Part 2 of my Ziegfeld in Hollywood series.
Ah, Ziegfeld Girl. Even though it has some flaws, it’s one of my personal favorite movies. Ziegfeld Girl chronicles the lives of three different girls, Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr), Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland), and Sheila Regan (Lana Turner), as they are each plucked from obscurity and become stars in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Sandra Kolter gets into the Follies purely by accident. When her husband, Franz, a concert violinist, tries out to be part of the orchestra at the Follies, she tags along to the audition. Franz doesn’t make the cut because he’s too good, but Sandra catches the eye of Frank Merton (Tony Martin), one of the show’s star singers. Next thing she knows, she’s part of the show. When she tells her husband the news, he’s immediately jealous of all the attention she’ll be getting from men and she leaves him since he doesn’t trust her. Frank is married and continues to pursue her even though she tells him she isn’t interested in him. Frank wants a divorce and his wife knows it, so his wife goes to see Sandra and Sandra realizes that she’s still in love with Franz. Wanting to get back together with him, Sandra starts scheming to get Franz into the orchestra. The two end up reconciling and Sandra decides to retire from showbiz to go on tour with Franz.
Susan Gallagher has been touring the vaudeville circuit in an act with her father for her entire life. One night, Ziegfeld sees their act and wants Susan for the Follies. Unfortunately, Ziegfeld has no interest in her father, splitting up their act for the first time ever. Eventually, Susan’s father realizes he is hindering Susan’s career and he takes an offer to join his old friend in a new act and go on the road. Susan’s career takes off and she becomes a real star in the Follies. However, Susan is worried about how her father is doing out on the road and nearly quits the Follies to perform with him again. But to keep Susan in the show, they make parts for her father and his friend in the Follies and they end up being a big success.
Sheila Regan also gets into the Follies by accident. She was working as an elevator operator in a department store when she happened to meet Ziegfeld. Sheila was living a pretty humble life at the time. She lived with her parents, brother (Jackie Cooper), and sister in Flatbush and is engaged to her trucker boyfriend, Gil (James Stewart). Gil likes Sheila the way she is and isn’t thrilled when she starts living a much ritzier lifestyle. Especially since that ritzier lifestyle is being financed by a millionaire she has been seeing. After Sheila and Gil get into a fight, Sheila’s maid offers her her first alcoholic drink. Sheila begins turning to alcohol more and more often and Gil turns to bootlegging and serves some time in jail. Sheila’s drinking spirals out of control, which culminates in her showing up drunk for a performance. She is ordered not to go on stage, but she doesn’t listen and is immediately fired when she falls down on stage. After being fired, she struggles to get by and tries to sell some of the glamorous jewelery she had, only to find it was virtually worthless. After she becomes ill, Gil returns to her and they begin planning their future together again. Even though she is sick, she’s determined to attend the opening night of the new Follies. Unfortunately, the night ends with her memorable descent down the stairs:
It’s kind of hard for me to say how good of a representation this is in terms of what the Ziegfeld Follies were really like since it focuses more on the lives of the three women, not the Follies. The Ziegfeld Follies are really just more of a backdrop and an excuse to have some lavish musical numbers. The musical numbers do capture the extravagance of the Follies, just like The Great Ziegfeld did. But then again, it helps that some bits of the musical numbers were recycled from The Great Ziegfeld. When Susan’s dad and his friend make their debut in the Follies, they perform a comical song called Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean, which really was a hit song from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922. You can hear Gallagher and Shean’s original performance here. And the fact that Al Shean himself performs that song in the movie is a nice touch of authenticity.
I said right off the bat that Ziegfeld Girl is a flawed movie. It’s clichéd and can be pretty overly dramatic. I mean, I don’t quite get how Sheila being hit somehow leads to her becoming deathly ill. And the whole idea of a story about someone becoming famous only to succumb to self-destructive behavior or trading fame for love is hardly groundbreaking stuff. I think the movie is supposed to be set in the 1920s, but there really wasn’t much effort made to make that point clear. All the fashions and hairstyles are clearly 1940s. I only guessed it was supposed to be in the 1920s since Gil becomes a bootlegger and the fact that vaudeville was long dead by 1941. And even though he gets top billing, I think Jimmy Stewart was a little miscast here. I just don’t think he was best suited to playing a truck driver-turned-bootlegger. And yes, you did read that correctly. It’s a movie titled Ziegfeld Girl and Jimmy Stewart gets top billing. I know he was hot off his success in The Philadelphia Story and all so he was the big name, but really, MGM?
But in spite of the clichés and melodrama, I found it to be a highly enjoyable movie. It’s fun to watch and there are some pretty solid performances. By 1941, Judy Garland was an old hat at musicals and she gets plenty of Busby Berkeley directed musical numbers to shine in. But even though she gets the lowest billing, Lana Turner is the real star of the movie. Her performance as Sheila Regan was nothing less than a triumph for her. By the time she made Ziegfeld Girl, Lana Turner had already appeared in over a dozen movies, but this was her first truly great role. Lana freely admitted that she never took her career very seriously before Ziegfeld Girl. But between realizing that she had some great material to work with here and the fact that she needed a way to cope with the end of her disastrous marriage to Artie Shaw, she really threw herself into this role and it’s fantastic to watch. It’s particularly interesting to watch Lana play an alcoholic considering that when she made the movie, she had never even been drunk before. And I don’t think anyone ever walked down a staircase more magnificently than Lana. It’s not often that Judy Garland got upstaged, but Lana Turner completely and totally owned this movie. In fact, Ziegfeld Girl was such an iconic movie for Lana that for years, every time she went into a nightclub, the band would start playing You Stepped Out of a Dream for her.
If you’d like to see Ziegfeld Girl for yourself, it’s available on YouTube. At least it was by the time I published this review.