While The Great Ziegfeld is a terrific movie, only a small percentage of it focused on the actual making of the Follies. We barely even got to see those famed stairs. Like Broadway, the Follies are a big subject, and in 1941, MGM revisited them in Ziegfeld Girl. Starring James Stewart, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, and Hedy Lamarr, it is a big, lush extravaganza that also explores the possible outcomes of fame and fortune.
The first thing that’s made clear in the movie is that the Follies had a high turnover. So high that their offices have a guy whose only job is to manage the portrait gallery. Unlike in The Great Ziegfeld, though, Florenz Ziegfeld is never seen. He is, as John Fricke put it, “a god-like figure,” sending down pronouncements about who’s in and who’s out.
The talent scouts, Mr. Sage (Edward Everett Horton) and Mr. Slayton (Paul Kelly) are constantly on the lookout for new faces, and if they like what they see, they set up an appointment for the lady in question with Mr. Ziegfeld. Mr. Ziegfeld still does his own scouting on occasion, though, and one day he sends Mr. Sage to the Fifth Avenue Department store, where an elevator operator, Sheila Regan (Lana Turner) has caught his eye.
When Sheila met Mr. Ziegfeld, she dismissed him as trying to get fresh. Still, she’s in daze about it, wondering if it was really Ziegfeld or not. Her boyfriend, truckdriver Gil (James Stewart) comes to tell her about the new wheels he’s got, and she’s still floating. Sheila lives in Flatbush and her dad is a police officer, so the idea of having money is tantalizing.
Another hopeful is Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland), a vaudevillian who is easily a shoo-in for the Follies. She sings with her dad, (Charles Winninger) whom she affectionately calls “Pop,” and they’re very close. She doesn’t want to leave their vaudeville act, but Pop nudges Susan into the Follies because he knows it’s such a major opportunity for her. Susan doesn’t know what she’ll be doing yet, because she’s too small to be a showgirl, but she’s glad to be in, anyway. And she meets Sheila’s brother, Jerry (Jackie Cooper), with whom she’s immediately smitten.
The third of our principles is Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr), who comes with her husband, Franz (Philip Dorn) to watch him audition for second violin in the Ziegfeld orchestra. The two of them are very sweet together, but Franz always gets nervous when he sees other men looking at his wife.
Like Ziegfeld’s star male vocalist, Frank Merton (Tony Martin), for instance, who spies Sandra watching Franz and alerts Mr. Sage. Sandra comes home to Franz later and tells him she’s got a job in the Follies. Franz is not thrilled even though Sandra tells him it’s all very silly. Sandra is disappointed, but she decides to take the job anyway.
On Opening Night, everyone, including seasoned performer, Susan is nervous. One of the veteran showgirls, Patsy (Eve Arden) has a tip for the newcomers when they walk down the stairs: “Take lots of time walking down, and you’ll gather plenty of moss,” before shaking a wristful of chunky diamond cuff bracelets given to her by various millionaires. Sheila looks wistfully at Patsy’s diamonds, of which she has so many that she just leaves them lying around the dressing room.
Mr. Slayton gathers everyone together for a pep talk, and warns them that they have some choices ahead of them. Some of the ladies will end up famous. Others will raise families. Still others will wind up less-than-desirably. All of this will happen to them if they are in the Follies or not, except that there’s a twist to being discovered by Mr. Ziegfeld: “The Follies is life in one stiff jolt. Life running instead of walking. Life speeded up to a mile a minute. But if you’ve got what it takes, the pace won’t bother you.”
The show goes swimmingly, with Franz, Gil and Jerry watching nervously in the audience, and everything Mr. Slayton predicted starts coming true right away. A millionaire named Geoffrey Collis sends Sheila orchids and a note asking her to call him sometime, and they soon have dinner. It’s implied that Sandra and Franz are separated because Sandra starts being romanced by Frank Merton, who’s also married. Meanwhile, Pop prepares Susie to audition for a solo.
While these characters are friends and support each other, their paths end up diverging. Sheila is the biggest star of the three, at least at first, and she lives like it. She gets an opulent apartment on Park Avenue and so many dresses and furs that she can throw them away if they get stained. She carries on her romance with Geoff and Gil, although the latter doesn’t stay around for long. This diva even has her maid wake her up every morning by spraying a few puffs of high-end perfume over her bed. She does take care of her family in Flatbush, sending them on expensive trips and helping them remodel their house, plus paying for music lessons for Jerry.
Sheila’s lifestyle eventually takes a toll on her and everyone around her. Gil breaks up with her and becomes a runner for a bootlegger, for which he ends up doing time. Geoff wants to marry Sheila, or at least he lets Susie talk him into proposing, but he backs out because he gets an inkling that Sheila’s still in love with Gil. The biggest thing that does Sheila in is her constant drinking, which hurts her from every angle. Spoiler alert: The film implies that Sheila gets alcohol poisoning, which was common during Prohibition, but it doesn’t state it flat-out.
Sandra’s story is simpler. She continues being romanced by Frank while dreaming about Franz, writing her husband’s name in the sand at the beach. She seems to keep Frank mostly at bay, but the town gossips are so talky that Frank’s wife comes to see Sandra. Mrs. Merton was a Ziegfeld girl herself–obviously Frankie-boy has a long history of eyeing Ziegfeld’s latest lineup. Mrs. Merton is all ready to give Sandra her blessing, when Sandra starts talking wistfully about Franz. She’s got an idea of how to get Franz back, and it’s going to involve what brought them together in the first place.
Susie’s not idle herself. Pop’s method of getting her ready for her audition is to have her sing “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” as if she’s doing a nineteenth century town hall show. As in, the full-throated, hit-the-back-row-between-the-eyes method, but never mind expression or conviction. Mr. Slayton puts the kibosh on it, but Sheila goes to bat for Susie, who then sings the song as the wistful ballad that it was meant to be.
Pop is a little hurt, because he sees himself as an amazing performer and teacher, and Susie’s audition makes him realize that she’s outgrown him. He goes off on a vaudeville tour while Susie becomes the Follies’ new singing star. Susan is Daddy’s girl, though, and she finds a way for him to join her. In the meantime, she carries on a sweet, understated romance with Jerry, and there are hints that big things are in store there.
If Ziegfeld Girl had been made a few years earlier, it would have starred Eleanor Powell, Virginia Bruce, Joan Crawford and Walter Pidgeon. Quite honestly, I’m glad they waited, because I don’t think we would have gotten the story depth and variety the later cast brought to the proceedings. Besides, the three original “Girls” would have probably been too old to conceivably be in the Follies.
The movie was a departure for Hedy Lamarr, because she was normally cast as a slinky seductress, such as in White Cargo. In Ziegfeld, she’s hopelessly in love with her husband and only glances at impropriety, although not seriously.
Judy Garland was on her native heath, because, as in real life, she was playing a vaudevillian who has a chance to make it big and quickly develops beyond what got her in the door to begin with. She’s adorable in the role, the highlight of which is the “Minnie From Trinidad” number, a fun mix of comedy and flirtatiousness.
Lana Turner has the most to do in the film, because she falls the hardest. Her character starts out as nobody’s fool and ends in the most foolish spot of all. Turner and James Stewart have great chemistry, and their characters are equals–both used to scrapping it out, and both have to get a clue, although it’s touch-and-go if they each will live to tell the tale.
Since it’s a Ziegfeld movie, the sets and costumes are lavish and sumptuous, with great attention to detail. Each of the Ziegfeld sequences have themes, such as tropical islands–the curtains in “Minnie From Trinidad” are striped like bamboo–or constellations, with all the women wearing stars. As he had been on The Great Ziegfeld, Adrian was the costume designer on Ziegfeld Girl. He and the Follies fit like bread and butter–they liked unique design and knew how to integrate wardrobe and sets. Ziegfeld Girl borrows the “You Gotta Pull Strings” footage from The Great Ziegfeld, but it’s done so naturally that the transition is seamless, and it effectively links the two movies.
Ziegfeld Girl is an excellent film. I’ve seen it so many times over the years that I can’t put a number on how many, and each time it grips me.
More about Ziegfeld in the movies tomorrow. In the meantime, check out our other great Day Two entries about the Great White Way. Thanks for reading, all!
This film is available on Amazon.