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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Improving On Ziegfeld's Past

Glitter or a Gutter Waits For a Next Ziegfeld Girl

Did MGM think they could recreate Ziegfeld Follies better than he was able to create them? I’m suspecting so based on Ziegfeld Girl, what with its He was good, but come and see us top him. Implicit to every music revue was boast that what Broadway sold you for six dollars a seat could be had from movies for seventy-five cents. Bargain shopping for entertainment was everyone’s pastime, ultimate win to ones who nested home with their radios. Ziegfeld Girl promised a moon not tendered since a first Ziegfeld story from 1936, well recalled if not revived by 1941. No need for that where Metro could improve upon it. Ziggy was long gone, him since just a name, now an offscreen divinity (we never see “Ziegfeld” himself in Ziegfeld Girl). Wasn’t it settled that films were doing a better job at what Ziegfeld and others of Broadway did? Simple enough to kid heart-landers who never experienced a Great White Way. Others saw stage recital recorded by cameras as static tableau it was. That much had not changed since early talkies. Ziegfeld Girl is set in the 20’s, yet nothing about it suggests the 20’s, except references to Prohibition. Weakest sections are where they try to dazzle us with “production.” A thing can be colossal as you please on a screen and still look punk beside seeing a same done live. I watched Tony Martin serenading a hundred showgirls in Ziegfeld Girl and wanted him to quit and go home. Even Judy Garland looks arch trying to headline one after other elephantine numbers, these far from what she did best in films.

I submit Lana Turner as a best thing about Ziegfeld Girl. Anyone who calls Lana a “bad actress” misses the point. She was, in fact, a master at her very particular craft. But let’s be stingy and say it was mere “instinct,” like a thirsty dog locating a water dish, except no, for why is Turner so good as others frankly fall down? And yet if any had asked her to explain how/why, I’m not sure she could have. Maybe that is because people like Lana Turner were born understanding the fundamentals of melodrama and how best to play it. She knew a right level to rise to, and not go beyond. As cast-mates lay too heavy a hand at times, she floats above the morass and never forgets her art is all off tissue rolls. Lana finds humor in her character’s suffering, sort of a “Here’s the part where I collapse walking down the stairs after being dissolute through a third act.” Turner knew when enough was enough, wise not to push for effect beyond that. Movies were ripe fruit for only awhile after all, Ziegfeld Girl a most disposable of them. Why make an ass of yourself trying too hard? I enjoyed her best among a crowd busting humps to be dramatic. Turner makes phony-baloney a good thing. I felt her embarrassment where Minnelli whip drove (with Lana driving) a shriek culminate to Kirk Douglas' blow-off in The Bad and The Beautiful, where James Stewart, and then Ian Hunter, doing approximate same in Ziegfeld Girl are fly specks to a girl who knew she was Lana Turner and that fresh men would be along sooner than a next street car.

Norma Shearer Extends Helping Hand To Mae Busch
Ziegfeld Girl is actually a threesome, “All-Star” by way of Judy Garland (first-billed of the trio), Hedy Lamarr, her name above Turner’s for no good reason, other than Ziegfeld Girl being Lana-try-out for undisputed leads, and boy, does she pass. Garland is seen and heard to frank disadvantage, always more effective where song arose from situation, Judy advancing drama via longing lyrics, as in Will Andy Hardy ever love me?, or Why won’t the Boy Next Door look my way? Utter sincerity and sometime catch in words, “Oh no, John, I don’t hate you, I just hate basketball.” That reads silly, but she made it Shakespeare. Hammering a number on a crowded stage is not my notion of Garland used best. The can-do-anything as applied to this girl went but so far. Judy was as delicate a mechanism as any great star. Of Hedy Lamarr, I will say less. A good thing she was inventing modern technology at home, so there would be something for us to applaud. Lamarr said MGM just wanted her to “look dumb, and act stupid.” In Ziegfeld Girl at least, she delivers. Not to be harsh though, because Lamarr’s is a bad-conceived part, the sort imposed on her, and us, in belief she would at least be something to look at, but hold: the real Ziegfeld had Louise Brooks, that enough to beat Leo’s time no matter a depth of competition. Some would say the most arresting Ziegfeld girl(s) are ones backstage, Eve Arden and Mae Busch most prominent. Yes, Mae Busch, as in deserved italics. I read of Mae being charity casting at MGM by the late 30’s, Norma Shearer notably kind to the cast-off. Back caption on the still at above left reads in part: "Mae Busch, who starred in motion pictures long before the talkies arrived, is making a screen comeback with the aid of Norma Shearer, who helped her obtain the role of Madame LaMotte in "Marie Antoinette," in which Miss Shearer plays the leading role." Ziegfeld Girl, however, gives Mae a real part, the last of substance as fate had it, with tart lines even, if not enough of them. Who could have known then that Mae Busch would be such a meaningful name today? (at least among Laurel-Hardy followers)

MGM Either Cut This Portion of Ziegfeld Girl, Or I Slept Through It

Irksome to me is all of men in Ziegfeld Girl being such horse arses. Why should Hedy give up potential stardom to salve sensitivity of loser ball-chain Philip Dorn? Their arguments, one accent pitted against another, gets tedious fast. Then there is Charles Winninger, too vocal in best of times, as Clueless Dad dragging Judy down, a tempo impediment where I longed for him to exit Ziegfeld Girl and stay gone. James Stewart is Lana’s whiny boyfriend who wants her to marry him instead of becoming a Ziegfeld star. Easy choice!, which Turner makes until down-and-outness renders simper-Jim preferable to dipso death rattles. Occurs to me that Stewart wasn't inducted a moment too soon. He may have needed the war a lot more than the war needed him, notwithstanding combat record he scored up. At least from that he came back a more persuasive player, likeable by increased leaps. Pre-fight JS may indeed be best summed up by Tex Avery in the Hollywood Steps Out cartoon cameo. Ziegfeld Girl argues, if unknowingly, for woman’s deliverance from dominance of men, as none of its trio are enhanced by anchors here, yet we’re supposed to root for these guys and hope they prevail at the end. Such was pro forma life Hollywood would impose upon heroines, and us, should we buy into it, and yet who in that industry practiced what was preached? (see Garland, Lamarr, Turner discard of husbands, and more power to them, for bulk of bread brought home was theirs, and that was/is always what tips scales). Ziegfeld Girl is had on a very nice DVD from Warners.


Blogger DBenson said...

Did Billie Burke, Ziegfeld's widow, figure in this or in the actual Follies feature? By this time she'd was aging gracefully into flighty matrons and was a name, if not quite a star.

There's a "real" Ziegfeld movie, the early talkie "Glorifying the American Girl". A dancing shopgirl is lured into vaudeville by a sleazy partner, and against all odds she is Discovered. Meanwhile, her true love back home ends up with her mousy best friend. Just before she goes onstage as a glittering Ziegfeld beauty, she finds out she missed out on the boy back home (and for good measure, the sleazy partner slipped her a 50-50 contract so he gets half her Ziegfeld money). Eddie Cantor does an onstage comedy sketch and I think Helen Morgan sings. I've got it on an Alpha disc somewhere.

In one of Harry Golden's books (anybody remember him?), he recalls working as desk clerk in a minor NY hotel whose residents included a long-faded Ziegfeld girl. The movie evidently used an incident from her life, so a lawyer found her and they got a small settlement out of MGM. She crossed Golden's path a few years after that, desperately needing somebody to pay a cab fare. She had a list of men to call in case of emergency, many of them rich and famous but most of them dead. He did so, musing that some decades earlier rich young blades would have fought for that privilege.

(Just spent time digging out and flipping through "Only in America", "For 2¢ Plain", and "Enjoy, Enjoy" looking for that story. I know I've tripped over "You're Entitled" while looking for other books in the past, but couldn't find it now. Might be in there.)

6:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

There's a Blu-Ray of "Glorifying the American Girl" that is very nice, and includes as an extra, "La Cucuracha," which looks terrific.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The one time I saw Philip Dorn in a movie, he looked like a cross between Frank Sinatra and Fred Allen.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Flo offered actress / dancer Suzanne Kaaren a Ziegfeld Girl job, but her parents wouldn't permit it as the future Mrs. Sidney Blackmer was only fifteen at the time.

7:17 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Turns out the Kino edition of "Glorifying the American Girl" is also available on DVD so I just ordered (I'm a comparative Luddite). It's heartening that anybody's willing to restore things that have fallen into Public Domain.

1:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercers considers Lana Turner's stardom:

David Shipman wrote that Lana Turner “has no other identity than that of a film-star—and that in its most obvious sense: a glamour girl from a mould, a fabulous creature who moves, on screen, among beautiful furnishings, and who, off-screen, is primarily noted for a series of love affairs and marriages…Even her admirers would admit that she couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag.”

Well, that may be too harsh. There is a place for glamour, after all.

Looking at candids published on the internet by Wonderwall, of stars and celebrities sheltering these days--out of place, it seems—it occurred to me that her sort of glamour would be a burden as heavy for them to bear as a serious thought.

Your article suggests that there was an intelligent appreciation of what talent as Lana could contribute to any role, if not hers, then certainly by whoever was behind the camera. Maybe that’s why she’s not nearly as much fun as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, the former daring her limits, the latter not aware that she might be exceeding hers.

You also mentioned Louise Brooks, that incandescent personality who was a genuine Ziegfeld girl. Someone like her, or Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine, Eleanor Parker, or Saoirse Ronan, is far more interesting to me than a Lana Turner. There is the suggestion of something just beyond the edge of light or sound, some depth of passion or carnality yearning for expression, or a spiritual reality corresponding, however imperfectly, to what we perceive.

When Shipman wrote those words, Turner had been, he acknowledged, a star for nearly 40 years. That was coming to an end, even then, but such longevity is astonishing. I wonder if I simply have not the eyes to see, and what I find in others, many found in her. Perhaps, but if that were so, the language of their appreciation is not such as I can understand.

3:45 PM  

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