto Kahn, Charles Dillingham, and Ring Lardner. It’s a cool moment: Dillingham, Kahn, Guinan and Ziegfeld would all soon be dead, and Walker would soon be removed from office. Next, we go to the big show, featuring numbers with the full Follies chorus, songs by Helen Morgan and Rudy Vallee, a specialty number by Desha Delteil, and a tedious if historical comedy sketch featuring Eddie Cantor (with whom Eaton had appeared in Kid Boots) as well as Louis Sorin from Animal Crackers, and Lou Hearn, who’d earlier teamed with Bonita. This sketch was also made into the 1930 comedy short Insurance, which is scarcely any funnier.

When originally released, the “show” part was in Two-Strip Technicolor. For many years the film was only available in an all black-and-white version, but in recent years the original footage was recovered and a restored version exists. Needless to say, that color footage is breathtaking. And it’s Pre-Code, there’s lots of nudity and near nudity, not just on the part of 75 gorgeous chorus girls, but also Johnny Weissmuller!

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I rewatched this one recently, and realized (rather belatedly after all these years) that it was one of my favorite movies. I had first seen it on TV as a kid, and it probably planted some of my first conceptions of what Broadway was all about. As time has gone on, and I’ve come to know and love the artists in the film, my appreciation has increased many times over. It’s handily my second favorite MGM musical after The Wizard of Oz (1939), and my favorite of all William Powell films (yes, above even My Man Godfrey and the Thin Man movies). Because of this film, most of us see Powell when we think of Ziegfeld, I think. Why, he’s the most inoffensive and cuddly womanizing scamp in the history of humanity! As for The Wizard of Oz, this film foreshadows a lot of its magic: Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger play prominent roles in the proceedings, and Billie Burke is naturally one of the characters, played by Powell’s Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy (Burke herself wanted Miriam Hopkins, which would have been much better casting). There is also lots of Marx Brothers mojo, for real: Robert Greig of Animal Crackers, Nat Pendleton of Horse Feathers and At the Circus, Allan Jones of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races (he sings on the soundtrack), and Susan Fleming (Mrs. Harpo Marx) as a Ziegfeld Girl.

The three hour film does double duty as a bio-pic and a revue entertainment echoing the spirit of Ziegfeld’s Broadway Follies productions, with lavish costumes, sets, and musical production numbers. The magic is there from the first moment of the first reel. Old time vaudeville comic Joseph Cawthorn is Ziegfeld’s stodgy father, who is all about the high culture and has no time for popular entertainment. Ziegfeld gets his start at Chicago’s historic World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Morgan plays his fictional rival who commands the Midway Plaisance with his presentation of Little Egypt, played by one Miss Morocco. (The real Little Egypt sued over her depiction in the film, but died before her case got anywhere.) Pendleton plays Ziegfeld’s act Sandow the Great, presaging his role as a strongman in At the Circus.

Ziegfeld, as is well known, was a serial seducer, and this provides a major theme of the film and helps guide its structure. Luis Rainier (The Good Earth) plays Anna Held, though she’s not remotely as attractive or beguiling as the original article. Lillian Lorraine and Marilyn Miller threatened lawsuits if they were depicted or even mentioned in the movie, so they are transformed into Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) and Miller is written out. (Miller was originally to have been in the movie herself, alongside other Ziegfeld Follies stars like Fanny Brice and Harriet Hoctor. But her salary demands were too high and when they couldn’t come to terms, she demanded she not be referred to in any way. It’s a shame; it would have been her last film; she died right around the time it was released). Another sad absence was Will Rogers, also slated to be in the movie, but was killed in a plane crash just before filming began. He is played in this picture by one A.A. Trimble). Eddie Cantor, on the other hand, was very much alive, but busy making Strike Me Pink, so he was played by a guy named Buddy Doyle. (Trigger alert: this film contains blackface).

There’s much more coolness in the cast for show biz buffs! William Demarest plays Gene Buck. Also in the cast are Reginald Owen, Herman Bing, Raymond Walburn, Dennis Morgan, Libby Taylor, and Mae Questel. Amongst the chorus you will find Virginia Grey, Suzanne Kaaren, and Lynn Bari, and numerous famous wives including the aforementioned Susan Fleming (Mrs. Harpo Marx), Tony Lanier (wife of MGM studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix), and Pat Ryan (Mrs. Richard Nixon). Also in the chorus is Marcia Healy, sister of Ted Healy, founder of the Three Stooges.

The film takes us all the way to Ziegfeld’s death, which is fudged so that it takes place in a hotel suite overlooking Broadway. What’s true is that the Depression and other factors had wiped out the producer financially. And this is why his widow, Billie Burke, a very savvy woman, immediately jumped into efforts to get some revenue coming in. He had barely left the earth when she sold the rights to his life story to Universal in 1933 (they later flipped the property over to MGM). Then came two posthumous editions of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway in 1934 and 1936 (the latter one to take advantage of the blockbuster success of this film). And that same year of 1936 saw the second, and many feel the best, screen version of Show Boat.

Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

Like The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, whom we’ll be writing about in a few months, for his career was amazing, stretching all the way back to the early silent period. Leonard had once been married to Ziegfeld star Mae Murray. One of his best remembered later films is In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and that one, like Ziegfeld Girl, was a production of the Freed Unit era at MGM. It follows then the immortal Judy Garland, two years out from The Wizard of Oz, is at the center of the film, which echoes a lot of her other pictures of the period by being about a young girl who wants to make it big in show business, in this case, the Ziegfeld Follies, sometime in the 1920s. Her dad is played by Show Boat‘s Charles Winninger as one “Gallagher”, a fictional one, though he is confusingly teamed with the real Al Shean in a 50% actual Gallagher and Shean. Which brings us back to the Marx Brothers (Shean was their uncle). From At the Circus, not to mention the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 and 1936) we get Eve Arden; from The Big Store, also released by MGM in 1941, we get Tony Martin.

To raise the male blood pressure, the movie has both Hedy Lamar and Lana Turner as aspiring stage stars. The latter is paired off in a relationship with Jimmy Stewart, a fish out of water in this movie, though he gets top billing. There is much melodrama in their subplot, featuring crime, booze, prison, and death. Also on deck: Jackie Cooper, Edward Everett Horton, Paul Kelly, Dan Dailey, Felix Bressart, and Rose Hobart.

Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

Now a decade after The Great Ziegfeld, MGM and Billie Burke are still milking their cash cow. By now there had also been a Ziegfeld Follies of 1943 on Broadway. Vincent Minnelli, who had been the set and costume designer on The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, is the lead director of a squadron assigned to this film, including also Roy Del Ruth, George Sidney, and others. This one is a straight-up showcase for Ziegfeld and MGM talent. In addition to Powell in a cameo as Ziggy, and appearances by Judy Garland from Ziegfeld Girl, and the inevitable Fanny Brice, we also get Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Victor Moore, Lucille Bremer, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, William Frawley, Cyd Charise, Hume Cronyn, Keenan Wynn (one wonders why no Ed Wynn, an actual Follies star), Peter Lawford, and a zillion others. Since we keep harping (ha! harping!) on the Marx Brothers, we also point out Lucille Ball (who’d been in Room Service), and Virginia O’Brien from The Big Store. W.C. Fields regulars Grady Sutton and Elise Cavanna are in it. Kay Thompson is one of the Ziegfeld Girls!

This wasn’t the end of Ziegfeld on stage and screen, of course. There was the 1951 screen version of Show Boat; and a Ziegfeld Follies of 1957, the last Broadway show to bear the official name. And it doesn’t really end there. Don’t forget Funny Girl, the musical about Fanny Brice, which premiered on Broadway in 1964 and was made into a film in 1968 (and happens to be in a revival on Broadway even as we speak), as well as the 1975 sequel Funny Lady. Many people likely were introduced to Ziegfeld and the Follies through those vehicles (though Walter Pidgeon is TERRIBLE casting. No one could eclipse William Powell!)

For more on the history of show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous