Sunday, February 7, 2021

‘Ziegfeld Girl’ 1941

Hedy Lamarr, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner are a magnificent MGM trio in "Ziegfeld Girl."

 

Lana Turner proved to be a most worthy MGM star in "Ziegfeld Girl.”

From bit parts to “B” pictures, Lana Turner made her Hollywood climb to the top in just four years. Turner’s breakout year was 1941, in four films, starting with Ziegfeld Girl. Then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was unleashed. Next came Lana’s first teaming with Clark Gable, Honky Tonk, one of her hugest hits. And last, another popular pairing, with Robert Taylor, in Johnny Eager. From then on, Lana Turner was a Movie Star. There were dramatic ups and downs, as with most MGM divas. Still, Lana remained a top leading lady through Madame X in 1966. A 25 year run is remarkable in Hollywood, especially for a woman.

Lana & Jimmy share a laugh on the set.

Ironically, Turner is fourth-billed, though her part is the biggest and juiciest. Jimmy Stewart got top billing as her boyfriend, as he just came off The Philadelphia Story. Co-stars Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr both play noticeably smaller roles than Turner.

When Lana Turner was first signed by MGM, the plan was to make her “the next Harlow.” Jean had died suddenly at age 26, and Turner signed at Metro the next year in 1938, and stayed until 1956. In reality, Lana was groomed to be the next Joan Crawford, who would soon leave Metro after Turner became a star. MGM loved their “great ladies,” like Norma Shearer, Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr. But Metro had their sexy stars that often played girls from the wrong side of the tracks, whose movies the public flocked to: Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner. Later, Elizabeth Taylor was a hybrid of both!

MGM's "3 Girls" movie!

Ziegfeld Girl is really the idealized world of MGM, rather than a tribute to Flo Ziegfeld’s reign on Broadway. Edward Everett Horton is the never seen Flo’s leg man, so to speak. They find perfect “All-American girls” everywhere. Here, Horton meets elevator operator Sheila Regan (Lana Turner) and gives her his card. Hedy Lamarr happens to be at a Ziegfeld audition for violinist husband. One look at lovely Lamarr and she’s hired. Judy Garland’s vaudeville singer Susan Gallagher actually has to get by on her talent! One trip to Flo’s office and he’s got tickets to her show. Show biz fame and fortune are just that easy in MGM’s world.

On opening night, director John Slayton (Paul Kelly) gives the new girls advice that sounds more like a disclaimer:

 “Listen, kids! I've got something important to say to you. Now, except for a couple of hardened veterans, you're all new to the big time. In a few minutes, you're going on in your first number. Do you know what that means? It means you're Ziegfeld girls. It means you're going to have all the opportunities of a lifetime crowded into a couple of hours. And all the temptations. Some of you are gonna wind up with your names in electric lights. Some of you are gonna wind up with a husband and kids. And some of you are gonna wind up—well, not so good. Now, I know what I'm talking about because I've seen all three happen. But, whatever it is, don't blame the Follies; because, it would've happened even if you were still where Mr. Ziegfeld found you. It just might have taken a little longer. So remember this, kids, and it comes straight from 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 the right stuff, the pace won't bother you. And if you haven't, you'll come a cropper. It's strictly up to you."

Did Lana Turner think she was the property of MGM? My guess is NO!

The set up is a film favorite, “the three girls” story, straight from the “silents” through TV’s Charlie’s Angels and beyond. Each “girl” is usually an archetype: the smart one, the gorgeous one, and the tragic/bad one. Like most of this genre, the men are incidental at best, boring at worst.

Ziegfeld Girl’s story was considered clichéd even in ’41, but that didn’t stop Jacqueline Susann from borrowing from movies like this for her ’66 opus Valley of the Dolls—with yes, three dolls. Hedy Lamarr’s Sandra Kolter is an inspiration for VOTD’s Jennifer North, the beauty who prefers a happy home life. Lana Turner’s Sheila is a much nicer Neely O’Hara, the star who can’t handle fame. Ironically, Judy Garland is the sensible Anne Welles type, who just happens to be a great talent. It’s an eyebrow raiser, near the finale, when Lana’s showgirl drunkenly falls onstage, and Judy’s Susan wonders, “How could a girl do that to her career?”

Book learnin' was given lip service at MGM!

What’s amusing about the director’s lecture is that many of MGM’s great stars gave studio head Louis B. Mayer even greater headaches. Three of the biggest offenders star in this film! Between Turner, Lamarr, and Garland, the women totaled 19 marriages! In the “MGM family,” aside from multiple marriages, the stars’ scandals, mobsters ties, nude films, booze, pills, brushes with the law, suicide attempts, and closeted sexuality, all kept MGM enforcer Eddie Mannix busy for decades.

I’ve mostly seen Lana Turner’s later films, where Lana was often lacquered and posturing. But after watching Turner’s key MGM films, especially Ziegfeld Girl, one can easily see her appeal and Lana’s long hold on audiences. Turner is softly pretty, almost cherubic here. And Lana is certainly glam as she becomes a big showgirl for Flo Ziegfeld, despite being quite petite. Lana hadn’t gone platinum yet, hence her character gets called “Red,” or “Flatbush,” to remind us of Sheila’s humble origins. Every time I heard either name, I kept looking for Susan Hayward. In these rags to riches sagas, the story and the stars are more engaging on the way up, as opposed to the stardom, followed by—naturally—heartbreak!

Lana Turner as Sheila Regan, who rises from elevator operator to Ziegfeld showgirl!

Turner, considering her short time in films, plays most believably, and her Sheila has all the big dramatic scenes. Lana acts very well, even considering the acting style of the era, especially at Metro. Turner’s Sheila goes from sassy, energetic, good girl who loves her family to the big star who doesn’t want to travel back to the wrong side of the tracks. Sheila has her devoted but wise maid spritz the air with perfume above our sleeping beauty each morning. When the big star starts to “day” drink, Sheila brushes off Susan’s warnings (coming from Judy Garland!). She then slips into a bubble bath, in full hair and makeup, sporting an encrusted jewel bow in her hair. One scene that falls a bit flat, after Stewart’s Gil leaves in a huff, Lana’s unhappy star quizzes her maid about the number of her various valuables. When the maid asks what for, Lana shrieks dramatically, “I’m counting my blessings!”

Lana's lush of a star is about to take a bubble bath, looking like this!

Once Sheila hits the skids, Turner is surprisingly good as the slumming star. When she’s scrounging in dive bars for a drink, she reminded me of Lana’s latter day unlucky lady, Madame X. Of course, Lana’s final film walk down the stairs made film history for famous exits.

Lana's showgirl on the skids a rehearsal for "Madame X."

Lana Turner’s early movies make sense of her enduring stardom. Turner didn’t have the animal magnetism of Rita or Ava, the great humor of Lombard or Sheridan, the perfect beauty of Hedy or Liz, or the class of Gene Tierney or Grace Kelly. Lana Turner was more like a prettier, sexier Betty Grable. Lana was the All-American girl, but more sensual, feminine, and with an edge. As Turner’s early stardom evolved, she became a bit slimmer, a lot more blonde, and stylized into the Lana Turner sex bomb of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and beyond. Watching Turner in her younger years is to watch Lana at her most likeable.

Hedy Lamarr as a reluctant showgirl, here with Tony Martin, as a dull love interest.

Hedy Lamarr, who enjoys the revisionist reputation as “Hedy the inventor,” has one of her most naturalistic roles here. And while Lamarr’s part isn’t the longest, it’s refreshing to see her presented as a human being. I have mostly seen Lamarr in her exotic roles, as the stone-faced beauty bathed in lavish costumes and shadows, or as the fiery femme fatale. And I never found her particularly compelling in either persona. Lamarr didn’t have that innate talent, charisma, or fire to pull such roles off. That’s why her film career instantly evaporated after she left MGM. On a much smaller scale, Hedy is much more accessible as Ziegfeld Girl’s Sandra, the reluctant showgirl. She’s working for the money, honey, all to help her violinist husband. A bit like Dolls’ Jennifer, Lamarr’s Sandra conveys bemusement over her beauty and sincerity to her leading man and the other characters. Lamarr doesn’t have a riveting role here. But Hedy is believable and she holds her own just fine with Rose Hobart, as a crooner’s wife, in their confrontation. And aside from the showgirl scenes, Hedy is understated in her hair and makeup. Of course, Lamarr is a wow to look at in her “You Stepped Out of a Dream” number.

Hedy's Sandra the showgirl, in the aptly titled number, "You Stepped Out of a Dream."

As Susan Gallagher, Judy Garland handles humor and drama with surprising aplomb, considering she’s only 18. PS—Lana Turner was just 19 during filming! Judy’s young voice is heavenly here. Her version of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is pure and deeply felt. After dropping the vaudeville take that Susan’s father rehearsed with her, Garland sings a simple, superb version. And it’s a cliché moment when everyone stops to listen to her, and when she’s finished, a star is born! You know what? Judy’s vocals are such a knockout here, that you’d stop in your tracks, too. I love the interplay between Judy and Lana in this scene, when Sheila asks the director to give Susan another chance, and then watches. You sense the camaraderie between the two young stars, and it’s sweet. The “Minnie from Trinidad” number is fun, but given the lightweight number, the elephantine production feels overbearing. And once again, MGM busts out the “tropical makeup” on their star!

Judy Garland in "Minnie From Trinidad." MGM gives a star the "tropical" makeup once again!

Despite top billing, James Stewart is stuck in a supporting part that any MGM second stringer could have played, like James Craig or Robert Sterling. If he’d come to Metro a bit sooner, John Hodiak would have been perfect. If they had, Metro could have treated the part accordingly, and a cut some minutes off this overlong musical. Coming off a string of hits since his big break through in ’39, this must have been a come down for Stewart. And Ziegfeld Girl would be Jimmy’s last movie at Metro, before he went off to war. As truck driver turned bootlegger Gil Young, Stewart is Sheila’s nagging conscience. While he is sore that she is kicking up her heels onstage and off, Gil’s solution is to become a bootlegger, which undercuts his moral high ground. Hey, this was a different, more overtly sexist era! While Stewart does what he can with the role, and it’s far more built up than the other male characters, John Garfield could have played this in his sleep.

The other men in the Ziegfeld girls’ lives include Philip Dorn and Tony Martin, vying over Lamarr. They are the violinist and married crooner, respectively, and the two performers don’t bring much to the paper thin parts. Jackie Cooper is in his male ingénue phase and he does well enough, as Lana’s brother who’s sweet on Judy’s singer. Ian Hunter is sincere as the sugar daddy who wants to marry Lana’s showgirl. Dan Dailey has a very early role as the boxer who hits on Turner’s Sheila, who brushes him off. He’s quite believably repellant, especially when he rubs Sheila’s nose in her downfall.

Star watching is a big reason to watch Ziegfeld Girl, here’s a few: Edward Everett Horton is always great fun as the wily talent scout; Charles Winninger gets a number of moments to shine as Judy’s vaudeville vet dad; Eve Arden is the wisecracking, veteran showgirl; and Felix Bressart as the violinist’s mentor.

MGM girls designed by Adrian. Glam or gaga? 

Busby Berkeley’s choreography and Adrian’s costumes are both eye-popping, though in an over the top way. Berkeley’s contributions, while stunning, drag on to stupefaction. Speaking of drag, Adrian’s costumes are lavish, but so outlandish that they reminded me of a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bob Mackie’s most extreme Cher wear. The tropical costumes especially are so literal, with the showgirls wearing sculpted flowers, fish, and sea shells, etc., that they look like Halloween costumes.

One look at Adrian's showgirl getups and you can see he was one of Bob Mackie's inspirations!

Robert Z. Leonard, one of Metro’s top studio directors, handles his cast well, and they perform their roles and bits of business winningly. The storytelling, however, drags as much as the musical numbers. Marguerite Roberts and Sonya Levien wrote the screenplay, which is very wisecracking, to the point of playing like an old movie parody.

Lana Turner makes a dramatic exit in "Ziegfeld Girl," one of her famous film moments!

Ultimately, Ziegfeld Girl is all about the MGM girls. Especially one—Miss Lana Turner. Was Lana a good actress? Turner’s reputation seems to be shifting toward the revisionist territory of being heralded as an unsung great actress, much like Joan Crawford. Like Joan, no one ever doubted that Lana was a great star. That in itself is an achievement, especially as such an enduring star. The few times that Lana was called upon to do some real acting, I think Lana acquitted herself quite well. As for most of her films, Lana played the movie star persona perfectly.

Check out my take on one of Lana’s latter day hit, Imitation of Life: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2017/12/imitation-of-life-1959.html

Here’s a tribute I wrote about Judy on the 50th anniversary of her passing:

https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2019/06/what-if-judy-garland-hadnt-gone-over.html

And here’s my look at Hedy Lamarr’s last film, The Female Animal:

https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2019/06/hedys-last-hurrah-as-female-animal-1958.html

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page.

Check it out & join!  https://www.facebook.com/groups/178488909366865/

 

The billing doesn't jive with size of the stars' roles--that's show biz

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your look at Lana's career and Ziegfeld Girl. I concur with much of what you say. I think it was Marriage is a Private Affair that opened my eyes to the appeal young Lana would have for an audience at the time beyond her looks. Now, there's a movie whose premise should have made an impact on the young woman.

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    1. Thanks! I want to check out more of her MGM movies this winter and "Marriage" is one of them! Rick

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  2. Lana Turner did not age well (maybe the cigarettes?) but in this film she is LUMINOUS -that white blond hair, that porcelain skin; she has never looked as beautiful as she does here. And of course, she steals the film - something must have told her that this was her big chance to really sharpen her acting chops -and she easily outdoes the other two "Ziegfeld girls" in this film. Yes, Hedy Lamarr is drop dead gorgeous, but she is near zombie like in both facial expression and delivery. In the last big number, when she is lying in the boat, she looks like she's dead! And sadly, poor Judy once again gets short shrift from MGM - why, oh why was she treated so shabbily? She is beautiful here, but her costumes and hairstyles do NOT do her justice (especially that phallic hat in that INTERMINABLE "Minnie from Trinidad" number. And her storyline is awful - once again, she is not allowed to have a real romance - she has to go out for ICE CREAM SODAS with Jackie Cooper, for crying out loud! And worst of all, she is saddled with the whole "vaudeville father" thing. It would be another three years until Vincente Minnelli saw her as the beautiful and romantic young woman she could be. But back to Lana: as I said, she steals the picture. Any time she is onscreen you can't take your eyes off her, and she does those fabulous costumes justice - big time! It's just a shame that when Sheila drags herself out of her deathbed to get to opening night, she has to sit through that obnoxious "Gallagher and Shean" number!! But she more than makes up for it when she takes that final iconic walk down the stairs, securing a classic moment in film history that is still stirring, EIGHTY years later!! PS. In the original script, Sheila actually dies at the end, but evidently preview audiences and/or MGM insisted on a happy ending for her. (And "over the top" they may be, but those COSTUMES are fabulous!! Adrian knocked himself out!

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    1. Hi Kristy, your comments gave me some good chuckles! No, Lana did not age well, though some thought so just because she kept her figure. LT liked the sun, cigs, booze and late nights...and it caught up with her. Frankly, I could count the stars who aged beautifully from that era on one hand! They all did the same as her...

      I think Lana does an amazing job for a 19 year old with not much acting experience under her belt.

      And for such a long movie, there should have been more and shorter numbers. Only 3 songs are worth talking about!

      And you're so right about Hedy reclining on that boat, I thought the same thing. While I liked her a bit more than I've seen her in other things, she may have been an inventor, but she wasn't an inventive actress!

      I thought Judy looked fine in her off stage clothes but her stage costumes were comical. And yes, though just one year younger than Lana, she's treated like a child.

      Thanks for your fun comments, Rick

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  3. Lana Turner circa 11940's -50's was a stunning beauty... entrancing... no blond can touch her. You compare her to Betty Grable? for shame... Grable was cute and a hoofer, but Turner was perfection and one hell of an actress.... go back to the drawing board...

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    1. Hi,
      I guess beauty is subjective, but when I think of perfectly pretty, I think of Lana and Natalie Wood. When I think of beautiful, I think of Hedy, Ava, and Liz. As for Turner's acting, as I wrote, when given the opportunity, LT did quite well. But she seemed to prefer her movie star persona, as did the studios, knowing there was money in that.
      Cheers, Rick

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  4. Hi Rick! Gorgeously written and illustrated article on a film I also love! Wonderful how you caught the similarities to Valley of the Dolls--Miss Susann must have loved this film too! Lana Turner's best early performance...My favorite moment is when 4'11" Garland comes down the stairs with the statuesque showgirls--boy, was she really a pixie! Also love Stewart in this, as well as the cute Jackie Cooper.
    -Chris

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    1. Thanks, Chris! This Metro crowd pleaser had a huge cast! I learned a lot researching this one, as MGM films aren't my go to films.
      Cheers, Rick

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  5. This is a film I know the existence of but still haven't seen it! And somehow I'm sure I would like it (plus I really need to see more of Turner films). Thanks for this great detailed review!

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    1. Hi Virginia, TCM shows this film every so often and I'm sure it's on DVD, given the cast!
      Cheers and thanks for writing...

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