Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ziegfeld Girl (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I went over to see Charles and arrived shortly after 7 with a videotape of a James Stewart movie, Ziegfeld Girl. Actually, Stewart’s role — even though he’s top-billed (it was right after he won the Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story, in what was actually a second lead — an award Stewart himself conceded was a “consolation prize” for his having not won the year before for his genuinely Oscar-caliber performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) — is really secondary to those of the three women in the cast who aspire to be, and ultimately become, Ziegfeld girls. Ziegfeld Girl is the second in a cycle of three movies MGM made using the magic name. The first one was The Great Ziegfeld, the Ziegfeld biopic from 1936 (in which the short, fat, dumpy, Jewish-looking Ziegfeld was played by the tall, rail-thin, debonair and very Anglo William Powell — ah, Hollywood!), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and a thoroughly undeserved Best Actress award for the execrable Luise Rainer (whose famous “telephone scene,” when she learns Ziggy has deserted her for another woman, has got to be one of the most campy bits of overacting in Hollywood history). Ziegfeld Girl was made in 1941 and the third in the cycle, Ziegfeld Follies, was filmed in 1944 but not released until 1946, mainly because MGM didn’t know what to do with it (it was a plotless musical revue, like its namesake stage shows, and by the mid-1940’s audiences expected some sort of plot, no matter how flimsy, with their musicals).

Like The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl was directed by Robert Z. Leonard and written by William Anthony McGuire (the author, at least, had actually worked for the real Ziegfeld), but instead of Seymour Felix, who’d done the surprisingly dull musical numbers for The Great Ziegfeld, Busby Berkeley was brought in as the choreographer this time — and supplied his demented imagination to the extent star-obsessed MGM would let him, notably in an ersatz Carmen Miranda number called “Minnie from Trinidad” (two years before he worked so dazzlingly with the real Miranda in The Gang’s All Here), in which he has a batch of chorus boys (the fact that he got a male chorus into this number was a major break from the Ziegfeld tradition in itself!) use a set of bamboo poles to lift a basket containing Judy Garland over their heads and into the flies while the camera shot this from overhead (anticipating the number Garland would do at the end of Presenting Lily Mars two years later, in which Tommy Dorsey’s entire orchestra is suspended above her on a set which seems to have no visible moorings at all, leaving the audience less entertained by her act and more concerned that the band and its set will fall down and crush her!). Ziegfeld Girl also reflects Louis B. Mayer’s continuing disinterest in color production; like The Great Ziegfeld (from which it borrows a few film clips for the spectacular closing sequence) it’s in black-and-white, and though that’s fine for the plot portions of the film, some of the numbers (including Berkeley’s Caribbean extravaganza) do lose a lot by not being in color.

Ziegfeld Girl is actually a pretty good slice of Hollywood kitsch, benefiting not only from Berkeley’s (and Judy Garland’s) involvement but also from being 50 minutes shorter than The Great Ziegfeld (132 instead of 172 minutes) and having a much better music-to-talk ratio. Though top-billed, Stewart’s role is pretty peripheral — he plays a truckdriver who’s in love with an elevator operator (Lana Turner) who is picked for the Follies and abandons him in favor of the wealthy “stage-door Johnnies” who hang around the New Amsterdam Theatre while the Follies are in progress in hopes of dates (and more) from the Ziegfeld girls. In order to get the money he feels he needs to compete with them, Stewart becomes a driver for a bootlegging gang, and tries to convince us he’s a bad guy by snarling all his lines through his teeth. (When I first watched this movie it seemed that Stewart’s role would have been perfect for James Cagney or Spencer Tracy — but Cagney was still under contract to Warners and Tracy was being moved away from tough-guy roles.) Garland plays the daughter of an old vaudevillian (Charles Winninger, who played Mickey Rooney’s father in the Rooney/Garland vehicle Babes in Arms — playing father and son, he and Rooney made overacting seem like a genetically acquired trait!) who gets into the Ziegfeld chorus and eventually into a featured singing role in the show, and finally gets to star (McGuire no doubt knew, but chose to ignore, the fact that Ziegfeld never gave any performer star billing in the Follies) — and her audition sequence is interesting because it reflects (quite possibly on purpose) her real-life audition at MGM.

In the film, she nearly loses her big chance because Winninger (who also plays piano behind her) tells her to sing “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” in a corny vaudeville style that makes Judy sound like Al Jolson in drag — until the show’s director has her try it again, this time with the theatre orchestra accompanying her and taking the song in proper ballad tempo that allows Judy to showcase her voice effectively. In reality, six years earlier, she had been accompanied to her MGM audition by her actual father, Frank Gumm — whom Roger Edens, who was there, described as “the worst piano player I’ve ever heard” — and she only got the contract when Edens accompanied her himself; later he became her vocal coach for life and steered her away from “hot” jazz material and helped her develop into the superb ballad and show singer she was. As for the other “Ziegfeld girls” of the title, Hedy Lamarr also gets into the show by accident — her husband, a classically-trained violinist, is auditioning for a job with Ziegfeld’s orchestra; he’s considered overqualified and doesn’t get the job, but she does. Lamarr goes on to romance the show’s featured singer (Tony Martin, reunited with Garland after Pigskin Parade and the only other cast member who could actually sing!), who’s also married (to Rose Hobart as a former Ziegfeld girl), and for a while they plan to leave their respective spouses and marry each other — until Lamarr’s husband finally gets a New York recital debut, they reconcile and she leaves the show. (Incidentally, Hobart’s presence in the cast makes Ziegfeld Girl another one of my “double” movies; she was Dr. Henry Jekyll’s strait-laced fiancée in the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March; while Lana Turner played the same role in Victor Fleming’s 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy.)

That leaves Lana Turner, and though she’s only fourth-billed (after Stewart, Garland and Lamarr, in that order), it’s really her movie. Turner may have had an emotional range as an actress of about a micrometer, but the role she gets in Ziegfeld Girl is absolutely right on the money in terms of what she can do. Not only is her character — a poverty-stricken Brooklyn girl who gets her big chance in the Follies, gets a chance at all the nice things she’s always wanted, is pampered by a rich boyfriend but ultimately done in by alcoholism and a seedy little worm of self-hate — by far the deepest one in this script, but Turner actually manages to be completely credible in it, playing the part with an appealing combination of bitchiness and vulnerability that actually makes the character human and understandable. Turner got the most spectacular scene in the film — a particularly famous piece of Hollywood kitsch in which she almost literally gets up from her deathbed to attend a new edition of the Follies, hears “You Stepped Out of a Dream” (the big hit from the Follies the year her character was in it) as she’s walking down the steps leading out of the theatre, and suddenly raises her shoulders, puts a “winning smile” on her face, and walks down the steps imperiously as if she’s still part of the show — until she collapses and falls on the final stairs. (“A star exit if there ever was one,” wrote Gary Carey in his book on MGM.) What’s more remarkable about her part is that, as Charles pointed out afterwards, it offers a surprisingly unsentimental and unfunny look at alcoholism and its destructive power for a movie of its time — Ziegfeld Girl preceded The Lost Weekend by four years and, at least in Turner’s scenes, offered almost as intense a portrait of a person destroying him/herself with the bottle. It also showcases her in a way that her later, more prestigious movies (like The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which she’s horrendously undercast) really didn’t: an interesting curiosity about what is otherwise a glossy, sentimental musical entertainment. — 7/4/97


Last night Turner Classic Movies began a cycle in which, instead of making their “Star of the Month” a single person, they decided to use Tuesday nights to show “Pin-Up Girls” and the films featuring them, including the most famous pin-up girl of the World War II years, Betty Grable, whose famous photo (though retouched at the insistence of the Production Code Administration to eliminate her ass cheeks) emblazoned hundreds of airplane fuselages and decorated thousands of U.S. servicemembers’ locker rooms during the war. They began the tribute with — inevitably — her 1944 film Pin-Up Girl and then showed Rita Hayworth’s Gilda and the movie I actually watched, Ziegfeld Girl, a 1941 musical extravaganza from MGM and the second in their cycle of three films sucking off the legacy of Florenz Ziegfeld. The cycle began with The Great Ziegfeld, a 1936 mega-production written by Ziegfeld veteran William Anthony McGuire, directed by Robert Z. Leonard (an amiable MGM hack and former husband of silent-screen star Mae Murray who has one great film on his résumé, the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy masterpiece Maytime, as well as some other sporadically interesting movies) and starring tall, Anglo William Powell as the short, dumpy-looking and Jewish Ziegfeld. In Ziegfeld Girl McGuire returned to write the original story — though the usual committee (Marguerite Roberts, Sonya Levien and an uncredited Annalee Whitmore) ganged up on it afterwards on its journey from story to screenplay — and, alas, Leonard was brought back to direct, though at least they got Busby Berkeley to do the musical numbers (stunningly, particularly in the scene in which he hoists Judy Garland into the air on a fruit basket at the end of “Minnie from Trinidad”).

What they didn’t get was William Powell — or anyone else — to play Ziegfeld; instead the administration of the Follies is represented by an assistant, Slayton (Paul Kelly), and a character identified only as “Noble Sage” (Edward Everett Horton, getting to play a lot less doofus-y than usual and actually seeming rather competent), giving Ziegfeld himself a sort of God-like detachment from the action. (Powell would return in the third film in the series, Ziegfeld Follies from 1946 — though actually mostly filmed two years earlier — which brought in color and a much more creative director, Vincente Minnelli, though the opening sequence in which Powell plays a dead Ziegfeld in heaven reminiscing about his old shows and wishing he could produce another Follies with MGM’s contract list is simply risible.) Ziegfeld Girl is a prime example of what I call the “portmanteau movie,” one concocted by a studio to have some element that would appeal to every possible audience: it’s alternately a gangster movie, a soap opera (two soap operas, actually) and a musical. It’s also hamstrung by the outrageous miscasting of James Stewart as Gil (the page lists the character as “Gilbert Young” but I don’t recall him having a surname in the actual film), a truck driver who becomes a bootlegger when his girlfriend Sheila Regan (Lana Turner, billed fourth) joins the Follies, attracts the attention of rich sugar daddies and leads Gil to think he has to make a lot of money quickly to be able to compete. It’s amazing that even after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story MGM would be so unaware of Stewart’s appeal — and his limitations as an actor — that they’d stick him into a thankless tough-guy role that, had the contract system and inter-studio politics allowed it, would have been perfect for James Cagney. (At that, MGM had on their own contract list an actor who could have played it better than Stewart, Spencer Tracy, but it’s possible that they considered him too big for this sort of part by 1941.)

The film announces its intentions in advance when Slayton, greeting the latest crop of Ziegfeld girls, announces that some of them are going to go on to major careers in showbiz, some are going to marry and have families, and others are going to experience unspecified but less pleasant fates. Needless to say, the three female leads — in original billing order, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner — will each be destined for one of those fates. Judy is Susan Gallagher, daughter of an old-time vaudevillian (Charles Winninger in basically the same role he played in Babes in Arms — though this time he’s Judy’s father instead of Mickey Rooney’s) who has literally been groomed all her life for a career in showbiz. Hedy is Sandra Kolter, who’s already married to unknown classical violinist Franz Kolter (Philip Dorn) and turned up at Ziegfeld’s audition just to accompany him as he tried out for a job in Ziegfeld’s orchestra, only she got noticed by Slayton and Sage and offered a spot in Ziegfeld’s chorus line, to which hubby has a predictable hissy-fit that as a good Continental he can’t stand the idea of being supported by his wife and can stand even less the idea of her being cruised by the usual stage-door sugar daddies. Lana is Sheila Regan, from a thoroughly proletarian family in Brooklyn including a father (Ed McNamara), a mother (Fay Holden) and a brother, Jerry (Jackie Cooper), who when Sheila returns home with the news that she’s now a Ziegfeld girl responds with such a display of mincing his mom says, “I hope I didn’t raise my son to be a Ziegfeld girl, too” — a pretty radical Gay reference for a post-Code film! Sheila drifts apart from Gil into a relationship of sorts with Geoffrey Collis (Ian Hunter, playing the same sort of avuncular, basically decent sugar-daddy he’d been with Bette Davis and Kay Francis in their aspiring-actress films at Warner Bros.), an apartment on Park Avenue, an extensive wardrobe (including seven diamond bracelets and six fur coats as well as a shoe collection to make Imelda Marcos drool) and an increasing addiction to the bottle. The time signals on this movie are a bit odd since it’s obviously taking place during Prohibition but alcohol seems to be as ubiquitously available as it was in the teens or is today; the characters stroll into restaurants and bars and have no problem getting service without ID’s, passwords or any of the requisite precautions other movies have told us were needed during America’s officially “dry” years.

What’s most fascinating about Lana Turner’s character arc is that, along with Johnny Eager (a movie she was in, but not as the drunk — that was Van Heflin), alcoholism is presented seriously and not as an excuse for laughs; there’d been some early-1930’s movies, including A Free Soul and What Price Hollywood? (both, interestingly, based on stories by Hearst writer Adela Rogers St. John), that had depicted alcoholic characters seriously, but in most 1930’s films drunkenness was an excuse for low comedy and the Heflin character in Johnny Eager and Turner’s character here are the start of a more serious look at alcoholism and its discontents that would bear fruit in The Lost Weekend in 1945 and win Academy Awards for the film itself, Billy Wilder as director and Ray Milland as star. What’s also surprising is that, for the most part, Lana Turner rises to the occasion and, despite Leonard’s indifferent direction, makes Sheila a sympathetically self-destructive figure whom the audience pities instead of hates. There are a couple of scenes in which she overacts, but for the most part it’s a challenging portrayal and hardly the sort of thing one expects to see in the context of a showing paying tribute to Lana Turner, pin-up girl. (Aside from The Postman Always Rings Twice — a movie I haven’t seen for years but in which I don’t remember Turner being very good; as with so many films of the classic era I found myself wishing Barbara Stanwyck would have played her role, especially since Stanwyck had been electrifying in Double Indemnity, the only previous major film based on a James M. Cain novel — Turner wasn’t challenged to do this much acting until the late 1950’s in movies like Peyton Place and Imitation of Life.) Hedy Lamarr is barely in the film; she falls into a rather diffident relationship with Ziegfeld singer Frank Merton (Tony Martin), who is also already married (his wife is played by Rose Hobart, whose presence makes this a “doubles” movie — Hobart played the good-girl fiancée of Dr. Henry Jekyll in the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, and Turner played the part in the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy), but in the end each reconciles with their original spouse and Hedy’s husband, helped by Ziegfeld violinist and musical director Mischa (Felix Bressart), gets the classical career he deserves while she quits the Follies to “stand by her man.”

As for Judy Garland, she spent virtually the whole shoot incensed that MGM publicists and the reporters they lured to the set spent all their time with Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr and ignored her, when she was the only one of the three leading ladies with genuine musical talent in what was supposed to be (among other things) a major musical. She gets an audition sequence with Slayton and Sage that is so much like the real Judy Garland’s audition for MGM in 1935 I suspect the writers consciously patterned the scene after it: like the real Judy, Susan Gallagher comes in with her father as accompanist and vocal coach. She sings the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (the song was from 1921 but after the success of “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz MGM set about finding or commissioning more songs for Judy with the word “rainbow” in them) in a self-consciously “belting” style, full of Jolson-esque mannerisms that fit oddly in Judy’s woman’s voice and thin frame (thanks to all the diet pills MGM’s doctors had her on and the studio minions who, on orders from On High, would follow her into the cafeteria and literally pull food out of her hands before it could reach her mouth). Slayton tells her that that sort of no-holds-barred assault on a song went out decades ago, then tells the rehearsal orchestra to accompany her; she asks them to take the song more slowly, and the result is one of the great, heart-rending Judy Garland ballad performances on film. (In Judy’s real MGM audition she was accompanied by her actual father, Frank Gumm, and midway through the audition Roger Edens came in the room, told Louis B. Mayer, “That guy is the word piano player I’ve ever heard,” took over the accompanist’s bench himself and asked Judy if she knew the classic Jewish song of lament, “Eili, Eili,” Mayer’s all-time favorite song. Luckily, Judy did know it — she and the other Gumm Sisters had learned it for a gig at a Jewish wedding — and she sang it with Edens backing her, Mayer was moved to tears and MGM signed her.)

In Ziegfeld Girl Judy also gets featured in a novelty song called “Minnie from Trinidad,” a fable (anticipating Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” by nearly two decades) about a girl from Trinidad who gets a Hollywood offer, becomes a big movie star, misses her boyfriend back home and quits at the height of her fame, only the boyfriend is dead but she’s still happier back home than she was in big bad Hollywood. Judy’s number comes at the end of a huge Berkeley spectacular that begins with a mood-setting ballad vocal by Tony Martin on a song called “Caribbean Love Song” by Roger Edens and Ralph Freed, and though the rest of the movie is just fine in black-and-white MGM should have plumped for the extra budget to shoot this scene in color, especially since Judy is essentially doing an impression of Carmen Miranda. Mercifully, she was allowed (likely at Edens’ insistence) to sing in her normal voice rather than do an impression of Miranda’s famously fractured English and thick Brazilian accent (Miranda actually learned to speak English perfectly soon after she moved to the U.S. but had to continue acting in her broken dialect because that had become one of her trademarks), but she’s wearing an elaborate headdress and nut-brown makeup to make her look Latina (or at least Caribbean), and the song is a pretty elaborate imitation of the ones Harry Warren and his lyricists were turning out for Miranda back at 20th Century-Fox. At the end of the number Berkeley has Judy singing in a giant fruit basket and takes his camera overhead (of course!) as the chorus boys stick bamboo stalks into the basket and lift it towards the ceiling — knowing how sensitive and easily frightened Judy was, shooting this number must have scared her shitless! Judy also dominates the final sequence, a montage of previous Ziegfeld shows (including two clips from The Great Ziegfeld, the movable-beds number and the huge wedding-cake like set against which Dennis Morgan had sung “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” while Virginia Bruce decorated the top of the cake — for this film they simply rebuilt the top of the set so they could substitute Judy Garland for Virginia Bruce), and she was supposed to sing part of a big production number called “We Must Have Music” that was cut out of this film, though a clip of Judy singing it was used in an MGM “Romance of Celluloid” short TCM mercifully aired right after Ziegfeld Girl was over.

During this sequence — which is supposed to represent the opening night of a new Ziegfeld Follies two years after the one depicted in the opening — Lana Turner’s character, having been bounced out of the previous year’s Follies for falling in an alcoholic stupor at the end of the “Trinidad” number and been reduced to pawning her jewelry and furs (in a scene Charles remembered from the last time we watched the film, she’s given a pin by one of her remaining male admirers, tries to pawn it immediately and is told that the jewel in the pin is a fake) and moving back in with her family — and the still-faithful Gil, having served a prison term for bootlegging, says he wants the two of them to buy a duck farm and run it together — gets up from her sickbed, where she’s dying of a broken heart, to the opening of the new Follies and walks down the long flight of stairs between the levels in the theatre lobby as the Ziegfeld crew perform “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” the big hit from the Follies the year she was in it. Holding her head high and walking in the languorous, glamorous steps Ziegfeld’s staff had taught her, she makes it down to the end of the stairs and collapses. According to TCM host Robert Osborne, the original cut of the film made it clear that she died, but preview audiences were so hostile at seeing Lana Turner croak that the film was trimmed to make the scene seem more ambiguous and allow audience members to read it either way — though I must say I’ve always read it with the assumption that she died. Ziegfeld Girl is a problematic movie, too long (132 minutes) for its own good and falling back on some of Hollywood’s hoariest — and silliest — clichés, but also containing genuinely moving performances by Judy Garland and Lana Turner (which helps make up for James Stewart’s wretched miscasting and the virtual non-acting by Hedy Lamarr, who seemed to have been instructed by director Leonard to mimic Garbo’s fabled impassivity) as well as a welcome recreation of the Gallagher and Shean vaudeville act, with Charles Winninger as Gallagher and Al Shean (true name Schönberg, and also the uncle of the Marx Brothers and the first writer for their act) as himself. Ziegfeld Girl is a big, blowsy mess of a movie, but in its good parts (mostly the musical numbers and Lana Turner’s descent into alcohol-fueled self-destruction) it’s well worth watching. — 6/4/15